Filling in the Gaps
On a personal level, when serving as a Relief Society president in a singles’ ward, the bishop invited me to attend all Priesthood Executive Committee (PEC) meetings, a distinctly non-conformist practice, since only priesthood leaders are to attend. For over a year and a half, I attended PEC as a full participant in that committee’s decision-making process. Although not officially condoned in Church leadership manuals, and probably subject to criticisms and raised eyebrows by more traditional members, that sharing of leadership and counsel by a bishop with his young Relief Society president represented what Christianson has described as the “negotiation process…in which men shared their authority,” and what Cheryl Preston has described as women working within the accepted, institutional structures of patriarchy for increased gendered equality.
What strikes me about this was that this woman was able to have a very positive experience and an expanded sphere of influence because she had an exceptional Bishop. In this particular case her Bishop did what he did with her despite the church’s guidelines and tradition. I suspect that this sort of thing happens rather a lot. I can think of all sorts of examples from my own life, and from the stories I’ve heard ’round the nacle, of conscientious individuals filling in the gaps left by the institutional church, and creating a positive experience for the people in their stewardship.
When a great leader fills in the gaps this way, the people who benefit from it are often unaware of it. When a young woman’s leader provides refreshments for an activity out of her own pocket, the girls don’t know the difference. When a Bishop invites a newly called RS president to PEC, chances are she or someone else in the room will be completely unaware that it is not standard practice. Discovering that your experience with the church was as positive as it was only because of the people involved and often despite church guidelines can be hard. Learning that the positive things you thought were standard practice are actually against the official rules is murder on a person’s testimony.
I bring all this up because I’m in a position to be a leader that fills in the gaps. I’m still running the Activity Day girls in our ward, (I swear I’ll write up more activities, you know, sometime). Recently a new girl joined our group and her grandmother wrote me an email asking about their goal booklet, about the awards, about writing up the projects they’ve completed, and about how she wants to get to work on it all so her granddaughter won’t be too far behind. It broke my heart to have to write her back and explain that the church doesn’t even provide a certificate to the girls for completing their little booklet, let alone any sort of pin, or badge or even a necklace. And the goals are so flimsy and insubstantial that a girl who attends our activities regularly will complete the entire book almost 3 times over by the time she turns 12. If the girls in my ward are going to get the program they need and deserve it will be because I filled in all those gaps.
This particular case (the inadequate Activity Day program) is frustrating to me for several reasons. First that the burden of this is being borne by women. Each new leader has to reinvent the wheel for each individual group. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of women just in Arizona each trying to come up with some token of achievement for her group of girls. And if the adult women called to lead those girls don’t fill in that gap with their own sweat and tears, then the girls start off their adolescence with a church program that doesn’t meet their needs and pales in comparison to the cub scouts. Second I actually am concerned about setting the bar too high (maybe I’m just flattering myself). Are these girls going to be disillusioned when they grow up and get called to be primary president and see how awful the program really is? Might it not be better to not get their hopes up. Lastly the thing that bothers me the most obvious problems aren’t that hard to fix. I could drive down to the nearest office supply store and pick up a stack of generic certificates to pass out to the girls. I could even load up photoshop (or gimp or inkscape) and custom make a certificate to give the girls in a couple hours. If it is that easy for me, what is keeping the church from doing it?
Which brings me to my final thought. Next week is our annual recognition dinner, where the girls and their families eat a meal the girls made, and each girl has a chance to share something she’s proud of. Part of me wants to stand up at that dinner and say “I’d love to pass out certificates to the girls who have completed the Faith in God booklet, but since the church doesn’t make certificates for them I assume that they aren’t meant to get one, and should instead learn that doing good is its own reward.” Maybe when I want to get released I will do that. But I think that if the parents, the bishops, the stake leaders, and so on were made aware of the problem in such a blunt way then maybe something might be done about it. My real fear is that by filling in the gaps I’m just making it easier to ignore the problem.