When our youth see a gospel that is small-minded, fearful, and irrelevant

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

 

 

A few months ago, a friend of mine who was recently called into a Young Women presidency shared with me a question that has been troubling her. She put it like this:  

Why are we losing so many of our active youth in the ten or so years after they graduate from high school?  

According to my friend, over the last few years only about a third of the active youth in her ward are still regularly attending church by the time their 10 year high school class reunion has rolled around. This, she says, is a sharp decrease in retention rates from years prior (she figures it was a little over half that were still active at that same point 20 years ago). She also told me that she had recently seen this 2016 article (citing Jana Riess’ research) that states that about 64% of Mormon millennials are remaining in the faith as compared to about 90% 30 years ago. While the percentages themselves are different, the steep decline in retention in my friend’s ward is a reflection of what seems to be happening in the church as a whole.

FWIW, how to better reach Mormonism’s young people is a question I feel especially desperate/motivated/responsible to seek solutions for. I’m a millennial, an active Mormon, a feminist mom of two young daughters, and someone who’s held Young Women callings in each of the last three wards I’ve attended (I’m currently a Beehive advisor). Some of the brightest, dearest, most morally-minded people I know have stepped away from the church over the last decade, and renegotiating my own relationship with the church over the last few years hasn’t been a cakewalk.

The friend who called me has also spent a lot of time thinking thinking about this topic (though for some different reasons than I have). And as we shared experiences and insights about the pressing question of why we are losing so many of our youth, we both agreed on two things; 1) that the heart and soul of the gospel is expansive, empowering, and redemptive; and 2) that that’s often not the version of the gospel our young people (or old people!) are hearing or seeing at church.

Some examples that came up during our conversation (we mostly discussed Young Women):

  • That too often, what we teach at church around the topic of women’s bodies promotes hypersexualization, teaches our young women to self-objectify, and reinforces the dangerous notion that women are responsible for men’s thoughts and actions.
  • That too often, we continue to justify teaching a sanitized version of Mormon history to our youth despite the serious existence of the internet (making false but “faith-promoting” stories only temporarily the latter) and despite the reality that our youth can handle (and even crave to be trusted with) messiness and authenticity.
  • That when describing what a worthy and fulfilling life can look like for a Mormon woman, we too often promote a rigid and overly-simplistic narrative that not every girl will be able to achieve or find happiness in–one that can discourage them from having aspirations, limit their willingness to seek for and act on personal revelation, and weaken their ability to respond to life’s challenges with resilience and creativity.
  • That too often, our YW activities are far more crafting and baking and makeovers and wedding-themed modesty fashion shows (eek) than they are about developing crucial life skills and providing meaningful service and having honest discussions about the complex questions and struggles our youth are facing.

Our shared feeling was that our youth are too often being presented with a version of the gospel that feels small-minded, fearful, and irrelevant to their lives. And if that’s what they see, why would they stay?

This isn’t always the case, obviously. And of course there are many factors here that neither your nor I have have much control over. Different people can come to different conclusions about the same information regardless of how well it is taught or how valuable we might think it is. And there are larger forces at work too, of course; e.g, as societal attitudes towards issues of gender and sexual orientation continue to shift, it seems only logical that the Church’s male-only priesthood and attitudes/policies aimed at LGBTQ individuals will alienate youth in increasingly greater numbers. I don’t think many Mormons would dispute that regardless of personal stances.

Yet despite factors outside our control, we can help our youth experience the gospel in more meaningful and encompassing ways. This should be the goal, in my opinion–not only because we have more control over what we teach than we do over retention numbers, but because I personally find it just as frightening to think that former YW of mine might leave the church because the gospel was never presented to them in ways that encouraged them to be strong and ever-learning and compassionate as it does to think that they might stay because of the same lack of teaching. I want young women to leave my lessons and activities better prepared to face life with greater courage and self-sufficiency and kindness regardless of whether they end up choosing to stay connected to Mormonism.

