Called to Serve?

A recent mission-centered talk by a high councilman keeps percolating in my thoughts. The speaker hoped to inspire young men to serve LDS missions. He made it very clear that boys are called to serve missions. For boys, a mission is expected and required by God. Girls, on the other hand, can be called to serve. Missions are nice for girls, but optional.

This is fairly common rhetoric, but this speaker emphasized the extraordinary spiritual experiences offered to male on missions by giving examples from letters by a current female missionary. He spent his talk urging young men to prepare for missions by sharing experiences from an enthusiastic young female missionary. Yet, this spiritual awakening and life-changing mission is just suggested for her and it can not prepare her for the authority and responsibility that male missionaries will receive from serving a mission. And it hurt to be once again reminded of how many spiritual experiences are reserved for men, but bolstered by women.

In a 2018 youth devotional, the oft-quoted Russell M Nelson asked youth, “Would you like to be a big part of the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on the earth today?” One could argue that he is more generally discussing missionary-work, rather than missions. However, missions are often lauded as the greatest experience of a man’s life and an essential one. Why, then, isn’t this the case for women?

I’m laughing at myself a bit as I write this because I have a conundrum. I actually dislike the incessant push for all young men to go on a mission. There is far too much pressure in the LDS church to conform and follow one path to spirituality and righteousness. I don’t actually want the circle of expectations to broaden and pressure more people to serve missions. But I do want to explore why the LDS church doesn’t see how problematic it is to describe a mission as a “pivotal role in [an] unprecedented event” for men, but a “powerful, but optional, opportunity for women (Russell M Nelson, General Conference, April, 2022).” This only serves to emphasize how so many exceptional spiritual experiences are reserved for men. It also lays bear the point that men are essential to leading, teaching, and speaking for the Lord; women are nice to bring along.

In the April 2022 General Conference, M. Russell Ballard said the following about his mission experience:

  1. “My full-time missionary service as a young man in England blessed my life and shaped my spiritual destiny.”
  2. “My missionary service prepared me to be a better husband and father and to be successful in business. It also prepared me for a lifetime of service to the Lord in His Church.”
  3. “Of all the training I have received in my Church assignments, none has been more important to me than the training I received as a nineteen-year-old elder serving a full-time mission.”

This sounds incredible, doesn’t it? According to Ballard, his mission became the stepping-stone for both spiritual and temporal successes. Like many men, he describes his mission as transformative and life-altering. Simply being born biologically male qualifies a man to have all of these unique priesthood experiences if he chooses them; including baptizing and confirming new members, mission leadership, and continuous, and institutionalized spiritual authority and responsibility throughout his life.

For women, on the other hand, “a mission is also a powerful, but optional, opportunity. We love sister missionaries and welcome them wholeheartedly,” according to Russell M. Nelson. A sister missionary is neat and helpful, but she will not baptize, confirm, act as mission leader, or gain institutionalized spiritual authority and responsibility throughout her life. This is why I didn’t serve a mission. It wasn’t necessary for me and I honestly didn’t believe the full spiritual experiences of being a missionary were open to me as a woman. Now, I listen to these talks directed at my children and my heart breaks for young girls hearing this same message.

Some, like Dale G. Renlund, may argue that this messaging is because women are naturally more spiritual, so their divine nature doesn’t require a mission. He explained in the April 2022 Women’s Conference, “This [divine nature] is intrinsic to who we are. It is spiritually ‘genetic,’ inherited from our heavenly parents,16 and requires no effort on our part.” This matches much of what I’ve heard throughout my life about why only men hold priesthood responsibilities: women don’t need them because we are more spiritually mature. Spoiler alert: I don’t believe this is true, but instead a way to argue for continuing the patriarchal order that benefits men.

Renlund then goes on to compare missionary work to a soccer match, where all kinds of players are needed to protect and achieve a goal. This is meant to be inspiring for women, but I see missions as a feeder league in this scenario, where teams are required to include women, but they have limited ways to contribute. On this team, of course, women play a supporting role. It’s nice if they join the match and they can bolster the team’s success. The team loves women, but they don’t need the full feeder team experience because they are already so advanced in their unique soccer gifts. Their stories will be freely used to recruit more essential male players to the team, though.

This might be acceptable if women, who do not need the same feeder team experience, could also go on to join the major leagues as coaches, team captains, team owners, or on the board of directors. But they can’t. In fact, there’s a separate women’s team, but it is coached and led by men too. In reality, when the special co-ed season ends, it would be ideal if women could keep the uniforms clean, bring snacks, refill water bottles, boost morale, keep a team schedule (under the direction of a man), and watch the kids during games. And if no women show up to a Sunday game? It’s okay because all of the essential roles are filled without them.

Do I sound overly cynical? Perhaps. But listening to institutionalized exclusion and inequality couched in such kind words and accolades for women is painful and infuriating. What would I prefer? Well, in a dream world, women and men would have equal opportunities for leadership and authority in the LDS church and this disparity wouldn’t exist. If this is unrealistic, then missions should be encouraged as a spiritual calling that is optional, but equally important and life-changing for both women and men.

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14 Responses

  1. nicolesbitani says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for this post.

