New Sister Missionary Leadership Policy: Reaction and Pre-action

A few days ago, I wrote a post proposing that all missions should make sisters eligible for mission leadership positions.  I put the post into queue to post later this month.  Today, the church announced new leadership positions for sister missionaries.  Yikes!  My post became obsolete before I could post it!  However, the church’s plan does differ from my suggestion that women be incorporated into the existing leadership structure.  Instead:

Each mission in the Church will organize a Mission Leadership Council that will include both elder (males) and sister (females) missionary leaders. The new mission leadership council will consist of the mission president and his wife, assistants to the president, zone leaders, and sister training leaders — a newly created role…Sister training leaders will continue to proselytise and will also spend time each week training and evaluating the needs of female missionaries. They will report directly to the mission president on the needs of sister missionaries. Additionally, the wives of mission presidents are now being asked to play an enhanced role in training and caring for sister missionaries, subject to their individual and family circumstances.

Here is the post I wrote before the announcement, plus new commentary in red about how the actual change differs from the change I would have proposed.


missionary biking in a skirt

In 1997, when I was a 21-year-old full-time missionary, President Gordon B. Hinckley explained to his male peers why he and many of his predecessors had chosen to keep the minimum age for sister missionaries relatively high:

We do not ask the young women to consider a mission as an essential part of their life’s program. Over a period of many years, we have held the age level higher for them in an effort to keep the number going relatively small. (Reference A) 

This strategy worked so well that it is reflected in the language that we use.   Mormons  simply call male missionaries missionaries while that other, rare breed of missionaries is called sister missionaries.  However, one might question the reasoning for keeping the number of female missionaries small, especially considering that in the same speech Hinckley told us:

[Sister missionaries]  perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.

I have a theory about why church leadership wanted few female missionaries. Most missions ban female missionaries from leadership positions. The ineligibility of sister missionaries for these positions can cause administrative complexities if a large ratio of sister missionaries serve in an area; with an equal number of male and female missionaries, half of the missionaries are disqualified from leadership because of their gender.Footnote 1 There are a lot of missionary leadership positions, including district leaders, zone leaders, assistants to the president and office callings, plus special priesthood assignments such as branch presidents in areas without any available local leaders. So in such a situation,  nearly every male senior companion would need to hold a leadership position, including many young men who would be woefully incompetent to supervise other people.

Six months ago, President Thomas S. Monson changed the age for sister missionaries to 19 and indeed, the number of sister missionaries is no longer small.  So how do we avoid these administrative problems? The answer is obvious: call sister missionaries to leadership positions within their missions. And so the church did!  Hurray!  It won’t be necessary to call every male senior companion to a leadership role.  Fewer unprepared male missionaries will be in leadership and sisters with leadership potential will be better utilized.  This is good.  Is there any good reason not to? Let’s take a look at some of the explanations I have heard for banning women from missionary leadership.

Women don’t have the priesthood. Yet, we send women on missions, even though they can’t baptize people. This obstacle is not insurmountable.  Female missionaries routinely look for local members to baptize their converts. This creates a special bond between the new member and a local person, who will be around longer than any missionary anyway. Frankly, I don’t understand why male missionaries don’t do the same. In contrast, missionary leadership duties do not involve any priesthood ordinances at all. District and zone leaders collect statistics, interview potential new members, and handle logistic issues.

Female leaders wouldn’t be able to  go on splits with male elders. This common refrain shows just how much we look at missionary work from the male perspective. I was a sister missionary and my mission leaders, who were all male, never went on splits with me. Having an occasional female district or zone leader may inconvenience male elders who could not go on splits with their leaders during that period of time, but certainly not more so than female missionaries who, under the status quo, never go on splits with their leaders ever.  The church’s solution addresses this issue more completely than mine would have.  Now all missionaries will have leaders of their own gender to go on splits with them at all stages of their missions.

Women can’t supervise men. Which century are we in now? And why don’t we have a problem with male teenagers supervising adult women? Okay, with the church’s solution, adult women can now have some other adult women in leadership over them, and I think it is nice that they will not have to deal with a leadership structure that is almost entirely made up of teen boys.  However, I am more than a little peeved that our church leaders apparently still believe that women can’t supervise men.  They have gone out of their way to redesign mission leadership in such a way as to ensure that males continue to supervise mixed gender missionary groups while women only supervise other women. 

Missionary leadership prepares men for their future lives as leaders in the church. True enough. Likewise, banning women from missionary leadership prepares women for their future lives in which they will be banned from most leadership positions within the church. Yes, this is consistent.  But the excuses for banning women from church leadership in general, such as rhetoric around their divine roles as mothers, ring even more hollow in the missionary setting where, by requirement, no missionaries are mothers.  The new arrangement should prepare missionaries well for church service outside the mission. It is similar to the system set up in other church councils in which a certain prescribed (small) number of women and a certain prescribed (much larger) number of men counsel together, with a male leader presiding who has the right to make final decisions. I am glad that women will be at the table when mission decision-making happens, but I am nervous that women will be outnumbered and outranked, as they are in other councils of the church.

