facebook-pixel

They make up most of the adult LDS membership. So why do they feel like outsiders? Because they’re single.

Church leaders openly acknowledge this longtime trend, but single Latter-day Saints say additional shifts are needed from the pulpit and in the pews to make the faith more welcoming.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

For a church that preaches marriage, that promotes traditional gender roles and nuclear families, and that even organizes special congregations on the basis of marital status, the General Conference announcement that most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are single seemed stunning.

That means the majority of adult Latter-day Saints — both women and men — are “unmarried, widowed or divorced.” apostle Gerrit Gong said Saturday morning. “...This demographic pattern has been the case in the worldwide church since 1992, and in the church in the United States and Canada since 2019.”

Model nuclear families are no longer the norm in the church, Gong said, and that is “a significant change.”

But it came as no surprise to members who have been paying attention.

“We’ve seen for a long time that [members all being married] isn’t the case throughout most of the world,”said Ross Trewhella, who served as a lay bishop in England for 12 years, where two-parent families “have always been the minority.”

The married father was pleased to see church leaders acknowledge the reality of congregational life for so many members in the 16.6 million-member faith.

It is past time to “stop putting people in categories” or dubbing those who don’t fit the traditional mold “as others,” Trewhella said. “All families, no matter their makeup, are equal in the sight of God. Marital status or family circumstances especially shouldn’t make somebody more important in the Body of Christ than anybody else.”

Singles in the Utah-based faith cheered Gong’s words — and their echoes in a sermon by senior apostle M. Russell Ballard — but insisted it will take hard work to make them feel less judged and more welcome in the family-centered church.

Can the denomination slow its drumbeat of marriage rhetoric? Can a church whose structure is based on volunteer labor expand the involvement of single members? What would it take to treat those members as equal participants in the kingdom of God, rather than, as one single woman put it, “as second-class citizens?” Is this even possible in a theology that declares the highest rung of heaven is peopled by couples and that even God has a wife?

‘Sitting alone’ at church

(Photo Courtesy of Julie Lefgren) Julie Lefgren is a single Latter-day Saint who lives in Sugar House.

Some unmarried or divorced Latter-day Saints go home from church week after week, weeping at their feelings of failure and exclusion — as if, said one, “there was a giant F on my forehead.”

Single members in so-called family wards, or congregations, can find themselves “sitting alone, ignored, not included in family social gatherings, overlooked for callings, commented about, pitied,” said Julie Lefgren, a single woman who lives in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. “While not everyone treated me that way, culturally I knew that I was ‘less than’ because I did not have a spouse.”

The implicit, sometimes explicit, message is that if a member is not married by a certain age (usually mid-20s), Lefgren said, then “there is something that the individual is not doing right, isn’t in good favor with God, or doesn’t correctly ‘want’ by still being single and not married.”

When she graduated from the faith’s flagship school “at the old age of 25,” she said, “I left with a deep sense of shame and frustration that I had not yet married — even after being at BYU for my early 20s, the most likely space in the world to find a spouse.”

It has taken the scholar 25 more years “to work out of that weight of shame,” she said, “which now I see was unnecessarily put upon me by the strong family culture of the church.”

Lefgren had heard that some Latter-day Saint leaders despised the whole notion of a “singles” ward, congregations organized for the unmarried and then divided by age ranges. They feared that “grouping all the ‘singles’ together would perpetuate the single lifestyle and [would] not inspire us to get married.”

Somehow they assumed that “if we were to all attend family wards, and see examples of what marriage and family looked like,” she said, ”then we would be more inclined to get married.”

Currently, there are 87 young single adult stakes (a collection of congregations), and approximately 1,200 YSA wards or branches, said church spokeswoman Irene Caso.

In addition, there are 40 single adult wards/branches for members over age 30, she said. There are a few international YSA congregations, but most of them — and all of the single adult ones — are in the U.S. and Canada.

For Lefgren, singles wards were her spiritual sanctuary.

“I’m deeply grateful for the experiences and friends I found in those spaces,” she said. “Had the singles ward not been an option, I would have left the church in my early 30s. Because of the singles wards I was able to attend, I had a refuge space to worship in a church that worships Jesus and the nuclear family. I was able to worship Jesus with my single peers, without being constantly reminded of my singleness in a family ward, and that was a gift.”

(Courtesy photo) Radio journalist Lee Hale is a single Latter-day Saint.

Lee Hale, a radio journalist in Washington, D.C., quips that he is on the “tail end of the young singles ward,” which ends at around 30. “It’s hard not to think you have a deadline in life.”

