Can a Woman Be Friends with her Stake President Like a Man Can?

These are just some stock photos of priesthood leaders from online, but they all seem pretty happy to be with each other.

I wrote this blog post several weeks ago, before the announcement of a membership council for Natasha Helfer on April 18th (the evening before this posts). I believe the ideas I talk about below are relevant to her story, because Natasha’s stake president was also the boss of her soon to be ex-husband. Her relationship with their priesthood leader isn’t the same as his relationship to him, and whether that ties into the unique timing of this council is impossible to know. 

My husband recently received a phone call from a counselor in our stake presidency. He was being extended a covid-era calling over the phone. Afterwards, he commented to me about what a nice man the counselor was, and that he’d enjoyed talking to him.

Our stake presidency is very new, having just been called during the last stake conference. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t very sad to see the old presidency go (I’d had serious concerns with their leadership), and I think my husband was happy to offer me good news about the new stake leaders. My husband had also heard the new president speak in a meeting I’d missed, and told me, “I think you’ll really like him!”. I cyber stalked my new stake president on Facebook (it turned out we have multiple friends in common), and I agreed that in general, he seems like a good guy.

I told my husband, “You know, I think I’d actually be friends with this new stake president if we met somewhere. He seems nice and level headed.” But then I thought more and added, “Unfortunately we could never be friends now! If we met each other, there’d be this crazy power dynamic because he’s the stake president and I’m a member of his stake. No matter what, he’s now my priesthood authority and he’ll see me as his responsibility. He would never see me as his equal, and I couldn’t be friends with him mentally presiding over me.”

My husband said, “That’s crazy. Of course you could be friends. He’s not going to think he has power over you or that you aren’t his equal. He’s called to serve you.” I must’ve looked skeptical, because he added, “You’re a girl scout leader, Abby. What if you were asked to be in charge of all of the girl scouts in Utah? Would you think you were better than them, or would you just think about serving them and doing good things for their lives? That’s all the stake president is going to do!”

Well, I disagree with my husband. His comparison of me as a girl scout leader to this new man as a stake president doesn’t feel like a similar situation to me at all. As a volunteer girl scout leader, there’s nothing that tells me I am the only one who can fill that particular calling, or that I have a divine potential to fill this role.

On the other hand, the stake president has been told that the supreme being of the entire universe has personally hand picked him to be the authority over my spiritual life. He’s been called by a general authority (who was called by God’s one true prophet on earth) to be placed in charge of my spiritual welfare. He sits on the stand of any meetings we both attend and presides over everything said and done there.  He chooses who my bishop will be, who in turn chooses my female leaders. He has the authority to lay his hands on my head and speak the words of God to direct my path, while I only have the ability to say, “Hi, hope you have a good weekend!”, back to him.

He has a volunteer staff that will contact me and set an appointment if he wants to meet with me. If I want to meet with him, I have to contact his secretaries to schedule it. I covenanted in the temple not to speak ill of him, but he never did that about me. If there was a disagreement between what I believe as a female member of the church and what he believes as my male priesthood authority, almost everyone in our stake would side with him because of our relative positions of power.

He stands up and speaks in meetings that hundreds of my neighbors and friends attend, and no matter what he says they’ll take notes and try to implement it into their lives. If I say something even vaguely contradictory (like, “He’s an awesome leader, but I do think some stake programs he created could be improved for better gender parity next time”) those same people would bend over backwards to defend him and the way he tried doing something, rather than dare take my ideas up to him as constructive feedback.

Could anyone ever really become friends with their stake president? How could we, with that sort of power differential?

But wait – maybe men can be friends with their stake president! My husband seemed to think it was possible, and that it was odd I didn’t agree. And you know – even putting aside the lack of worry about adulterous affairs, men are on a much more even ground with their leaders. They all hold the same priesthood. They’ve all been in priesthood quorums together since they were in 6th grade. My husband is supporting the stake president right now and hey, you never know – someday my husband might be HIS stake president in reverse. Other men in the ward might’ve already served in a stake presidency or on the high council themselves. It’s a rotating club that they’ve all either been in, or have the distinct possibility of being in at a future date.

The men have all experienced giving blessings to other people. Many of them served two year missions and experienced baptizing converts and their own children. They can say, “I know what it’s like to be the priesthood authority”, even if it’s as simple as once having been a male college student tracked down by desperate female dorm mates who needed a late night blessing for a sick roommate.

I literally cannot relate to any of these male experiences. I have always been the one seeking out a priesthood leader for a blessing of counsel or repentance, and never once in my life will I ever be the person someone comes to for that. I might be a Relief Society president or day, but I will still have to refer the women in my organization to my male leaders for blessings, confessions and repentance, or the final word on doctrine. I will never have the kind of authority they have.

