Significant disagreement persists about the wisdom of singles wards. Some view them as the solution to the problem of so many YSA members falling away from the church, while others view YSA wards as the cause of it. The purpose of this essay is to explore whether, when and why stakes should create YSA wards or branches, and when it is best to ask YSA members to attend their geographic wards.
The issues that affect this decision include: 1) Potential for reactivation: Is one type of ward more able than the other to bring inactive YSA members back into full fellowship? 2) Leadership development: Does one type of ward offer more and better opportunities for developing the leadership abilities of YSA members? 3) Does one structure increase the probability that YSA members will marry in the temple, compared to the other; and 3) Critical mass: What is the minimum number of YSA members that must live within a reasonable commuting distance of the chapel in which the YSA unit meetings would be held?
The evidence suggests that whenever possible, stakes should strive to create YSA units. While there are trade-offs, in general YSA wards are a better structure than geographic wards for imcreasing the faithfulness and leadership capacities of more of our young single adults, and for helping more of them find faithful spouses whom they can marry in the temple. 1
Fairly or unfairly, many view the purpose of YSA wards as to “meet, mingle and marry.” This reputation and culture attracts socially confident YSA members. But that culture can intimidate and turn away the very members who are falling away from the Church — who often lack social confidence, or who at that point in their lives don’t share the desire to marry. If we ensure that the purpose of our YSA wards is known by all as providing all YSA members unique opportunities for leadership and service in the Kingdom — as places where they will come to love the Lord and love serving Him, we will attract more YSA members into full activity. And more of them will marry.
The reason why such divergent feelings about singles wards exist among leaders of the church, I believe, is that the distinction of singles-vs.-geographic wards is the wrong way to categorize wards. Some of both types are great organizations, and some of both types are spiritually unproductive. The strengths and pathologies of wards become much clearer when we categorize them as self-focused vs. others-focused.
There is a particular sort of ward in which members have an eye single to the glory of God — whose glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of all men & women, not just those who actively attend the ward (Moses 1:39). These wards focus on helping the weak become strong — on missionary, reactivation, & temple work. The members systematically are losing their lives for the sake of the Savior (Mark 8:35). These wards are filled with light (D&C 88:67), because the collective eye of the members is focused on the glory of God. You can feel it when you walk in the chapel. There are some singles wards like this, and some married wards like this. I will call this category “Others-focused wards.”
Members of such wards love belonging to those wards. Their treasure comprises the weak whom they’ve made strong — and where their treasure is, there is their heart also (Matt. 6:21). As a result, when their leases expire or when they lose employment, members of these wards typically do all that they can to stay in the ward, not flee from it.
There is another category of wards, however, where the focus of the members is on themselves; on seeking their own happiness. There’s much less focus in these wards on the immortality and eternal life of those who are not attending church. These are “self-focused wards,” in which members’ attentions are focused on those who are at church. Strengthening the strong, rather than the weak, is the de facto priority of the strong; and a common reason for going to church is to see the people who are there. Many singles wards are self-focused; but there are many married wards that have this culture, too. Members of these wards readily change wards because their treasure is themselves; and if there’s more for themselves in another ward, they just move there.
Typically configured singles wards can easily become self-focused. There are fewer callings in which to lose your life — no Primary, no YM/YW. And because of the church’s “opt-in” policy, there historically have been relatively few inactive members. Members develop an eye single to their appearance, their happiness (or lack thereof), and their careers. They go to church to meet people who might make them happy. And if one ward doesn’ t meet their needs, they try another. There is a proclivity for singles wards to be self-focused. But YSA wards need not and should not be self-focused wards; and many are not.
The reason why some of the Senior Brethren dislike singles wards is that they’ve seen self-focused singles wards. The reason why other of the Senior Brethren like singles wards is that they’ve seen others-focused singles wards. They have seen in others-focused singles wards places where the next generation of leaders can experience extraordinary growth and emerged prepared for a life of committed service in building the Kingdom of God. In the interviews that yielded many of the conclusions in this paper, many YSA members referred to the rare singles ward bishop who “got it.” In each case, “got it” meant structuring a ward to be others-focused, where everyone had significant responsibility, working together, to make a difference in others’ lives.
Those leaders of geographic wards who are responsible for the spiritual health of YSA members generally know of their responsibility for YSA members. But in general they do not feel it. This seems true in nearly all geographic wards, whether there is a singles ward in their particular stake or not.
