If I told you the chairman of our ward activities committee was sixty-four years old—single, retired, and living with her older sister—you might not want to come to our next ward party. However, if I told you she gets up at 5:30 every morning to play with her new home computer, wears cowboy boots, and drives a sports car, you wouldn’t miss that party. She knows the years add up quickly, but she is quick to point out that the lines on her forehead are not wrinkles, they’re racing stripes. In fact, Ruth is an excellent activities committee chairman. She gets the job done.
Not all single adults feel as comfortable in their wards as Ruth does. In my experience as a bishop, I have sensed that some—among them the elderly, the divorced, and the never-married—sometimes do not feel they really fit in. My observation has suggested three possible reasons.
For one, the single member is often less visible in the ward than the couple with children or the quiet married person with an outgoing spouse. Also, our strong emphasis on family life may seem at times a painful reminder of their single status. Of course, we would not want to dilute our efforts to promote family strength, but we need to be sensitive not to make our emphasis a message of exclusion to the single member. Certainly, single status does not diminish a person’s worth—as a Church member or as an individual.
Finally, it seems to me that some single people feel that they do not count as much as others because leaders sometimes overlook the elderly, the divorced, the widowed, and the never-married when extending calls to serve in the ward.
Perhaps we have developed certain notions of the type of person who fills certain callings. A few years ago, for example, when our Primary president had an illness which complicated her pregnancy, we had to release her. As we looked to replace her, our thoughts focused on the young mothers of the ward. Certainly, we subconsciously thought, mothers know best how to teach young children.
But the Spirit led us instead to Kerril Sue, a thirty-nine-year-old woman who had not yet married. She called Kathleen, a thirty-two-year-old single woman, and Vicky, a mother of three, as her counselors. And we could not have asked for better leadership or greater spiritual maturity. Under their direction, the Primary was well organized, and the Sharing Time instruction was consistently excellent.
My own daughter informed me one day that she had not only picked up her clothes, but had also put her younger brother’s away, thus “going the second mile.” (Going the second mile had been the Primary theme for the past few months.) Another summer day, the children all gathered at the Church to plant flower bulbs and new trees as part of the Primary’s focus on service.
The children came to love this Primary presidency; and these single sisters came to relish, in a way that mothers dealing with children all week might not, the sweet moments and experiences they shared with the children.
As Church leaders, we need to take time to examine the essential characteristics required for particular Church callings. Doing this will expose stereotypes we may not realize we have. For example, does a Young Women leader necessarily need to be a relatively young woman with plenty of energy? Actually, the emphasis of the Young Men and Young Women programs is on teaching spiritual truths, rather than on activities (which are usually the primary responsibility of the youth themselves). So we look for leaders who would best be able to communicate the gospel to young people. These people might not necessarily have teenagers at home. When we called Kristine, a thirty-one-year-old single woman, to be our Young Women president, she expressed concern. We assured her that she had all the necessary qualifications.
Because spiritual maturity and strength of testimony are the primary ingredients needed to fulfill many Church callings, our older members are often the best qualified. Yet, at times, I have found myself retiring them before their time. What a tragedy! Their experience and their knowledge is usually more vast, and their time availability often greater than that of younger people with families.
Any reluctance I felt about calling older members to responsible assignments disappeared when I got to know Iona, the sixty-six-year-old first counselor in our Relief Society presidency. I was embarrassed to tell her what time I get up after she informed me she regularly goes to bed at eleven or twelve and gets up by five. Whenever I visit a sick member, Iona has usually already been there!
I feel my executive secretary is easily the finest in the Church. Retired at age sixty-six, Eldon has taught me what diligence means. When I give him a long list of people I would like to visit with, he finds them—even if it means he must leave a card at their door with his number and a dime attached (for those without phones). Every appointment is confirmed ahead of time. In the winter, my office heater is often running when I arrive at the church for appointments. If you want to know who lives in any house in the ward, just ask Eldon; but make sure you have ample time because he will also tell you everyone who has ever lived in that house!
Divorced members also have great contributions to make. Earlier in my life I sometimes felt, without really thinking about it, that it was slightly unorthodox to call divorced members to leadership roles. Upon closer consideration, though, I realized that many faithful divorced members, regardless of their pasts, desired and were capable and worthy of contributing to the ward and helping others.
Joan had been divorced only a short time before she was called to serve as Young Women president.
A mother of five and grandmother of fifteen, she out-played, out-sang, and under-slept all the other adult leaders at one of our youth overnighters. Recently released, she is now serving a mission in Chile.
Experiences like these have taught me not to exclude any person from consideration for Church service.
Indeed, our ward has been greatly blessed by the unusually large number of single members willing, even eager, to serve. Many have come to us from single wards, desiring a situation of greater diversity. I believe they feel needed in our ward, and they are! They bring a dimension of availability that is often not possible for married people.
Bruce had lost his wife soon after their marriage, and now at thirty-three is still single. He had time, and gave of it freely to help the young men of the ward. One of the first things he did as Young Men president was buy a baseball mitt for one of our fatherless youth, a mitt which would be delivered after certain levels of performance were reached. This boy needed such a friend.
Many other single adults in our ward have provided valuable services as teachers, visiting and home teachers, and quorum leaders. But we do not draw extensively on the single adults because we lack competent married people or because we want to get them involved. We have many families in our ward and could staff from them almost exclusively, but to do so would be to ignore many whom the Lord would prefer we called. Our first goal is to extend callings to the people the Spirit would have serve, whether single or married.
To the single person, I would suggest that you make yourself available to serve. Be active in ward functions other than Sunday meetings. Let people know you want to be part of the ward. I have yet to see any member who truly becomes involved fail to become apart of our ward—and be loved, accepted, and called to positions. Especially, don’t let the emphasis we place on families make you feel less valuable to the Lord or to his church. The work of our Father in Heaven is to exalt every person. The purpose of our ward structure is to help us worship and come to know the Savior, and to serve our fellowman. We need not be married to do this.
And a word of reminder to married adults: while our families are sacred and important, let us not forget individuals. Let us not forget, in the security that comes with a spouse and children, how uncomfortable it once was to walk alone into meetings and social events. Let us be aware that single adults want to be a part of the ward—spiritually and socially.
Let us—especially ward leaders—increase our awareness of and respect for all the individuals who make up our wards. As Paul reminds us, “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” (Rom. 12:5.)