So could I be friends with my new stake president? Yes, if we met in a neutral location, perhaps we could have a semblance of a friendship. Maybe if our kids were both on the same sports team and we sat by each other at games, or if we planned a neighborhood BBQ together, we could be friends in those circumstances.

But in the back of my head, I’d always be wondering what he was thinking about. Is he trying to be friends with me to fellowship me because he wants to correct my beliefs about women and the priesthood? (I think women should be ordained. If would be great!)  Does he believe that God left the seat next to me open on the bleachers for him to sit, specifically because he’s now in charge of saving my soul? Did someone send him my Exponent blog posts where I complained just a little too much about the patriarchal nature of the church, and is he feeling me out for a future disciplinary council? There’d be so much to panic about on a regular basis.

And for him, would he always be thinking he needs to slip some gospel words of wisdom into our conversations because that’s his job as my stake president? Would he be offering silent frantic prayers about what message God wants him to deliver to me to fix my fractured testimony? Would he leave our interactions and have a sleepless night because he failed to say the right thing that would set me back on the unquestioning faithful path, and a better priesthood leader should’ve had his calling instead of him?

It’s too bad really, that our church priesthood hierarchy sets men up in positions of power where they can’t just be normal people anymore. But for men, their shared priesthood responsibilities and life experiences, combined with the lack of fear about affairs or adultery, means they CAN be friends with their stake presidents – in a way no woman will ever be able to have a relationship with her priesthood leadership. I wish more men would understand this very fundamental difference in the experience of women in the church compared to theirs. We do not experience our church membership or interactions with our leaders in the same way at all, and we never will as long as they are all one big exclusive club… of only men.

You may also like...

27 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    I mean, broader question is can you even be friends with any TBM man in the Church (or other conservative religions)? In my experience most are not comfortable with friendships with women and do not view us as peers. The exception is men who work with a lot of women (as peers or with a woman superior) in their professions – they seem to have learned that women can be “friends”.

    Btw, re covenanting in the temple about not speaking evil: I know a lot of people share your interpretation that the covenant means not speaking ill of priesthood leaders, but I disagree. All endowed members, male and female, are anointed. So I interpret that as not speaking evil of the community of Saints. (Now obviously it’s problematic to exclude non-endowed people, but I still think it’s a nicer interpretation than limiting to priesthood leaders.)

    Either way, the practice of subjecting a woman to a council of men is barbaric and so much worse than having a man stand in front of a council of other men.

  2. Hedgehog says:

    Evil speaking in my book is lying or otherwise bearing false witness about others. I regard attempts by leaders to define it beyond that as manipulative. It certainly doesn’t include speaking truth.

    • Elisa says:

      Yes.

      • Abby Hansen says:

        Both of your explanations of what this temple covenant means being different than my interpretation was brings up an entirely different topic of concern: why does no one explain to you in the temple exactly what the covenants you make actually mean? Is there any official word on this, or is it open to a hundred different interpretations of what it might mean? Not only do you go to the temple not knowing what your about to covenant to do for eternity, you’re given just seconds to decide if you agree or not, and nobody explains what some of the most confusing ones even mean (like what exactly *is* loud laughter?).

        That’s a totally different topic, but also worth discussing. (Thanks for your comments on the topic of the blog post, too, though. :))

  3. Marjorie Conder says:

    My experience has been different even though I am a self proclaimed “faithful, fearless, feminist (I’ve even used that term over the pulpit more than once). I doubt there is anyone in my ward who is active and has been here for more than a year or so who doesn’t know that about me. I have two recently former bishops who I consider dear friends. One is about my age and the other I could be his mother. I also consider both counselors in my new stake presidency to be friends. I have nothing in common with my current bishop except for Church, but I can’t say I worry about him. I barely know my new Stake Pres but the couple of interactions I have had with him have been light and friendly. I (and they) seem to be able to separate out roles. If I am getting my TR or some other official Church thing they and I are in one mode. Otherwise we are just good friends. (The kind who go to lunch).

    • Abby Hansen says:

      You know, my former bishop is someone I’d consider a friend, now that you mention it – but that’s because we were friends for many years before he was called to that position. We were neighbors and had moved in at the same time, all of us young newlyweds.

      Maybe I should’ve said it’s hard for a woman to be friends with her priesthood leader if she meets them for the first time in that context. Good point.

