This piece contributes several insights about the challenges our young single adults face, and some ideas for how to cope with them. The central principle is listening to and counseling with our young single adults in meaningful ways, and then giving them opportunities to build up the kingdom through service and leadership.
Recently, a former Stake President asked me to share some of my thoughts in regards to the administration of a young single adult ward. I suppose this request has come because of the success we had while I was the bishop. While I admit to being somewhat flattered by the recognition, I must also admit that I feel somewhat reluctant to take credit for success that I feel is more particularly due to the young single adult leaders of our ward and to the Lord for His very generous blessings to us during that time. I know I played a role, and I tried my very best, but frankly, I felt like we were being led step-by-step by the spirit during that time. I take no credit for this. I’m not completely sure I understand why we were so very blessed. However, I do know that we witnessed a miracle and I would be very ungrateful if I did not acknowledge these blessings.
As I have considered what advice I might give, it occurs to me that there is no “pink pill” that will quickly solve all of the issues related to young single adult members. Like all members, young single adults are a diverse group with varying needs. Additionally, each ward and stake location has its own needs and challenges. Therefore, I do not believe that we can completely script a solution. With that said, I do feel we can do a lot better than we are currently doing. We know that we are reaching a crisis stage in regard to the number of young single adults lost to inactivity each year. Someone has said that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting a different result.” In regard to our young single adults, we must recognize that we simply cannot expect a different result so long as we continue to stay on our current path.
Our Prophet and Apostles talk about this all the time, yet I wonder if many of our local priesthood leaders really understand the challenges facing today’s youth. I know I didn’t. When I became a single’s ward bishop, I first thought that only a very small percentage of students seriously struggled with their testimony, had moral problems, experienced abuse or had serious depression/anxiety. When I heard our general authorities speak on these topics, I thought it applied to the one, not the ninety and nine. Consequently, I felt no trepidation in announcing that I would be conducting “get to know you” interviews with each member, each semester; and that these interviews would be at least ½ hour or more. Additionally, I stated that I would not cut interviews off and that I would stay as long as it took to meet with everyone that wanted to meet with me. I didn’t really worry about the load this would cause. I had done the math and I felt confident that this schedule would get me home by 7:00 pm every Sunday.
Unfortunately for my perfectly planned schedule, the members believed me. When the meeting block ended (about 2:00 pm) and I came up to my office to start interviews, I found a line of people waiting to meet with me. My very first interview included a sister who years earlier had struggled with the law of chastity. These mistakes had kept her from fully participating in various Church activities. She felt unworthy to hold a temple recommend. Additionally, she felt that no righteous young man would ever be interested in dating a person who had made these mistakes. We met for about an hour as she unloaded a lifetime of pent up feelings. As I listened, I realized that she needed much more than an opportunity to confess, she needed help and guidance in regaining her testimony and self-confidence. I gave her some assignments and made arrangements for a series of follow-up interviews. (In subsequent months, as she gained a level of trust, she revealed a pattern of physical and emotional abuse that went back to her early childhood. Over time, she returned to full activity, met a wonderful temple worthy young man, got married and recently sent me a picture of their first child.) Following this sister, another individual came in with different but somewhat similar concerns; then another and another. Sometime after midnight, I finished my first day.
This schedule continued for my entire three years as approximately 400 members passed through our ward. Over a three-year period, I spent an average of 20 hours per week in interviews with members as over 58% of our ward (230 members) came in with serious concerns that needed my attention. (Of this total over 56 members came in to get help with the terrible effects of abuse.) Of course, I never did get control of my schedule and I didn’t want to. (Fortunately, my work and family situation allowed me to devote this kind of time to the calling.) It was perhaps one of the most rewarding times in my life, and I believe my family’s as well, as we personally witnessed the power of the atonement, in action. Our ward literally became a “spiritual hospital” as member after member came to know Christ in a very real and personal way.
