As I look back on various wards I’ve attended, one stands out. It was a college ward led by a dedicated, caring bishopric. Lessons and talks were spiritual and interesting. Activities were enjoyable and well attended. My friends and I spoke often about how much we loved the ward and how blessed we felt to be a part of it.
So it came as a surprise when, during a Church meeting, one of the kindest, most outgoing ward members gave us a much-needed dose of reality. He said, in effect, “I know our ward has a reputation for being spiritual and friendly. But you should know that some members don’t feel like they are part of the ward. We need to reach out to them.”
I was stunned and even a little offended. How could anyone not feel at home in such a supportive ward? But gradually I realized I had been enjoying the ward from inside my comfort zone, and I was mostly oblivious to what was happening outside it. I didn’t really know much about the needs of those who felt they didn’t belong.
Now, almost 20 years later, I understand better how those members felt and how it is possible for some members to feel they don’t really fit in, even in friendly wards. This understanding has come because I have been part of a group that can too easily drift toward (and sometimes past) the edges of the ward family: the single adult members of the Church—those who are divorced, widowed, or have not married.
The situation of a Church member who is single can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Imagine that your favorite hobby is stargazing and you’ve just joined a stargazing club. You come to your first club activity eager to participate. It’s a cold night, but you’re not concerned: most of the club members are wearing club jackets, and you’ve been told you should be able to get one as well. But there is no jacket for you. You ask about it, and you are told to keep looking and that if you do your best, you will find a jacket when the time is right.
Meanwhile, you are getting pretty cold and a little worried. And you notice that most of the other club members are talking about how nice and warm their jackets are. In fact, throughout the evening the topic surfaces continually in various forms: how to wash and dry your jacket, how to add extra pockets, how to mend it, and so forth. Some of the club members notice you don’t have a jacket. “You really need a jacket for these activities,” they tell you. “Why don’t you have one yet?”
While this analogy should not be taken too far, it does serve to show how awkward it can sometimes feel to be a single member of a conventional ward. Fortunately, however, there are family wards in which single members feel included and know their contributions are valued.
So what issues do singles face as members of family wards? And what can both married and single members do to help singles feel a sense of belonging?
The Person behind the Category
When Brenda Brashier and her single friends moved into a new ward, the members made a concerted effort to reach out to them. “The first Sunday we attended church, ward members gathered around us, introducing themselves and telling us how glad they were to have us in the ward. We could feel they were sincere.
“It wasn’t long before we really felt at home. We later realized their welcome was evidence of the Christlike love that exists in the ward. Soon we saw that the members display this love not only to singles but to all the members.”
Sadly, not all single members have such positive experiences. One mother described her situation after a divorce: “I never felt that most ward members really found a way to know me as a person. I know that divorce sometimes carries a stigma with it, and even though the ward members seemed to understand that I hadn’t transgressed, they seemed to have a hard time equating me with them.” A single brother commented that although his ward was generally friendly, many members “seemed to be afraid to help or be involved with someone who was single.”
It can be challenging to reach out to someone whose life seems different from our own. We wonder how we can relate to that person. However, extending friendship and support is a key to helping singles find belonging in the ward family.
The responsibility to reach out goes both ways. Many singles who take the initiative to get involved and develop friendships with ward members are greatly rewarded. Pam Zylik of the Calgary 11th Ward, Calgary Alberta East Stake, commented: “When I left the young single adult ward, I found it daunting at first to even imagine being in a family ward. I was afraid it would just be so different, so hard. Finally I bit the bullet and went, and I found out what a wonderful place that ward was. I’m not shy by any means, so I quickly made some great friends. Soon I received a calling teaching Sunday School to the 14-year-olds.
“I feel very at home in my family ward because I chose to get involved with almost every ward activity. I attend all the Relief Society home, family, and personal enrichment meetings, and I just drop in on people for a surprise visit every now and then.” Pam finds her efforts are often reciprocated.
The Family Focus—a Broader Vision
The family is the fundamental unit of society, and the Church’s emphasis on the family is an essential part of its mission. Yet in seeking to strengthen the family, some Church members may fail to consider the needs of all members of the ward, particularly those who do not have spouses or children.
Ward activities should be planned in such a way that they do not exclude or embarrass single members. Activities can be planned for “adults” and “ward members” rather than just “couples” or “families.” And without downplaying the importance of marriage and families, ward members can help singles feel more included by making sure talks and lessons don’t regularly apply exclusively to those with spouses or children and don’t devalue those who are single.
Surprisingly, singles who feel discouraged by the frequent emphasis on marriage and families may be able to alleviate their discouragement by embracing this mission wholeheartedly. When this happens, singles find themselves working with other members of the ward in an important way rather than against them. We should remember that each of us is part of a family whether we are related genetically or by the bonds of the gospel. Regardless of our marital status, we can work to strengthen the family as an institution as well as to deepen the bonds within our own family circles.
Sheri L. Dew, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency—and a single person herself—has not been hesitant to support the family: “Just because I have not had the privilege of bearing children does not mean that I am unconcerned about the family. … There is power in the family that we will find nowhere else, a power that spans generations and reaches across the veil” (“Famous Last Words,” in The Arms of His Love , 395–96, 397).
