Guest Post: Equal Partners or Preside Over — Pick One

“Holding a Lover” by Caitlin Connolly

By Florence

It all started when the visiting General Authority opened up the small group meeting for questions. My heart started beating a little faster and a little harder. I knew I had to ask.

In a gentle, deliberately non-confrontational voice I questioned, “Is the Church’s policy to not ordain women to offices in the Priesthood doctrinal or an administrative choice? And, if not administrative, what is the doctrinal basis?”

How was I to know that two simple and sincere questions would lead me to calling out the Church on their use of the phrase “preside over” in The Family: A Proclamation to the World?

His response to my questions was less than satisfactory. It was doctrine because the scriptures only talk of men serving in leadership positions. When the Lord’s true church was on the earth there is no mention of women serving in leadership positions.

“What about Deborah in the Bible?”

“Well, yeah…but…”

“But?” I queried.

His response was a sermon on the Proclamation. I wasn’t sure of the connection between my question and his response. But that’s okay. I got my answer. It wasn’t doctrinal. And the Church wasn’t ready to admit it.

Then came the surprise invitation. The visiting Elder was concerned he hadn’t answered my questions and he wondered if I would like to meet with him to talk about it further.

The visit lasted more than an hour. He was a patient, kind and empathetic listener. But again, the answers were not terribly satisfying. At the end of the visit he handed me his business card and invited me to contact him if I wanted to talk again.

For the next few days I considered this invitation. I knew there was one more thing to say. But could I really say it? Gathering my courage, I composed the email:

Dear Elder _____,
I liked when you told me (quoting “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”) that husband and wife are equal partners. It is what I believe also. Unfortunately, it is a direct contradiction to the statement that “fathers are to preside over their families” found two sentences earlier within the same document.

As you mentioned, language is a living thing and meanings of words change with time. Perhaps there was a time when “preside over” meant something good, noble and positive. However, in today’s world this phrase has extremely negative connotations. Even the dictionary definition of preside is in direct opposition to idea of equal partnership.

When the word “preside” (which means to exercise control) is placed in front of the word “over” the message in the Proclamation is that husbands and wives are not equal partners at all. The husband is clearly given the role of ruler, with his wife and children being subject to his direction. Even if the man is to preside over in “love and righteousness” the message is that the man is above the others in his family. Clearly, if one person is ‘over’ someone, the other person is ‘under.’

Perhaps a clearer, more accurate description of the role of fathers could be considered, for two people cannot be equal partners if one has the stated purpose of exercising control over the other.

One thought I have is that perhaps what is meant is something more along the lines of “fathers are to give to give structure, stability and counsel” to the family. Or perhaps there’s another way for the intent of this statement to be expressed without placing one parent above or below another.

I realize you did not write the Proclamation, and that you are not in a position to update or edit it. However, you do have the opportunity to work with those who do have this responsibility. And you do have the opportunity to teach, explain and clarify the principles of the gospel to many people. I hope you will take into consideration the unintended message that is being given within the document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” and find a way to clarify so that others may more easily feel the love of God within the church’s teachings.

A few hours later I received his response.

Your comments underscore for me the urgency not only to clarify the meaning of the Proclamation on the Family but to clarify for all the church, old and young, male and female, what it means to preside in the gospel sense.

And then he proceeded to explain, very clearly, what it means to preside in the Lord’s way. Three paragraphs. Still less than satisfying. It was infuriating actually.

Calming myself down, I opted to reply. Even if he didn’t get it, I needed to say it.

Thanks for your response. However, I feel that my point was not really understood.

I understand the Church’s interpretation of the word “preside.” I have studied the doctrine. I have no question about how the leaders of the Church would like to see this concept implemented in real life.

My point is, just as you mentioned on Saturday, that word meanings can change and evolve. And the words “preside over” no longer mean what you and I believe the Lord intended. In our society the meaning has evolved to imply something totally different than what the Church is trying to teach. And by continuing to use this language in modern documents many people (both men and women) become confused, hurt and angry.

You have indicated that you feel a need to clarify this teaching. I believe a very simple way to clarify is to choose a word or phrase that accurately conveys the intended meaning.

It reminds me of the Primary song “When Grandpa Comes.” In early versions of the Primary music books the opening line stated “It’s always fun when Grandpa comes, when Grandpa comes we’re gay.” Later (in about the 1980’s?) the line was changed to “It’s always fun when Grandpa comes, when Grandpa comes, Hooray!”

The Church Music Committee obviously understood the meaning of “gay” in the 1980’s and knew it no longer carried the author’s original intent. They could have left the lyrics as they were and instructed all the English speaking music directors to teach the children very clearly that “gay” in this situation did not mean “gay” as the world used the term. Instead they opted to accept that the meaning of the word had changed and it was time to choose different words in order to convey the original intent of the song.

I think that you and other leaders of the Church can teach and clarify the meaning of “preside over” all you want, but the phrase still has a negative connotation to most women and will remain license to abuse for some men. So again, I suggest that you and your colleagues take into consideration the unintended message that continuing the use of these words carry.

And his response?

 

Your comments are true and powerful.  They leave me wondering what it would take to change the very frequent use of the word “preside” in our literature, but at least as it applies to families.  Maybe if we at least change it in the Family Proclamation that would be a start.  I like your ‘fathers are to give structure, stability, and counsel to their families.’

