In the wake of Kate Kelly’s excommunication a lot has been said about the proper way to do things, the proper way to ask questions, the proper way to advocate for change. As someone who is interested in making changes regarding gender in the Mormon church my ears perk up at these suggestions–I would love to know the most effective way to see progress.
The most concrete suggestion has been to seek for changes on a local level. I don’t think this is a bad idea, there are so many little things that can be done in our local congregations that would make women’s experience in church much better.
I have been witness to this first hand as I have watched my husband enact policies as bishop in our ward that try to be more thoughtful and inclusive of women. For example, we just had a new convert baptized who was taught and prepared by our sister missionaries. After her confirmation in Sacrament Meeting, Mr. Mraynes got up and specifically recognized the work that these faithful sisters had done in bringing this person into our fold. I have never once heard the work of sister missionaries recognized over the pulpit even though they do the exact same thing, minus the priesthood ordinances, that the elders do. It was such a small thing but I know it meant a lot to our sisters and to the many women in our ward who came up to me after the meeting and remarked on how wonderful that was. Even though my husband was specifically addressing the sister missionaries it made all of the sisters feel like their work was recognized and appreciated. And it’s not just words, Mr. Mraynes has taken multiple actions to make sure women’s voices are heard, whether that be in our weekly meetings or by inviting more women to be on the ward council. I know it is important to my husband that the women of our ward are given the freedom and feel confident in their authority to perform their callings as they are inspired.
I realize this may come off as bragging, and I truly am proud of the things my husband is doing for our ward, but the examples I’ve shared go to my larger point–we cannot leave the progress of our religious community up to the whims of individual men. Leadership roulette is a real thing. While the women of my ward enjoy a certain amount of freedom to speak openly and exercise what power and authority they have, there are all too many women whose experience is the exact opposite. How many stories have we heard of women speaking up in Relief Society and then being dragged into the bishop’s office to be interrogated and sometimes punished? Just because there is one progressive bishop in Denver does not mean that it extends to the other 7 million women in the church worldwide.
Furthermore, bishops only have so much power. They are the low man on the church’s hierarchical totem pole. So they can try to implement policies that benefit women only to be told to cease and desist by a stake president or area authority. Mr. Mraynes and I were listening to the interview Doug Fabrizio did with Neylan McBaine directly after last week’s excommunication. In this interview she advocated for progress to be centralized in local units and gave a couple of examples of creative things bishops could do to improve women’s religious experience. One of these suggestions was to allow young women to be part of the Visiting Teaching program. Mr. Mraynes was a little dismayed by this example because he tried to do this very thing in our ward but when the stake leadership found out he was told in no uncertain terms that this could not happen. He was trying to give our young women the opportunity to minister to their older sisters, to prepare for the missions that many of them plan to go on, but his good intention was stymied by higher-ups who did not share his vision. And even if bishop’s are able to get their innovative policies through all it takes is a couple of years (five at the most) and a new bishop for women to see those gains disappear.
I don’t want to be too negative about this, I really do think that change at the local level is important and has the most direct and immediate impact on the lived experience of women in the church. But our general leaders have to know that this is not the answer to systemic problems. There seems to be a tendency of late to pass the buck to local leaders, both to solve the problems and take the blame when things go wrong. Any student of organizational management can tell you that this is not a strategy for lasting success and growth. Our general authorities are wonderful, godly men and I have no doubt that they struggle under the weight of running this church but refusing to get your hands dirty does not solve the problem. It only pushes them to the edges where they will balloon and eventually crush the center. There is time to fix this but we need to see more hands on leadership from those who are called by God to do so.