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.


On prolonged sabbatical from her career in arts administration, Libby is a seamstress, editor, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. She has a husband and three children.

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26 Responses

  1. Markie says:

    Good stuff, Libby!

  2. Stargazer Becky says:

    So let’s talk about living the principle while learning to have faith in it. How many people will have the strength to live the vision we hold out as ideal and learn from the fall out? Let’s take the step with faith to act as if this is the case already.

    • Libby says:

      I think it’s going to take a lot of people doing just that, Becky, and slowly things will change. If Church members are questioning their local leaders’ poor decisions and acting as though we should be working cooperatively, the local congregation starts to get the message. (Look for the forthcoming WAVE handbook about how local leadership can include women in governance!)

  3. April says:

    I wonder if the current organizational structure is steering this attitude. Virtually every decision made by a ward leader is subject to veto by a bishop, while stake auxillary leaders are really just glorified consultants without authority. If organizationally the power was more spread out, we wouldn’t find it so necessary to revere bishops like gods because they would no longer be omnipotent like gods.

    • Libby says:

      April, I agree entirely. So how do we make that happen? I think it requires auxiliary leaders to claim that authority, but it also requires bishops and stake presidents to stop exercising veto power.

  4. I think some of the stress on bishops is the fact that they are held up as unquestioned leaders–a pedestal is a lonely place on which to perch.

  5. Alisa says:

    Libby–I was so thrilled to read your explanation, analysis, and questions. In addition, I feel that taking sustaining down to being loyal (and the actual act of first sustaining very much looks like swearing a loyalty oath) is at odds with what will be a true cooperative model.

    I am going to need to process what you write here, how the model can or can never work, etc. Good food for thought.

    • Libby says:

      Alisa, I’ve been thinking a lot about what sustaining and loyalty mean, and I’m more and more convinced that the most loyal, sustaining thing we can do is frequently disagreeing with a poor decision. I don’t think bishops need yes-men and yes-women around them — I think they need smart people who can offer alternatives and different points of view.

      • Rachel says:

        Mmmm. This might be my favorite thing you wrote. They need Real sustaining. And Real loyalty. And that real sustaining and real loyalty may look different than what many members suppose, but it will be better, I think.

  6. Diane says:

    “Until we are able to question our leaders ”

    I don’t believe this is an issue of questioning our leaders.(At least not for me)We,( or rather I ) question our leaders all the time. What we don’t do, question our leadership(Interchange the word, confront) with the expectation of change.

    • Diane says:

      I really wish we had an edit button.

      What my response should have said. I don’t believe this is an issue of questioning our leaders. I think we all question our leaders. What we don’t do well in this church is question our leaders with the intention to confront in order to advocate for change. Until we do this, there really won’t be any differences.

      • Libby says:

        Yeah, I think I understand. Maybe we just need to question more vocally? More publicly? Make sure we get invited to the meetings where decisions are made?

    • Diane says:


      Its more than just being vocal and actually being included, its more than just about having our voices herd. I think one of the things that really needs to be changed is making our sustaining vote actually mean something, just as it does in the upcoming election.

      I’m tired of raising my hand to support leadership. The raising of our hands is actually suppose to mean something, instead, its empty, sure, you can not raise your hand in opposition(I’ve done that), you can abstain,(but then that doesn’t really wind up counting) I don’t want to be pulled outside and told there’s something wrong with me and have the person sustained when there’s a legitimate reason for me not to support. Its (the raising of ones hand) makes the whole act a mockery. when it really doesn’t matter, especially, since I’m not the right sex for them to listen to anyway

  7. Jimmy says:

    Good food for thought. In addition to the leadership culture, in my experience, I think some of the hesitance to publicly talk about bad management in the church is because 1. no one wants to be accused of “gossiping” or speaking ill of others, and 2. we recognize that everyone has faults and bad days and we’d want people to be similarly gracious to us if we messed something up badly. I also wonder how much questioning occurs behind closed doors (the whole Matthew 18:15 thing).

    • Libby says:

      Jimmy, I think people have broadened the definition of “gossiping” and “speaking ill” to include criticizing bad decisions. Someone who doesn’t want their actions to be analyzed will use a personal attack rather than admit that they may have behaved in error.

      And yes, everybody has bad days. But if I mess something up, I’d rather have someone say, “Let’s do it a different way next time” than pat me on the back and say, “Everything you do is perfect!” Don’t you think?

  8. Daniel Z. says:

    “If the Church simply claimed a living prophet and divine authority from God, questioning leaders would be heresy. But our doctrine is rich…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…”

    This is some really good insight, Libby. Likewise, our understanding of how women and men should be equal partners collides with the reality of a primarily male hierarchy in leadership positions. And our desire to see change in how women are treated collides with our hand raised to the square to sustain our leaders.

    From what I have observed, as a convert, the church is a lot like my Italian Catholic family. When tensions occur, we go quiet and try to avoid the embarrassment that can arise when grappling with difficult issues in public. Best to duck the difficulty and avoid controversy. We don’t make waves.

    We need a space in the church where we can have calm, polite discussions about these tensions, where we can approach leaders with concerns. This space needs to be free of accusations of “non-orthodoxy”, “apostasy”, “unrighteousness”, or “lack of the spirit” being thrown at those who might raise such issues.

    • Diane says:


      I grew up Italian Catholic and converted when I was about 25 years old. I would have to disagree with you.

