by Bobbie S.
For years, I have struggled with my self-esteem because, as a lifelong Latter-day Saint, I’ve been raised with the idea that I’m not as important as the men around me; I am an auxiliary—an appendage to the men. So when I received the calling to serve as a stake seminary teacher, it felt like I was finally receiving validation for my decades of hard work and service in the church. I began to feel like I really mattered.
But I soon discovered that the seminary program isn’t very good to women. At least not outside the Utah corridor (I have no like what it is like on the inside—I’ll leave it up to those sisters on the inside to tell us, if they can). My first exposure to this system was painful at first, but I tried to grin and bear it because I wanted so badly to lead and guide the youth of the church on a daily basis. Most importantly: seminary is the only space where young men and young women are equal, where they aren’t sorted into priesthood holders versus young women. However, this equality is sadly not reflected in the way the adults are organized.
First of all, all of my CES supervisors are male. Their work is a paid position. They do have female secretaries, however. To make matters worse, these “brethren” all refer to each other and to us seminary teachers by titles, out of respect, whenever they call or email us (“Dear Sister Smith . . . . Signed, Brother Jones”), however, they refer to all of their female secretaries by their first names, as if they are little children or not important enough for titles. This really, really bothers me, and contributes even more to the impression that, in the church women just don’t matter. It really breaks my heart that one of our local CES secretaries is a hard-working single mother who hopes to get a college education, which is why she is working for CES. I feel it was very demeaning the way her PhD-level bosses treat her like she doesn’t deserve to be called “Sister” but the seminary teachers do.
Almost all of our seminary teachers are women. This is probably because of the fifteen volunteer hours per week required of seminary teachers—it is a very time-intensive calling that (our local leaders must assume) the typically male breadwinners can’t spare time for. When I attend our multi-stake in-service meetings, I see only a couple of male teachers. It is so depressing to me that we have this army of women teachers, yet the church is telling us that we need men for our supervisors. Why couldn’t the church hire women to supervise us? I would much prefer to work with women in this capacity. It is very demeaning for me to see this army of volunteer women having to sit and take our marching orders from a group of paid men.
At one particularly painful in-service meeting, we even had a male speaker who brought his wife along to help him with his visual aids, and when she wasn’t setting them up according to his preferences, he actually barked at her from the microphone. It was a nightmare that left me feeling angry, hurt, and wanting to leave the meeting. I was actually shaking out of sympathy and hurt for that poor sister. I wanted to submit a complaint to my leaders, so rather than take notes on this man’s in-service teachings, I spent his entire presentation rehearsing ways I could defend this poor sister and decry the use of women as visual aid-proppers in a room full of female volunteers. But I live in an area where “feminazi” is a word in the lexicon of our politically conservative male leadership, so rather than taking this matter to leaders who would censure me for even broaching the subject, I am writing this piece and seeking support and prayers from my _Exponent_ sisters, instead.
When our new, mostly female, unpaid teachers receive their new teacher training, they do so via very demeaning videos that portray a new female seminary
teacher as a frustrated mom with unkempt hair wearing athleisure, standing in a messy kitchen, juxtaposed with her sharply dressed, professional husband who gives her the advice she needs to do her calling.
She spends the entire series of training videos inside kitchens, which sends a very demeaning message to those of us who want to feel like CES values us for our knowledge of the scriptures, not our cooking skills. These seminary
training videos portray the sister seminary
teacher as a clueless, flustered homemaker and is available to the public here.
When this frustrated housewife asks her husband for help with her calling her husband is portrayed as confident, on his way out the door because HE apparently has important things to do and places to be, while his poor frustrated wife is overwhelmed because she has messes to clean up (note the mass of scattered toys and open peanut butter jar with knife sticking out in the foreground as they talk—just wow), so her husband gives her the advice that she apparently isn’t smart enough to figure out on her own: why don’t you call your stake seminary
supervisor for help?
As a woman, it really stung me to watch this video. Why did the church think that we sisters weren’t smart enough to know to call our supervisors when getting started on our callings? It was also hurtful to me how portrayals of men and women are so unequal in this teacher training video. No man in these training films was ever portrayed with messy hair or sweats like the woman is, fretting over his messy room, or taking counsel from a competent, smartly dressed wife; the church is sending a powerful message to all their LDS youth instructors with these training videos, and it really stings.
Next, frazzled housewife-seminary
teacher is shown at the home of her stake seminary
supervisor—also a woman—and they meet in her kitchen (kitchens are a major theme in seminary
teacher training for sisters; later training videos, also online, depict a seminary
student faced with doubts about the church. When she goes to her parents for advice, mom is shown baking cookies in a kitchen.