Still, the ward provided an immediate social network when he arrived in the nation’s capital, or, he said, “I would have had much more of a crash landing.”

Some of his “most meaningful relationships and confidants are people I met in singles wards,” Hale said. “They were not hyper-focused on marriage, so we could form a close network of friends in my same age group.”

Treat single Latter-day Saints as adults

The main thing most young Latter-day Saints singles (18-30) complain about is being treated like children, said Rosemary Card, a Salt Lake City entrepreneur and writer.

“Whenever we have social activities with both men and women,” she said, “the leaders assure us there will be ‘adult supervision.’”

Perhaps that’s why Gong stated matter-of-factly in his sermon: “Adults want to be seen as adults, and to be responsible and contribute as adults.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Gerrit W. Gong speaks during General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Still, social activities organized by the ward tend to be modeled on adolescent ideas of fun, Card said, which continues the infantilizing of 20-somethings.

And the only standards on sexuality come from the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet written for and distributed to teens, with its litany of don’ts — no passionate kissing, lying on top of another person, or touching the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing.

The 31-year-old Card said premarital intimacy for her peers is more complicated than for teens, yet they are treated the same. “They’re crazy to think that’s enough for older singles like me.”

And when top church leaders talk about women, they mean wives or mothers, she said, but there’s that one patronizing sentence — “some of you will not get married in this life, but you will be in the next.”

Singles make up most of the adult church, Card said, yet “we get one sentence?”

(Photo courtesy of Rosemary Card) Single Latter-day Saint Rosemary Card is a Salt Lake City entrepreneur and writer.

To say that “the highest and holiest calling is a wife and a mother is really damaging,” she said. “To me, the most important thing a woman can do is to be a disciple of Christ and do whatever her Heavenly Parents call her to do.”

In her singles wards, Card has seen dynamic, working women who would be “huge assets” in any congregation, so why not stop creating separate wards?

“Make church about Jesus,” she said, “and if people want to meet other singles, create better activities for that.”

‘Marriage question’ is ever present for single members

Ian McKnight, a data analyst who attends a YSA ward in Salt Lake City’s Highland Park neighborhood, also has found “valued friendships” in these congregations.

The “marriage question” is always present, McKnight said, and Mormon cultural assumptions “internalize” being single as a failure. Some see it as a kind of “prosperity gospel” for dating, he said. In short, the more righteous you are, the better your chances for matrimony.

(Photo courtesy of Ian McKnight) Ian McKnight is a data analyst who attends a Latter-day Saint young single adults ward.

But McKnight is not sure that singles wards per se make it worse or that they are all about finding “the one.”

Everyone he knows has made good friends of both sexes, he said, “but most people don’t think of a ward as a place to meet people you might go on dates with.”

The leaders clearly “try to expedite marriages, as if that’s their goal,” McKnight said, but many singles are “more afraid of being in a bad marriage, than in no marriage.”

Not being wed, he said, “isn’t the worst-case scenario.”

And what about those who are not pining for marriage, but rather thriving in their singleness?

Single means “not married,” Hale said, “but that doesn’t account for other relationships — a romantic, nonmarital relationship.”

The radio journalist said that in his late 20s, he had a relationship with a woman that ended, but “it was not a failure.”

There is a “gray area,” he said, “that doesn’t exist in the binary that we hear about.”

That’s especially true, Hale said, of the formerly married — the divorced and widowed.

The scarlet D: the stigma divorced members face

(Photo courtesy of Laurence Boswell) Tekulve Jackson-Vann is a marriage and family therapist, and a single Latter-day Saint.

As a divorced, Black Latter-day Saint, Tekulve Jackson-Vann has experienced much isolation and frustration in the church’s marriage-centered culture.

In his lifetime, church perspectives and policies “on race, marital status and hair length have excluded me from callings,” Jackson-Vann said. “I have waited for changes in policy in order to feel the too-often quoted, ‘All are alike unto God.’”

As a young student at Brigham Young University, he was asked weekly “by leaders about the number of dates I had been on the previous week,” he recalled. “It was clear that the goal of the YSA was to get us married off. That pressure to marry was a contributing factor to my ‘BYU quick marriage’ that ultimately created much harm to my testimony and hers.”

The marriage and family therapist would like to see “a visible and audible shift in church culture away from what seems like a marital status-based worthiness system.”

His mom joined the church as a single mother and has remained unmarried, Jackson-Vann said. “Her bishops have shared with me the great influence she has been to the ward. We seem to understand that more so with single sisters, but we tend to see single brothers as broken or incomplete until they find a marriage partner.”

Clinically, he is known as a “narrative therapist,” he said, “meaning I focus on the language people use” to help them create change.

