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.

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23 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    You will have your view of this, and I have mine. I have served in Primary quite a few times, in fact as a newly ordained Deacon I was called as the Primary Pianist – it was my first calling.

    Our Primary doesn’t have a called pianist at present, so I am helping out. I go in for the music time, then to Sunday School/Priesthood for the lesson time.

    Apart from being a High Priest, the current EQP, and the father of the Primary president, I have no authority to even choose what we sing. Yes, there are men in positions higher than the PP, but not the ones serving in Primary. I understand what you are saying, but the previous bishopric members are now serving under the Primary president, who has been given Priesthood Authority to decide whom they teach, to train them in their teaching, and to ensure that the teaching is at is should be.

    “They die at the top, writing doctrine and church policy until their very last breath.” If it is true that Church (Christ’s) Doctrine is written by men, it would make no difference if it was written by women also – it would still not be Christ’s, and not His Church. At least, not in my mind.

    • Cameron says:

      “Written,” not “created.” The voice that speaks and writes the word of God matters. Some are most touched by the words of Maxwell, or Hinckley, or Uchtdorf. We need their differences as much or more than we need their similarities, so that the Spirit may speak to all. You cannot say that the diversity of voices makes no difference in writing the word of God.

  2. Wendy says:

    So much yes to every word, Abby! Thank you for doing the emotional labor to articulate so succinctly how painfully multi-layered the inequities of authority and power are between women and men in the LDS Church.

    The fact that women are not considered “people” in your reference to how a man can be “humbled” to receive a calling in the Primary after serving in a leadership-role-only-sanctioned-for-men is a powerful example of just how dehumanized and subordinate women are in the average church roles they are allowed to inhabit.

    Thanks to your careful analysis, the unconscious misogyny that’s inherent in this how the church is organized and run becomes crystal clear. One can understand why this observation by your husband didn’t sit well with you and yet took time to unpack.

    And Andrew R., I can tell you are trying to do the mental gymnastics to make the blatant inequality between women and men in the church okay, but it simply isn’t. Your comment, though well-meaning, clearly illustrates Abby’s argument.

    • Andrew R. says:

      I wasn’t doing any gymnastics. Obviously there is a vast difference in the leadership roles available to women and men. However, that should not devalue the leadership positions held my women. And I feel there is a danger of doing that when a post that poses the question, “Does a Primary President Have Any Real Authority?” answers the question with “not much”.

      There is power in all callings – but not the power that perhaps is being considered here.

      The reality of all callings is that in them we are representing Christ. We teach, love, minister to, urge, inspire, etc. to help to bring all unto Christ. the “value” of a calling is in the results – not the power and authority we get to wield.

  3. mtp says:

    Amen and amen. You expressed the situation beautifully!

  4. Ziff says:

    I love your analysis here, Abby. I agree with you that the breathless tone with which stories of men moving from management-level callings to lowly typically-women’s-work callings is beyond grating. I appreciate how you’ve taken the issues apart so clearly here. I particularly appreciate your point about how it’s always *men* that the stories are about, because women are never in positions of authority to begin with. Women have no exclusive authority that we need to paper over with explanations about how it’s no big deal, to bolster statements about how the Church treats women and men “equally.”

  5. Risa says:

    When Oaks said “people” he meant men. Women aren’t people in the church. We’re just auxiliaries.

  6. Chiaroscuro says:

    excellent summary of the relevant points. yet men will keep patting themselves on the back for taking a ‘demotion’ and women will keep having lots of work with no authority just as you said. not unless a fundamental change happens in who is allowed to represent god in the priesthood

  7. Dani Addante says:

    I think another thing to remember- and this is something that makes me feel better- is that even if someone has power, they still have to work with the people in the ward. They have to be kind and understanding, otherwise nobody will accept callings and would be unhappy at church. So even if someone is a leader, they have to work well with others, compromise, and be pleasant to work with. A leader only has as much power as their followers give them.

