We Are Putting Our Eggs in the Wrong Basket

Posted by on July 7, 2014 in authority, feminism, Gender roles, Mormon women, women | 14 comments

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.

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14 Comments

  1. Great points, mraynes. I agree that there are pretty obvious limits to what local leaders can do. (But I do love the examples you shared of what mr. mraynes is doing–go, mr. mraynes!) It kind of makes sense, though, why GAs would push the issue off to local leaders. GAs send us a letter read in sacrament meeting every year telling us not to contact them. They really can’t imagine that there are any structural issues affecting the entire Church that they’re not paying adequate attention to. In some sense, I think they’re maybe too eager to believe stuff like the Wilford Woodruff statement about God not allowing the Church President to lead the Church astray. So when that’s your view, then any issues that come up must by definition be local issues, because for sure the Church as a whole can’t have any major structural problems.

    The whole pattern makes me feel hopeless.

    • That is an excellent point, Ziff! I hadn’t ever considered that but it does make sense. I admit to feeling really frustrated by this “local problems, local solutions” mindset that has been promoted by the Otterson letter, the Isom interview, etc. Maybe it’s because I’m more sensitive to leadership these days but it seems to miss the point entirely. For an organization that is so fond of hierarchy it makes no sense to me why the buck has been passed to bishops when general authorities have to be aware of how little power bishops actually have. The cynical side of me thinks they’re doing this to claim some plausible deniability but once again, this isn’t a long term solution. Sigh. I agree, this whole pattern makes me feel hopeless.

    • I’m so frustrated too, Ziff and Mraynes. I feel like the GAs do not want to hear from the general membership. I am considering asking for an appointment with my stake president to bring my concerns about gender inequality to him, but am fighting the feeling that it would be a waste of both of our time, since my deepest concerns can only be addressed by changes he does not have the power to make.

  2. I go back and forth on this issue, but today I’m leaning toward agreeing with you. Real, permanent change has to come from above, but it won’t be revealed until people are ready for it on the local level. The office of the first presidency can come out and say it’s OK to have questions and doubts but that doesn’t change the fact that my ward members still think I’m the anti-christ. I wrote a letter to my stake president about that with some suggestions and got an immediate response back expressing willingness to pray about my suggestions and make local changes to support those experiencing faith crisis. Not what I was expecting! But I do see a lot more receptiveness from my local leaders who are familiar with me than from strangers who are all too willing to label me as a heretic. I don’t know what to tell sisters who don’t have receptive leaders though.

    • That is an excellent point, Pepper! I think you’re probably right that the solutions will have to come from the grassroots but then be adopted by the general church structure (like FHE :) ). Progressive policies will never be adopted on a wide scale until the church puts their stamp of approval on it. Part of the problem, though, is that the chain of command is so tedious to operate. So a bishop can have a great idea that works really well for their ward but there’s really no way to get that information up the ladder, there are just too many people for it to go through. Hopefully the general church will recognize this problem and at least make it easier for local leaders to communicate with those at the top–I really don’t see how else they expect local solutions to fix the problems of the church.

  3. Yesterday after church I was doing dishes and listening to the Radio West podcast you mentioned. Neylan had just finished talking about some of the things we could do at a local level when there was a knock at my door. It was the bishop’s wife (who was just released as the RS President as well). I put the podcast on pause as we chatted. She was bringing me my visiting teaching list and we chatted a bit about her 16 year old daughter who is in my Sunday School class. Her mother was asking me what she could do to help her daughter prepare to serve a mission. The daughter and I are both introverts and her mother wanted to know how I had “overcome” that on my mission. The first thing I said was, “Take her visiting teaching! There is no better preparation I can think of. I think all our young women should go visiting teaching.” This sweet sister paused and said carefully, “I’ll have to check the Handbook about that. I tried to do that a few years ago and it wasn’t approved.” My heart sunk, but we talked about some other things and I tried to make the best of it. I wish change at the local level wasn’t so hard!

    • This sounds pretty similar to what my husband experience when trying to get this small thing put in place. It’s really discouraging that so many leaders, men and women, feel like their hands are tied by the handbook. I think Neylan is right in that there is a lot more flexibility in the handbook than people give it credit for. But in order to exploit this flexibility you have to have creative problem solvers who are willing to forge ahead without asking permission. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. I had the exact same experience as your husband when I served as bishop. I felt inspired to call YW as visiting teachers. I counseled with the bishopric and then the YW President and RS President. We all felt good. I also consulted the handbook which does not specifically address the issue. It only says that RS sisters are to serve as VTs. It does not say whether YW can/cannot also serve. Just as we were implementing the plan I was told by the SP to desist. Oddly, it wasn’t so much his concern as the Stake RSP.