Having said all of that, I’ll be the first to admit that this is easier said than done. I have two rules for myself as a YW teacher in the Church:

1) that I will never knowingly teach anything that contradicts current, official church teachings or policies, no matter my personal opinions; and

2) that I will never knowingly teach anything that undermines principles of good spiritual and mental health or contradicts my conscience or, no matter what is in the manual or what other people in the Church might be teaching.

Keeping within these parameters is usually easy enough (these resources have been enormously helpful for navigating this balance). And when I see the thoughtfulness and faith and compassion of our young people and glimpse the kind of Mormonism capable of “stretching people’s moral imaginations,” of “[calling us] to a life of faith that is… creative, venturesome, open, and empowering,” I feel a renewed determination to keep at it. But there are other times when it’s morally messy; like when 3rd hour ends and I’m carting two overtired kids and an overflowing diaper bag across the parking lot while holding back hot tears or with my stomach in knots, feeling inadequate to the task and complicit in things that I believe have the potential to inflict serious damage on my young women’s faith or relationships or sense of worth or even their long-term relationship to the Church. For better and for worse, I’m restricted in my ability to encourage honest questioning and seeking, to counter what I feel are the ill-effects of patriarchy, and to convey to them that there are people and conditions commonly labeled as broken or deficient that I believe God sees as whole and good. There are many times when I don’t even know how to do this thing I usually love and sometimes feel called to do with my differing opinions and lack of social capital (I’m an awkward human) and general limitations as a teacher. And at times, juggling all of that starts to feel pointlessly exhausting.

It’s often easy for me to feel uncertainty and worry and apathy when I consider the future of the church and its young people. But I’m an idealist, too; and stories like this one inspire me and remind me that there are teachers in the church who feel motivated to find ways to make the gospel more meaningful and relevant for our youth.  While teachers in the church don’t have control over everything when it comes to better reaching and retaining Mormon youth in the church, I think that wrestling with the question can at least invite revelation as to how to better reach the kids we teach every Sunday. There’s a lot I can’t fix or change, but I can at least work to better connect my young women with a gospel and a God big enough to hold each of them through the spectrum of life’s painful and perplexing things and animate the best and most beautiful within them.

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* With all of this in mind, I’m planning to at least occasionally post ideas for activities I’ve done [or want to do] with my young women that at least make an honest attempt at addressing timely topics in open, meaningful, and empowering ways while honoring the rules I’ve made for myself as a teacher in the Church. There’s several topics I’d like to cover that regular church lessons might not touch on or naturally make much space for: from bringing in more stories that celebrate diversity and encourage positive, faithful discussion around tough moments in Mormonism’s past to covering things like consent and characteristics of healthy (and unhealthy) relationships and objectification of women in the media. A lot of these things have already been covered on various Mormon blogs, of course, and when that is the case, I’ll do my best to link to good resources. Mostly, I’ll be asking for input to make my teaching better and offer comprehensive materials to other teachers who may sometimes feel stuck or discouraged like I have. Hooray!

 

aly

Aly grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Washington with her husband and two daughters.

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28 Responses

  1. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    Your post should be required reading for all in authority. After the required reading, readers should ponder it until they understand its message. Finally, it should become the foundation of church teaching for all.

  2. Danna says:

    This is wonderfully written! Yes yes to it all!

  3. Eskymama says:

    Why aren’t women who work called into YW? I recognize that it is a demanding calling, but no more demanding than bishop or the YM callings where they typically work. Why aren’t educated women called into a career night to talk about what they studied whether or not they currently are in the profession? I had no female LDS mentors, but have forged a path where I both worked at a skilled profession and through the internet stayed in the home for the majority of the time. My daughter is now 28, but when she was in YW the organization seemed to steer her away from becoming independent or educated before becoming a wife … with the wifey thing being the primary goal. Didn’t help that the YW goal program underwent three changes during her years … and never seemed up to snuff compared with the eagle scout stuff her brothers were doing. Dad was a leader and took her along when he could. The most amazing stake relief society president I ever had the pleasure of knowing, was a older single woman who was a professor at the university we were at in graduate school. And there was lots of talk in the stake when she was called.