    But even so, I agree that women need to have more power at church. It saddens me that the Relief Society callings always need to be approved by men, and I think it’s always a man who chooses the RS president. I hope this changes soon. The least they could do is put some checks and balances instead of giving all the power to the bishop.

  8. foo4luv says:

    I’ve never considered men in the Primary to be an equalizer. I do know that the men I have known who serve there are glad for the chance to experience a calling previously reserved mainly for women.

    As the Primary President of a tiny branch, I have a great deal of input and have been granted the authority to conduct matters as I see fit. Yes, I have to acquiesce to Priesthood authority for certain parts of the job, but that has been merely a formality. I actually chose and was encouraged to extend callings to my counselors myself, though they were set apart by the Branch Presidency.

    Some might argue this is a result of having too much work and too few people, thus requiring delegation to any capable person regardless of gender, but I believe it is mainly due to the fact that our Branch President trusts me with this stewardship and fully supports me in my calling. Granted, it’s not like this everywhere, but it should be.

  9. Violadiva says:

    along the lines of the nonsense about “all callings are equal” – after the seeing the whole production hat happens when a new Bishop or Stake President is called (a whole meeting devoted to the change, the new bishop toasted, the old bishop thanked, everyone’s wives sharing remarks and testimonies) – when is the last time we saw such an affair for the ingoing or outgoing RS president? or nursery leader? When’s the last time a woman’s calling or releasing was every celebrated as a big deal? All the talk about the callings being equal falls really short for me.

    • Andrew R. says:

      Calling are clearly not equal. Not equal in time to do them, not equal in the emotional toll they take, not equal in what we can get out of them, and not equal in how people serve in them.

      But I have to believe that ultimately the blessings we can receive when we fulfil our callings to our very best must be equal. For individuals, especially men, they may well get more blessings being a bishop than they did in previous callings. But I would say that is because generally they do the calling of Bishop with more diligence, and therefore get more blessings.

      There was a man in my ward who served first as Ward Mission Leader, then as High Priest Group Leader. He was a good WML, and a not bad HPGL – I was first counsellor in the Bishopric at the time. We had set PEC agenda for each week. He only ever came to PEC when he had an agenda item. Then we was called as the Bishop – and he attended PEC every week, without fail.

      Sometimes the calling makes us better.

      But I have known good men, hard working Home Teachers, who have never served on a bishopric, high council, or stake presidency- and never will. These callings were beyond their ability and/or capacity. But they were blessed beyond measure for what they did, with what they could.

      • Risa says:

        Do you gaslight all the women in your life, or just the women on this blog? Do you relish in telling the women in the church that their experiences aren’t real and you know better because you’re a man, or…? Just really confused about your continued participation here and how much space you take up.

      • Andrew R. says:

        I’m not saying anyone’s experience isn’t real. I am saying that I believe, from my experience, that they are gladly not the norm. They are also not entirely peculiar to women. Many men also feel powerless, marginalised and underused. That shouldn’t in anyway deflect from the experiences of women – it should mean that we can have some common ground.

        The idea that every man can be a bishop, and therefore is in a better position than women, is simply not true. There are many things that would stop many men ever being bishop – and having all that power and authority to wield. There are not so many reasons to stop most women being an auxilliary president.

        The system does hurt men too. That is not to lessen in anyway the pain felt by marginalised women in the church.

        It is easy for women in the church to say, “if women could be bishop’s too it would be great”. They can even say, “I’d be a better bishop”. Men can’t do that, to do so implies that they think they should be the bishop, that the Lord, Prophet, Stake President got it wrong.

        As to why I participate. Because I find in interesting, it broadens my understanding of the church at large. I don’t take up much space because few posters allow my messages through.

        I could ask you why you frequent this place. From my understanding of what you have written you are not a believer, or attender, any longer. I am. And my beliefs are all I express. I believe the women here have had the experiences they have had. And it saddens me greatly.

      • Risa says:

        >>>I’m not saying anyone’s experience isn’t real. I am saying that I believe, from my experience, that they are gladly not the norm.

