A Call(ing) for Cooperative Leadership, Part I

LT-logo-transIt’s summer, which in my Boston-area ward means that on any given Sunday about a third of the ward is on vacation. The handful of families who were moving out have already left, and their replacements are trickling in. We don’t know yet how many new families we’ll have by September, but I’m betting on at least two young couples showing up unannounced over Labor Day weekend (hey, it’s a big college town). It’s an exciting time, the only period of transition we really get in my super-stable, super-active, super-smart congregation, and I’m relishing it.

I’m also scheming, because I’m in the Relief Society presidency and we just lost a teacher.

A month ago we were having a presidency meeting around my dining room table (which also serves as my desk, the table where I lay out quilts, my children’s repository for all things needing to be mended, and the general mail inbox), and we had a collective spiritual experience. We’d been tossing out names for a replacement teacher, and none of them felt right. Then I mentioned a name. One by one the other women said, “Yeah. Yeah. She’d be great.” We all looked at each other. This was the best we’d ever felt about a calling. The president said, “I’ll call the bishop tonight. This is perfect.”

The answer was no. (Feel free to add an “of course” here if you deem it appropriate.) We eventually asked for someone else who’s going to be just as awesome, and the bishop said fine, and he’ll get around to extending the call when he’s back from vacation and things have settled down somewhat. But the thing is, I’ve been stewing about it.

And then, in the middle of my stewing, I got inundated with links to Neylan McBaine’s talk from last week’s FAIR conference. (If you haven’t read it yet, trust me, you really really want to.) It’s a smart, thoughtful talk from a woman who spends a significant percentage of her time around the general Church leadership, and though I’d love to sit down with her and argue some points, I think she really gets it. Plus, she speaks the same marketing/PR language that I do, so I think she’s awesome. Among other things, she points out that the Church’s leadership model isn’t actually hierarchical, even though we often see it that way. Instead, it’s a cooperative model where leaders are really servants, and we all have different stewardship, and everyone ends up taking a turn. (See? I said you really want to read it.)

I’ve been mulling this talk over for about a week now, and I woke up this morning thinking, “What would our process of calling women to serve in Relief Society callings, or Young Women callings, or Primary callings—what would that look like if we were really practicing cooperative leadership?”

It seems to me that part of that would mean giving auxiliary and quorum leaders full responsibilities over their own staffing. Instead of creating more work for the bishopric, our Relief Society presidency (made up of four capable adult women) should be able to call teachers, assign women to committees, and ask someone to play the piano for our meetings. And that the same should go for the Elders Quorum, and the Primary, and the Young Men…you get the idea.

It used to be that way, of course. My mother is in possession of a letter that her great-great-aunt received from a Relief Society leader of the time, thanking her for accepting a call to serve in one of the society’s large-scale humanitarian projects. It’s clear to me that this calling didn’t go through a bishop or a stake president—the scale is too large, and the spheres of influence at the time too separate. (Also, the thank-you is a bit too personal for something mediated by an outside authority.) But somewhere along the line, local bishops became responsible for extending every calling made in each ward, on top of everything else they were doing: looking out for families who needed help, counseling with members who were having a hard time, interviewing everyone for temple recommends, ensuring that the financial and membership records were all shipshape, and wearing the Santa Claus suit at the ward Christmas party.

I see many good things in the correlation process that dominated the mid-twentieth century. They’re chiefly things that have allowed the Church to grow internationally: mitigating the most expensive building projects by sharing the load for them throughout the Church; allowing rapid, high-quality translation of written materials; forcing us economically into a we’re-all-in-this-together Zion mentality that we’re loath to take upon ourselves as individuals or small groups. But as organizations within the Church have lost their autonomy to call their own teachers and committees, the effect of the good we’re doing gets diluted. If it takes three months to call a Sunbeam teacher because it’s gotten stuck in the middle of the bishop’s already long to-do list, don’t we already have built into our religious structure a way to streamline that process?

There are a few reasons to run callings by the bishop before they’re extended, and they’re good ones. First, he may know something about someone’s ability to fill a certain role that the rest of us don’t. That’s valid. (Of course, there are cases where the presidency of the auxiliary knows details that the bishop doesn’t know, and that’s valid too.) Second, the bishop is responsible for the whole ward, and he may have multiple organizations asking for the same person. But these are reasons to do a courtesy heads-up, not to pass the buck. In fact, I think it’s a great agenda item for ward council—it makes a lot of sense to talk about how to staff an entire ward with, well, all of the leaders in the ward.

