Making Women in the Ward Feel More Valued

by Caroline

Recently, a ward leader inquired about what the local leadership can do to make women in the ward feel feel more valued, particularly those women who have the sense that the Church undervalues them. So of course I seized the opportunity and mailed him some ideas.

Now, I personally would love to see women welcomed into every position of Church leadership, but that obviously can’t happen without some huge changes coming from Salt Lake. So I stuck to a couple very doable, totally within the bounds of the CHI ideas.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

The things I feel most strongly about at the moment are:

1) finding some way to get a woman into bishopric meetings. It makes me distressed whenever I think of all the Sacrament Meetings that are planned, all the callings assigned, all the topics of talks decided upon, all the goals formulated, all the problems addressed, etc…. without the input of a woman. Having a woman in there would mean a lot to people like me who are so terribly aware of the stark gender imbalance in ward leadership. This could be done by inviting the RS pres to sit in on meetings, by calling a female secretary to the bishop whose calling would entail being in these meetings, or to some extent, by calling a Sacrament Meeting Coordinator who would be a part of any meeting in which Sacrament Meeting was being discussed.

I have a friend who had the calling of Sacrament Meeting Coordinator in her ward. This is what she wrote about it: “My most interesting calling was the sixth months I planned sacrament meetings. Under the “direction” of a wonderful second counselor, I picked topics and called speakers. Relieved a time-consuming the burden from him — I suppose he had veto power but he never used it — and I loved the opportunity to think and pray about the needs of the wards, to talk through ideas with speakers, to follow up with notes and feedback, to coordinate music with the sacrament music coordinator. What was “one more job” for a busy counselor become a labor of love for me. Ultimately, I think it was the congregation that benefited from this singular focus.”

2) Including women’s voices in talks, lessons, etc. Another thing that is difficult for me as a woman is to go to 3 hours of church on Sunday and hear dozens of men being quoted, but not one woman. I sit there and wonder what this is communicating to the youth of our ward. Are we teaching them that only men have deeply meaningful spiritual insights? That only men produce ideas worthy of pondering and discussing? How much does this constant focus on the words and ideas of men, without any focus on the words and ideas of women, hurt females who are attuned to such gender discrepancies?

It would mean a lot to people like me to have women’s worth and value affirmed, not by constant verbal assurances of women’s value, but instead by the serious attention paid to the words of women. (The “Show, not Tell” principle) This could be done by a conscious effort of ward leadership to include quotes from women in talks and testimonies. (Chieko Okazaki is a gold mine for material for talks and lessons.) Also, encouraging teachers to try to find ways to include the voices of women in their lessons would be wonderful – though I know this might be more difficult given the current directive to teach only from the manual.

On a similar note, inclusive language is important to me. A part of my soul is crushed everytime I hear someone reading from the scriptures or quoting a Church president and using words like “man, brother,” etc. It hurts to feel so erased. And it means a lot when people make the effort to say “man and woman’ or “brothers and sisters.” I think our GAs have done a much better job in General Conference in recent years of speaking inclusively. I just wish the practice could become more widespread in our meetings.

The leader wrote a very nice email back to me, thanking me for my ideas and giving me a few of his own, including making sure that the budgets for boys and girls are equal and asking women to be concluding speakers in SM.

I really do hand it to this man. Not only for asking the question in the first place, but also for clearly having put some of his own thought into the matter. This is a dyed in the wool, iron rod loving, orthodox Mormon guy,  and it sure does make me feel better about being a part of the Church and this ward to know that, despite obvious ideological differences, there are some men out there that are truly concerned and interested in women’s issues. Very cool.

What are your ideas for practical, doable, within the bounds of the CHI steps that bishops can take to make women in the ward feel more valued?

Have any of your male ward leaders ever expressed interest or taken steps to make the ward better for women?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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23 Responses

  1. Deborah says:

    Hey, you quoted me! 🙂 Yeah, I loved that calling . . . not only did it make me feel valued and stretch me to be in tune with the needs of the ward, I was able (with my assistant coordinator) to give the time and personal touches that the bishopric just didn’t have time to give! The counselor approved all topics, but when I called someone and asked them to speak, I chatted for a while, offered them resources, suggested possible scriptures, asked them to think about hymns that might be appropriate. More than once, someone called back a few days later to talk it out some more. I also spoke with the person creating the program and we put an applicable scripture on it each week. We really worked to create a unified, spiritually uplifting program. It didn’t take hours on my part — and it didn’t “threaten” the priesthood leadership. I wish it were a model more wards adopted. (My current ward does not . . . )