So why tell this story? I’m afraid that many priesthood leaders have the same misconceptions that I had. They really don’t understand or believe that at least 50% of their ward currently has serious concerns that are holding them back. This lack of understanding leads us to focus our attention on dating and marriage rather than faith and repentance. If a priesthood leader believes that the majority of single adults have strong testimonies and few serious challenges, then he will not understand why serious change is needed in our approach. He will not allow enough personal time for this important calling, and he will not see the value of a rigorous approach to helping members to be involved in meaningful service in the kingdom. He will not understand why single adult members need the opportunity to take the lead in all aspects of the ward. And he will not understand why we need a unique organizational structure to support young single adults. If all we need to do is get them married, then it stands to reason that all we need to do is support a series of get together activities that encourage dating and marriage. On the other hand, if half of our single adults are currently struggling with testimony, serious moral problems, serious depression/anxiety, and/or the effects of abuse, then it is easy to see that single adult wards are much more than a dating service.
But what about marriage? Don’t we want more temple marriages? Sure we do! I’m just suggesting a somewhat different path to get there than the path followed in many young single adult wards. Rather than a series of large group mixer activities, little, if any, opportunities to serve and regular admonitions to get married, perhaps we need to focus instead on helping single adult members to resolve the serious concerns in their life, develop a testimony and learn to serve. Hopefully we can all agree that personal righteousness and service leads to increased self-confidence, courage, faith, hope and charity. Each is an essential attribute in a temple marriage. Additionally, as a person develops a true testimony of this work, they desire to follow the Prophet’s council and enjoy the blessings of eternal marriage. Therefore, it seems to me that the more we focus on building the faith and spirituality of the members, the more we will increase the number of temple marriages. The longer I served at BYU the more I came to believe that there is a direct correlation between the activity and spirituality of the members and the number of temple marriages.
With that background, here are my recommendations in regards to meeting the needs of our Young Single Adults:
As mentioned above, young single adult members often have serious concerns that need to be resolved prior to marriage and family. Assisting members in the resolution of these concerns is perhaps the greatest responsibility a bishop will bear. This part of the calling requires significant time & attention. Members must be made to feel safe in coming forward to get help with their concerns. Therefore, bishops need to have time and take time to regularly meet one-on-one with each and every member of the ward. Interviews should be frequent, lengthy and searching. Listening skills are particularly important.
Why do I make this point? As you know, we hear regularly of students who feel that their leader does not have time for them or does not know them. The result of this is that the member often does not get help with their problems. When the bishop seems too busy or when appointments are scheduled 10 minutes apart, young members often avoid coming in to get help. Therefore, we hear of wards where the bishop truly believes there are not many problems. The results are heartbreaking.
Consider the consequences of allowing our members to leave our ward with unresolved concerns:
Clearly, this is a critical time in the life of this age group. Therefore, it is so very important that they get issues and problems resolved now while they are single. Consequently, it is very important for priesthood leaders to spend time one-on-one with each and every member. The Church Handbook of Instructions gives wonderful guidance in this regard. We are counseled to “listen carefully”, “give full and sincere attention”, “schedule adequate time for appointments”, “call them in for counseling”, etc. Obviously, this takes a lot of time, but it is so very worth it in the end.
With this in mind, in my opinion, selection and training of the bishop is perhaps the most important element in meeting the needs of single adults. Bishops need to have the time, means, skills and desire to devote significant effort to this calling. The bishop must have a vision of the impact that can be made in the lives of each and every member as they call upon the powers of heaven to give them guidance and direction. The bishop will need to spend many hours in one-on-one interviews with members. Communication and listening skills are very important. Significant training should be conducted in the following areas: conducting interviews, dealing with addictions, abuse, and depression, church discipline, shadow leadership, counseling with our councils, and training of YSA leaders. Bishops must have a good understanding of the principles of repentance and be able to help members through the process of repentance.
Members who are repenting do not need to be coddled or given undue leniency. They desire to fully repent and to experience the joy that comes when they know that they have done all they could do to make the atonement effective in their life. Most of the members know that this will take time and work on their part. They understand and expect restrictions on sacrament, use of their priesthood (for men), and the temple. In many circumstances, disciplinary councils are necessary to help the person fully move forward. Members particularly enjoy regular follow-up meetings with the bishop. These follow-up meetings become a wonderful opportunity to teach, bear testimony and develop a friendship between the member and his/her priesthood leader.