      I think and I believe that people vary differently much like they do in LDS families. The thing that does distinguish the LDS family from the Catholic family (other than faith) is the practice. Yes, Catholic/ LDS families go to church, yes, they go to seminary/ CCD classes. However, the difference(and its’ a big difference) is that Catholics, particularly American Catholics(even Italians) is that we don’t allow church leadership to dominate our live in quite the same way that LDS leadership tries and often succeeds in doing(though guilt)

      Another point that I’m going make is that it also depends in the area that you live. Philadelphia, is an area which is rich is Catholic history and tradition. They are a vocal group. Philadelphia Catholics were totally behind the prosecution of area priest who were sexually abusing young children. Former DA Lynn Abraham(a practicing Catholic) impaneled the jury that led to the countries first arrest and conviction of a catholic priest . And while some were upset, many, many more supported the juries decision.

      In another point, due to the lack of enrollment (decrease in family size) many Catholic Schools and diocese were slated for closing. Philadelphia Catholics again were up in arms, and held rallies in support of keeping schools open. And while some schools were still closed, many still remain open.

      In contrast, a few months ago, there a a big rumble in Provo, the church wanted to take over property( to expand the MTC) which was already owned by private citizens, and where people actually had homes. People protested and one Sunday from pulpit a letter was read “inviting” people to stop protesting and give the land over. And lo and behold, people stopped. And there’s the difference.

      The emotional and spiritual manipulation by leadership in the LDS faith makes it very hard for people to confront leadership(without fear of excommunication)

      • Daniel Z. says:

        Yes. My point was about my own family and how they react to tension, not about how Catholics as a whole may critique church leadership.

    • Rachel says:

      “We need a space in the church where we can have calm, polite discussions about these tensions, where we can approach leaders with concerns.” Amen and amen.

      Such safe spaces would go a long way, in my opinion.

    • Libby says:

      Hi, Daniel!

      See above…but I don’t think that sustaining our leaders collides with our feelings about how women (and, btw, gay men and single adults and members of color) are treated. I think that when we promise to sustain our leaders we are promising to help them be good leaders, and that has to include challenging their decisions.

      The space you describe must also be free from accusations of “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” and “gossip,” and “undermining the Church.” I’d love it if we would all just assume that anyone who’s sticking around for the argument is deeply committed to the Church.

  9. Carrie says:

    Thank you so very much for the links at the top of your post. I am so pleased with the article and the ideas presented. You have made my heart soar.

  10. Emily U says:

    I’ve been musing over Neylan McBain’s talk ever since I read it, and while I very much like all of her practical suggestions for change, and I appreciate how she brings some concerns for women to the attention of the leadership, her article leaves me unsettled. Not completely satisfied.

    I do not know whether McBain is completely satisfied with the cooperative leadership model in her own heart, but I think she went as far as she possibly could given her audience. This woman actually has the ear of the big guys in Salt Lake! And I’m really glad she does, because I think she can put things to them in a way they can understand and not feel threatened by. (You catch more flies with sugar, as I once heard Cheiko Okazaki say).

    I just finished “Book of Mormon Girl,” and one of the questions Joanna Brooks raises in the book is, why does the Church leadership felt threatened by Mormon feminists? (This question is posed in her chapter on the excommunications of the 1990s.) I think behind every fear is an insecurity. And I hypothesize that the insecurity touched on by feminism is a very deep one. I wonder if it could be that these devoted, truth-seeking, faithful men who lead the Church suspect (though probably unacknowledged even to themselves) that there may actually be something unholy about the strict gender segregation in the Church. That after all, we really do have some things fundamentally wrong.

    I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly why I feel unsatisfied with McBain’s cooperative model (though it was so eloquently and logically put forward). I hadn’t thought of the things you said, Libby, and I think you’ve hit on important and true things.

    • Diane says:


      To be fair, I don’t think that Church Leadership has problems with just “Mormon Feminist,” I think and believe, Church Leadership has ever since its inception been suspicious of people whether inside the church or outside the Church who question their authority. For example, When Joseph asked Emma for permission to take another wife and she said no, he had the leadership come over lay hands on her head to cast out demons. In a second example, Brigham Young, took Priesthood authority away from African Americans and used the Rhetoric of the the Bible and God to do it.(In both Cases) He (Brigham) did this once again, in order to justify his actions in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

      As long as we have this kind of paranoia among the upper members Church authority, I don’t believe that change will come. They will continue to use the same rhetoric,”God hasn’t revealed this to be true to me(people in position of authority) so I don’t have to authorize change. After all, how can people like us argue with someone who isn’t physically here?

      • Emily U says:

        That’s true, feminist questions aren’t the only way in which Church leaders feel their authority threatened. I do think there’s insecurity at the bottom of those fears, though perhaps different ones depending on the particular issue.

        It’s easy for me to get sad about what little ability the membership has to affect change in the Church (we’re not a democracy, to be sure). We really do depend on people like Pres. Kimball to make the big changes like in 1978. But I also really believe the grass-roots ideas that bubble up from the bottom are what move the hearts of the leaders to be able to open them to change. And I think papers like Neylans are part of that.

    • Libby says:

      Thanks, Emily. I agree — it is usually when people know that there’s a serious flaw in their arguments that they back them up with the most vehemence and vitriol.

  11. Jeff says:

    I loved the talk by McBain–great stuff! The word “leader” actually appears 46 times in the Book of Mormon. What am I missing?

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