A portion of our motivation to magnify our callings is intrinsic: the commitment comes from within. Another element of motivation, however, is extrinsic: pressure that is applied to us by the environment in which we work. Our YM and YW leaders feel responsible for the youth partially because they work in a system that extrinsically imposes that feeling upon them: Their weekly activities and lessons will flop unless they prepare and get enough kids there. Troubled marriages, unemployment and welfare problems land on the bishop’s doorstep weekly, so he feels responsibility to help those members. Compassionate service problems grab the attention of Relief Society presidents. Elders quorum leaders feel pressure to recruit men to load and unload trucks with members’ furniture — or they’ll have to do it themselves. These things get done remarkably well. Part of the motivation is intrinsic. But there are also extrinsic mechanisms that cause these leaders to feel this responsibility: Extrinsic motivation, coupled with the intrinsic, results in action.
In contrast, the leaders of our geographic wards typically do not feel responsible for YSA members, even though they know that they are. When YSA members decide to opt out of the Church, they simply stop showing up — and most leaders in geographic wards feel nothing. This is exacerbated by the mobility of YSA members. When they’re absent from church, does it mean that they moved, are visiting another ward, went back to school, inadvertently slept in, or decided to stop attending? Giving leaders lists of inactive YSA members and reminding them that they are responsible can inform leaders of their stewardship. But information does not provide extrinsic motivation. We may wish that haranguing leaders to “prioritize” YSA reactivation over other things would do the trick. But it doesn’t. There are simply too many wheels squeaking for grease. The inability of geographic ward leaders to focus on single adults is a key reason why so many of our YSA members aren’t actively attending church and living the gospel.
The Church’s membership records policy for singles units exacerbates this problem: It requires YSAs who choose to attend a YSA ward or branch to opt in: they must ask for their records to be transferred into the singles unit. This constitutes a de facto policy of allowing most of the YSAs who do not opt into the singles ward to opt out of the Church unnoticed.
A friend in the Salt Lake Central Stake presidency sent the following chart. It shows that well over 90% of members living in the stake’s boundaries who have “opted in” to membership in a University of Utah singles ward are active (the blue bars). And over 95% of the YSA members whose membership records are in the resident, geographic wards (the red bars) are inactive. The current “opt-in” membership policy has the very undesirable effect of giving the active members in the singles units no visibility, and no sense of stewardship, for the inactive YSA members of their stake whose records overwhelmingly are in the geographic wards. And the leaders of the geographic wards feel little stewardship responsibility for the inactive singles, either — for reasons noted above.
In addition to the limits that keep leaders in geographic wards from focusing on the activity and growth of YSA members, geographic wards also tend to give much more limited leadership training and experience than YSA wards offer. The week before young men return from a mission, for example, most would be considered fully capable of serving very successfully as an Elders Quorum president. After they arrive home in their geographic ward, however, they are rarely considered as candidates for such a calling — because there typically are many more men in the ward with more experience. A YSA unit, in contrast, offers many more leadership opportunities. This is especially true if the YSA unit organizes around a council system, as described elsewhere on this website.
Most leaders who preside over stakes without singles units haven’t organized one because they see that there are at best two dozen people at a typical stake singles activity — and 75% of those are women. Hence, leaders conclude that their stake just doesn’t have a critical mass of active YSAs to create a singles unit — and that they especially lack enough worthy men to provide the needed priesthood leadership.
I would like to suggest, however, that this isn’t the way the Savior would define “critical mass.” In his parable, the Savior said that good shepherds (Matthew 18:11-14) don’t obsess with the mass of sheep that come into the fold. Their instinct is to focus on those that have not come into the fold — even if it is only one. There certainly is in most stakes a critical mass of inactive YSAs — typically several hundred of them. There especially is a critical mass of the YSA men who need to become active, in order for the women to have an opportunity to marry a faithful man in the temple. If stake leaders feel they can’t organize a YSA unit until they have a critical mass in the fold, then the much larger critical mass outside the fold won’t get reached — leaving us ensnared in a trap of Satan’s design.
How can we extricate ourselves from this trap? The key is to think of creating a singles unit as a staged process, not a discrete event. Specifically, the first step is to declare one ward in the stake to be the “YSA magnet ward.” Under the stake president’s direction, each active YSA member should be extended a calling to join the YSA group in this ward, and to have his or her membership records transferred into the magnet ward. The YSA group in that ward would be led by a married priesthood leader, who is also called to be either a special assistant to the bishop, or a counselor in that geographic ward’s bishopric. From day one the YSA group should have its own Relief Society, Elders Group, and Sunday School, each with its own officers. Selected inactive YSA members’ records should also be transferred into the YSA magnet ward, and its YSA Relief Society and Elders Group should formulate plans to bring them back into full activity.