Why do I make this point? As you know, we hear regularly of situations where a member confessed serious transgressions to their priesthood leader, with no ramifications in regard to church privileges, and no follow-up. It becomes particularly distressing when one bishop holds an un-endowed sister to a higher standard than her endowed, Melchizedek-Priesthood-holding partner, was held to by the other bishop. When a bishop is unduly lenient and does not require regular follow-up sessions, several problems occur: First the member often continues to make poor choices. Second, these members regularly report that they do not feel forgiven, and consequently have a difficult time in moving forward. Third, when another person is involved from another ward, confusion arises in regard to consistency among priesthood leaders. I believe that consistency, or lack thereof, is a significant problem at BYU.
President Hinckley said that all new members need a friend, a calling, and to be taught the good word of God. I think this is particularly important for young adults. Unfortunately, as you know, there are many wards around BYU where less than ½ of the members have any calling at all; let alone a “meaningful” calling. Young adults need to be involved in building the kingdom. They need to know that they are needed in the ward. They need to serve others. They need to sit in ward councils. And they need to regularly interact with more experienced church leaders. When young people “sit out” for the semester, they often struggle with their spirituality, they struggle with Sunday activity, they struggle with friendship, and they struggle with their testimony. Consequently, they can make poor decisions. At the very least, they miss the essential leadership preparation so very necessary when they serve in their ward.
Therefore, ward leaders need to ensure that each and every member is involved in a meaningful calling soon upon their arrival (days not weeks). Members should be taught the effective use of councils and they should be regularly and deeply involved in small group councils that support the three fold mission of the church, are creative and result in performing compassionate service to others. Councils should include a good mix of sisters and brothers to facilitate interaction and friendship. Both brothers and sisters need opportunities to serve as leaders of the council from time to time.
I have been very grateful that our Stake instituted “YSA Service Councils” (formerly “The Council System”) several years ago. This inspired program has been a real blessing to literally hundreds of young single adults. YSA Service Councils essentially makes it possible for every member of the ward to have a meaningful calling each semester. The program fosters friendship, service and the development of leadership skills. Additionally, the program places brothers and sisters together in small group settings as they develop and carry out plans to serve in various ways. A wonderful spirit is developed through these interactions and we have seen great growth among our members as they council together and become actively engaged in a good work.
Note: More information about YSA Service Councils is available.
I have not kept specific statistics in regard to the number of persons who came in to get help as a result of encouragement from the Elders quorum or Relief Society president. However, I am confident that it would be a significant number. Our Elders quorum and Relief Society presidents spent a substantial amount of time each week in visiting one-on-one with the members. Each Elders Quorum president was responsible for visiting sisters as well as the elders. On a weekly basis, Elders Quorum presidents and Relief Society presidents met together to discuss the needs of each individual in their group, then they went to work to meet those needs. As mentioned, a significant number of individuals have been deeply blessed through the efforts of both Elders Quorum presidents and Relief Society presidents in our ward. I would also add that the Elders Quorum president is often more effective with the sisters than the Relief Society president, and occasionally, the Relief Society presidency is more effective with certain elders. When the two leaders work together, miracles happen. We have seen it time and time again.
With this in mind, I have been particularly grateful that we had two Elders Quorums and three Relief Societies in our ward. By making the quorum and groups smaller, the presidencies could reasonably minister to the needs of each member, without excessive time commitments. Additionally, this made it possible for more people to experience leadership each semester. In addition to multiple Elders Quorums and Relief Societies, we have worked to include young single adults in every aspect of running the ward. Our ward clerk and assistant ward clerks were single students. (We never had a negative audit in three years.) Our executive secretary (a single student) conducted our bishopric and PEC Meetings. (He didn’t just print the agenda, he ran the meetings.) Our bishopric assistant (a single sister) conducted ward council and worked with the executive secretary to organize and conduct each semester’s organizational meeting. Other than Sacrament Meeting, I do not remember a time when a married member of the bishopric conducted a single meeting. And I must say, out of close to 20 years of sitting in bishopric or PEC meetings in various wards, in various locations, I have never experienced more effective meetings than those who were organized and conducted by our young single adult members.
