Two Cultural Shifts Regarding Single Members of the LDS Church
When the topic of singles in the LDS Church arises, I’ve found that most every church member seems to know or be close to someone who is single, and many people have strong feelings or views surrounding the topic. Without trying to enumerate all those different experiences, both positive and less so, I’d like to discuss two ways we could significantly improve LDS singles’ experiences within the church. Collectively we need to
- Recognize how many members are single (do not currently have a living spouse).
- Make age and experience rather than marriage the definition of adulthood.
Ultimately we could make a lot of headway in both of these shifts by rethinking the structure of singles wards, and I’ll say more about how that works in a bit. But for now, I’ll talk about why these two cultural shifts. For the first one, take a minute to guess: what percentage of church members are single?
Recognizing how many single members are in the church
Many members of the church seem to think that there are far fewer single members than there actually are. If single members comprise only a small part of the church, then it may seem easier to ignore them altogether. A perception of numeric invisibility can contribute to cultural invisibility. We all need to become more aware of how many single members there are in the church at large and in our local congregations.
It’s difficult to get reliable numbers since the church doesn’t release this specific demographic data. That said, it seems reasonable to estimate that about a third of the adult church membership is single; that number may be higher in some places, especially in non-U.S. congregations. (See the note below for sources for this estimate.) That’s a lot of single members, more than many of us realize.
Merely recognizing how many church members are single can help singles and the rest of the church. It can help us
- find capable people to fill callings.
- teach more effective Young Women lessons on preparing young women for the future given that statistically one third of them will not marry in the temple before the end of their childbearing years.
- give more effective talks and lessons on family as we remember the wide variety of families and home situations that are represented in our membership.
- tap the huge resource that single adults can be through their life experiences, service, expertise, examples, and (in some cases) discretionary time.
The more we recognize the singles among us and recognize how we need them, the better their experience among us will be, and the church as a whole will benefit from greater participation from all its members.
Marriage and the definition of adulthood
Now for the second recommendation: we can work to make age and experience rather than marriage the cultural definition of adulthood in the church.
Marriage and marriage covenants are a big deal in Mormonism and appropriately so. Prophets have repeatedly and emphatically taught about the importance of marriage, the need to nurture existing marriages, and the spiritual obligation, in many cases, for the unmarried to prepare for and seek marriage. Many—probably most—singles in the church treasure marriage just as the prophets have taught them. Mormon singles generally respect marriage and recognize that there are experiences and growth available in marriage that are very difficult or impossible to obtain as an unmarried person. Many have strong spiritual convictions about it and desire to make that commitment and covenant.
Within the church, however, some institutional and cultural pressures tend to overlay doctrines of marriage and family with the idea that one isn’t fully an “adult” until he or she is married. A common and commonly commented upon illustration of this is the singles’ activity that requires the presence of advisors or supervisors who are younger and less-experienced but are married. The implication seems to be that returned-missionary, military-veteran, graduate-degree-holding, formerly-married people who aren’t married are not “adult” enough to manage their own activities but that a husband-and-wife team of twenty-three year-olds is. These kinds of messages make it difficult for singles to feel that they are on equal footing in the church. Disconnecting marriage from the measure of adulthood need not and should not de-emphasize the importance of marriage, but it can help non-married members feel much more connected to the body of Christ.
So, to review, recognizing how many singles there are in the church and recognizing that they are adults could go a long way to improving single members’ experience in the church and the church’s experience with single members. But how to do this? As with any complex issue, any policy solution will help some who are affected and challenge or inconvenience others. Policy is a blunt instrument, but it can also communicate values and expectations. For that reason, I think that changing the age policy for singles wards could, over time, help to implement both of these cultural shifts.
Change the YSA ward age limit
Young single adult (YSA) wards can better serve non-married members if the age designation is changed to 18 to 25 years old instead of the current 18 to 30 age range. (Note that this would be a return to the age ranges for young singles groups prior to the 1980s.) Around age 25, whether married or not, many people undergo many transitions such as completing higher education, beginning a career, taking on greater financial independence, assuming greater independence in their living situations, embarking on additional professional training or graduate school, etc. Moving from a young single adult ward to a conventional ward at this time would parallel many members’ life changes in other respects and could help signal readiness for adulthood independent of marital status. Shorter age-span YSA wards could still help in the transition from youth programs and returned missionary experiences to adult church programs, could still provide opportunities for leadership service, and could still be a forum to help single members get to know one another, but they would be less likely than the current wards to outlast their usefulness.
Changing the age of YSA wards to 18-25 could also help singles be better integrated in the church. Many more members are single at age 25 than at age 35. Moving at this earlier age destigmatizes the transition to a conventional ward so that entering a conventional ward while still single would be less likely to be seen as a failure. Part of what can make the transition to conventional wards challenging is the feeling that singles are very alone in that switch. But moving at the earlier age makes it more likely that conventional wards will each have their own critical mass of singles and therefore less likely that singles will be as alone in their transition. A higher number of singles in conventional wards would also, over time, increase singles’ visibility and make it more likely that they would be used in a variety of church service.