    • Emily U says:

      Yes, exactly. I feel like I have a lot of hard-won wisdom in this area I could share with the YW, but have never been asked to. Maybe I should just offer, the worst they could say is no! I’ve been in Primary, RS, music, and adult Sunday School, but have never worked with youth in almost 20 years of church service. Coincidence for a full-time employed feminist? I really don’t know.

      • aly says:

        Eskymama, I didn’t know it was a thing for women who work to be passed over for YW callings. I start working full-time in a month and am hoping to keep my calling. It’s definitely important for YW to see diverse examples among their leaders.

        Emily U, yes, offer! YW leaders have a lot on their plates and generally love it when someone offers to head-up a mutual activity. I’ve been given opportunities to do what I wanted for a couple of mutual activities that fell through last minute, so offering to fill in if something else falls through is a possibility, too (if that’s even something you’d be willing/able to do).

    • BiblioBags says:

      I was YW secretary a few years ago. I have an Etsy shop where I make and sell purses. As we planned activities (another problem; the girls had no input bc the YW president was a control freak), I volunteered to head an activity about business. We would talk about marketing (especially on social media), work ethic and finances. I was shot down. Instead we did cake decorating, making pancakes, decorating cards for missionaries, etc.

    • Tracie Frost says:

      I work full time, and I serve in young women’s. Also my YW president works full time and has worked her entire life (raised 4 daughters while she worked and is still working – and is married to the 1st counselor in the High Priest group). We are both professional women. I have been in other wards where professional women seem to not be called very often, but I think that’s really leader dependent.

      Also, I loved this article. Aly, you so clearly articulate what I feel when I teach the YW. I never teach anything contrary to doctrine but I so desperately want them to get the version of the gospel that is “creative, venturesome, open, and empowering.” In two months I will have two daughters in YWs. They are great, broad-thinking, smart girls with many, many goals, including but not limited to parenthood. The hardest thing for us so far has not been Sunday lessons but the Personal Progress Program with its narrow, narrow focus on making girls into little mamas before they have graduated from high school. I wish that the people who write the manuals and PP literature would consider what a woman who hasn’t worked in 20 years does when she is 42 and her children are grown and gone. We need a plan that thinks beyond child-bearing years.

      I look forward to your lesson notes!

      • aly says:

        Glad to hear that’s the case in your ward! And I’m with you; personal progress does have a LOT geared towards “making girls into little mamas,” and when that’s the main push of activities, too, it’s a big problem.

        Quotes like this one from church leaders don’t really acknowledge or affirm the existence working mothers, but the point is at least made that we need to prepare girls for more than just momming: “In fact, from one-third to one-half of a young woman’s remaining years of life will be spent in activities preceding marriage and the rearing of children, or following the time when children have left the home. A young woman’s education should prepare her for more than the responsibilities of motherhood. It should prepare her for the entire period of her life.” (Elder Oaks)

        I know too many Mormon mothers who go through a major identity crisis after their kids leave home. We’re setting our youth up for that kind of thing when we don’t encourage them to envision a life that can include but isn’t limited to marriage and babies.

    • lo says:

      Many of my YW leaders in metro-Detroit had full-time careers. Is this uncommon?

    • Elise says:

      For what it’s worth, I work FT (by choice) and have two elementary-aged children. In my current stage of life, I would turn down a YW calling if it was offered. I’m spread thin and have to be quite intentional about finding enough time for the self-care necessary to keep myself healthy and really cherish unstructured, downtime with my children (which I don’t want to fill up with church calling responsibilities). I imagine as they get older and involved in programs, my ability and desire to serve in more demanding capacities may increase. I wonder if there are other FT working moms who feel similar and have turned down such callings in the past for similar reasons?

