A few days ago, I wrote a post proposing that all missions should make sisters eligible for mission leadership positions. I put the post into queue to post later this month. Today, the church announced new leadership positions for sister missionaries. Yikes! My post became obsolete before I could post it! However, the church’s plan does differ from my suggestion that women be incorporated into the existing leadership structure. Instead:
Each mission in the Church will organize a Mission Leadership Council that will include both elder (males) and sister (females) missionary leaders. The new mission leadership council will consist of the mission president and his wife, assistants to the president, zone leaders, and sister training leaders — a newly created role…Sister training leaders will continue to proselytise and will also spend time each week training and evaluating the needs of female missionaries. They will report directly to the mission president on the needs of sister missionaries. Additionally, the wives of mission presidents are now being asked to play an enhanced role in training and caring for sister missionaries, subject to their individual and family circumstances.
Here is the post I wrote before the announcement, plus new commentary in red about how the actual change differs from the change I would have proposed.
In 1997, when I was a 21-year-old full-time missionary, President Gordon B. Hinckley explained to his male peers why he and many of his predecessors had chosen to keep the minimum age for sister missionaries relatively high:
We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small. (Reference A)
This strategy worked so well that it is reflected in the language that we use. Mormons simply call male missionaries missionaries while that other, rare breed of missionaries is called sister missionaries. However, one might question the reasoning for keeping the number of female missionaries small, especially considering that in the same speech Hinckley told us:
[Sister missionaries] perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.
I have a theory about why church leadership wanted few female missionaries. Most missions ban female missionaries from leadership positions. The ineligibility of sister missionaries for these positions can cause administrative complexities if a large ratio of sister missionaries serve in an area; with an equal number of male and female missionaries, half of the missionaries are disqualified from leadership because of their gender.Footnote 1 There are a lot of missionary leadership positions, including district leaders, zone leaders, assistants to the president and office callings, plus special priesthood assignments such as branch presidents in areas without any available local leaders. So in such a situation, nearly every male senior companion would need to hold a leadership position, including many young men who would be woefully incompetent to supervise other people.
Six months ago, President Thomas S. Monson changed the age for sister missionaries to 19 and indeed, the number of sister missionaries is no longer small. So how do we avoid these administrative problems? The answer is obvious: call sister missionaries to leadership positions within their missions. And so the church did! Hurray! It won’t be necessary to call every male senior companion to a leadership role. Fewer unprepared male missionaries will be in leadership and sisters with leadership potential will be better utilized. This is good. Is there any good reason not to? Let’s take a look at some of the explanations I have heard for banning women from missionary leadership.
Women don’t have the priesthood. Yet, we send women on missions, even though they can’t baptize people. This obstacle is not insurmountable Female missionaries routinely look for local members to baptize their converts. This creates a special bond between the new member and a local person, who will be around longer than any missionary anyway. Frankly, I don’t understand why male missionaries don’t do the same. In contrast, missionary leadership duties do not involve any priesthood ordinances at all. District and zone leaders collect statistics, interview potential new members, and handle logistic issues.
Female leaders wouldn’t be able to go on splits with male elders. This common refrain shows just how much we look at missionary work from the male perspective. I was a sister missionary and my mission leaders, who were all male, never went on splits with me. Having an occasional female district or zone leader may inconvenience male elders who could not go on splits with their leaders during that period of time, but certainly not more so than female missionaries who, under the status quo, never go on splits with their leaders ever. The church’s solution addresses this issue more completely than mine would have. Now all missionaries will have leaders of their own gender to go on splits with them at all stages of their missions.
Women can’t supervise men. Which century are we in now? And why don’t we have a problem with male teenagers supervising adult women? Okay, with the church’s solution, adult women can now have some other adult women in leadership over them, and I think it is nice that they will not have to deal with a leadership structure that is almost entirely made up of teen boys. However, I am more than a little peeved that our church leaders apparently still believe that women can’t supervise men. They have gone out of their way to redesign mission leadership in such a way as to ensure that males continue to supervise mixed gender missionary groups while women only supervise other women.
Missionary leadership prepares men for their future lives as leaders in the church. True enough. Likewise, banning women from missionary leadership prepares women for their future lives in which they will be banned from most leadership positions within the church. Yes, this is consistent. But the excuses for banning women from church leadership in general, such as rhetoric around their divine roles as mothers, ring even more hollow in the missionary setting where, by requirement, no missionaries are mothers. The new arrangement should prepare missionaries well for church service outside the mission. It is similar to the system set up in other church councils in which a certain prescribed (small) number of women and a certain prescribed (much larger) number of men counsel together, with a male leader presiding who has the right to make final decisions. I am glad that women will be at the table when mission decision-making happens, but I am nervous that women will be outnumbered and outranked, as they are in other councils of the church.
Here are some of the advantages that would come from including women in mission leadership:
At a young age, men would be exposed to female spiritual leaders. Such an experience could positively impact their interactions with women for the rest of their lives, especially in the church setting. Um, no. The new system will have women only leading other women, not men. Men will continue to be challenged to learn to respect female people even though women are guaranteed to virtually always be subordinate to them. Women will continue to be challenged to make their voices heard by male people who are virtually never put into a position in the hierarchy that requires deference to a woman.
Women may be less likely than men to impose mission goals that devalue female souls. For example, my own mission had goals to baptize a minimum number of men, but not women. Other returned missionaries have reported point systems in their missions in which a male convert was worth more points than a female one. The church’s new system guarantees that female leaders will be present in all missions, while my proposal would only have made it possible, since a mission president could have chosen not to appoint any women as leaders even though they were eligible. I hope that the church’s plan to mandate the presence of women in decision-making councils will help to curtail some of these unfortunate goals that devalue women.
Female converts may be more comfortable during baptismal interviews discussing chastity, abortions and other sensitive issues with another woman instead of a man (or male teenager). Nope. Apparently, the church still only trusts males to interview women about chastity and abortion.
One change the church addressed that I did not consider is that mission presidents’ wives will have more formal responsibilities in mission governance. I think this is great. However, I find it unfortunate that they will continue to have the inauspicious title, “mission president’s wife”. When can we start having “Mission Co-presidents”?
*It is not lost on me that these similar administrative complexities exist in almost all wards and stakes, since so few leadership positions are reserved to women and so many are reserved to men. See http://www.the-exponent.com/not-so-easily-demeaned/