Here are some of the advantages that would come from including women in mission leadership:

At a young age, men would be exposed to female spiritual leaders. Such an experience could positively impact their interactions with women for the rest of their lives, especially in the church setting.  Um, no.  The new system will have women only leading other women, not men. Men will continue to be challenged to learn to respect  female people even though women are guaranteed to virtually always be subordinate to them.  Women will continue to be challenged to make their voices heard by male people who are virtually never put into a position in the hierarchy that requires deference to a woman. 

Women may be less likely than men to impose mission goals that devalue female souls. For example, my own mission had goals to baptize a minimum number of men, but not women. Other returned missionaries have reported point systems in their missions in which a male convert was worth more points than a female one. The church’s new system guarantees that female leaders will be present in all missions, while my proposal would only have made it possible, since a mission president could have chosen not to appoint any women as leaders even though they were eligible.  I hope that the church’s plan to mandate the presence of women in decision-making councils will help to curtail some of these unfortunate goals that devalue women.

Female converts may be more comfortable during baptismal interviews  discussing chastity, abortions and other sensitive issues with another woman instead of a man (or male teenager).  Nope.  Apparently, the church still only trusts males to interview women about chastity and abortion.

One change the church addressed that I did not consider is that mission presidents’ wives will have more formal responsibilities in mission governance. I think this is great. However, I find it unfortunate that they will continue to have the inauspicious title, “mission president’s wife”. When can we start having “Mission Co-presidents”?


*It is not lost on me that these similar administrative complexities exist in almost all wards and stakes, since so few leadership positions are reserved to women and so many are reserved to men.  See

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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19 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    This is a fabulous, fabulous analysis, April. I am so glad you had the foresight to write this post, and the sense to post it now, with addendums.

    When I first read the new change this evening, I felt so happy and so sad at the same time–so happy because this is a much needed change, and so sad for the same reason. It is a much needed change that has been needed for a long time. It would have made me own full-time mission so much richer, as some of my greatest frustrations came from wondering if I had the same authority to preach as the much more common (and ordained) elders.

    I also grew wary from near daily phone calls from men younger than me, telling me what my goals should be, and asking me if I needed help. I did need help. I did. But, they couldn’t come teach with me, or do any of the other things they did for members of their same sex. I would have loved the opportunity to go on splits with a more experienced sister missionary, but as it was, I was made a trainer after my second transfer, and from that time on, Was the more experienced female missionary.

  2. escc says:

    Great analysis. I’ll simply add what I’ve mentioned on a few posts regarding this on facebook:

    I want to say it’s progress. I really do. But, when I analyze it, I realize it isn’t.

    These Sisters will only be leaders over other Sisters and DLs, ZLs, and APs will STILL be over everyone. How can you really be a leader of other women if the DL’s authority will override yours when push comes to shove?

    It’s either a plan that wasn’t thought through very well or it’s simple pacification.

    • Libby says:

      I think it’s a plan that wasn’t thought through very well, and that’s exactly why I’m excited about it. Half-baked plans end up being changed by the people who have to use them, and individual missions are bound to get creative. It’s the thousand-monkeys-at-a-thousand-typewriters approach.

      • Naismith says:

        Actually, I understand that there was some pilot testing done in various places in previous years…last fall we were visiting relatives and sisters stopped by, and they talked about their sister leadership system, which sounds a lot like this.

  3. Libby says:

    I have mixed feelings about this too. What I’m excited about, though, is that the need for change is so obvious and the Church is willing to try something new. These are baby steps, but at some point there will be a mission that takes the next step, and the next. I hope that someday my bad mission stories sound absurd to my kids!

  4. Martin Holden says:

    It is a positive move and I am glad the church as moved fast as it has but how effective this will be will depend very much on the way each mission president and wife (and yes I think she is going to need a title) implement it. I was a missionary in the seventies and many of the districts I served in had sisters. In those days two elders and two women together was a no no but two elders and a woman was ok. It was not unusual to split with the sisters using three teams two elders working with a sister. I don’t recall two sisters with an elder but that is probably due to a district only having one team of sisters in at at the most.

  5. Rachel says:

    Thanks so much for this post, great analysis. I love your comment about co-presidents! Our current way of referencing “his wife” sets him up as the protagonist and she is the sidekick. It reminds me of Sylvia Plath: “He is the genius. I his wife.”

  6. Emily U says:

    Yes, baby steps. Or something slightly smaller – pre-walker baby scootches?