  2. Carol says:

    One of the most critical ways that women can be better included in ward leadership is for bishop’s to be trained to include RS presidencies as an equal as they seek to serve those in the ward. I have served as an RS president and as a stake RS president once. Although my stake president was very supportive when I served with him, I did not feel that on a ward level my insights were heard, respected, or valued. I believe that the GA’s need to train stake presidents and bishops to better respect, include, and listen to their RS, Primary and YW Presidencies, who sometimes serve more as slaves than as servants. I strongly believe in servant leadership with bishoprics and auxiliary presidencies working side by side, and not in a employer/employee mentality.

  3. LRC says:

    Carol says, “I did not feel that on a ward level my insights were heard, respected, or valued.”

    Yes, just having a woman on the council or in the meeting really doesn’t do any of us any good if her views and insights are not valued and respected, that’s for sure.

    Does the use of titles engender respect? Would it make a difference if the ward started calling RS/YW/Primary Presidents “President Smith” rather than “Sister Smith”?

    We also assume, of course, that a ward which values women would not ask permission of husbands to issue callings to wives and would invite women to both open and close Sacrament Meetings with prayer. Such a ward would probably have women as closing speakers in Sac Mtgs at least as often as men.

    In a stake that values women, I could see the stake auxiliary presidencies traveling to various wards to address wards alongside stake high councilmen. Returning sister missionaries would be given the same speaking opportunities as returning elders.

    A ward that values women attending meetings in general would find ways to support those women in their attendance. Why have three men in the bishopric sitting on the stand? How about letting one of them sit with his wife/kids?

    How about making sure there are changing tables in the men’s rooms? Or doing everything to limit mid-week meetings so dads can be home with kids and wives?

  4. Kay says:

    Wow. I have just read the comments and found that a lot of what you want is already going on where I live.

    Firstly when my husband was a counsellor on the Bishopric we always organised sacrament together. The other counsellor and his wife did too when it was his 6 month turn. Choosing speakers and topics together was interesting, fun and informative. I could often tell my husband who would be good to do certain things that he was unaware of.

    Also we often have women open and close our sacrament meetings with prayer. Last week not only did that happen but all of the speakers were women. It was just the way it turned out. That is just normal here, noone thought it was odd or unusual. Noone would even think to comment on it.

    In our stake the auxillaries speak as often as the high councilmen. They all have regular speaking assigments. It is part of their calling.

    Yes our present Bishopric all sit on the stand. My husband is now the Bishop, but they do not necessarily sit alone up their. Any child that wants can go and sit with their daddy on the stand in our ward. That was the suggestion of the stake president as he knows how hard it can be for families. If a wife is away then they would sit with their children in the congregation.

    There are no changing tables in any of our toilets due to space issues. Instead there is a parents room where either parent may go to change their child.

    I have served as a president and often on presidencies in many wards and never felt that I was not valued or taken seriously. I know that the female leaders in our ward are happy to work with my husband. I know he would show them proper respect and include them all where possible in any way he could. Then again he is used to working with me and taking me into consideration in all things. The more people work together the easier it is for everyone. As a woman I am happy in my ward and would say that if you aren’t then speak to your Bishop.

    I have just read through my comments and would like to add that my husband tries hard but is not perfect in any way!! He works long hard hours as a Bishop and would be upset if he thought the siters were feeling undervalued.

  5. Vada says:

    The first suggestion I would make is to give _me_ a calling, and _don’t_ give my husband one! I know wards always seem to be hurting for priesthood leadership, but give all those Sunday school callings, and really most anything that you can, to the women. Let their husbands chase unruly toddlers, take kids to primary, and tend kids on weeknights while the wife goes to meetings. I could really use a break from my kids, and my husband could really use more time with them. (Of course, this is mostly applicable to families where the husband works and the wife stays home with the kids — otherwise, it might be that the husband needs a break or that the wife really wants to spend her weeknights with her kids after working all day.)

    Oh, and my other suggestion would be the one exception to the above rule: get more men in primary. Really, why is it that most every ward thinks that primary should be run by young mothers? They don’t spend enough of their time wrangling children, we need to give them a few more hours to do it? Let someone else take a turn, and let the young mothers actually get some adult interaction once a week.

