Singles Programs—What Makes Them Work?
Elizabeth VanDenBerghe, “Singles Programs—What Makes Them Work?,” Ensign, Apr 1991, 32
Single Latter-day Saints everywhere seek opportunities to be with other singles who share their values.
Participating in the Paris France Stake Single Adult program means looking forward to fast Sunday firesides that draw single Latter-day Saints together from throughout the city to worship, socialize, and break their fasts with friends.
In the Southport Ward, Liverpool England Stake, being single means receiving a phone call from one of twelve or so other singles in the ward for an impromptu gathering to play board games, help move a family in the ward, or just talk and socialize.
Attending the Narragansett Young Single Adult Ward of the Providence Rhode Island Stake means getting to know members of a coast guard, navy, and submarine school, as well as college students and native New Englanders.
From responses to questions posed by the Ensign to members throughout the world, being a single Latter-day Saint anywhere means valuing the opportunity to be with other singles with common values. But planning activities for such a vastly diverse group—one that includes parents, college students, the elderly, and professionals in many fields—can pose a challenge.
All singles leaders want to help meet the spiritual, social, and emotional needs of singles. But doing so calls for more than a well-planned activity agenda. Successful singles programs require inspiration, an awareness of the circumstances of the participants, and, above all, the help of supportive priesthood leaders. When these elements come together, they result in diverse, service-oriented programs that give credence to the comment of Japan’s Kaori Sasaki: “For single Latter-day Saints, the Single Adult and Young Single Adult programs are big gifts from Heavenly Father.”
Meeting Spiritual Needs
Kaori hadn’t always been so optimistic about the singles program in her native Tokyo. As a Single Adult representative in the Kawagoe Ward, Tokyo Japan North Stake, she recalls that “one year ago, we only had three to five attending our singles program. Few people responded to our calls, and it seemed that getting together was too much of a sacrifice for everyone.” In a country where long hours at work and on commuter trains dampen enthusiasm for activities not viewed as vital, “we had a challenge.”
Rather than continue holding activities with disappointing turnouts, the active singles in Kaori’s ward began praying about improving the program. They came up with missionary activities that involved investigators, the less-active, and other friends. “Since then,” says Kaori, “we are to the point that new converts and returning members now participate in Single Adults. A gospel-centered approach was our answer.”
The same answer came to single adults in the Chiba Ward, Tokyo Japan East Stake, who, according to Bishop Toshikazu Suzuki, were discouraged with the program and looking for ways to make activities more meaningful. They turned to “Book of Mormon reading programs, dramas put on for members of other faiths, and testimony-sharing in the singles newsletter”—all of which have invigorated the program and “resulted in an outpouring of the Spirit.”
Douglas Clark has come to similar conclusions in a very different circumstance. He serves as elders quorum president in the Langley Ward, McLean Virginia Stake, one of several singles wards in the Washington, D.C., area. The ward has about two hundred members and easily draws about one hundred to its various activities. But, according to Doug, “It’s dangerous to measure the success of an activity by attendance,” because numbers alone can’t ensure that spiritual needs are met.
Doug has found that activities “don’t have to be all things to all people.” In his ward, informal volunteer projects, book groups, and special interest groups have created close bonds that are sometimes lacking in larger activities. In fostering meaningful activities, the singles ward “develops a lot of Christlike attributes in people,” Doug finds, “as does any ward when people become genuinely concerned with others.”
Mahi Gilbert, a Relief Society leader in the newly formed Pencarrow Singles Branch, Upper Hutt New Zealand Stake, has found that through gospel-oriented activities, “sisters come from being less active to being strong leaders in the branch.” Pencarrow Branch activities aren’t always planned ahead of time, but they do meet spiritual needs. “Once one of our girls who had moved away to school was going through a rough time,” Mahi explains. So fourteen members of the ward bought some flowers and chocolates, took a two-and-one-half-hour drive, and visited their friend. “Not only did we feel the joy of serving,” says Mahi, “but she felt the love we have for her. That’s a successful activity.”
