I participate, mostly reluctantly, in an LDS mid-singles ward. For those of you who don't know, this is a ward made up primarily of 31-45 year olds, though there are several people who fail to leave once they hit the older age limit. I have a great many issues with the ward and with LDS singles life in general, but I want to address one huge mistake that we make towards our singles.
Ostensibly, the Church provides singles' wards so that we have an opportunity to meet more people with our marital status in the hopes that we will change that status in the near future. To this end, they plan endless activities, generally centered around entertainment, movie watching, sports, and dancing. With the younger, college-age singles, this model works rather well, as far as any model could be said to "work."
But as the biological clocks tick upwards, things start to change. Young single adults—immersed in the college life, relatively transient and portable, building nascent careers—though busy, simply have more time and inclination to play. They can much more easily drop everything to go to an hour-long volleyball activity. But when adults reach their early thirties, their careers are more set. Many have purchased houses, have children or aging parents to care for. They have responsibilities that can't just be set aside for an hour or two. They aren't growing up anymore, they're already there. Most of them, anyways.
But despite the changing demographic, the structure of the singles' ward doesn't change. It has no Primary for children, is only loosely tied into the family-centric stake. It spans huge tracts of geography in most places, requiring increased travel time. The wards in my area, despite spanning considerable geography for the area, have minimum—MINIMUM—six hundred actively participating members. The ward still schedules multitudes of entertainment-related activities and little else, things that are designed mostly to take up time in the company of other singles. And while this works for some mid-single adults, those who have more in their life than just looking for an eternal companion are left feeling infantilized and increasingly marginalized. Most of these eventually fade into family wards or out of Church activity, and withdraw from the LDS singles scene altogether, making the whole concept of "broken singles" a self-writing formula.
With the structure of the ward skewed almost completely towards those mid-singles with lives that more or less still mirror the lives of the younger single adults, everyone can scent a pervading odor of "what are you doing wrong, that you're not married yet?" Surely, seems to be the thought, if we are still hanging around, looking for THE ONE, there is something that we're doing wrong that all those married people in our age group did right. And this spawns another type of activity: the self-help. (Which, by the way, makes those singles with healthy self-confidence, something that certainly helps them get out and date, feel even more marginalized and uncomfortable, eventually driving them even further away.)
Even for those midsingles who are trying to be positive, and participate in this flawed structure in an effort to support their leaders and make a good-faith effort to search for an eternal companion, they walk into a room packed to the hilt with chattering people. Imagine being a new potential member, either because you just turned 31 or because you are freshly divorced, walking into a stake center gym, filled wall to wall with people. Some of the friendlier and more aware members MIGHT notice you in the general sea of new people, and they MIGHT have a chance to introduce themselves, but the chances of finding them in the mass next week (or in two weeks, if you have children with a shared parent-time schedule) is very slim.
If you are the slightest bit shy, this intimidating set-up drives you to walk in a bubble of your own. If you are gregarious enough, you find yourself immersed in a week-to-week nightmare of meeting people who may or may not be there next time you come. And if you do meet someone you recognize, the noise from hundreds of slightly tense voices makes it almost impossible to actually carry on a conversation. You are constantly in the position of knowing little to nothing about the people you speak with. If you are stalwart enough to survive several months, you might finally start to recognize faces and names in 6 months to a year.
Then, you get to hear constantly about how you need to be more friendly and outgoing, how you need to ask girls out on dates, or how you can make yourself seem approachable to BE asked out. All while desperately dog-paddling to stay afloat in this social tempest. But you're not supposed to only be going to Church TO meet people, of course. You should be going because it's Church. You should be home- and visit-teaching. You should be fulfilling one of the many callings created specifically for singles wards (e.g. Assistant Friday Night Activity Chairperson,) and if you're not called you should volunteer.
It's chaotic, off-putting, and nightmarish at the best of times, full of conflicting directives and accompanied by confusing maelstrom of entertainment activities primarily scheduled for 7 p.m. on weekdays (and if you have to get up early for work the next morning, too bad. If you have kids, forget about it.) The entire culture is inimical to people with non-voluntary responsibility.
I believe the way we structure our mid-singles wards not only fails to provide the primary service—to get to know other singles our age in the hopes of meeting one we could marry—by skewing its demographics towards those who are of a very specific lifestyle, but also because of the noisy, tightly packed rooms and general chaos, struggles in providing a place to worship our God.
In my opinion, as much as some singles protest, we mid-singles would be much better served by being allowed to serve: by integrating into the structure of normal wards and stakes. Let us get our heads out of what we're missing, and start to focus on what we can give.
Much like the efforts in California, Virginia, and other places across the north American continent, it is possible to create focus wards in each stake or group of stakes, depending on the concentration of mid-singles. Then, in order to mix things up a bit, organize robust service-oriented activities alongside the entertainment-oriented ones. Or if that fails, at least break up the current mega-wards into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Tailor each singles solution to the geography. ASK us what we need. LISTEN to us as adults. We are as varied as singles as you are as marrieds. Recognize the reality that many of us have children, and have been married before. Provide Primary. Recognize that many of those of us who have not been previously married still often have homes, careers, and other responsibilities like those of married couples.
Those of us without children or pressing outside responsibilities have a singular opportunity to serve in the Kingdom of God, to support families. Perhaps we can provide babysitting occasionally. Perhaps we can serve young men and women in ways that those who are married with families find burdensome. We have the time, if we are willing to give it, to assist in many of the more time-consuming ward and stake positions that take fathers and mothers away from their families.
Let us serve. Recognize that we are adults, and not overgrown and fundamentally flawed children simply because we have not found a companion in this life. Stop thinking that there is some Magic Formula of Marriage that YOU got and WE did not. Marriage is far more complicated than simply finding someone willing to marry us. Realize that you are blessed for finding someone dedicated to the marriage and to the Lord, and that some of us have not through no fault of our own.
Realize that we are just like you. USE us in the Kingdom. Because you aren't using us now...and you are losing us.