      That said, when I was in Mia Maids, we had a combined YM/YW Sunday night fireside where three working professionals presented on their chosen careers. One of the three was a woman and it impressed me enough that 20 years later, I can remember where I was sitting, what she was wearing, the way she presented herself, and what she said. It made an impact on me and was the first time I encountered a message in an official church setting that I could successfully be a working mother (something I wanted from the time I was very young). This post has inspired me to reach out to the YW leaders in my current ward and ask if I could do something similar and teach the YW a bit about what I do and how I make it work.

      • aly says:

        I definitely get that. YW is demanding.

        Love that you were so impacted by that career night, and that your leaders were inspired to have one in the first place. Definitely reach out!

    • Rosalyn says:

      It might depend on the ward. I was in a YW presidency a few years ago, and the president worked full time, I worked part time (I’m an adjunct professor), and another counselor was full time–so they were the rule rather than the exception. I think (hope?) it was empowering for the girls to see the variety of ways we balanced work and family.

  4. What a Clerk sees says:

    There is a serious problem with attempting to define this as a ‘new’ issue by quoting an individual who seems to think this is an issue.

    I’ve personally seen data in at least the last 3 decades to indicate that Single Adults in the Church Age 18-30 are only about 25% active. The data I saw was across 8-12 stakes. I think it moves the conversation in another direction, not that the above isn’t valid as well, but this is NOT a new issue in the church.

    • aly says:

      I’m confused. I quoted my friend to illustrate how one ward is experiencing the downward trend in retention rates that studies like Jana Riess’s indicate is happening church-wide. I linked to a SLTrib article in my post that talks about that large study; I wasn’t applying the experience of one ward to the entire church.

      Also, are you saying that the data you’ve seen shows that activity rates for young Mormons (in your area) has remained steady at about 25% over the last 30 years? If so, not questioning that; your area might be unique. Also, you’re looking at data strictly for YSA’s, sounds like. The study mentioned is for millenials, so I’m assuming both married and single. That could explain the difference?

      Here’s the link in my article: http://www.sltrib.com/home/3782391-155/more-mormon-millennials-are-delaying-marriage

  5. Bob Bell says:

    My 25 years church exp. Not a new issue agree with clerk. LOC/WOW is the driver on this.

    • aly says:

      Never said retention is a “new issue.” According to study (which my personal experience mirrors) retention rates are dropping, though. Are you saying you disagree with the study’s findings? Just trying to clarify.

    • V. Burnett says:

      Bob, I believe that you are dismissing these serious problems by trying to shift “blame” to young people who wish to live unrighteous lifestyles. There are real problems here that have nothing to do with temptation. My daughter is a Junior in college and is “taking a break” from the Church right now because she can no longer stomach the blatant misogny and other ungodly traditions that she heard for years in YW and continues to hear taught as a YSA. Only about 10-20% of the kids she was in YW/mutual with are still active. (And some of the “active” ones are much more likely to be found partying it up or engaging in sexual experimentation than the ones who have left for reasons of personal integrity.)
      So, nope. It’s not all about WOW and LOC.
      It’s something entrely different and leaders need to be looking at it NOW.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    (Before I comment some among you will notice I am posting though I said I wouldn’t again. One Exponent person reached out to me, which I was very touched by, and asked that I reconsider. I have given it some thought and will do so when the message seems relevant rather than questioning.)

    This is one such time. Aly’s post is great. Whilst obviously we do not see eye to eye on a few issues, the main thrust is one that is very close to my heart for several reasons. I have six daughters in the ages 31 to 14, two granddaughters, a son (getting married) and two sons-in-law (one of whom is a second generation member who recently decided the church isn’t true – RM, sealed to my daughter). Additionally I am the Stake Sunday School president with a mission to improve Come, Follow Me in Sunday School, Young Women and Aaronic Priesthood – and unitedly.

    Aly’s four bullet points may well be true in many places, though I believe it is changing slowly. The majority of this however is regurgitation of things taught in the past to our now leaders. The type of things that Aly is saying are the main reason for Come, Follow Me. It is a process of helping youth develop the skills they will need to combat the issues they will face. How to get the most from General Conference talks, how to study the scriptures and receive answers to prayers, how to develop a testimony in bite sized pieces – realising that you don’t need to believe it all at once.