  6. chelseaw says:

    Vada, In our last ward my husband taught primary, and about 90% of the teachers there were men. It was great! I wish more primaries would do this. The rule about men not being allowed to teach alone does make it more difficult, especially in wards where priesthood leadership is scarce.

    I would love to see a female Sunday School President. That’s not a priesthood related calling, is it?

  7. ZD Eve says:

    Caroline, I love that your leader asked this question, and I’ve loved every single suggestion commenters have made. It sounds as if this his heart is in the right place. I can’t be grateful enough for such leaders; they bring balms to wounded souls.

    But I also feel uncomfortable with the way the question is formulated. My gut response to the question, “How can we make X Group feel more valued?” is always “Value them more!” I realize that the leader probably was asking for ways to value women, and all the comments do propose ways to value women. But I also think there’s a crucial difference between trying to value someone and trying to make her feel more valued.

    Too often, in church, we do the latter without the former, and we feed marginal people (women, children, singles, the childless, the divorced) self-esteem and affirmations of their worth and other substanceless gooies. People who are genuinely valued have no need to be filled with cotton candy.

    I realize no one’s proposed any such trivial solution here, and it’s clear your leader welcomed real ideas, so please forgive me for indulging my little tangential soapbox.

    /rant off

  8. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m going to print it out and hand it to my husband, who is in our stake presidency.

    As for my own experience…
    I have served twice as a ward Relief Society president. The first time was with a bishop who was a Naval officer and was used to giving orders. The second time, many years later, was with a bishop who included me as part of the priesthood executive committee. I attended meetings of this committee every Sunday morning, where my opinions and insights were valued. That meant a lot, not only to me, but to the other sisters in the ward. Sisters often came to me with concerns knowing that I would pass them on to the priesthood leadership of the ward. (Inviting the R.S. president to these meetings is an option outlined in the CHI.)

    I also agree with LRC’s comment about using titles. While serving in a R.S. presidency just a few years ago, we were given specific instruction (either from the stake leaders or from general R.S. presidency, I can’t remember which) that we were NOT to call the R.S. president, “President _______.” Personally, I think we would all be more apt to feel equal if we adults called each other by our first names or as Sister and Brother, rather than using any titles at all.

  9. Jessawhy says:

    Caroline,
    Thanks for this thoughtful, progressive post.
    I just sent the link to my Bishop via Facebook. He’s actually very progressive and open to ideas like this.
    For instance, a few women in the ward have a book club and we’re going to see Julie and Julia tonight. But, it’s also the night of the Bishopric meeting. The Bishop called my friend who is the wife of the 2nd counselor to offer one of his daughters to babysit to make sure she could attend the movie (he may have also offered to cancel the meeting, I don’t remember). That’s just one example of the ways he’s tuned in to the needs of young mothers, especially.

    I’d also like to see women invited to teach lessons in Priesthood quorums. I know it happens occasionally, but it would be nice to see it more often.

  10. rachel says:

    while serving as a r.s. prez i sat in on branch presidency meetings regularly. my opinion was always valued…often times above any other person in the room.

    i’m now living in an even smaller branch with only 5 priesthood members. a few years ago i was called to be the ward mission leader but since that is technically a priesthood calling they set me apart as the branch mission secretary. my responsibilities were exactly the same. i attended monthly missionary meetings held in the high council room with the stake presidency, mission presidency, zone leaders, bishops, and ward mission leaders. it was a little odd to be the only woman in a room full of men but they welcomed me with open arms.

    i know these callings both took place in small branches but i also had a great experience serving in a young single adult stake r.s. presidency in logan, utah. i was the only “young” person in leadership and the stake presidency had great respect for my insight into a generation they didn’t understand.

    my point…there are some great men in the church that do recognize the importance of a woman’s voice in the decision making process.

  11. D'Arcy says:

    wow! it was so good for me to read this discussion here. Caroline, may I just say how much I love you and what you do. i love the example, I love that you typed this up, I loved that you gave it to your bishop. I just love that your bishop asked this too! Wow. I love it all.

    I’ve had moments of being very underappreciated and moments where my voice was golden and heard. I think a lot of life is like that, but the more we continue to strive for equality, the more it will happen.

  12. Caroline says:

    Deborah, thanks for additional info. Maybe I’ll forward your comment onto this guy.

    Carol,amen!