Why do I make this point? As you know, we hear regularly of wards and stakes around BYU where there is only one Elders Quorum presidency and one Relief Society presidency. In many of these wards, the Elders Quorum president only ministers to the elders, and he does not significantly interact with the sisters or with the Relief Society president. Further, because of the size of their quorum or group, these student leaders are so overwhelmed with the administrative burden of their calling that they have little time to truly minister to the needs of the individual. Additionally, I hear regularly of wards where the married adults organize and conduct all of the meetings, serve as ward clerk, teach Sunday School, etc. I believe this is a significant lost opportunity for leadership development and for meeting the needs of each member.
With that in mind, I would recommend that similar organizational structures be implemented in every young single adult ward throughout the Church. Wards should be small enough to meet truly meet the needs of the YSA members. (Approximately 150 active members or less) (Of particular concern, are the many YSA wards that have over 200 members. In my opinion, this creates an almost impossible situation for the Bishop.) Elders Quorums and Relief Societies should be small enough to facilitate more leadership opportunity as well as meet the needs of individual members. (Approximately 30 people per quorum or Relief Society) Small group councils should be organized around the three-fold mission of the Church to facilitate friendship, service, leadership, testimony and self-confidence. Single adult wards should be a part of single adult stakes wherever possible in order to facilitate training of bishops and YSA leaders. Additionally, single adult stakes facilitate interaction between members of different single adult wards.
President Hinckley has said that if he was a new bishop, he would work on building the spirituality of each member. I strongly agree with this point. I believe we tried to follow this advice. However, if I could do it all over again, I would try harder and certainly much earlier. So often we hear of YSA wards without any type of spiritual challenge. I think this is a mistake. This generation truly desires to live to a higher standard and they like a challenge. In our ward our higher standard was called “The List”. The list is simply a daily and weekly checklist of items our priesthood leaders have encouraged us to do. “The List” is as follows:
The list originally came from the handwritten assignments I gave to members who were meeting with me regularly. One of the sisters started calling it the plan. She would then tell her less active friends that she couldn’t go out with them because she was on “the plan.” Eventually, quite a few of our members were on “the plan” (about 50%). As these members completed their informal probation period and became leaders in the ward, they asked if they could tailor it and formally launch it on the ward. Originally they called it the “Bishop’s List.” Eventually it was shortened to “The List.” Of course, I fully supported their efforts in this regard, but I really didn’t have any idea how well it would be supported. After all, I kind of held the original group hostage.
Frankly, I was shocked and overwhelmed by the response from our ward members. Our students loved “The List!” They made t-shirts that emphasized the list. They handed out checklists each Sunday. They made video presentations that emphasized the importance of following “The List.” They even went door-to-door exhorting fellow members to “Live the List,” etc. Battered and marked up Conference Editions of the Ensign became a badge of honor. And I was regularly teased about missing my exercise or journal writing. It was a remarkable experience for me to see how excited our members became with the prospect of living to a high standard. As students actively worked to be 100% on the list, we noticed a significant increase in almost all of our ward statistics. We also felt a palatable increase of the spirit during our meetings. It was a wonderful experience for all of us. Since then, I have been particularly amazed with the number of people outside of our ward who have asked for a copy of “The List” and have said that they wished their ward had something similar. Since my release, on a fairly regular basis some of my members write for electronic copies of “The List.”
Regardless of the method, I believe that ward leaders need to expend significant effort in building the spirituality of the ward, and in teaching members how to get and keep the spirit. Single adults need to be taught the principles of receiving answers to their prayers. In my opinion, it is a mistake to assume that young single adults understand and follow gospel principles such as tithing, fast offering, sacrament meeting attendance, daily prayer and scripture study, home and visit teaching, temple attendance, etc. These principles must be clearly taught and regularly emphasized. Bishopric members must recognize that their role is to teach, and listen, not entertain. Sacrament meetings and other meetings need to be well prepared so that a spiritual feast occurs each Sunday. Reverence is critically important. Gospel principles should be taught and emphasized at every opportunity. All teachers in Sunday School, Elders Quorum and Relief Society, need to be spiritually prepared and mature enough to ensure that class members have a good opportunity to feel the spirit during each lesson. (For us, this typically meant that Gospel Doctrine teachers were sister returned missionaries, past Elders Quorum presidents, etc.)