Some might protest that moving singles on earlier would diminish their chances for marriage, but this isn’t a necessary or a foregone outcome. Singles could still enjoy a robust activity arm for gathering and socializing, but they would know that their worship services and congregations were not determined by whether or not they are married. For many single members it may ease the transition to marriage if they can regularly interact and serve with ward members and friends who are married. For those who don’t marry at all or who don’t marry for many more years, they will be blessed by associating with families and will be able to bless those families in return.
Contrary to popular opinion, singles wards were not started to promote marriage. They were a practical necessity in the college enrollment boom that followed World War II. Later, when singles wards became an option nationwide in the 1980s and were no longer limited to student wards on college campuses, the church handbook explicitly said, “Membership in such wards should be temporary.”
Some will argue that YSA wards are elective anyway, that single members can leave at age 25 if they choose. But for most single members, this feels like swimming upstream. It can be difficult to voluntarily leave one’s peers and familiar programs and surroundings. Changing the age policy for YSA wards can normalize the transition.
Under the current age designations, if singles remain active and single through age 30, by the time they leave a young single adult ward, they will have spent 40% of their lives in a singles ward. Is this what we want? As much as we emphasize marriage and family, it seems that we would not want to acclimate singles exclusively or even primarily to a singles lifestyle. And yet if singles stay active in the church, the singles classes, congregations, wards, family home evening groups, etc., that they attend will be much of their church experience for all of their adult lives up to age 30 (with the possible exception of mission service).
The current popularity and practice of YSA wards siphons single members away from the rest of the church during their early and highly formative adult years. They do not see as many married members of the church, and married members of the church do not see them. As the age of first marriages has risen nationwide over the past few decades, this separation from the rest of the church has lengthened still more. Single members in their early years of adulthood are statistically at the highest risk for becoming inactive in the church. (As an example, while working with various stake leaders in the northeastern United States, Clayton Christensen found that 17% of single women were active or semi-active—compared to 68% of married women—and 8% of single men were active or semi-active.) Because of these high inactivity rates, some people may worry that by entering conventional wards earlier, still more single members will get lost in the transition. Once again, we can learn from our history: some decades ago one of the responsibilities of now-defunct Ward Education Committees was to contact leadership of the wards that single members and students would move in to and help ensure a smooth changeover and continued activity. This attention to ward transition seems needful regardless of the age at which it happens.
We must find ways to better see and recognize the reality of the singles among us. As members are integrated and serve together, whether single or married, friendships will form. Fewer single members will fall through proverbial cracks into very real spiritual and ecclesiastical inactivity. Imagine that the one-third of adults in the church who are single were visible and integrated participants with the rest of the church community. Imagine married and non-married citizens of Zion worshiping and working together to build strong ward families and strong nuclear families. I believe that integrating single adults into conventional wards earlier would boost both church activity rates and marriage rates among single adults. Besides that, it would weaken an unhealthy division within the body of Christ. I look forward to when we better integrate our single members and consequently strengthen the entire church body.
 A 2014 Pew forum study (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/mormon/) found that approximately 31% of Mormons were never-married, divorced, or widowed. At various singles conferences Clayton Christensen and other speakers have said that 1 in 3 LDS women will not be able to marry an active LDS man. Additionally, to give some anecdotal population figures, in 2015 singles in a major east coast city comprised 67% of the stake. In a rural southern Idaho stake, singles made up 28% of the stake. Of course urban areas tend to have higher proportions of single members, but even in a rural Idaho stake, singles made up nearly 30% of the stake population. From these numbers, and reading between the lines in conversations with church leaders and employees, the estimate of singles making up one-third of church membership seems about right.
 Even single members themselves underestimate how many of us make up church membership. In an informal 2015 survey where 72% of the respondents were single, 40% believed that single members made up less than 30% of the church population. This trend of underestimating how many singles are in the church seems to be stronger still among those who are married. The survey cited here was released in connection with the 2015 symposium in New York City, Of One Body: The State of Mormon Singledom. Approximately 1100 responses drawn primarily from the United States and Canada were professionally analyzed.
 I don’t have correlated figures available for young men, but the numbers may be comparable; we may simply be less aware of instances of men not marrying before age 40-45 because a higher proportion of these men do not actively participate in their church communities. Inactivity rates for all single adults are quite high, but activity rates for single women are more favorable than for single men. In surveying stakes in the northeastern United States while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, Clayton Christensen found that 17% of single women were active or semi-active, compared to 68% of women who were married. For single men, 8% were active or semi-active.
 Brother Christensen attributes these high rates of inactivity to single members not feeling needed in their wards. He found that single members who held prominent callings were the only circumstance where these numbers differed. Few to no single men held prominent callings. See the recording of this talk by Brother Christensen at Of One Body: The State of Mormon Singledom here, timestamp 20:50: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDOHPx5K4fk.
 For this and many other references to the history of singles wards, see the paper presented at the 2014 Neal A. Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar conference: “Shifting Boundaries and Redefining Adulthood: LDS Singles and Their Wards,” available in the Maxwell Institute archives later this year or at the Church History Library.
SJH is working on her doctoral dissertation in English literature and divides her time between Utah, Idaho, New York, and, more recently, London. Two summers ago she participated in the Neal A. Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar on The History of the Family in Mormon Culture led by Richard and Claudia Bushman. Having been single for half her life, she wondered where singles wards came from and researched their institutional history. SJH has also participated in the Mormon Theology Seminar and hopes that more and more women will apply in future years.