Challenging Authority, Redefining Leadership: Trusting Your Own Authentic Power

By Jenny

In my last two posts I have been talking about authority and leadership, and the vital need we have to challenge and redefine our current understanding of these things in order for feminist theology to develop and thrive within the church.  In my first post I wrote about my own experience challenging authority and how that opened me up to understanding and claiming feminist theology.  In my last post I proposed a redefinition of leadership by changing our thinking of authority as something that is based on external positions of power, to something that is internally developed.

I realize that that is not where we are at yet in the world or in the church.  It is human nature to look for external authority because it’s often easier to place trust there than to trust in our own internal authority.  Some of that is the conditioning of our culture.  When you are taught your whole life to trust in the prophet, your trust in external authority is going to smother your ability to trust in your own authority.  This is perhaps especially oppressive to a woman’s trust in her internal authority, as she has no potential of ever obtaining the external authority that men can possess within the power structure of the church.  Also, because the world does not yet fully value authentically empowered people, it’s easy to get caught up in the ladder climbing to receive external power.

When I began to develop my own internal authority to question the external authority of church leaders, I lost all of my external power within my faith community.  It was hard to walk away from my own need to climb ladders toward external power.  As a member of the young women’s presidency and primary presidency I had felt like I had power within my faith community, even though my power only reached as far as I was willing to comply with social norms.  When I was publicly shamed and released from my calling, it became clear to everyone around me that I was a disempowered person.  Seeing my disempowerment, many people took it upon themselves to counsel me and call me to repentance.

I found this behavior of others odd, especially in light of the fact that losing my external power actually empowered me in a way I couldn’t have imagined.  For the first time in my adult life, I was making decisions that align perfectly with who I am.  I felt my power as a woman who no longer needed to acquiesce to certain social rules, seek authoritative acceptance from “leadership”, or fit into a narrow role that Mormon culture had cut out for me.  There is little value for that kind of empowerment within the current church because of the emphasis placed on external leadership and authority which requires people to follow certain social rules.  There is also a greater emphasis placed on people having authority over other people, rather than individuals developing internal authority.  It’s what makes Mormons feel like they are a chosen people of God with authority to declare the truth to everyone.  It’s what makes people think they can counsel their neighbors.  It’s what makes a bishop think that he can determine the worthiness of an individual he knows nothing about.  It’s the reason why any thought becomes more authoritative if it stems from a scripture or “general authority.”

This isn’t exclusive to Mormon culture.  It’s human nature.  It’s the reason people quote studies or authoritative voices on subjects they are debating.  External authority feels powerful.  Somehow it feels more powerful than your own ability to take in information and decide for yourself.  It’s easier to take the information produced by an authoritative voice and make it somehow fit and feel right even if it isn’t, than to stand up and say, “No that’s wrong.”  I have seen conservative politicians lately squirming when they are asked whether they support the Republican nomination.  They use circuitous language to get around the question, yet they won’t come right out and say what they really think and feel.

I’ve heard people take sexist, bigoted, racist quotes or actions made by general authorities in the church, and make it feel okay to them rather than looking inward to their own authority to determine its rightness or wrongness.  Right after the policy regarding children of gay couples came out, I had friends posting on social media about it, saying no way it could be true.  The church would never have such an awful policy.  Only hours later, these same friends were defending it saying, there must be a reason for it.

I see the pain that comes from that, especially when it involves someone’s personal life.  Lately I have felt the pain of many women who, after an intense inner battle, chose to get divorced rather than to live as slaves to an unhappy marriage for the rest of their lives.  I have felt their agony, even after they listened to their own authoritative inner voice and made a brave choice, as they continue to try to fit the authority of “leaders” into their lives and their decision.  They should be feeling incredibly empowered, but instead they feel weak, sinful, and lost.  Some have been given horrendous counsel that stamped out any trust they had in themselves.

I don’t believe that we are living up to our full potential as humans when we place the counsel of others above our own inner feelings.  We are especially limited in our capacity for greatness when we accept arbitrary hierarchies of leadership for authority.  That isn’t to say that it isn’t valuable to share experiences and to learn from people around us and people who have gone before us.  That’s a very different thing.  We can even learn from people who are in external positions of power, or from books that are considered the authority on a matter.  The problem lies in seeing those things as an authority greater than our own.

“…we must be willing, for the sake of others and the children who come after us, to examine how we view the world.  To think about what we have learned from all those around us and who came before us, and see if it is really helpful…And if we discover that a worldview does not work—if it does not help people, if it does not really bring real happiness to people—then we must have the courage to stop following it, to correct it, and not blindly pass on to our children something which will not work for them either, something which may even hurt them.”  How Yoga Works, Gesne Michael Roach, pg. 257

In my first post I mentioned the analogy of the maze that I heard so often during seminary.  This analogy perfectly illustrates the comfort that comes from trusting in external authority.  How easy life becomes when you feel that in the maze of your life you have exclusive information coming from above to tell you exactly how to get through it.  This comfortable thought can lull you so effortlessly into a sleepy walk.  In fact, you could get through the maze with your eyes closed if you wanted to.  But now I wonder, what is the point of a maze where you have someone telling you exactly how to get through it?

