10 ways to enhance YSA leadership

This article appears as part of the article series “Inclusion, activity, and the Church.” All articles related to the series are included under the Church Inclusivity tag.

If I could write a letter to all YSA leaders….

This article contains thoughts that I and other young single adults (YSAs) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“the Church”) have had over the years. I record them because I recognize that people my age, especially those in YSA wards, are being presented with unique challenges that impact their church participation and experience.

These ten suggestions come from a place of love and sincerity, while also expressing a seriousness that is hopefully taken into account by those seeking to enhance their YSA leadership. While these observations may not reflect a truly academic survey of YSA attitudes, as one who has participated in several YSA wards over the course of nearly a decade, I have carefully considered these ten points that have impacted me or my fellow YSAs in the wards in which I have attended.

But first, I must recognize that I admire the work of YSA leaders and give credit to all that they do. Please view these suggestions as enhancements to what has already been done.

1. Please stop reminding us about dating and marriage.

This is an easy first suggestion. We already know about marriage. We’ve heard what the brethren say in General Conference. We’ve heard the doctrine of the family. We know the Church wants us to date and marry.

We know that YSA wards are set up, at least in part, to encourage dating and marriage. We are keenly aware of our own marital status. We don’t need reminders.

Never has an encouragement from a priesthood or stake leader actually resulted in a sincere awakening within me. Never have I heard a bishop say, “Come on brethren, go on dates,” and my reaction was, “Oh, I forgot to do that. Let me just pen that into my schedule along with my scripture study and church attendance.” Nope. If anything, my reaction and the reaction of many elders (at least elders out of college) is to ignore or resent this push.

I understand that there will be one, maybe two, maybe even three people in those meetings who feel strongly about that invitation and who glean benefit from it. But the remainder often feel marginalized, patronized, jaded, or disenfranchised by these invitations – especially if the invitations are constant or even mildly frequent.

On a similar front, dating and marriage advice are certainly welcomed by many, and of course we would expect church leaders to state the doctrine of the family and of exaltation without fear. But an overexertion of those principles will honestly push some away. And when providing advice, it’s worth noting that blanket statements do not capture the nuance of people’s dating lives, struggles, and personal circumstances. The order to date and marry will find people in different stages and different challenges. Please respect that nuance.

I would recommend consulting the elders quorum presidency of your ward if you want to address dating and marriage. The elders quorum president, as the other priesthood key holder in the ward, can help give context and nuance to the dating message, and can help shape said messaging to the elders. Likewise, the relief society president acts under delegation of keys and can help shape the messaging to the sisters. Her voice and the voices of her counselors should not be dismissed when approaching such an important – and often sensitive – topic.

2. Please treat us like the adults who we are.

If I could change one thing (and have it pass a branding test), I would change YSA to AYS. This way people would remember that we are adults first before we are young, and certainly before we are single. College-aged YSAs may feel like children, but even they deserve the respect of adult status.

The ward in which I live in mostly full of post-college, young professionals. They go to work and are treated like adults. They go to networking events and are treated like adults. Before the law, they are absolutely considered adults. Why then would they be viewed as children just because they are in a YSA ward?

I don’t think many leaders actually think YSAs are children, but it is reflected in their attitude. I am amazed at how differently people my age in YSA wards are treated with a juvenile air versus how their married counterparts are not treated this way in a family ward. Just because a person is single does not make her or him any less of an adult. I know enough young adults who are married who are more immature than their single counterparts. Marriage does not make one and adult; it merely changes their marital status, nothing more.

My favorite bishopric was hands off in their leadership style because they understood that we are adults and can handle responsibility like adults. I wish I could say their attitude in leadership is the norm, but it frankly does not appear to be the case – at least not in my experience.

3. Please mentor us, but without patronizing or condescending.

Going along with the previous suggestion, the task of mentoring individuals who are navigating a very important stage of life is imaginably not easy. I have always appreciated – and even encouraged – mentorship from YSA leaders in every ward in which I’ve lived. For me, it has led to a great deal of personal development and long-lasting friendships.