The grandpa and seminary
teacher who eventually resolve
her doubts are both shown in office settings, surrounded by books and professional accoutrements
. (This video is embedded in the online seminary
curriculum, too). As Sister Supervisor gives Frazzled Sister Homemaker tips on how to be a seminary
teacher, they are also training new seminary
instructors, but at the same time making subtle implications about God’s army of unpaid seminary
instructors who are women. For example, the female stake seminary
supervisor pauses their kitchen-table tutorial and cooks something. This video is readily available for all to see in the media library on the church’s library here
At the end of this video, note how Sister Supervisor leaves to go cook something. Then in the next video [link here
] note how the entire time the two women are talking, a pan is shown steaming behind them, as if the camera took great pains to make sure that this “female seminary
teachers as homemakers doing scripture on the side” message needed to come across loud and clear to the church audience.
Female seminary teachers are never shown at desks or in a study, though male seminary teachers are exclusively, shown in classrooms, offices, or near desks with bookcases.
I am a woman who loves to cook, but I am also a gospel scholar with a library full of scholarly gospel texts. I have spent years working to become the Sister Scriptorian that President Kimball declared that we need more of in his 1979 women’s session talk, so it really hurts for me to see my role as a seminary teacher reduced to that of a meal prepper and frazzled housewife who needs a man to show her how to ask for help in her calling. It cuts me to the core to ponder how many church dollars went into funding this message that my cadre of fellow female seminary instructors are no more than full-time cooks who struggle to comprehend scripture teaching on the side.
Even worse than the degradation of the male/female power imbalance at CES and the hurtful messages in our CES teacher training is the way that the courses are set up. There is a huge push right now for online seminary. This robs our army of sister-teachers of the right to teach by the spirit. Whereas in the past, we could draw upon our stores of knowledge and the guidance of the spirit when teaching, we are now being asked to use pre-formatted, cookie-cutter web based course designed by men in Utah. Even 18 year-old missionaries are given free reign to teach whatever they want according to a basic outline as prompted by the spirit, ever since Preach My Gospel replaced pre-formatted missionary lessons. So why can’t we seminary teachers do the same? Is it because we are mostly women?
The excuse being given for this change to standardized seminary is that it benefits students who lead busy lives or live too far away to commute to the church for instruction. But the technology exists to allow us sisters to simply host online video chats, or pre-record classes and then let the students post comments later on. There is no need to replace our voices and individualized messages with cookie-cutter, canned curriculum by mostly men. When I tried to get permission to adapt our online courses to local needs (students with unique learning challenges and emotional issues), I was denied. I pushed back, because I have several students who absolutely refuse to engage with the online courses but who thrived when attending in-person classes, but both CES leadership and my stake leaders treated me as if I had just denounced the brethren. I was sorely reprimanded for not endorsing online seminary, as if I had declared the church untrue. Church leadership seems to be confusing CES web content designers in cubicles with prophets recording holy writ.
Additionally, Doctrine and Covenants 25 has been removed from the assigned reading this year, so the youth don’t have to read about what an elect lady Emma Smith was. The absence of women from our curriculum stings not only because our teachers are mostly women, but because our students are mostly female, too—by a very, very large margin. The trial of serving as a woman in CES can be summed up in a video clip of Sister Oscarson in our Seminary Teacher training. It is one of the few, rare times that a sister is quoted therein. However, the “brethren” who wrote this course didn’t even bother to get her name right, labeling her as Sister Linda K. Burton. This would never happen to one of the male general authorities’ names. It speaks volumes about how CES views women, and about how my experience has been in this program.
I am praying about asking to be released from seminary. I love my students, but the way women are treated in CES and seminary is so draining on the spirit and the mind that I don’t know if I can stay much longer. I definitely don’t support this online curriculum that we are now using. I am tired, burned out, and can’t handle the toll this calling is taking on my mental health. I have a dear friend who works ten hours per week for BYU-Idaho as an online instructor and is paid for it. My 15 hours per week as an unpaid online seminary teacher doesn’t make sense, especially knowing that over in the Utah corridor, all of the (mostly) male seminary teachers are being paid to do the same work. I want to be there for the youth, but am I really doing any good for these youth if I support this system? Am I really helping the rising generation by allowing the previous generation to model oppressive behavior where the young ones can see it? But if I leave, they might just replace me with a woman who supports this system, which could be worse. But in staying, aren’t I supporting it, too?
I wrestle with these questions daily. I am not finding answers. I don’t know if I should go on and let these precious youth watch as their mentor allows the brethren in charge to treat sisters this way. Perhaps if their teacher suddenly disappeared, even if I didn’t say anything about why I was leaving, the questions that my departure provoked would spur some sort of discussion in the future?
I have a lot of praying and pondering to do. Pray for me, sisters. For all of us. Our youth, especially our girls, need your prayers.