In the church, “we are in need of a new language to express our belief in the joy and holiness of marriage,” Jackson-Vann said, “while also acknowledging that it is not the goal or capability of some church members to be married.”

Many church members feel free to opine on divorce, its causes and consequences, said Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, “without any direct experience.”

It’s a natural tendency to try to assign blame, “especially when we’ve been taught that any two righteous Latter-day Saints can have a good marriage,” Haglund said. “We want to figure out who wasn’t righteous, because that lets our worldview stay intact and makes us feel like we’ll be safe if we’re righteous.”

As a divorced mother, she knows the agony firsthand.

“It’s painful to sit in a Sunday school lesson in which ward members, people I’ve assumed to be my friends, blithely assert that selfishness is the main cause of divorce,” Haglund said. “Or to listen to a new couple in the ward, who have been married for three months, speak about their assigned topic — ‘the evils of divorce.’”

After one General Conference talk, which dwelt at length on the perils of divorce for children, Haglund recalled, “my 9-year-old whispered, ‘Mom, will I have to go to jail?’”

Latter-day Saints need to talk “as though divorced people are in the room,” she said, “because they are.”

Single Latter-day Saints desire more ways to serve

(File photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sharon Eubank, center, president of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the church’s Relief Society general presidency, attends the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 27, 2018. Eubank is a single member.

The church recently revised its policies to allow single men to serve in YSA stake (regional) presidencies and YSA single women to be in stake Relief Society presidencies.

Prior restrictions about singles serving in these positions in YSA wards and stakes applied only to those organizations, according to a church release. “In all other congregations, there were no such limitations.”

Leaders point to the elevation of the never-married Sharon Eubank to the general Relief Society presidency and as head of Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm, and to last weekend’s call of Susan H. Porter, widow of general authority Bruce Porter, into the new general Primary presidency.

But those women leap out as exceptions and until four years ago single men over 30 could not serve as temple workers.

Many single women and men see themselves passed over again and again for leadership positions.

“I knew that certain opportunities would not be given to me because I was single,” Lefgren said, “and this treatment is much worse for my male counterparts.”

If a man in this church is not married by his mid-20s, he is seen as “gay, a predator, broken, weird, irresponsible — and they are told that and treated badly,” she said. “Most of my male friends who are still single at my age are no longer active, and for good reason.”

Jackson-Vann has more time to serve as a single, he said, and “feels a greater desire to do so.”

A previous ward was organizing group dinners and the sign-up sheet passed in elders quorums advised the men that their wives had volunteered their home.

“I actually signed up to host one of the dinners, and we had a great time, as I enjoy cooking and entertaining,” he said. “In wards where the bishop has made use of those talents, I have felt more like I was honoring my covenants to give of my time and talents to the building up of the kingdom. Single members need more opportunities like that.”

Salt Lake City-based historian Ardis Parshall welcomed Gong’s speech. She has long balked at the way she and other singles are forgotten in the faith.

Talks about meeting a spouse, weekly marital dates or daily cuddling leave her wondering how that applies to her.

“If cuddling is so important to mortality that it becomes the subject of a sacrament meeting discussion,” Parshall wrote in a 2015 Keepapitchinin blog post, “then how does a single woman supply that lack within the bounds of the gospel?

Most of all, though, the writer wants to give service — real service — to her religious community.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Ardis E. Parshall, a historian in Salt Lake City, surrounded by her stacks of books, is a single Latter-day Saint.

Single members “are at least as well organized, with as many specialized skills, as married members,” she said. “We are competent, courageous, imaginative, thoughtful, prayerful and as eager to help as anyone else. If it ever looks like we aren’t, it’s because you won’t let us do anything meaningful, anything equal to our abilities and desires.”

The church will not achieve its full potential “until women are given decision-making authority, until marital status is not a condition for a calling, until every calling is open to single people,” said Catherine Nelson, a single Latter-day Saint professional in Australia. “If they are really serious about making a change, it will require the presence of single, divorced and widowed people at every level.”

Reforms like that won’t be easy, Lefgren said.

“Just as we as a larger culture are struggling with our views on race and gender discrimination,” said the fifth-generation Mormon, “the single discrimination in the church is deep and subtle and equally difficult to root out and acknowledge.”

Both Gong and Ballard declared that single and married members are equal in the sight of God.

“Our standing before the Lord and in his church is not a matter of our marital status,” Gong said, “but of our becoming faithful and valiant disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Single members were pleased with such statements, and the leaders’ public embrace of the church’s new majority single reality.

It is encouraging, they said, at least as a first step.

Comments:  (0)