Their guiding principle in these reactivation efforts must be the Savior’s teaching in Mark 8:35: “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s the same shall find it.” In other words, few inactive members will be attracted to and become cemented in the church through the allure of social activities: The world offers stiff competition for this attraction. Rather, the enticement should be the need of inactive YSA members to be needed, in service. The more frequently our leaders are able to say things like this, the more inactive men and women will return to the church: “I know you aren’t active, drink occasionally, and don’t pay your tithing. But I don’t care. We need someone who can teach our Sunday School class, and you’re all we’ve got.” 3
When attendance at the YSA group in the stake’s magnet ward becomes sufficient, it should begin holding its own sacrament meetings; then be organized into a YSA branch, and then a YSA ward. This is why we assert that the creation of a YSA unit that can effectively pull dozens and hundreds of inactive YSA members into activity is a process, not an event There are stakes that are so geographically dispersed that YSA units are not feasible. Most stakes have such an abundance of inactive YSA members and non-members that they can and should follow a process such as this.
In the Boston area, for example, in the year 2004 there were 3 YSA wards — each of which met in the Longfellow Park chapel of the Cambridge Stake, near Harvard Square. That year the leaders of the Nashua NH Stake, which covers the northern suburbs of Boston, decided to create the Heritage Park YSA Ward, meeting in the Lowell MA chapel. About 15 YSA members of the Nashua Stake had been travelling to the Cambridge YSA wards; and another 20 attended the stake’s geographic wards. There were more than 500 inactive YSA members on the stake’s rolls. The Nashua Stake leaders called each of their active YSA members to attend the Heritage Park Ward. A few opted out, preferring to keep their membership in their geographic wards. But most accepted, so the ward started with attendance of about 30 members. Bishops in the stake then began transferring records of inactive YSA members, a few at a time, into the Heritage Park Ward. Within five years attendance in that ward has grown so that on some Sundays more than 100 YSA members are in sacrament meeting.
The Hingham, MA Stake, which encompasses the southern suburbs of Boston, was in a similar situation, with a dozen or so active YSAs who journeyed to the Cambridge YSA wards each Sunday, and another 20 who attended their geographic wards. In 2007 stake leaders designated the Franklin Ward of that stake as the YSA magnet ward; called their active YSA members to begin attending there; and set up a YSA group with its own Relief Society and Elders group. Bishops in the stake then fed the membership records of selected inactive YSA members into this group — and that small core of active YSA members went to work. Within two years attendance in the YSA group had grown to about 60, sufficient to organize a free-standing branch.
While this was happening, attendance in the Longfellow Park wards had grown sufficiently to create a fourth ward there — meaning that the number of YSA members actively attending church in the Boston area increased by about 75% in five years.
In 2008-09 I served as a member of a YSA task force at church headquarters. In the course of our work, it was determined through an extensive survey that the probability of a YSA member marrying in the temple is significantly higher, if that member lives in a stake in which there is a YSA ward. (It would not be appropriate to disclose the specific numbers).
YSA units offer the potential for a great work of reactivation, leadership training, and the initiation of more new eternal families to be wrought in the church. These miracles do not happen automatically, of course. Stake and ward leaders must pay careful attention to creating an others-focused culture in YSA wards — a culture within which less active and active members alike can be taught how to lead, and be made to feel needed. But if they will do so, these units hold the promise of doing great good for this critical group of God’s children.
1. Past guidance from church handbooks and from many leaders at church headquarters was that generally YSA members’ needs are best met in geographic wards. The new handbook views creation of YSA units much more favorably.
2. This requires reversing the present policy so that the default location for YSA members’ records is the YSA ward. YSA members who wanted to attend their geographic ward would opt out of the singles unit, into their geographic ward. The new handbook, at least in its present form at the time of this writing, will explicitly allow this. Until then, we encourage leaders to change this opt-in policy. Not all YSA records ought to be shoveled into YSA wards. But those less-active YSAs that are judged to be candidates for reactivation certainly should have their membership records shifted to YSA wards, when one exists in the stake.
3. Some leaders in the church have concluded that members who are not fully active and worthy cannot serve in callings such as these. This is not true. Examples of what has happened when inactive members who are not yet worthy and committed to the gospel have accepted callings, and who became fully active through the process of fulfilling those callings, can be obtained from the author by emailing the site administrator.