Meeting social needs is sometimes more complicated than meeting spiritual needs. Sharon Charker, Single Adult leader for the Newcastle Australia Stake, has a lot to consider when planning activities for the almost fifty participating singles in her stake. Most are women, many are single parents, and they live in an enormous geographic area. But despite the obstacles involved, members of the Single Adult program, says Sharon, “want to socialize with a larger group and have the opportunity to look for a companion.” As a result, regional activities held in Sydney have been very successful. Local activities such as bushdancing—Australian folk dancing—held at bushbarns bring together a large number of participants who enjoy associating with each other.
Regional activities are sometimes the only way to bring together groups of singles, according to Claire Gilchrist. Participants “always express soul-felt gratitude for the opportunity to mingle with like-minded LDS singles,” Claire observes.
In the Atlanta, Georgia, area, five stakes rely on each other for activities and conferences because the individual stakes don’t have enough participants to function on their own. “People will drive a long way to be with and meet other singles,” says Nancy Kennedy of the Roswell Georgia Stake Single Adult program.
Weekend conferences that feature speakers, workshops, service projects, and testimony meetings are always popular, but they are undergoing changes under the new budget program. Stakes in some areas have found creative ways to hold conferences while staying within budgetary constraints. The Montreal stake Single Adults, for example, sponsored a 1990 summer conference in Sharon, Vermont, the birthplace of Joseph Smith, and invited singles from Ottawa and Vermont to join for a weekend of seminars, historical tours, and outdoor recreation. “By making it a camping affair and foregoing expensive meals and activities,” reports chairman John D’Angelo, “we haven’t required a lot of expense on the part of the stake or the participants.”
In western Europe, reports Laurent Bouin, “Single members from France, Belgium, and Switzerland meet for regional activities that include theater, photo workshops, dances, talent shows, a choir, recreation, and firesides. These conferences are always very much appreciated—they alleviate feelings of alienation that singles sometimes feel in areas with few other single members.”
Involving Others and Serving the Community
Feelings of alienation are also relieved when programs provide meaningful ways to serve.
The Honolulu Hawaii Stake Single Adults spent a day cleaning the Honolulu Zoo. Thirty of them raked leaves, planted grass, and cleaned out cages. “Reaching out to the community and the less active invigorates the program,” observe Wade Wasano and Mary Hudgins, chairman and vice chairman of the program. Every year the group holds a Thanksgiving dinner and encourages ward singles leaders to personally invite the less active and to provide rides for the elderly.
Reed Markham of the Glendora Sixth Ward, Glendora California Stake, says that “our singles ward’s contribution to missionary work, stake programs, and community service is truly significant.”
That service has included a ward-sponsored community service scavenger hunt, plays produced for the community, and many activities that help ward members to feel needed and grow spiritually.
For Maija McClean, a Single Adult representative in the Hingham Ward, Hingham Massachusetts Stake, simpler service projects work better. “With so many demands on their time, the singles in my ward consider single activities ‘extras,’ ” she says. “As a result, activities like taking the Merrie Miss class ice-skating and making May baskets for the elderly don’t require an extensive time commitment and seem worth the effort to most of us.”
Involving the less active, busy single parents, and the elderly requires the same awareness of circumstances and needs. Maija finds that personal contact is the key. “I always try to call and chat when I invite people out, and one of our few male singles has also helped provide rides for some who don’t normally come.” Reed Markham in California adds, “Our ward involves the less active by making activities nonthreatening and maintaining a very open, friendly attitude.” In Hong Kong, Caroline Kwok reports that “the Single Adults in my ward have carried out a successful missionary and activation program that includes training and workshops.”
In trying to make activities comfortable for single parents, the Dundee Scotland Stake Single Adult program, says chairman Daryl Watson, “holds firesides at which children are not only welcome but doted upon by the rest of us.” Most singles leaders also try to include single parents by making sure that baby-sitters are available for adult activities, by keeping costs down, and by planning family outings in which children can participate.
In Honolulu, making sure the elderly get involved means planning activities with their needs in mind. “For a New Year’s dinner, dance, and concert, for example,” write Wade Wasano and Mary Hudgins, “the stake subsidized tickets for some of the elderly. And if they didn’t wish to dance, they could watch the talent portion of the program.”