    Great ideas, lrc. especially that one about the auxilary pres’s traveling around to various wards with the high councilmen. i had never thought of that.

    Kay, wow, sounds like you live in a fantastic ward. It’s good to know there are wards out there like that.

    Vada, I totally agree with you about giving women the callings that require weeknight meetings. These poor guys – they need some time with their kids!

    chelaseaw, regarding Sunday School presidencies and priesthood, this is what I learned (from somewhere). At one point women could be in this presidency, but then some women who were serving in it started to complain that they felt uncomfortable advising male teachers how to teach (because they had the priesthood). So a new policy came about that only men could do it. If that story is true, that is terribly sad and pathetic. And it underscores some deep cultural problems we Mormons have.

  13. Caroline says:

    Great point, Eve. I was trying to clue this guy into the same issue when I made my “show, not tell” comment. I wonder if he’ll pick up on it…

    Catherine, i’m so glad you’re forwarding this on to your husband. The more men who read about and care about these issues, the better.

    Jess, sounds like you’ve got a great bishop too! I love the idea of women teaching in EQ or HP sometimes. That would nicely balance out the times that men come into RS to teach (that happens occassionally in my ward).

    Rachel, thanks for sharing your positive experiences. So nice to know these good things are going on in different places.

    D’Arcy, you’re a sweetheart. I’m glad you found something good in reading this post and discussion. Being somewhat proactive when it comes to these gender things that pop up in my ward is one of my best coping mechanisms.

  14. MJK says:

    Very interesting, many of the suggestions in the comments here are things I saw regularly growing up in a small branch. Perhaps it is merely because in a small branch you appreciate all the members you have. Husbands were not asked about callings to the wife. Women gave opening, closing prayers and the final talk in sacrament all the time. I’m certain there were more adult women than adult men in that branch, and I bet like rachel also commented that the size is part of it.

    Titles were tricky though, if you use “president Smith” for the RS president – half the time the RS president would be married to the branch president. that could get tricky 😉

  15. Ziff says:

    Great post, Caroline. I love that your ward leader asked, and I love your answer. I’m particularly a fan of the idea of having RS Presidents attend PEC or whatever so they’re in on all the meetings where ward-level decisions are made.

    Vada, I also think you make a great point about calling more men into primary. I remember when my wife and I served in nursery together a few years ago. I loved it, but it began to wear on her; her job at the time was in child care, and nursery was just one more day of it. That really brought home to me your point, that women who are caring for kids a lot during the week might appreciate more opportunities to do callings that don’t involve caring for or teaching more kids.

    Jessawhy, I love the idea of having more women teach lessons in priesthood quorums. In addition to the obvious benefit of exposing men to new ideas and perspectives, it would likely also generally improve the quality of teaching we’re exposed to. 🙂

    Regarding getting women’s voices quoted in church, I taught Teachings for Our Time for a few years, and when one of the talks suggested for us to teach from was from a member of the General RS or YW Presidency, I always made it a point to quote from it and discuss it just to increase the number of women we all heard from.

  16. James says:

    This is a great post. On the sacrament meeting talks issue, I know that for one, my wife would not feel more valued by being asked to speak last. She’d just feel put on the spot, nervous, and agitated by having that pressure to potentially fill time without notice.

    I completely agree with the idea of having concluding women speakers, but I’d be interested in getting other people’s thoughts on minimizing this potential problem (at the situational level, not the broader issue of “well the fact that more women feel that way is a result of the patriarchy etc etc).

  17. esodhiambo says:

    Stuff I have seen done:
    1–equalized YM/YW programs: equal budgets (if the numbers are unbalanced, it seems appropriate enough to work out a formula for x$ per kid); equal recognition of “promotions” in Sacrament Meetings; equal High Adventure trips; equal turns at “refreshments duty”; equal visits from Bishop to meetings and events.

    2–One branch I was in DID use “president” for auxiliary heads, but I think it was done in a jokey manner because one particular extended family headed 3 or 4 auxiliaries at a time, so it was “funny” to talk about President Y and President Y and President Y, etc.

    3–A “women’s council” at the ward level where the bishop met with the Primary, YW, and RS presidents to get their perspectives on certain things and to discuss upcoming staffing changes and callings.