      • Jacqueline says:

        I agree about meeting first in a different context but it can still be weird. One of my coordinators who oversaw a team I was on at work was called to the stake presidency. At work we got on well and had friendly conversation regularly. But I tried to keep the church and work role separate. When it came time for recommend interviews I was ready to decline if he was to interview me. Luckily another member of the stake presidency called me back instead. I didn’t want to change our work relationship by bringing the church power relationship into it. On the flip side, his wife who I also worked with was in the stake leadership over my church calling at a different time. That power dynamic is so different that we frequently talked about church or work with no issue.

  4. Anna says:

    While women can have friendly relations with church leaders, I don’t think it can ever be friends, not like men can be friends. First there is the sexual tension. And second there is the power difference. Third, men in our sexist society are always privileged above women, just like whites are privileged above blacks and rich are privileged above the poor.

    Like in the Movie, When Harry Met Sally, and he maintained that they can never be friends because the sexual tension always comes up. She though they could be friends. So, just when Harry is convinced that a man and woman can be best friends, they ended up sleeping together. I love the scene where they just slept together and Harry is lying there wide awake terrified that he just destroyed their friendship. Well, it a movie so they get married and live happily ever after. But what if they had both been married when they met and they tried to be best friends. Oh, yeah, I have had a male best friend. He was gay. I have had other times I tried to be friends with a married man as a married woman and both times, they let sexual feelings destroy the friendship.

    With the power difference, you can be friendly or have kind of a mentor relationship. I went to college as an older student at a small university and I had two male professors I got friendly with. Friendly enough that I had them at my home or was invited to theirs or we went camping with our two spouses. But they were not the kind of friends I had with other students. They were always in a mentor or teacher role and if they had stepped out of that role, I would have quickly gotten uncomfortable. One professor even came to my house for my husband’s help with his computer, which put my husband in the teacher role with my professor, and OK, that was weird. I have had friendly relationships with priesthood leadership. But they also stayed in that “superior” role. Now, with women in leadership, they would often drop the leader or teacher role and we could just be two women friends. Both when they were over me at church or as professors or bosses at work, we were able to step out of the role and just be people. (Sorry, but as a social worker, all my bosses were female)

    With the difference in society privilege, that is a smaller stressor on relationships than the other two issues, as demonstrated by the fact that friendships can cross racial lines and they less often can cross social class lines. But most friendships don’t cross those lines because it means two people have less in common, and it just normally stresses friendships when one has more privilege in society that the other.

    So, while think one can be friendly with priesthood leadership, I don’t think they can be friends, because it cannot be reciprocal. It is always unbalanced. It is a one sided relationship. In my psychology classes we even discussed unbalanced relationships and how they are always unstable.

    • Elisa says:

      I disagree that men and women can’t be friends because of sexual tension. I have had many close friendships with men without such tension (generally men I work or went to school with). As close as with my female friends? No, I wouldn’t claim that. But I think the idea that there is always sexual tension is harmful to women and winds up justifying men in excluding women from professional and other friendships.

      • Anna says:

        Oh, Elisa, I agree with you. It is very harmful to women. But in the Mormon church and most evangelical churches it is still the unfortunate way things are. As witness, I give you the former Vice President who refused to ever be alone with any female he was not married to. It is totally men thinking with their dick instead of a brain. But it is still too much how the world is. I am hoping younger generations will not be as stupid about this.

  5. Mortimer says:

    How to be friends with a S.P.* Or, as the Downton Abbey quote goes:

    Cora Crawley: “Are we to be friends, then?” Lady Violet: “We are allies my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”

    1) be married to him or be his mother. Success rate, 75%.

    2) have known him for decades before the calling- in vulnerable moments (e.g. his poor student years, through an illness he or his wife endured, growing up, through his kids’ embarrassing or difficult phases, etc.) Success rate depends on how much dirt you have and how far back you go.

    3) be the social matriarch of not just the stake, but the region. Do you pull more strings politically than a Godfather? Are you, de facto, the one that really holds the power in the stake? Is your opinion the one that sways? If so, you have a 15% chance of being his friend, only if your gossip/information and support can help his administration. You also have a 50% chance of being hauled into a church court, or being demoted to the sunbeams or a similar type of penal labor.

    4) Have a GA last name and connections to the powers that be in SL. If you can arrange a dinner with your dad, the apostle, you’d be surprised how friendly your SP can be and how quickly your husband will be promoted to his side. (Success rate, 98%). This also works fairly well if you or your family is any kind of Mormon celebrity (sports champ, politician, CES personality, etc.)