    I think this is a positive thing – I’m pleased to see the church moving fairly quickly in recognizing the need for leadership positions for sister missionaries, but the fact that women can’t lead mixed groups is depressing. Yet so consistent with how things are done in the church. The only examples I can think of where a woman leads a mixed group in the church is the Primary Presidency – where Primary class teachers can be men. Or the Ward Music Director (which in all the wards I’ve been in is a calling with a name but very little real function). Since so many leadership functions are connected to priesthood, I don’t think we’ll see women leading mixed groups until women are ordained.

    Loved your approach to thinking about this, April. Illuminating, as usual!

  7. Dee says:

    Here we are in 2013 and women are still being treated as second class citizens. The previous comments mention how thrilled they are of the tiny steps the church is taking regarding the advancement of treatment for women. Tiny steps???? How can you believe this when a female CEO of a large corporation making hundreds of thousands of dollars, a loving wife and mother and as spiritually worthy as anyone in the church is classified as being less than a 12 year old boy? As long as women continue to allow this treatment the church will continue to take “tiny steps”.

    It seems to me you’re teaching your daughters they should be underpaid employees and not lawyers, doctors, CEO’s and leaders of the country. My daughter is just as capable and WORTHY to hold positions of authority in the church as any man!

  8. Suzette Smith says:

    My favorite part about this is: At a young age, men would be exposed to female spiritual leaders.

    Well Said.

    And much needed.

    I think it is going to be so important – going forward – that men see women as spiritual leaders and as THEIR spiritual leaders. Currently, the ONLY female person that will ever have stewardship over a man is their mother. Women are capable of revelation, leadership, and smart decision making … and they need to be seen this way by their male peers.

    This is a step in the right direction.

    • Naismith says:

      Although I appreciate the overall sentiment, this isn’t quite true. Women may have stewardship over men in Primary, Public Affairs, family history, and music callings, to name a few.

      • EmilyCC says:

        Good point, Naismith. My husband currently is under the “jurisdiction” of the stake Primary president as the stake cubmaster.

        This is Nate’s first time being under a woman (he’s closer to 40 than 30), and he loves it. He says, “Women are so appreciative, ask me to do things nicely, and never shame me if I fall short.”

        Long comment shortened: let’s make more opportunities for women to lead men! There’s too few right now.

      • Michael says:

        I also served “under” my wife as her Cub Assistant. I tried to let her initiate, make final decisions, and define my role in activities. It was an interesting experience in that way.

  9. Ronda says:

    April, I agree. I strongly believe that the mission president’s wife should have a title. Even in the temple they recognize this important role by callings titles of temple president and temple matron. I think these titles could be improved, but at least there is a title beyond “wife.”

    There are a number of other callings where women are expected to serve, but not given callings — all student ward and stake callings expect that the wife will accompany and serve with her husband (unless she has children at home — then she should keep her calling in her home ward and attend with her children). But otherwise they commonly release the woman so she can support her husband.

  10. rs says:

    i don’t see this as progress. i served a mission 99-00 and we had traveling sisters in our mission. it’s exactly the same thing. there was a head traveling sister and she sat in on the leadership meeting with the APs and prez. then each zone had a traveling sister. we only supervised other sisters. eventually, the number of sisters in the mission dropped to 14 out of 220 missionaries so they didn’t see the need for it anymore.

    • It’s progress when we see something that was tried by a number of missions over the past years (with and without permission) implemented on an official, churchwide level, no matter how many sisters are in each mission.

      We often miss seeing these things becasue we can’t see the things that are being tried by every unit. Some of these attempts are stopped for one reason or another, and some are brought up to be tried in other places, and some are even implemented world wide. I’m glad this one will get to the Missions where the women were treated as a “necessary evil” and not real contributors.

  11. Douglas says:

    Many moons ago, serving my mission in Italy, our mission president organized the ten sisters we had in the Roma commune into a single sister “district”, and appointed a sister as district leader. Keep in mind that this man was a recently retired USAF colonel (he knew my Dad from both’s AF days) and was as straight-laced and disciplined as they come. The sisters were some of our more productive missionaries. Whatever “Priesthood” support came directly from the “Apes” (Assistant to the President).
    Unfortunately, after several months, a visiting GA told our MP in no uncertain terms to immediately disband the sister district and to disperse them among the elders. It was a morale-killer. I recall overhearing a very animated conversation between the GA and the MP (“President, this is NOT how things are done…WHY NOT? It’s WORKING!….It’s against POLICY…WHERE is this POLICY stated?…) and so on. Well-meaning but hide-bound knuckleheads with authority, as they suppose they have…

  1. April 7, 2013

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  2. July 23, 2016

    […] women to missionary leadership roles such as district leader or zone leader. Instead, they created a new mid-level management position for women called Sister Training Leaders.  The women called to this new position have no authority over male missionaries and are […]

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