    … Meanwhile, unless the go to college, nearly all of the YW in our ward go inactive when they “graduate” into RS. It would be so nice to have a window in which they were introduced to RS through the VT program before being cut loose from YW.

  5. This post and subsequent comments inspire so many different responses on my part, I simply do not know where I really stand or how to express it.
    \
    First and foremost, I really like the things that Mr Mraynes did in his ward – giving the sisters credit where it is due and prayfully trying to expand upon the responsibilities of young women within his jurisdiction. Some of his ideas got shot down – but I feel like this is the way in which questions rightly get pushed up the chain of command.

    On the other hand, I still worry that progress within the church is being measured by worldly rather than heavenly standards. But then I am in no better position to judge this than Mraynes is. Which is why I would recommend acquiescence to her Stake President decisions.

    Finally, like Ziff, I also have a difficult time wrapping my head around the sort of decentralized centralization of authority inherent in the church. I think the biggest problem which we have coming to terms with is that we tend to associate top-down authority with centralized fascism and bottom-up authority with decentralized democracy. In other words, we see any kind of top-down decentralized authority as being almost a contradiction in terms – a contradiction which I certainly want to resist. I see the church as a case of top-down decentralized authority, but I also see the ways in which centralized authority is able to constrain and correct such decentralized authority in a way which forces a tension in this view.

    I really wish I had a deeper point to these less than coherent ramblings.

  6. If one option is closed off, then create another.

    I used to work in sales. I don’t know how many times I was told something wouldn’t work, or that we shouldn’t do something. So I’d come up with an alternative, which gave the same results.

    Management got upset a couple of times, but when you have results to show them, it tends to open their eyes.

    If you can’t send the Young Women out visiting teaching one way, maybe they could go with their mothers. Maybe you could arrange for a combined young men’s/young woman’s class on missionary work. Add missionaries to the equation, and maybe some new converts (or returned missionaries) to be the test subjects, and hold it at the chapel.

    Or come up with another option. There’s always options.

    Wayne

  7. I have taken my daughters (and primary aged son) home teaching many times. They were never my official companions, but they went with me. Summer time is a great time to get girls to go visit teach with mom. The youth curriculum is designed to have them teach others in class, give them more teaching opportunities. I think that the local leaders around here would be fine with this and several other examples above. Incorporating YW in sacrament meeting is one reason that all of the wards in our building have them leading the music.

    If the RS president asked about some VT assignments for some young women, I think that the bishop would say go for it.

  8. With more and more young women servicing missions, there are sister missionaries nearby. Arrange for the YW who are Laurels to go on splits with the sister missionaries. Or if that won’t work, they can certainly go on splits with the women, who are ward missionaries.

  9. I completely agree with this post, MRaynes. Especially in our highly correlated church, it takes a certain amount of courage for a local leader to do anything outside the handbook, even if it’s not specifically prohibited. And while I think encouraging conversations to happen on the local level is great, until things are changed at the systemic level, it won’t be real change. A local ward could encourage the YW to be more involved with the sacrament, for example (providing the bread, standing at the doors during the administration), and that would be great – for that ward. But imagine if those things were specifically suggested and/or prescribed in the handbook? That’s where the real change happens. Suggesting that all conversations/change should happen at the local level naively and completely ignores the structure of how the church currently operates.

  10. I agree that so many changes have to come from the top down, but that feels like such a hopeless prospect for me, who only has a tiny sphere of influence in my own ward. If I can’t make a difference to my own ward, how could I possibly do anything for the greater church?
    I totally agree about girls doing VT and splits with the Sisters. I’m the PPres and on the Ward council, and I knew that it would take months to ram such ideas through the slowest moving committee I’ve ever sat on. So, I took the “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” route and volunteered to give a Sacrament meeting talk on Missionary work the day we rolled out the ward mission plan. I prayed for the Stake President to be in attendance at our ward that day….and he was! I boldly, enthusiastically and assertively told the whole ward simultaneously that our girls could “volunteer” to got with their mothers visiting teaching, that they could “volunteer” to go on splits with the sisters. I used Elder Oaks’ quote about how women exercise priesthood authority in their callings. Both the Bishop and SP complimented me profusely afterward.
    If these things have to start at the ground level, they not only have to start with the leadership enacting it, they have to start with the membership wanting it and asking for it! It’s only been a few weeks, but I really hope some mothers of daughters heard those ideas and thought, “Yeah! That’s a good idea for my daughter! I’m going to follow up on that with the leaders!”

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