    5) Have an incredibly powerful job that can inform him of church information and/or support his professional or church career. For example, if you are a secretary to a regional church office- you likely have information from SL and power. Conversely, if you are a really high level attorney and can pontificate reliably about how the church’s recent case on XYZ will likely evolve as it works through the appellate courts, you may have a friend, or at least a supplicant.

    6) If you served with him on your mission (success rate, <1%, unless you can connect with #2 above).

    7) if you are one of those rare people that has never met a stranger, are extremely outgoing, and can deflect the power plays and intimidation that high-ranking people sling (most likely by disarming them with your own charisma and energy) you might have a 60% chance. Oh yes. And you have to be married and completely above reproach, affluent, and older.

    8) If you are the stake’s star speaker/spiritual influencer. the Babe Ruth of Stake Conference talks, a consistent mic-dropping orator, The Cheiko Okazaki of Ohio (or wherever you are), the one who guarantees to make every eye in the building water not with a sob story, but with love and goodness, the person that makes an entire congregation shuffle out of the meeting in quiet awe, the never-fail draw for overflowing firesides, the best speaker for Christmas or Easter, the most sought-after youth teacher and essentially every teaching calling ever, you have a 51% chance of being the SP’s friend.

    *Don’t shoot the messenger.

    • Elisa says:

      Great list. I’d still add – if he is in a professional setting where he is used to working alongside and even subordinate to women, and you are in the same profession, and his wife is also a working woman, and you don’t care at all about the fact that’s he’s a stake president. 55% chance.

    • DT says:

      Can this comment please be a post? I love it on so many levels!

    • Abby Hansen says:

      I agree! This would make an excellent post, and your thoughts are so spot on.

  6. Tony says:

    Abby penned this-
    “I covenanted in the temple not to speak ill of him, but he never did that about me.”

    Tony opines thusly-
    The Lord’s annointed consist of all of our sisters and brothers who have participated in the washing and annointing ceremony in a temple.
    The proscription of evil speaking applies as equally to the stake president as it does to any of us.

    • EmilyB says:

      This automatically places members who cannot afford temple worship into an unsafe category where everybody is free to “speak evil” of the “un-anointed.” So respect must be bought

  7. BarbaraRoberts says:

    For what it is worth I have been friends with 4 stake presidents. I was older than 3 of them so scratch the sexual tension! The other one was old enough to be my dad! So no tension there either. I had something to contribute and approached them as a peer. I have found when I act like a victim and buy into the world’s way of getting things done that’s when I run into trouble. Hope one day I can just see everyone as fully human as I am, with desires, wants, needs like my own. As in an I-Thou relationship. Not as in an I—it relationship, an object or an obstacle to my agenda or a means to my ends. Seeing others as labels may be a survival mechanism is this world filled with fear and anger, fight or flight for the natural woman in me. I am trying to have my heart changed and filled with the pure love of Christ. To act morally in others best interests. We can’t see what we don’t know. Im trying to keep my focus on for the good. Once I knew I wasn’t and didn’t have to be a victim, I saw others differently, I could be loving, not shaming blaming or bullying my way over others. It became an invitation for them to act loving too, to see me as human rather than an it.

  8. Ziff says:

    Outstanding post, Abby. I love how many points of separation between men’s and women’s experience in church you note, gaps that are just never going to be closed so long as we are so determined to be the church of divine gender roles. I mean, I don’t love that these exist, but I love that you point them out, because I think it’s easy for lots of men to miss or ignore them in missing or ignoring the advantage we men have in connecting with leaders.

  9. Cheryl Preston says:

    I have been close friends with two of my stake presidents. it is easier if you are friends before he is called, but even after that, friendship and social relations is possible. Of course, this depends on whether the guy feels the need to impress upon you his authority or superiority and remind you of his status. If he does so behave, you wouldn’t want to be his friend in any situation.

  10. Jennifer says:

    I have started to become friends with my best friend’s husband BECAUSE he is now my Bishop. Even though I’ve known him for years, I never took the time to really get to know him. Now that he’s my Bishop and I’m inactive, he has welcomed my conversations about the church and my deeply held thoughts and beliefs. Yes, he’s acting as my Bishop, but I know he deeply cares about me. It’s because I feel his friendship that I can actually talk to him now. In fact, I told him tonight that I don’t normally share my deep feelings with men.

  11. Sheryl says:

    Outside the church I have had many male friends. My husband has female friends outside the church. Inside the church, my male friends are in the context of friends with my husband and myself for the most part – particularly if they are in my general age group or younger. I think that is the difference – there seems to be a mediating piece to friendship within the church setting. I know for my single MIL in a conservative ward that makes it hard – she is friends with men only when they have a spouse she is also friends with. I am sure some women overcome that, but I think it is the exception rather than the rule.