Avoiding the Two-Edged Sword: Being Judgmental and Taking Offense
I once attended a sacrament meeting where a long-time wife and mother gave a talk on marriage and family. Addressing the singles in the audience, she assured us good-naturedly that if we would just try hard enough, we could find companions. I’m sure she had no idea how her words came across to those who had not married despite fervent prayers and continued efforts or to those who had lost companions through death or divorce.
This type of comment can be one of the most difficult challenges for singles in some family wards. As Kathryn Kidd, a married member of the Algonkian Ward, Warrenton Virginia Stake, commented: “It seems that many people who had no trouble finding a spouse think, ‘Hey, I lived the gospel and prayed to find a mate and then found one. That means anyone else who’s living the gospel can do the same thing.’” This line of reasoning implies that if a person isn’t married, he or she must not be fully living the gospel or must lack faith.
The trouble with this logic is that it doesn’t take into account the agency of others or the Lord’s time line. As Jinelle Monk, a single adult in the Crystal City Ward, Mount Vernon Virginia Stake, commented, “The truth is, one can’t know for sure why someone has remained single past a certain age. Our commandment from God to not judge our neighbor definitely applies here” (see Luke 6:37).
Another kind of false assumption is often made about single members. It is true that no vocation is more important than that of spouse or parent. Yet some members interpret this statement to mean that the contribution of single adults without children is somehow less important. But President Gordon B. Hinckley—sharing the example of a single sister, Rebecca Olsen—taught that this is not so: “[Sister Olsen] served a mission faithfully and honorably. She is an outstanding teacher. She is a student working on an advanced degree. And beyond all of that, she has spent her summers in Bolivia blessing the impoverished people of that nation. Shall anyone say that her contribution is less than that of some of her married friends? Does anyone dare think her gift of service is any less valuable in the eyes of her Heavenly Father?” (“To Single Adults,” Ensign, June 1989, 73).
Although insensitive comments can be difficult for single members, the Lord’s commandment to forgive applies here as well (see D&C 64:10), and it can bring healing and peace. Single members can bear in mind that when people speak or act in a thoughtless way, often they simply haven’t fully considered their words or they feel unsure of what to do; usually they aren’t being intentionally unkind.
One brother found himself somewhat ostracized in his ward after a difficult divorce. But rather than taking offense, he continued to reach out to ward members. Several years later, he commented: “I feel that my remaining faithful and warm and friendly has softened the hearts of some of the ward members. Let me hasten to say that this is a wonderful ward—I just feel they did not know how to handle someone who was divorced.”
The Single Adult Program
President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) helped establish the Church’s single adult program in the early 1970s. In one address he said that the single adult program of the Church was established “after some of the most soulful praying and discussing that I believe I have ever experienced” (“President Harold B. Lee’s General Priesthood Address,” Ensign, Jan. 1974, 99).
A single adult program can be a blessing not only to single adults but to the whole ward. Even so, single adult programs in conventional wards often struggle, mainly for two reasons: First, the single adult program is often low in priority in terms of ward support and resources. Second, some single adults themselves have misconceptions about the program and are unwilling to participate. Some have a bad experience at an activity or two and decline to come back; some avoid the program from the outset.
For single adults who feel the single adult program may not be of value for them, a good approach may be to think about what they can give to singles and other ward members through their participation. Many singles find reassurance in knowing they are not alone as they associate with others in similar situations. Through this program, single adults may best be able to reach out to other singles who have become less active. Some single adult programs regularly plan service to married members of their wards and stakes, which helps them become even more integrated into the ward family.
Single Church members who belong to a ward or stake without a functioning singles program could talk to their leaders about the possibility of getting one started if there are enough single members to sustain such a program. They can offer their help and encourage other single members to participate as well.
Christ at the Center
President Howard W. Hunter (1970–95) was single for seven years after his first wife, Claire, passed away in 1983. He reminded us, “This is the church of Jesus Christ, not the church of marrieds or singles or any other group or individual” (“The Church Is for All People,” Ensign, June 1989, 76).
As we keep our focus on the Savior and as we come unto Him, we find comfort and rest and belonging, whether married or single. He helps us keep an eternal perspective about our situations and reminds us that all things work together for our good if we love Him (see Rom. 8:28).
With a Christ-centered focus, we find it easier to reach out to each other as brothers and sisters, to be considerate, to participate. We avoid being judgmental and taking offense. And we are more likely to enjoy true unity in our wards, regardless of our individual circumstances and the timing of various events in our lives.
President Hunter made this supplication: “May God bless each of us to treat one another as befits one who refers to himself as a Latter-day Saint. May there be none among us who are made to feel as ‘strangers and foreigners,’ but may we all feel as ‘fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God’ (Eph. 2:19)” (Ensign, June 1989, 77). These words apply to all Latter-day Saints, whether married or single.
All Part of a Family
“We are a family-oriented church; we have to be. We are all part of a family—either a natural family or a ward or branch family. As President Howard W. Hunter stated: ‘The Church is for all members. … All of us, single or married, have individual identities and needs, among which is the desire to be seen as a worthwhile individual child of God.’” President James E. Faust of the First Presidency, “A Vision of What We Can Be,” Ensign, Mar. 1996, 12.
More on this topic: See Robert D. Hales,