The Majority . . .
I sat in a ward council meeting and listened to men fret about statistics, about the percentages that represent the dwindling numbers of youth who remain in the church. “Sixty percent of missionaries come home early,” they said with shaking heads, “and eighty percent of youth stop church attendance after leaving their parents’ homes.” 80%. According to this statistic, the majority of young members are finding different paths outside of Mormonism.
The men who filled the bishop’s office were saddened by these statistics but I wasn’t because I know these migrating youth are finding meaning beyond the male-dominated institution of the church. In James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, he declares that “We (humans) require meaning,” and I see people leaving institutions because they cannot find deep and lasting meaning; they are searching elsewhere for that meaning they require. This suggests to me that patriarchy is failing – fluidity is softening rigidity. I find hope in the idea that many young adults will no longer support or commit to patriarchal institutions that do not reflect their ethics, thoughts, and beliefs. These youths are finding and creating meaning in new ways. This is liberating.
These 60% and 80% of young adults are screaming in a language that male power finally understands: numbers. Maybe I am being too optimistic, but these numbers seem to illustrate the decay of the world men have shaped and created. The patriarchal world (that industrious, hierarchical, exclusive, destructive world that men have built) has never worked for the majority – but now the church is finally paying attention because it is no longer able to maintain its numbers.
The question in ward council should never be about statistics or attendance or commitment to an institution; it should be: how do we become a people who prioritize divinity, wisdom, and acceptance for all the weary travelers who cross through our doors on the way in and on the way out? But again, I’m the wrong gender and speak the wrong language to be heard.
Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, realizes that “people who are doing helpful and healing ministry find their primary support from a couple of enlightened friends and only secondarily, if at all, from the larger organization.” I see this constantly. This is what I see in the stats: “the larger organization,” patriarchy, is failing so people are looking elsewhere. Soul work cannot be marked on a roll or commodified or capitalized or monopolized, and, therefore, is not the priority of patriarchy. The institution of the church is failing to heal the wounded, feed the hungry, and listen to the outcast, so humans are doing it elsewhere, creating it for themselves with enlightened friends. This is what those statistics say to me as a female with no voice in a room full of men: Finally, the numbers are saying what we have been saying for decades.
While I sat in that ward council meeting, a line from Ursula LeGuin’s essay, “A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters,” kept running through my mind: “When women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values.” Tragically, yes. She sees me and all the other women in this institution who serve male ends and enforce male values because we love religion and ritual and community and don’t know how to leave the people we love. We may create covens outside the church but within it, we serve male ends and enforce male values. We have managed to remain in an institution that excludes us, that speaks its own language, and ignores all else. But the majority of youth are refusing this. And as I sat in a room full of men, all representatives of a male-shaped institution, and listened to exclusively men enforce male values, I had much admiration for those 80% who leave this static place. They are speaking the language patriarchy understands – something I have been incapable of doing.
I have found meaning within the church but have given up so much to continue attending. That is why I do not grieve the 60% or the 80%, I celebrate them. In fact, I adore and love and know these youth who are leaving the institution behind; they are my son and my daughter and their friends. They are five of my siblings and their spouses. They are my husband and dad and neighbors – and they have outgrown the church they were raised in. I believe they are finding helpful and healing ministry outside the rigid structures of patriarchy, I believe they are refusing to be co-opted into enforcing exclusively male values and ends, I believe they are creating meaning together, and I believe they are speaking in a language that the church will hear.