In Valerie Connors’s small Single Adult group in the Kentville Ward, Dartmouth Nova Scotia Stake, their nucleus group of approximately twelve people made one elderly sister feel so welcome that “when she was discharged from the hospital,” says Valerie, “she went directly to an outdoor singles function instead of going home.”
“Too often,” says Laurent Bouin of the Paris France Stake Single Adult program, “feelings of loneliness can overcome singles” to the point that some leave the Church. “That’s why singles programs need to exist—so that we can help each other overcome these painful and destabilizing feelings, no matter what circumstance we are in.”
Support from Leaders: The Vital Key
But singles leaders can’t do it alone. Virtually every successful program depends upon supportive stake presidencies, bishoprics, ward Melchizedek Priesthood leaders, Relief Society leaders, and advocate married couples to help ensure that activities meet needs.
Hands-on involvement is what Claire Gilchrist says makes the difference. “One stake president I know of is always attending singles activities and mingling wholeheartedly.” She contrasts his involvement with that of some leaders who have a tendency “to zip into a meeting for a brief talk and then zip right back out again without even sitting down.”
Nancy Kennedy of the Roswell Georgia Stake Single Adult group observes that Relief Society leaders furnish baby-sitters for the singles’ Sunday potluck dinners and firesides. “Each ward in the stake takes turns sending a couple to baby-sit for us, and people in general accept and help us 100 percent,” she says.
In the Liverpool Manchester England Stake, reports Liesl Fullwood, “Leaders offer their time, their transport, their homes—everything. We recently had a regional convention up in the Lake District, and our local leaders traveled a long way to see us, speak to us, and get to know us personally.”
By contrast, another singles leader laments, “I have been almost totally alone in this calling, with no communication from leaders of any kind. Early in my calling I frequently submitted well-prepared issues regarding singles in ward council meeting—ideas continually put off until no one ever considered them. A counselor in the bishopric commented that the singles program ran so smoothly that leaders wanted to ‘leave well enough alone.’ I appreciate the compliment, but would rather the leaders get involved.”
Not only lack of involvement, but lack of understanding about what it’s like to be single can hamper leaders’ attempts to help. Says another singles leader, “It’s difficult to educate leaders about how it feels—they never get a glimpse of what being single is like unless they lose their own spouse. As a result, our leadership vacillates between puzzlement as to what to do for us and impatience that we’re still single.”
Single Adult advisers—married couples called to work with ward and stake singles—often help in these situations. Says Joan Gallagher, a ward Single Adult representative in the Lakeridge (Utah) Fourth Ward, “Our advisers made sure single sisters in the ward were taken care of, even ensuring that we received home teaching visits.” Another adult couple, says Susan Maule, ward Single Adult representative in the Redwood City First Ward, Menlo Park California Stake, “fostered a feeling of caring, understanding, and acceptance in the ward. They even supplied us with their house for retreats and activities.”
Frustrations for singles are often alleviated by caring singles leaders themselves, whose dedication to the program means sacrifice and commitment. “When I was called to be a singles leader, I not only did not want to be single, but as the newly divorced mother of five small children, did not want more responsibility,” says Joan Gallagher. “But creating the beginnings of a successful singles program has been gratifying.”
Mark Magee, elders quorum president of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Second Young Single Adult Ward, believes that “a Young Single Adult ward concept is truly inspired of God. It gives everybody an opportunity to serve in callings they probably would never have had in their home ward. And in return for serving in a YSA ward, I have grown in my own life as well as helping shepherd many Young Single Adults through very rough waters.”
Sharon Charker says, “The greatest blessings I’ve had in participating and leading in the Single Adult program are the bonds of friendship I’ve formed from meeting with other singles. This bond has provided me with the strength to continue through life’s challenges, knowing that being single is not a state to be ashamed of, and certainly not a barrier to spiritual progression.”
For those who capture the vision, not only are the Single Adult and Young Single Adult programs big gifts from Heavenly Father, they are powerful ways to serve and grow in the gospel.