        How do you know what is and what is not the norm? You assume you know because you are a man.

        >>>I could ask you why you frequent this place. From my understanding of what you have written you are not a believer, or attender, any longer.

        I’m a perma blogger. You’re a guest. I’m a feminist. You’re not. My culture is Mormonism. I am a Christian. I attend church, just not the one you think is the right one.

      • Ziff says:

        “But I have to believe that ultimately the blessings we can receive when we fulfil our callings to our very best must be equal.”

        I think this is key. It seems like you’re operating from a theory that God *must* be making *something* fair. I agree with you that it would be nice to think that God is somehow able to cut through all the inequality to make *something* equal in the end.

        But I think if we can set that theory aside, the evidence is that there are far more high-demand (and therefore high-growth-opportunity) callings available to men than there are to women. Of *course* the available blessings are unequal. How many women have skills that they don’t have the opportunity to develop in church because of their gender? It’s sad for them, and it’s sad for the rest of us who don’t get to benefit.

      • Trudy says:

        Andrew, you present an interesting point:

        “There was a man in my ward who served first as Ward Mission Leader, then as High Priest Group Leader. He was a good WML, and a not bad HPGL – I was first counsellor in the Bishopric at the time. We had set PEC agenda for each week. He only ever came to PEC when he had an agenda item. Then we was called as the Bishop – and he attended PEC every week, without fail. Sometimes the calling makes us better.”

        Help me understand. Are you saying that the mark of a blessed life comes from attending all the meetings required by a calling?

      • Andrew R. says:

        Risa,

        I guess to answer more fully, and in the way you did. Women in the church, certain women especially, are important to me. I have a mother, a wife, six daughter, two granddaughters, five nieces and six sisters-in-law all of whom I care for, and are important to me. Knowing what struggles they face, or may face, is helpful to me in my various roles as son, husband, father, etc. I am also concerned because as you point out, this is my Church, I do believe it to be the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, and as such it pains me that injustices exist. Some of what I have read here stinks. Women disbelieved, men favoured in discipline situations, all of that is awful.

      • Risa says:

        Andrew R., if you really feel that way about the women in your life, if would behoove you to talk less and listen more. This post is about authority and you’re talking about blessings. Altering the conversation so that we don’t focus on the authority the men hold in the church, that women don’t hold currently, so that you can re-direct us to a conversation about blessings, is insulting to the woman who wrote this post and to the women who are hemorrhaging from the inequality. The women in your life would benefit from you truly seeking to understand instead of being an apologist for the church.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Risa,

        I was not trying to turn the conversation around. I guess the crux of my problem is that I don’t know what Power and Authority a Primary president wants, that she doesn’t have.

        Call her own teachers?

        That wouldn’t work, in practice. Two problems, unless a list of “worthy” or “non-worthy” members is made available to all leaders how would they know if they can call them. And, there is finite number of people to choose from.

        Teach their teachers?

        They already do.

        What am I missing.

        Yes, the Primary president can’t ever be, not ever was, a Bishop. But that does not, and should not, detract from where she is. And I see where the OP is coming from, but thankfully I have not seen these issues.

        So, in trying to understand, and since some have talked about the high lighting of Bishops being called and released, I moved it to trying to see if this was about what someone got out of a calling.

        In my experience, the Primary president (and all auxilliary presidents) I have known and ward and stake level have, and excersise a lot of power and authority.

        But if it isn’t about that, and it is more about that they can’t ever be Bishop, then that is a whole different thing entirely. And, like it or not, and not to detract from the suffering of those women who want to be allowed to be bishop, there are a lot of ineligible men who would like it too.

      • Risa says:

        Andrew R, thank you for demonstrating that you don’t actually care about listening to the experiences of women at all.

  10. anon says:

    To me the tragedy in Mormonism is not that women don’t have power and authority, but that men do.

  11. Non-Arbiter, Apparently says:

    Shoot, the *church* trots out its top proximate-to-power women to tell us all the ways we are equal, which might work were equality not measurable.

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