A Call for Cooperative Leadership, Part II
(You can read Part I here.)
Last month, Neylan McBain brought up the idea of a cooperative leadership model for the Church. She’s quite brilliant, and if you haven’t read her presentation at the 2012 FAIR conference, go do it! Because this is going to be what everyone assumes everyone else knows as we navigate the next decade or so of gender issues in the Church.
Here’s a snippet, if you aren’t intrigued yet:
Nowhere does the Lord intimate that various callings and responsibilities are intended to give one person power over another. In fact, the words “lead” and “leader” appear nowhere in [D&C 107], and similarly, the word “leader” appears nowhere in the Book of Mormon. Even that book’s most admirable leaders, like Captain Moroni, are described as “servant[s]” and “righteous follower[s] of Christ.” This emphasis on organizational stability, on the specific roles and responsibilities of various parties to act as facilitators within the larger community, is, we believe, of divine origin and eternal value.
I should note here that the woman speaking is a marketer, a really stellar public relations professional, and that she originally wrote these words to present to a general authority who was writing a short response to a question from the Washington Post about the Church’s stance on gender equality. Doctrinally speaking, I think she’s spot-on. The problem, of course, is that as a church and a people we tend to think of doctrine as doctrine, and practice as practice, and because we’re so busy doing good and living the programs of the Church, we forget to let doctrine inform practice. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried forcing a child to be reverent. Or if you’ve ever paid for a distribution center order with a credit card. Everyone with me? Okay, let’s continue.)
At the end of August, when I had struggled to find someone who was willing and available to teach a Relief Society lesson, I received an unexpected mitzvah: my stake Relief Society president, who is also a member of my ward, volunteered to teach. To my great surprise (and, well, the surprise of everyone else in the class), she chose to teach about unrighteous dominion. (Her text was an April 2012 general conference talk, “Only upon the Principles of Righteousness,” and it’s very, very good.)
After introducing the topic, she asked us to give examples we had seen of both righteous and unrighteous leadership practices in the Church. Awkward silence followed, then a few examples of what had appeared to be unrighteous dominion but was really just a miscommunication, then more awkward silence. Unfazed, she kept digging, this time with a sardonic grin: “Ladies, this is not going to be very interesting if no one gives any bad examples.” And then there were a few — a very few, but at least enough to let the women in the room know that it was okay to talk about.
What struck me about the lesson — in addition to the content and her determination to cover it — was that the stake Relief Society president had to explicitly say that it was okay to talk about unrighteous dominion. A group of over-achieving, smart, highly capable women felt that we had to have permission to talk about the times when Church leaders had made bad decisions, micromanaged their congregations, or declared that something was going to be done a certain way because they said so.
We’re Mormons. We organize people and make things happen: PTA fundraisers, town-wide food drives, political campaigns. We managed a mass migration across the North American plains and got the United States government to pay for much of it — and then we set up a strategy that allowed our newly-baptized European brothers and sisters to join us in our desert Eden. From our loins sprang heralded gurus of organizational leadership and unordained apostles of management.
So the fact that the women in my ward couldn’t bring themselves to talk about poor organizational management — which is really just secular business-speak for unrighteous dominion — tells me that there is something amiss. Why was it taboo? Why were sisters who could give the Big Rocks lesson on time management defending examples of obviously poor leadership decisions with “You know, extending callings can take a lot of time” or “Well, that leader might have been inspired to do it that way”? Why couldn’t we disagree with or — dare we say it? — question our leaders?
If the Church simply claimed a living prophet and divine authority from God, questioning leaders would be heresy. But our doctrine is rich. Brownie sundae with caramel, hot fudge, and whipped cream rich, and with even more layers. We claim that we are each entitled to personal communication with God, real answers to questions, revelation upon revelation. A struggle occurs where those two bits of doctrine collide, when a lay member’s words and deeds threaten a leader’s power, when people who fear for the safety and sanctity of the Church sense that they are losing control of the reins. And because the tug and pull on the edge of the collision sometimes erupts into Church discipline, and because we are so very rooted in the soil of our religious community, we learn not to disagree. We learn to be nice, to go along with the tide, to fear and despise conflict. And we have good reason — precedent, even — to fear. We know people who’ve been uprooted. We know good people who have been cast out of the garden. We know that our rich doctrine and the possibilities it offers are frequently moot (and sometimes dangerous) when Church practice shows us that people who disagree loudly enough get punished.
Until we are able to question our leaders — until we are able to say, in good faith, “Could we try it this way instead?” or “I don’t think that sounds like a good idea,” and expect that our opinions will matter — we will not and cannot have cooperative leadership. Much as I admire Neylan McBain, the picture she paints is just an optimistic view of reality, not reality itself. Functional cooperative leadership doesn’t just allow for the possibility of disagreement; it demands it. And it simply won’t work if anyone in a ward harbors the idea that when the bishop speaks, the discussion is over.
We should listen to our organizational gurus, our members who have recast Doctrine and Covenants 121 as good business practice. Leaders, our doctrine tells us, ought not, cannot, be micromanagers. There can be no controlling, threatening, dominating, or compelling in God’s kingdom; only wise words, patience, love, and honesty.
I can imagine a church where leader-servants work together as caretakers and cultivators, allowing people to grow spiritually, giving them the safety of a place to put down roots where they won’t be weeded or choked by the growth going on around them, allowing unblocked access to the Son and the living water that will help them reach their divine potential. I have hope for this. I want to keep imagining it and trying out ways to encourage it. But until that hope is shared throughout the Church, until we have more faith in our doctrines than we have fear of our practices, cooperative leadership will just be a marketing slogan.