When you open your eyes wide and look up to find that there is no one up there with a perfect view of the whole maze, you discover an internal ability that you didn’t know you had to find the right path on your own.  You hit dead ends, you make wrong turns, you brush up against the sides and cry out in pain, sometimes you fall to the ground in exhausted confusion.  Then you pick yourself back up and move forward.  Sometimes you meet a fellow maze traveler who tells you about a dead end they have already found, or a path that has worked for them.  Their words help, not because they know how to get through the maze, not because they have a perfect path for you to follow, but because their experience with the maze had some value for you.  You learn from them, you learn from all of it.  You are forming a relationship with the maze that is invaluable in empowering you to discover a path of enlightenment.  That is what the maze is for.  That is how we will evolve as authentically empowered beings.

Jenny

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.

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13 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Great post, Jenny. I particularly like your use of the word “smother” here: “your trust in external authority is going to smother your ability to trust in your own authority.” It totally fits, I think, because it seems likely that if authorities around us were less controlling, our belief in our own authority would grow, but with heavy-handed authority, that fledgling belief is starved of what it needs to grow.

  2. EFH says:

    Very true everything what you have said. Amen and amen! As someone who spend early childhood living in a dictatorship, I never understand how in a free society that glorifies freedom and democracy, entire religious communities renounce their inherited rights and simply submit without going through any internal process of authenticity.

  3. Rob Osborn says:

    So are you suggesting we dont need any external leadership like prophets and apostles?

    • Jenny says:

      Rob, there is a place, at least in our current world, for external leadership. We need people to run businesses, organizations, and governments. But when that kind of leadership exists, I think it will always involve corruption, even in a church. Especially when there is an imbalance between external and internal authority, where a person’s ability to trust in him/herself is suppressed by his/her conditioning to trust in external leadership. In the days of Christ, apostles were stewards and ministers. Scriptures show us a different kind of leadership, a leading from within as I talked about in my last post. We’ve moved toward a more authoritarian leadership and I don’t see that helping us as a people.

      • Andrew R. says:

        You’re not really saying anything more than we already have in the Doctrine and Covenants in terms of the fact that corruption can, and unfortunately does sometimes, occur. I do not see that as an argument for disbanding Church leadership that Christ Himself establish during His mortal ministry.

        “We’ve moved toward a more authoritarian leadership and I don’t see that helping us as a people.”

        I am sorry, but I have not seen this. Maybe that’s is because I live in the UK, but it is not my experience. I have lived in 6 stakes. I have had 15 bishops and some branch presidents. I have children living in 3 other stakes (all daughters BTW). I have not see a more authoritarian Bishop. In fact my Bishop is quite the opposite, and my stake president.

        I am not saying it can’t happen, I am saying I feel sorry for your experience. Every time a General Authority, especially an Apostle, speaks to groups of Bishops they make it clear that they (the Bishops) hold the keys and the leaders expect them to do the work, receive the revelation. They do not impose their way of doing things, nor expect a “one size fits all” approach to dealing with members.

        Everything ever said in GC (by the likes of Packer, Bednar, Uchtdorf) in relation to personal revelation is about getting what you call internal authority. Indeed, the process of becoming Exalted is the process of becoming (as a couple, and you may not like this caveat) internally authoritative.

        No one tells us how to raise our children:- bedtimes, punishments, rewards, etc. There are guidelines.

        In fact many things that used to be hard and fast rules (like no TR if you sold alcohol) have gone.

      • Jenny says:

        So if you can’t see it it can’t possibly be the case? No one tells us how to raise our children? Does no one tell us that mothers should be in the home and fathers should provide and preside. Yes, there is plenty of language given in the church to placate the idea of internal authority. And as I said in my first post, the church was even set up that way (see D&C 1:19-20). But when it really comes down to it, we are not free to receive revelation for ourselves unless it falls perfectly in line with the narrow life experience drawn for us by an authoritarian leadership that seeks to control details such as a woman’s calling in life. If we were truly authentically and internally empowered people, that would not be okay with us. A person’s calling in life is completely individual and completely between God and that individual. If you can’t see it, I suggest you spend more time listening to women who have woken up to the fact that their life choices have been controlled for so long by the men on top. Listen without gaslighting and filing in the space with your own experience.

  4. Jeff G says:

    “I realize that that is not where we are at yet in the world or in the church. It is human nature to look for external authority because it’s often easier to place trust there than to trust in our own internal authority.”

    I don’t think this is the reason why people in the church do this. Rather, it because the scriptures strongly suggest that doing so is a commandment.

    • Jenny says:

      And scriptures are written by humans right? Like I said human nature.

      • Andrew R. says:

        You seem to have no place in your feelings for a God that ensures we got His word in the scriptures. Or in the Church. Have we been abandoned?

      • Ziff says:

        That’s nice, Andrew. You seem to have no place for any errors to actually creep in or for any human fallibility on the part of leaders or scripture writers. I think Jenny’s position is a lot more sane than yours.

  5. Guen says:

    Thank you so much for articulating what is my experience as well.

  6. Katharine says:

    Totally agree. Its not only easier to abdicate so many choices to leaders, its also something we are taught is part of our covenants. even opinions spouted by our religious leaders end up with exceeding weight, because of their position of spiritual authority. there is not a sure way to discriminate between when they are speaking as prophets or men, so we are taught to assume they are always speaking for God. and every blessing in life is said to come from strict obedience.

  7. Tina says:

    If you’re going to challenge authority in the Church, you need to be prepared to never hold a high-profile calming ever again. You gotta be willing to totally nix any “church ego” you might have had. If you do, though, it can be very liberating.

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