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