So here’s my question. What would it look like in the Church if callings came from the president of an auxiliary or a quorum instead of going through the bishop? Would it carry less weight? Would we feel that our service was less acceptable?

My best guess is that we’d be fine. We might even trust our auxiliary and quorum leaders a little more, as we get used to acknowledging that quorum and auxiliary leaders receive revelation for the organizations that are in their care and stewardship. Handing the power to make callings back to the leaders of the organizations that need to be staffed shows that we trust those leaders and that we are okay with them having authority. We’d be more nimble as an organization—faster to respond to crises, more effective at filling empty holes, maybe even better at applying the gospel to the specific needs in our wards. As Joseph Smith instructed the founding members of the Nauvoo Relief Society, “If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.” That’s almost a heady amount of responsibility in the Church as it is today, but this is God’s work. It’s a huge, important, daunting, humbling, critical responsibility.

And if there’s a mistake somewhere? If someone gets asked to do more than one thing? We’re grown-ups. What’s so wrong with someone accepting a calling and then having to tell subsequent people, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach Sunday School this year. I’ve already been asked to play piano for the Primary”? It seems to me that the “I should never turn down a calling” mantra is setting good people up for some significant temporal and spiritual burnout. What if we trusted them instead to ask God and to say yes to the callings that had been spiritually confirmed in their hearts? What if we empowered them to say no to the ones that simply make them feel panicked, confused, and overburdened?

What do you think about a cooperative leadership model? And specifically, should auxiliaries and quorums be able to extend callings, as long as they’re coordinated with the ward council and the bishop approves?


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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22 Responses

  1. I think this is a wonderful idea. In fact, it speaks directly to some of the problems we’ve been having in our ward lately. Our bishopric has been in place for less than a year, which is also true of nearly every auxiliary presidency. Due to the need to start over nearly everywhere, and the general inexperience (and I’m sure other factors of which I’m unaware), there have been significant delays in getting people called. As in, sometimes six months or more if it’s not a high priority calling for the bishopric.

    One of the problems with the current system is that it’s often those lower-priority callings that are given to new or struggling members, so that they can have a responsibility without getting overwhelmed. However, the poor bishop is so swamped with trying to keep the ward running that he can’t really take the time to extend all these smaller callings.

    As a partial solution, the bishopric suggested to the relief society presidency that they simply extend “assignments” to sisters to play/lead music, serve as greeters, etc. (I’m not sure how far these assignments extended. I think more involved callings still needed to go through the bishopric). It was a great idea in principle (and something along the lines of what you’re suggesting). However, the relief society president said that the sisters didn’t take an assignment from the relief society presidency as seriously as a calling from the bishopric, because it didn’t come “through the priesthood.”

    I think your suggestion would relieve the bishopric of a significant burden, streamline the callings process, and give the members more respect for their female leaders (which in our ward/stake is a significant problem).

    • Libby says:

      I like how Neylan frames “priesthood” in her talk, too (though really, I should say I like the way that Laurel framed it, and that I like that Neylan quotes her). The offices are appendages to the priesthood, not the priesthood itself, and if we confuse “priesthood” and “men” too much we’re losing the vision that Joseph Smith had for the Relief Society and the rest of Mormonism.

  2. TopHat says:

    Our RS president has full authority on picking callings for RS. In fact, the bishop assumed I had a particular RS calling once because I guess she mentioned wanting to call me in a ward council, but never did it! I’m not sure if the YW, YM, and Primary are similar, but I would guess they are since I know our Primary President had a hand in calling nursery workers when I was nursery leader. I think the callings get mentioned to the bishop and checked to make sure that person can take on the calling or can be released from their other calling, but our bishop pretty much lets the RS run RS. It’s pretty awesome!

    • Libby says:

      That sounds dreamy. Really. Can you picture your bishop formalizing that? It would be so terrific to mention in ward council that you’d like to call someone–and have the bishop say, “Sure. Go ahead and do it. Let the executive secretary know whether or not they accept.”

  3. Linda says:

    When I was Relief Society president in our Illinois ward I knew I’d have to wrestle to get our callings filled. I would come with names to propose and almost always that person was in some other time- and labor-intensive calling in the ward or the stake. It was like playing Go Fish. I could understand that these women were in high demand, and I often was unaware of where else they were serving by calling or “assignment.” It’s an extremely complicated process (in that ward at that time anyway) and if there were an effective way to improve things, I’d be all for it.

    Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions, Libby, and welcome aboard!

  4. Davis says:

    In the wards I have been in, none of the Elders quorum callings go through the Bishop. The EQ President has keys. He makes callings, extends them to the membership, and sets them apart. None of it needs to go through the Bishop. There are of course conflicts which need to be resolved, but if the person is available – like a quorum member that is there in quorum meeting every week – The EQ President can just call him as teacher and set him apart himself.

  5. Genevieve says:

    I love the idea of the Relief Society and other organizations in the church taking care of business. And of course, I would love for the Relief Society to set apart the women they’ve called. But I dream in color, truly I do. Ah Brother Joseph… I think you’d share this post on your Facebook page.

  6. Mhana says:

    In principle I agree. I just wonder a bit about the mechanics of that. As some people have mentioned, there are “high demand” people. So the YW want someone, but that someone is in the RS presidency, so they release that woman, but then there is a vacancy and the RS grabs right back someone from the YW — I’m not saying the current system is perfect, far from it. I just wonder about that autonomy. At least in my ward it isn’t like we have a large pool of people who aren’t doing anything but are willing to that you could just call. Every new call creates a void in some other organization that has to be filled. I am all for a more collaborative approach, but part of me wonders if what you’re proposing wouldn’t be chaos.

    That said I get frustrated with how slowly the cogs turn too. This last week there was a drama (which happily I dodged) because the counsellor over the Mia Maids (I am in YW myself) proposed a name for the new class president, as she had been asked to do by the Bishop. She did this after prayer, consultation with the presidency and careful consideration. The Bishop decided that that girl had had her turn and that it should go to a different girl. This infuriated the counsellor, because what is the point of prayer and consideration if the Bishop had already decided who it should be? She was in tears and deeply upset, and eventually the bishop conceded the point.

    I’ve noticed that YW can be extra dodgy (and I bet YM too) because the Bishopric have their kids in the program so they hear gossip and have their own kids interests to protect and further. Who knew it was so dramatic?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Cool idea, definiitely worth thinking about. The main problem, as several have mentioned, is going to be the internecine turf warfare over high demand people. (If we could do away with stake auxiliaries, that woiuld certainly help.)

    But I like the idea of discussing these callings openly in Ward Council meeting. Why not?

    • Libby says:

      I honestly think that if we understood every other auxiliary’s needs (and why they’re needs), there’d be much less of a turf war than we have now. The question wouldn’t be “Can we get so-and-so?” but “Well, we can’t take her away from her Primary calling because these three children won’t make it through a lesson without her, so let’s move on. How about this person?” Plus, it would be a lot faster than submitting a name, waiting for an answer, talking about it again with your presidency, submitting another name, waiting for an answer….

  8. Rachel says:

    Once upon a time I was turned down to be the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my old Singles Ward in Boston. How do I know? Because the Sunday School President was a friend of mine and told me. What greater calling were they waiting to extend? Nursery Leader. In a Singles Ward. In a very small basement room, with one boy and one girl, and a set of train toys. It was the most difficult calling I have ever had, and with the perspective I now have, I deeply regret not turning it down. It did not ever feel inspired. Now I am happily Gospel Doctrine teacher in a ward across the country.

    A return to greater autonomy would be a beautiful thing in my book, as would be a full model of “cooperation.” And the ability to more honestly express desires and abilities in church service.

  9. Brian says:

    Having the Relief Society president extend callings and sustain people in Relief Society meetings could be a means of elevating the Relief Society President’s role, but it could also diminish the visibility of the Relief Society and potentially diminish specific callings that should be elevated. As was mentioned in a previous comment Elders’ Quorum Presidencies can extend calls, sustain the individual in the Elders’ Quorum meeting, set apart, and release the individual. Any call should, of course, get the Bishop’s approval for all the reasons of organizational structural stability you have mentioned. But this is limited to callings for the Elder’s Quorum so the scope and visibility of the callings is also limited.

    I have noticed that when it comes to calls and releases, this is the one place that more women than men are highlighted during Sacrament meeting. Some months twice as many women are asked to stand as men to accept callings and be released. This is largely because all Primary and Relief Society callings come up in sacrament meetings; they are publicly recognized callings. You have probably never heard of your ward’s Elders’ Quorum instructor or Perfecting the Saints committee chair, because they were never called and sustained by the entire ward. I recently went through 2 callings over 4 years without ever being sustained by the entire ward. I loved my callings and enjoyed serving my quorum, but from the perspective of ward visibility nursery leaders had more important callings than me, which is probably appropriate.