    I actually think the structure of the church has so much to do with this. A good chunk of time that we actually spend socializing or discussing spiritual topics is gender segregated. We also tend to segregate in callings as well. Much of the time this is dictated (e.g. priesthood/leadership callings, RS/YW callings) and sometimes by tradition (primary callings). It also means that there are fewer women in Sunday School bc they are predominately serving in primary. It is changing somewhat with more men being called as primary teachers, but team teachers are almost always of the same gender unless they are married. Friendships arise out of serving and working together in whatever capacity that is, even if it is informal. They are deepened when going through hard or challenging times or deeply emotional situations together – but the structure means more often then not we only get to experience those things with those of the same gender.

    And I agree that the *perception* of sexual tension as a scary temptation is real – and damaging to women. I believe that my husband can be friends and colleagues with women. Friendship does not mean infidelity, because sexual feelings do not mean sexual actions. I want my boys to learn that they are in charge of their sexual feelings and more importantly actions, not the women in their lives. Any indication otherwise is demeaning to women AND men. Plus, I believe it is very important to expand friendships beyond those that are in “our group.” We cannot gain empathy without it.

  12. Ramona Morris says:

    I hate the idea that men and women can’t just be friends. I think it is one of the most harmful attitudes in the church.

  13. EmilyB says:

    Shortly after leaving Mormonism, I had 2 nonLDS male coworkers who I had to work with constantly on a project and it was very empowering to know that I was now “allowed” to be alone with men and nobody would assume something sinful was happening, and the men were my equals because they didn’t have any magical powers that I don’t have.

    One talked mostly about his adventures in online dating after a recent divorce and the other talked about his ski trips, while I talked about kids and my religious transition. Sometimes it was all 3 of us but mostly just me one on one with my “work huabands,” a term for male-female work buddies that is common here in the mission field but would probably shock Mormons in this context since only LDS men are allowed to be sealed to more than one person, lol

  14. Nate says:

    I can’t get past the photos! That is a picture of my stake presidency before we left!!!

    • Abby Hansen says:

      Oh, ha ha ha! They were just pictures I pulled off the internet. I was thinking, “someone will probably know these guys”. Hopefully they were awesome and you were friends with them. 🙂

  15. Em says:

    I consider my stake president a friend. But.
    #1 He is an OB/Gyn — the holy grail of female-friendly professions. Almost all of his co-workers and all of his patients are women. So he’s not a run-of-the mill church guy when it comes to talking to and listening to women. He also has much more nuanced views of issues around female reproductive health than the average Church dude, and I actually trust and care about what he has to say in those realms. Though he does not make a point of discussing them as talk subjects making blanket statements.
    #2 He is from my ward so I have known him for a decade. He was the Bishop when I met him, but I was already pretty fiesty about power dynamics. Though I did occasionally feel “hauled in” to discuss some feministy things I did/said, I do feel like he really sought to understand my point of view.
    #3 He is one of the most chatty people I have ever met. He loves to have long conversations about feelings and experiences.
    #4 I have felt his willingness to serve me on a personal level — i.e. he is not MY OB, but I have called him at home, or talked to him in his office at Church about concerns — I had a miscarriage and wanted comforting medical feedback about future pregnancy. I vomited up my medication (morning sickness) and wasn’t sure if I should retake a dose or wait until the next day. While I’m not in favor of just forcing members to be your free labor because of their expertise, I felt like we had a friendship that made it okay for me to ask him questions like that.
    #5 I consider his wife to be a friend of mine as well. Which really helps with having intimate conversations — the three of us have stood around or sat around talking for an hour or more. One night he wanted to talk to me about a big stake decision that had made a lot of people mad and he wanted my “feministy” feedback, or at least that I hear him out on his reasoning to hear my feedback. So he put me on speakerphone and we talked for an hour and a half. But the dynamics in the Church being what they are, having his wife be totally comfortable, having a shared three person friendship, really facilitated that.

    In general I do not think that women are likely to become chums with their stake president if there was not already a strong friendship dynamic in place. I think women can work well and have good working relationships with their stake president (Stake RS pres for instance.) But to me friendship depends on building emotional intimacy. And very few men are open to having long emotional deeply personal conversations about their childhood, spiritual struggles, political opinions etc. etc. with ANYONE much less a woman outside their own family.

    So while it is POSSIBLE it is highly improbable. I have never before considered my stake president to be a true friend, who saw my heart and loved me, and was equally vulnerable. And I think it unlikely that it will happen again in the future.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.