I guess if I could only give one piece of advice, this would be it: measure, measure, measure. I know of no better quotes on this topic than these from President Monson, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.” And, “When one deals in generalities, he will rarely have a success; but when he deals in specifics, he will rarely have a failure.”
Effective leaders always use measures to drive improvement. YSA wards need to regularly monitor: home and visiting teaching by individual, Sacrament Meeting attendance by individual, Priesthood and Relief Society attendance by individual, the number of people they have interviewed by name, temple recommends by individual, tithes and offerings by individual, etc. We need to know each and every individual, where they are, and how they are doing. We need to encourage Elders Quorum and Relief Society presidencies to be even more knowledgeable in regard to the individuals under their stewardship. I believe we need to have high expectations. Measures (again by individual) should be reviewed each week. (Of course confidential items such as tithes and offerings & temple recommends should only be reviewed by the Bishop.) When an individual first starts to miss meetings, stops paying fast offerings, stops fulfilling assignments, etc. we need to know it and make a plan to meet the needs of that person. When group performance falls below expectations, leaders need to take it seriously, figure out what is missing in our approach, and take aggressive corrective action to get back on track.
Some would say this is a bit intrusive. Perhaps. I accept the criticism. However, in three years, I don’t believe we had a single member of our ward that expressed that feeling. On the contrary, we had many, many members who said how much they appreciated living in a ward where the leaders knew their name and where they knew someone would notice if they were missing.
As we worked to bring more people to Christ through obedience, sacrifice, service and repentance, we experienced many wonderful blessings. Here are a few examples:
Over a three year period approximately 50% of our members (195 persons out of 400) came in to get help in overcoming the effects of moral transgression. Most made needed changes and are moving forward with faith. Many of these persons went on to become our very best leaders. And a large number are now married in the Temple.
Over 56 people received help in dealing with the terrible effects of abuse. These were tremendous experiences for me as I watched individuals experience the healing power of the atonement. Of this group, several are now married in the temple, some have become temple workers, some have become Relief Society and Elders Quorum Presidents. Almost all are moving forward with faith and hope.
Over 50 people received help in dealing with the effects of depression, anxiety or other similar ailments. Most of these members are moving forward with hope. Many are now married.
Virtually all of our Ward statistics improved significantly:
Of course, the greatest blessing for me personally has been to witness the wonderful growth and progress of so many members. Some days I am just overwhelmed with deep gratitude for the blessings we have received. It has been a true miracle to watch how the atonement has made such a difference in the lives of our members. I have seen members with previous problems, get married in the temple, become Relief Society and Elders Quorum presidents, become temple workers and on and on. On one occasion, in a joint Relief Society meeting, I was overcome with emotion as I watched an abused sister bear a beautiful testimony of the blessings that had come to her since she had asked for help. She spoke with power and deep feeling about the blessings of the atonement and of the healing that is possible through Christ. I cannot imagine a greater feeling than the one I had as I watched that sister bear her beautiful testimony.
I sincerely hope that these experiences are not seen as any kind of positive reflection on my skills as a bishop. As I have stated many times, there is no credit due to me. All I did was sit in the office and meet with the people. The real work was by the other leaders in the ward and by following many of the programs put in place in our stake. Of course, I would not want to in any way detract from the deep gratitude I feel to the Lord for imparting a wonderful spirit on our ward members. It has been an amazing thing to watch as the spirit has worked on many of these individuals. These are remarkable young people. They are truly the greatest generation we have seen. As I have come to know each of these individuals very intimately, I have come to understand just how very strong and how very special they are to our Heavenly Father and our Savior. He wants them back. He wants them to enjoy all of the fruits of the gospel and he needs them to help others. It has been a true blessing for me to be a very small part of this.
A Former YSA Bishop