    Relief Society pianists and instructors might serve just the Relief Society, but other Relief Society callings could and should be considered callings to serve the ward. I am glad I get to sustain the Relief Society compassionate service leader in sacrament meeting. As far as I can tell she is my compassionate service leader because she is the only one in the ward! If the ward lacks a family history consultant the Relief Society could ask for a Relief Society call that would serve the same purpose, likewise for an employment specialist, temple trip organizer, public relations specialist, fellowshipping committee chair, community outreach chair, service project leader, etc. If a Relief Society President becomes interested in recommending sisters be called to lead Relief Society committees that serve the entire ward and the wider community this opens up lots of opportunities. Consider this, callings recommended by the Relief Society President and approved by the Bishop are sustained by the entire ward, as opposed to being isolated to a single organization. This gives these callings potential for a greater scope. This is powerful cooperative leadership model; sisters chosen and recommended by the Relief Society President, called by the Bishop, sustained by the ward, then serve the ward (and wider community) under the direction of the Relief Society President. I am not sure what the Church Handbook says, but I think this is completely consistent with the current church organization and in line with McBaine’s excellent talk. Perhaps we have become too insular in our understanding of the Relief Society’s scope and mission.

  10. Chris says:

    What a wonderful post! I’ve served in leadership in all three women’s auxiliaries, and one of my biggest complaints is micromanager-type bishops who sit on callings for weeks, who call someone who don’t want for a calling after you and your counselors have already prayerfully selected someone for the position, and who sabatoge your best efforts to be an effective leader.

    The challenge mentioned on some comments about some sisters being in high demand for callings can be resolved if Primary, YW, and RS presidencies meet or email one another to negotiate callings. This would also solve a problem that occurs when bishops release sisters and then wait for several weeks or months to call them to a new position when they are desparately needed in another organization.

  11. DefyGravity says:

    I love this post! Recently I was being switched from Primary teacher to the RS weekday activity board (or whatever they call it now.) I was already volunteering with the RS and my official calling was teaching Primary. Both organizations wanted me to be there (which is hilarious considering my kind of belief and unorthodox teaching and comments) and I was okay doing both. Both presidents were okay with me doing both. But neither of them was willing to make a decision; both kept saying “Well, we’ll see what the bishop wants to do.” I kept thinking; it’s your organization and my calling and if I’m okay with the current set-up and you’re okay with the current set-up, why in the world does the bishop need to get involved? They have a really hard time finding reliable Primary teachers, but I was released anyway, over the opinion of the Primary president and officially put into RS. So the bishop stuck his nose in, ignored the Primary president and made her life a lot harder, despite the fact that we were all okay with the situation as it was. So, what good did he do getting involved and why did they feel the need to get him involved when it was all worked out?

    It was so strange to me to hear two adult, intelligent women sounding children needing to ask their dad’s permission to do something. I feel like having to always got the bishop turns women into less powerful, less decisive, less intelligent people because they can’t trust themselves to make callings or decisions for their own organizations. They have to wait for someone else to approve it, and have to listen when he says no. If you always have to wait for someone else’s okay, you aren’t going to trust yourself or your revelation because someone can and does over-ride it.

  12. EmilyCC says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Loving your first official Exponent blogger post, Libby!

    Neylan cites Dana Haight Cattani’s “To PEC or Not to PEC” in our latest issue of Exponent II. In there, Dana gives some practical ways that she as a RS president models this idea of cooperative leadership.

  13. Jessawhy says:

    This is a great post, Libby! I’m excited to have you on board at Exponent.

  14. X2 Dora says:

    Brilliant. I’ve always thought that the whole point of Exodus 18 was that the delegation of responsibilities was for the benefit of all, the rulers and the ruled. I like the model of each auxiliary leadership being guided by the spirit, and submitting their selections to the bishop for timely approval. Of course, this depends on trusting relationships between the bishop and auxiliary presidents. Instead of being exhausted Moses, bishops are then freed to do what no one else can do, auxiliary presidents become better leaders who are more attuned to the needs of their sub-congregation, and people are able to jump in and serve in a more efficient manner.

  15. google says:

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you
    writing this article and the rest of the site is very good.

  1. September 13, 2012

    […] (You can read Part I here.) […]

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