  2. Mikaela says:

    The fact the church could continue to operate completely unimpeded, minus child care problems, if all women suddenly refused to show up is disheartening. The fact not a single meeting with any ordinances or authority can take place without men makes the previous fact infuriating. I am also tired of women’s supposed spiritual superiority being used as a way to uphold patriarchy. If women are somehow more spiritually gifted just by being female (which I don’t believe either) why do we have the less spiritually developed people running the whole show? That is liking having the intern running the Fortune 500 company. And the point that women aren’t expected to serve missions because they aren’t needed to fill leadership roles is just that much more frustrating. I agree we need less expectation and conformity. We also need significantly less patriarchy.

  3. Ziff says:

    Great post, Mindy. It’s sad but not surprising, I guess, that the status of women as missionaries (nice to have, but not essential) so well matches the status of women in the Church as a whole.

    Also, I completely agree with you that it would be preferable to not require missionary service of anyone, but as long as only men are so aggressively steered to this experience that so many people describe as so central to their lives, it seems awfully exclusionary to not push it for women too.

  4. Elisa says:

    Women aren’t fully human to Church leadership. They are vehicles for bringing babies into the world.

    I am also torn on this because I don’t like requiring *anyone* to go. But perhaps more torn because many women make terrific missionaries and learn great things, but they’re giving 18 months of their lives to an institution that doesn’t value or treat them equally as it does men.

  5. hannatycc says:

    I heard Elders Ballard describe the great power, spirituality and skills that will come to young men as they accept the missionary calls that they are expected to, commanded to, MUST fulfill. Then he followed with
    our young women MAY also go on missions. I haven’t quoted this exactly, but I was sadly struck by the great difference in the meaning of MUST and MAY. Our young women hear and notice. They have grown up in a very different everyday world from mine, a time when most girls didnt notice. And they leave.

  6. Abby Hansen says:

    As a young person I was so frustrated hearing all of the talks and stories encouraging missionary work as such an amazing and irreplaceable experience, only to see church leaders surprised and disappointed when I stated that I wanted to serve a mission before thinking seriously about marriage. I was frustrated that they made me wait until age 21 to go (since I’m in my forties), and that men were fawned over for their returned missionary status, and girls were looked at with suspicion. It’s so irritating that girls are always the afterthought, with boys being the prime audience.

    • JC says:

      “I was frustrated that they made me wait until age 21 to go (since I’m in my forties), and that men were fawned over for their returned missionary status, and girls were looked at with suspicion.”

      Yes to this. I know women who are returned missionaries (aunts, cousins, and friends), and they echo your sentiment regarding how they were looked at suspiciously while the returned missionary men they knew were lauded. The sister missionaries were the ones doing the heavy lifting finding investigators, teaching lessons, scheduling baptisms, getting together baptism programs and refreshments, and giving service in numerous ways, yet were looked down on and derided. Meanwhile, the elders were treated like kings, fawned over, and the ward members acted as though they couldn’t do anything wrong. Even elders who behaved like children were seen as more valid than hardworking sisters.

      Several years ago, my ward got sister missionaries for the first time in a long while. **Everyone** complained about it and said sister missionaries were high maintenance, needy, had too many dietary restrictions, and were unlikeable. Getting people to feed the sisters or sit in on lessons with them was like pulling teeth… and yet, there was no issue with feeding the elders and helping them out in any way. This behavior went on for three years before my ward got elders again and then everyone was more than happy to step out and help out again.

      I think this behavior has lessened since the the age change with more sister missionaries and is dependent on the area… but it’s still wrong and horrifying that it even happened in the first place.

  7. Bailey says:

    The post isn’t cynical. It realistically describes my church experience – “keep the uniforms clean, bring snacks, refill water bottles, boost morale, keep a team schedule (under the direction of a man), and watch the kids.” My church-going male peers are desperately needed for leadership positions. So desperate that a few months ago that my ward was dissolved for not having enough men. If my teen daughters don’t show up to church, the meeting progresses without missing a beat. If any of the few young men don’t show up, it’s a problem because they are actually needed.

  8. Rebecca says:

    My fellow sister missionaries and I used to remind each other that the elders HAD to be there, while we sisters CHOSE to be there. Many were called, but few had chosen. It helped at the time, but why does this have to be the narrative at all? Why did we have to discount the experience of the men to validate our own? Why did we have to argue that we had just as much right to be in the field serving God? This post is so valid and really points out a problem in the paradigm of “we need men, but women will do alright since they’re going to show up anyway.”

  9. Natasha says:

    Yes. Thank you. I just finished Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic where she confronts the same dichotomies/bizarre discrpencies: “I think, none of the leaders of the church want widely understood either outside or inside the church that it is necessary to believe in the rule of men in order to be a member of the Mormon church” (297). And a solution: “To instate Mother in Heaven on her throne with equal power would destroy patriarchy” (381).

  10. “Men, we need you! We can’t do this without you! And women, we don’t mind if you come too,” is not a great message. “We need missionaries. Please consider serving,” would be so much better.

    • Mindy says:

      Exactly. I’m so tired of being an after-thought, add-on, addendum, or tag-along in the LDS church.

  11. gameking77 says:

    I am a male with a mental disability. I did not want to serve a mission. My brothers were willing and able, but were excused by the stake president. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that *every male* should serve a mission.

    • Mindy says:

      I absolutely agree. Serving should be a personal choice without cohersion and ither choices should be valued equally.

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