However, the mentorship role can have its downsides when the approach is patronizing or condescending. Many YSA leaders over the years have acted with an air of “you are young and know nothing; I am experienced and know everything.” Even if they openly say “I don’t know everything,” they can still reflect the condescension in their attitude.

I recall that one member of a YSA stake presidency was so egregious with this attitude that some of the more accomplished YSAs would tune him out or simply leave. What good does a leader do when that happens?

4. Please limit your criticisms of phone usage generally and during church specifically.

Constant attempts to control or terminate phone usage in church is off putting.

Anyone who grew up during the dawn of the smartphone era has heard it her or his whole life – phone use is destroying communication. My reaction is, OK, it is, but…. Meh. Phones are incredibly useful. Phones have made us the most connected generation in the world. Phones are here to stay, and any attempt to control them is either impractical or will result in disengagement.

The invitation to put phones away is not a terrible invitation. However, whenever leaders insist or call individuals out, it starts to feel very aggressive. I know a Millennial who was slapped in the face by an older Sunday School teacher for having a phone out. I’m sure that the teacher didn’t mean real harm, and maybe even felt justified in that kind of behavior. However, the result was damaging: this Millennial stopped going to Sunday School altogether and will not return until that teacher is released.

Similarly, I once had a YSA leader who insisted that our elders quorum be run like his board meetings – no access to phones or laptops.

I’m sorry, this is elders quorum, not a corporate board room.

Granted, I do believe the idea that interpersonal, face-to-face communication is hindered by the use of phones – and I’ve heard of studies that prove this. I try to regulate my own personal use if I sense it is hindering my communication. But even while the science gives us certainty and we can do well at self-regulating, the general culture does not appear to be stymied. And it’s not just the Millennials or Generation Z. Older adults are also culprits of cell phone overuse. It feels like an affront on our generation whenever someone suggests otherwise.

5. Please seek to understand generational differences and help us understand as well.

Phone usage is not the only point of generation friction. I don’t want to devote too much real estate on this topic, but I have come to realize in working with older generations that I cannot fully understand their generational context and they cannot fully understand mine. The world is changing so rapidly, and so many of those changes are good; many, of course, are not so good; and a large contingency of changes are neither good nor bad, but just different. When those neutral changes are characterized as bad changes, it begins to feel like an attack. This can be carefully avoided or mitigated by first seeking to understand the context of other generations.

6. Please do not bring political attitudes into the mix.

This suggestion may seem fickle but I actually approach it with a great degree of seriousness. In the past few years, the sociopolitical landscape has been shifting and it seems like people have melded political attitudes into every part of life. If we allow political attitudes to meld into our personal and religious behaviors, it can have some serious negative ramifications.

First, the buzz about politics is around us ALL THE TIME. Many wish to simply unplug from that world when they enter the religious realm. Wards should be a safe place where people will not feel politically pressured. Enough people are put off by politics in general – the last thing they want is to get it from a spiritual leader.

Second, research shows that the younger generations have shifting political values and attitudes than previous generations. Again, this can be good, bad, or neutral – but regardless, this shouldn’t become a part of religiosity. If anything, the pluralism may be very good for the Church.

Third, progressives within the church are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. They aren’t out to destroy the church. In fact, many are very nobly trying to make it better. Please do not assume that someone’s political attitudes make them a less faithful or less active member. Please do not try and prove to them why they are wrong based on your own understanding of doctrine and other gospel-related principles. Please refrain from comments about Democrats, progressives, centrists, or socialists that imply that members with sympathetic beliefs to these groups are in some form of spiritual danger. Also, in fairness, please do not box someone out because they are a conservative, Republican, or libertarian – or assume that they are some form of -ist because of this association. We can all abide in the kingdom of God.