    And of course, the mutual activities should be helping re-enforce what is being learned during the month. Pampering nights, and PJ movies nights are not going to do that. I have come very close to withdrawing my two youngest from mutual as I see no benefit in it at all. There are no called class presidents – with 10 YW! The YW President (currently no counsellors) decides all the activities and the girls have no planning. As you might guess, no BYC either. The programme is a joke, and the lessons trite and meaningless – in terms of developing the YW.

    All of this is down to the local leadership. It is not what the Church General Authorities and General Officers want, and I am sure it is not what the Lord wants.

    But it can only change as the idea of TEACHER – STUDENT mentality goes away. YW,. AP and SS lessons should not be able cramming information and ideas into our youth. They should be about causing thoughts and ideas, and exploring ways with the youth to find answers and gain understanding (testimony) – and sharing.

    I would note a few things from the comments above.
    In the UK, where numbers are lower, no one has ever not been called because of their employment status. Our ward YMP has a small home business and is childless – she also has a Masters degree.
    In the nine units in our stake we have as YW presidents.

    Employed, married and childless (first year of marriage)

    Unemployed, married mother – has worked in the past

    Self employed, married and childless

    Unemployed, married empty nester

    Employed, married mother – previous stake YWP – also worked during that calling

    Unemployed, married empty nester – had a career, now retired, worked all the time her husband was stake president

    Unemployed, married empty nester – has worked, but mostly worked in her home as a foster mother

    Unemployed, married mother

    Employed, divorced and childless

    Our Stake YMP is an elementary school teacher, her counsellors are a laywer and a secondary school teacher.

    All their counsellors, where they have them, are a similar mixture.

    Retention – clerk’s observation.

    I think you are speaking at crossed purposes. The general activity in the church is about 25% – 30%. This has been the cased for almost ever – in the last 50 years at least. Many of the 75% have really not ever been active. Their families left the church before they were youth – and often shortly after joining the church.

    The study was referring specifically to those that were active in their youth, and probably served a mission.

    We are currently loosing about 30% of our returned missionaries in their first year back home. So you are both correct.

    ONE BUG BARE
    The calling is Young Women president, The class is a Young Women class. The activity is a Young Women activity. Why do people always put “My Young Women’s president said…”, or some such thing. This is a self-perpetuating mistake.

    The organisation is Young Women – like Primary, Sunday School and Relief Society. We don’t say Primary’s president, or my Sunday School’s class.

    Let’s start a trend and get this right. Please?

    • aly says:

      Love what you said about creating more student-centered lessons, Andrew S. Agree 100%. Also, I’m glad to hear that employment status isn’t a determining factor for YW callings where you live!

  7. Ziff says:

    Great post, Aly. I think your bullet points are spot on. The *narrowness* of what is focused on and taught is what gets me. Even if God really did care how many ear piercings YW have, and whether they cover their shoulders enough or not (and I earnestly hope that God does not), these seem like such absolutely trivial concerns in comparison with all the other issues that could be talked about like education, alleviating poverty, serving others. Focusing on these issues paints God as a micromanager who is so down in the weeds that he’s unable to worry about the big picture. Thank you for working to teach better things.

    • aly says:

      Absolutely. Nothing makes me cringe more than stories about YW being shamed or even turned away from activities for wearing shoulder-baring tops, being forced to wear t-shirts at girl’s camp over even one-piece swimsuits (which is really unsafe), etc. I think what it comes down to is that it’s easier to obsess over and micromanage appearances than it is to come to know and be willing to engage with what’s happening in our students’ hearts and minds. I worry too about what a focus on trivial things teaches our youth about God.