    I wonder about two things:
    1–At both the ward and stake level, there are 2 parallel types of meetings: ward council and PEC/Bishopric meetings; stake council and High Council Meetings. In my experience, issues are discussed at the ward and stake council meetings (with women present) and then decisions are made at the PEC and High Council Meetings, where women are not invited. What if we switched them, so issues were discussed at the Priesthood only meetings, and then decisions were actually agreed upon at the ward or stake council meetings where women could also participate. Why not?

    2–I speak my mind. Always. Regardless of who is present and what their “status” is. It is a trait that can get me in trouble, but on the whole, a good trait, I think. This holds true for Church meetings to which I am invited, but perhaps not actually expected to contribute. I have noticed that other women at these meetings (ward council, stake council, stake youth council meetings, etc) don’t talk much and some absolutely won’t speak unless called on by name. This seems odd to me. First, the NAME of the meeting is “council” so it seems obvious that they want diverse perspectives and you are there to give yours. But more disturbing to me, it seems that these unspeaking women are actually doing the devaluing for the men. By not speaking/acting they are communicating that their input is not as important as the inane commentary given by (for example) the YM president. I feel that MY input is as important as any other view expressed, even that of the Stake President or Bishop. Of course, theirs is the power to make the decision.

    In basically every unit I have ever lived in, it has been generally acknowledged that the auxiliaries headed by women (Primary, YW, and RS) were with it, organized, on the ball. Complimentary male quorums did not have the same reputation. I think this is a pretty common dynamic–does it mean that we actually DO value the efforts of those women or that, in spite of excellent service, we still don’t value them and let the men get away with sub-par service with greater prestige?

  18. Caroline says:

    James, interesting question. Here’s my gut response: I see how anyone could be stressed out by having to fill time or cut material on the spot. But I think that women should be capable of doing so, just as well as men. I feel that putting women first just so that they don’t have to worry about such things coddles and infantilizes them unnecessarily. Does that make sense?

    esod: Great points. I hadn’t really made a distinction between the meetings in which decisions were made and the meetings in which matters are just discussed. I’m glad you brought that up. Regarding your suggestion of switching – I would be afraid that inviting women to the meeting in which the decisions were made, but not where they were discussed would put them in a disadvantaged position. Would they be able to meaningfully contribute if they had missed the prior discussion? Seems to me like it all should take place in the same meeting, and women need to be there.

    Amen to your comments about women speaking up in meetings!

  19. James says:

    That absolutely makes sense, a la “people rise to the level of expectations placed on them.” I guess I’m just envisioning a scenario where a well-intentioned bishopric, in an effort to “value” someone in this way, unwittingly produces a result that isn’t in line with the intent.

    Just because someone is potentially uncomfortable with the assignment doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or couldn’t be done. It should just be done with complete awareness of and sensitivity to the individual.

  20. LRC says:

    James says, “It should just be done with complete awareness of and sensitivity to the individual.”

    And I would add, “….regardless of that person’s sex.”

    I don’t think that fears of public speaking, especially the extemporaneous ‘condense-or-stretch’ kinds of speeches, are limited to women – I know several men who, like your wife, always prefer to speak first but they only get that opportunity when they are paired as speakers with other men.

    How hard would it be for those assigning Sac Mtg talks to ask the speakers (especially when they’re married) who’d like to go first and arrange it accordingly?

  21. X2 Dora says:

    One thing that might make the women more “heard” is for the leadership to actually hear what the women in their congregation have to say.

    Back when I was in a leadership position over ollege aged women in the Newport Beach Stake, the General Relief Society Presidency came and held an evening of focused discussion with women of the stake. The groups were chosen to represent the stake as a whole … married, single, widowed, with children, without children, students, etc. Each member of the Elaine Clyde presidency lead a discussion with a group of about 10-15 women to hear what their concerns were with many different facets of their lives, and to share their concerns as a presidency with us. It was an amazing evening, where we all felt heard and were able to learn more about each other and ourselves.

    So yes, it was a different scenario. But if the leaders of the church want to know about the women of the church, sometimes it’s enough to even ask the question and sit back and listen.

  22. Kiri Close says:

    don’t know where this fits into this conversation, but I like this following link:

    http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/women/chapter17.htm#Woman

  23. Kelly Ann says:

    Caroline, I really believe that leadership is trying to reach out to women and those who feel on the fringe. My stake has made a concerted effort to reach out to those affected by Prop8 for example. It gives me hope that they really know the needs of the area.

    I have also met members recently who would define themselves as hard-nosed conservative but who read blogs because they want to understand the other side.

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