7. Please be sensitive to gender issues.

My generation has seen some incredible progress in the equality of women and men, and it still has a long way to go. Women my age do not appreciate anything that suggests a lack of competency, social status, or capability based on the fact they are women. Many men my age (we’re getting there) dislike this as well.

What may have been nice and cute to say to or about women twenty years ago may today feel patriarchal. One comment to a woman I once heard from a YSA leader was “Wow! You throw that football really well!” It was meant as a harmless compliment, but the tone implied that a woman throwing a football well is a surprise. I can’t throw a football, and I’m a male. I’m pretty sure many women could play any sport better than me.

On another front, my generation has dealt with LGBTQ issues in a very different way than previous generations. At this point, likely all of us have a close friend who is LGBTQ or who has some level of same-sex attraction (or an attraction or lack of attraction that is different than the traditional heterosexual model). We see how church membership and gender identity conflict – we see how it causes pain for individuals and family, and how hard it is for someone to be open about identity and fully active in church.

In tandem with remaining apolitical, discussion of LGBTQ issues should be approached with an open heart and open mind, and leaders should be careful with the words they choose to say. Our generation is very sensitive personally, socially, spiritually, and politically to this issue. Remember that not every member is on the same page intellectually, personally, socially, politically, or spiritually when it comes to this issue.

8. Please do not demarcate members on the basis of missionary service.

Not all members, men or women, choose to serve missions. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – their lack of service does not mean they lack spirituality, commitment, or Christlike attributes. It does not and should not make them second class citizens in the church.

Any one who has served a mission should know that people made it out in the field who probably should not have been out – and the reasons are numerous, including family circumstance, physical health, mental or emotional health, behavioral issues, testimony concerns, financial instability, and so forth.

From my service, I learned that RM status does not mean a returned missionary is more like Christ than someone who chose to stay. And while I love my experiences from my white-shirted two years, I have come to recognize that not everyone is fit for a mission, or a mission fit for everyone.

At a YSA stake conference, the attending local mission president asked that all returned missionaries in the congregation stand. While I am proud of my service, it did feel awkward to stand and be recognized, knowing that many faithful members who did not serve were looking uncomfortably at the floor. I later learned that one of the institute teachers had brought a less active son who did not serve a mission, and that this experience was a point of real discomfort for the entire family.

We can encourage mission service to those eligible without alienating those who have not, cannot, or will not serve.

9. Please love us for who we are.

The crowning point, really, is that we feel love from our leaders. Whether we are a fully active, straight, male returned missionary or some other variety of member, please love us. Respect us. Engage with us. Connect with us. Find joy in the diversity. While a “unity of faith” may drive us to want everyone to act the same way in church participation, when dealing with people of all types, that is practically impossible anyway. Choosing to love people for who they are, where they are at in life, and how they express themselves spiritually is truly key to helping YSAs navigate the challenges of being twenty-somethings in the 21st century.

And from my experience, in doing so, we will love and respect you back. We’ll forgive you for saying something mildly insensitive. We’ll open up to you and serve more faithfully in the ward.

I had one YSA leader who felt rather condescending when he first entered his role. But it became apparent (and in his final testimony in the ward he later admitted) that he had a change of heart early on when he realized that trusting us, respecting us, and loving us was the way to go – not instructing us, directing us, and fixing us. He ended up being loved by even the most critical members of that ward.

I must say that this, of all the suggestions, is the one that I feel leaders do best. I have had some amazing leaders who have embraced the ward members, taken us into their homes when in need, and spiritually uplifted us.

10. Please continue being the great examples that you are.

My final point is to reassure YSA leaders that your YSA members do look up to you, appreciate the time you put into your callings, and value the friendship we share with leaders and their spouses. The way you conduct yourselves, your family lives, your marriages, your professions, and your testimonies are inspirational in their own ways and can help YSA members through some of the most intense years of their lives. We look forward to working with you (and your spouses) and desire that you be yourselves so we can learn from each other.

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