  8. EFH says:

    I converted from a different country. While I had the same lessons with the same problems described here, all the young women at the class felt empowered by the program. Even though the majority of us are not active anymore (for many reasons not just church history), we speak very fondly of our experience in the YM and are so grateful for the role the church played in our lives at the time. First, we had teachers that had careers and lives outside the home and church. SAHM is not a concept or a thing outside of US/Canada and probably a few other countries. So, it was easier to find admiring qualities (beyond righteous and faithful) in our teachers. Second, as children/teens we were not supposed to speak up; our opinions were not needed at school and at home. But at church, we had to talk often. That was amazing for us. We had callings as Sunday School teachers and a teen always spoke in every sacrament meetings. I think that is because we had branches and not wards, so not enough people to fill in roles. Third, I made so many best friends for life at church that regardless of church status, geography location, and other status we stay in touch and continue to have fun together. I describe all of this to explain (and support the arguments of this post) that if the program of YW doesn’t provide empowering tools for the youth, they cannot accomplish much in the long run.
    When I speak to women who went through YM program in US, I notice that many of them did not have a good group of best friends inside their wards. That is so sad. And all the problems listed in this blog add to the feeling of alienation and discontent with the environment and the community in the long run. Things really do need to change.

    • aly says:

      Love that you had such a positive and empowering experience as a youth in the church, EFH–that you saw diverse examples, were encouraged to use your voice, and that you formed lifelong connections with girls in your ward. Those three things are so important!

  9. Libby says:

    I’m quite sure that the reason (or one of the many!) I’m not teaching YW is that I couldn’t stay in the middle ground between your two parameters. As much as I love the Church, I’m deeply troubled by some of the recent political stances Church leadership has taken.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I graduated from the YW Program four years ago. I am one of these millennials who is questioning the Church. I grew up in Provo, my parents teach at BYU. I’ve seen a large number of my friends and acquaintances leave the Church. Usually these kids are more academically driven and discerning. They are critical thinkers and analytics. In my experience, it really has nothing to do with the Law of Chastity or the Word of Wisdom. These issues may come into play later, but not always. Most all of these people have left over very earnest questions concerning Church culture/pressure, LGBTQ issues, women’s issues, or major concerns about Church history and their remaining vestiges. I will say that Young Women’s was the first time I began to notice and feel frustrated with the Church’s attitude toward women (and their roles). I’ve struggled my whole life in feeling I want to be a mother, and even if I’ve never been explicitly taught that motherhood is my only purpose, it seems utterly unfair that fatherhood is not equally stressed. Will the Church ever disavow polygamy? Will we ever understand more about homosexuality? Does God really just think about me as vessel for children? Will the temple language that sends me into tears whenever I think about it ever change!? I was at work yesterday and found that all four of my coworkers had never read D&C 132. So it seems milennials are also (like you said in the article) discovering information about Church history and doctrine that is sometimes pushed under the rug on the INTERNET! Which can hardly be a comforting discovery. Nowadays, it seems millennials aren’t interested in “putting things on a shelf” anymore. And although many surely recognize we will never know all of the answers to our questions, some of these issues feel like no-brainers and even violations of personal integrity. The Church often feels antiquated and paradoxical. I do not speak for all millennials, but this is what I have encountered in taking to other BYU students who have either left or who consider themselves to be progressive Mormons.

    So what’s the difference between those who decide to be “progressive” v. those who leave? I really don’t know. But I do think that a serious revising of Church youth manuals (I know they revised the Sunday School program, though I only had those lessons for a few months) would be a step in the right direction. And YW activities too. Yikes!

  11. Liz says:

    Fantastic post, Aly. I agree with much of what you said. In my experience, people leave because they feel the church is building fences instead of bridges, and walls instead of wells. It feels antiquated and not expansive enough to accommodate all of God’s children. Obviously there are going to be so many reasons, but I feel rather frustrated at the church’s lack of doctrinal introspection on some of these issues (and if they’re having that kind of introspection, it’s certainly not visible to the general membership). The November 2015 policy felt so small-minded to me – rather than grapple with the complexities and nuances of sexual attraction and gender identity, the church drew lines and walls that didn’t feel Christlike to me at all. I wish every church leader would read this post (and the comments!).

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