Does a Primary President Have Any Real Authority?
Earlier this year, my ward got a new bishopric. Not long after that, the former bishop and his first counselor were called as primary teachers. Not long after that, my husband was asked to substitute teach in our daughter’s primary class. He came home that night very happy to share with me his observations from the day. Not only is our junior primary now dominated by male teachers, but ⅔ of the recently released bishopric now answered to the authority of the primary president – a woman. He said, “Wow! Isn’t it kind of amazing that people switch roles so dramatically overnight in the church? It’s unlike any other organization I’ve ever been a part of. Imagine a CEO taking a turn on the customer service phones at their company after 5 years of running everything.”
He was trying to be positive (and trying to make me see something positive), but it nagged at me as I was falling asleep, and was still on my mind all day the next day.
I had several issues with this, but it took me about a day of mulling it over in my head to figure out what they were. But then I had them, and here they are, in list form:
1. The primary president does all of the hard work, but I don’t feel like she’s the one really in charge. The new bishop is the one that issued the old bishopric members those callings and can release them with no notice, not her. He can veto her ideas, and while he might ask for her input, he’s under no obligation to do what she suggests. On the other hand, she’s under total obligation to do what he tells her to. He can release her if she tries going rogue.
2. My husband works for a large company and is also in the military. In neither of those places is there a rule that says “Anyone at management level or above must only be male”. They’d be sued for discrimination if that were the case. But in the church, women are 100 percent excluded from positions of genuine authority and rule making. I’d personally prefer the army or his company, where nobody says I can’t be promoted beyond a certain level just because I am female. I mean, yay, the man in charge of everything in my ward can be demoted to a mere primary teacher overnight, but… along with that cool “perk” of my church membership comes a complete and total blackout of authority for all women across the board, always. It doesn’t feel like a worthwhile trade off.
3. Often when people talk about men serving in primary it feels like we are glorifying them for being willing to humble themselves down enough to do what is traditionally a woman’s job. Women have filled the majority of primary teacher callings for like, forever, but now that men in my ward are doing it am I supposed to be impressed by their willingness and patience, because teaching small children is lady’s work and they graciously accepted the call to do it anyway?
4. Whenever someone says that “people” in the church can go from a high position of power to a much smaller role (like primary teacher) overnight, I think they actually meant to say “men”. Men can go from Stake President or bishopric with big decision making powers to a less visible calling overnight. Women can’t, because we are never in those callings in the first place. We rotate in and out of the same limited callings that women can have, and nobody ever uses us as an example in general conference of how great our rotating callings are. I’ve heard the “stake president to nursery worker” example several times, but never once heard “ward primary president to nursery worker”. When they talk about how all callings are important and equal, they always use a man’s change in his calling as the example. So when we say “people” rotate from high positions to low positions – we actually mean “men” do that. Women just stay in the lower positions all the time.
5. Men retain their priesthood-holder status while being a primary teacher, which keeps it from ever being equal at all. They still have the authority to preside, bless, baptize and confirm, while the primary president has none of that. If a child under her stewardship needs a blessing, she is powerless in that regard. When kids from a non-member family are baptized at age 8, she is unable to participate, even as simply a witness to the event. She has to call on her male subordinates to come and perform the most holy and sanctified of ordinances, because even as the president of the entire primary – she can’t do a thing for the salvation of those kids because she is a woman.
6. In my experience, most men don’t last super long in Primary unless they want to. If those two former bishopric members are still primary teachers in 3 years, I’ll be surprised. On the other hand, many women spend decades of their adult life in those callings. When we talk about how impressive it is that men who were once bishops are humble enough to take a calling as a primary teacher, I think, meh. They can say they’re cool if they’re there 20 years from now, still doing the silent and largely unrecognized background work of teaching children. (But chances are they’ll be pulled to serve on the high council long before that happens.)
7. You know what’s a lot more work than teaching a primary class? Being a primary president! A friend of mine was called to that several months ago, and she’s been having a hard time sleeping and eating from the stress. I reminded my husband of the time he saw our former primary president getting chewed out in the hallway by a parent over something she literally had zero control over. The men get praised for being willing to teach primary, while simultaneously making themselves ineligible for the hardest calling in primary – being the president.
I personally suspect that a lot of the stress primary presidents feel is due to their relative powerlessness and lack of priesthood authority in their callings. An upset parent might chew her out about something, but in reality she doesn’t have much authority to change things without going and asking the bishop to do it for her. And while the bishop has a high degree of authority and people will yield to his decisions even if they don’t like them, they do not do that for the primary president. Instead they often go over her head and complain to the bishop – because everyone knows he’s the one really in charge. (Even my husband, when he had issues with our son’s primary teacher giving an inappropriate lesson, chose to approach the bishop about it directly.) The primary president is given a lot of work, takes a lot of heat from unhappy parents, runs everything on a week to week basis, but in the end is relatively powerless to fix things.
8. Finally, the men in the very highest leadership positions never get released or demoted from their important callings. They die at the top, writing doctrine and church policy until their very last breath. They will never be primary teachers again.
After thinking through this conversation with my husband yet again, I’ve decided this strange phenomenon happens all too frequently in the church. We tell ourselves that something is really great and empowering for females in the church – when in reality that’s not the case at all. Nothing will ever truly empower a girl or woman until she’s allowed to stand on equal ground with the men around her. The appearance of authority is not the same thing as actual authority, and no female leaders in the church, at any level, have that real authority.