I believe your point is important enough that I am going to see if I can get it heard a bit more broadly.

Now that was satisfying.

Florence has lived long enough to be called old and is inquisitive enough to feel young.

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51 Responses

  1. Jan Signore says:

    I love his last response, and I love that you persisted in the conversation. To be heard and have someone take action who is in a position to influence is a balm for the soul to me. We need more of this, thank you.

  2. Alys's Wonderlandd says:

    I am shocked and delighted that you got an authority to converse with you in this way, and about such an important topic!

  3. Barbara says:

    A story of successful communication with a church leader!?! It’s like spotting a unicorn! I hope something truly comes of your efforts to clearly communicate and be heard. Thank you for your efforts to do this.

  4. Anna says:

    The word preside has not changed meaning. The word preside is the root of president. A president is over. Period. But the church wants to have its word and eat it too. They LIKE the word preside because it does exactly mean that the man is the head of the home and is over everyone else, even if it has to claim it means something. So, when women object to being ruled over, they back pedal and try to convince us we misunderstand a very clear word. It is a way of gas lighting. They say something quite clear, then they tell us we misunderstand because their word does not mean what the whole world agrees that it means. It is like saying the sky is pink, then when questioned, claim they didn’t say the sky is pink because pink really means blue. Uh…no, it doesn’t.

    They use the same word for the idea that the bishop is over the ward, he has final authority on all decisions. So, for them to claim that the same word means something else entirely for a family is beyond silly.

    But I like your example to say that if the church doesn’t mean preside over, then they should change their word to something that means what they want to say. If to most kids, gay means homosexual rather than happy, we should speak in the common language of our audience to avoid misunderstandings.

    • Florence says:

      You are right. When snippets of the conversation are reviewed it is easy to see that I was inaccurate in my explanation of the word ‘preside’. In the context of the full conversation with him (not shared here) I believe my approach served as a bridge that allowed him to be open to understanding the real message of the phrase ‘preside over’. Thanks for your comment.

      • Anna says:

        Oh, I totally agree that you seemed to get through to him in a way that he needed. Just saying, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” would not work. He needed to see that the word was harmful.

    • MJ says:

      ^^^^^this!^^^^^^^

    • Nona says:

      Exactly! They try to SAY it doesn’t mean to rule over, but the entire structure of the church from top to bottom reinforces the fact that men do PRESIDE over women. Always.

    • JNB says:

      Gaslighting, indeed. This was a powerful example of gaslighting, and yet Florence managed to overcome it in a most respectful and inspired manner. My sister was recently gaslighted by a member of her bishopric with regards to a YW activity that he wanted to micromanage, and it resulted in tears and submission because she is timid and didn’t dare stand up for herself. He “presided” quite effectively, eh?

      THANK YOU, Florence, for modeling this persistence for your sisters, and thank you, Exponent, for making it available for sisters to learn from!

  5. Happy Hubby says:

    Wow – what a great interaction. I think you deserve some credit for this as your comments seem to be very thoughtful and measured and don’t come across as accusational. But others that ask questions are often shutdown, so thumbs up to Elder _____!!

    • Florence says:

      Thanks. And I was absolutely amazed at this Elder’s ability to engage in conversation with me. I wish it happened more often!

    • JNB says:

      Agreed. I once tried to open a dialogue with a priesthood leader about something that was bothering me, and it resulted in me receiving a closed-minded lecture from an angry man (I stayed calm and respectful, always–I simply had concerns). That experience taught me to keep my concerns to myself or take them to my sisters in the future.

  6. Trudy says:

    Go you! I’m so glad that you had the courage to have this very important discussion and to persist in it to its end, and I’m so glad that Elder ____ was open, receptive, and respectful of you. I hope he does take this message up the chain and that those further up the chain receive it with the same humility and openness that he did.

    • Florence says:

      Thanks for your comment. Even though it looks like a ‘happy ending’ I don’t think the story’s over yet. I’m still thinking, feeling, wondering what the next step is–mine and/or someone else’s.

  7. Mark says:

    You rock, Florence, and I hope someday to marry your former Visiting Teacher. (Oh wait, i did.). And I can imagine David your husband and my friend “getting this”.

    I know which two Seventy were at our Stake Conference last month and will just assume they were both as willing to work through this with you (at least in the long run) as the GA you describe
    here.

    And a happy Frank Gehry to you!

    • Florence says:

      Thanks, Mark. There’s a reason you are at the top of my favorite-ex-bishops list. Actually, there are a lot of reasons. And your ongoing support in my attempts to express myself is just one of them. <3

  8. Mathy says:

    “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

  9. Lilly says:

    I am so happy to read this exchange and impressed with your persistence to help Elder ____ come to see your point of view. Very well done.

  10. Lanabean says:

    Yeah… I think they keep using the word “preside” because it means exactly what they want it to mean: men are in charge. Or as my husband quips with a smirk, “we’re equal… it’s just that I’m equaler!” Saying we’re equal partners is lip service to calm women down, all evidence of equality to the contrary.
    That being said, I understand completely why you spoke to him the way you did. Letting them still be right is an important part of getting the leadership to consider something new.

    • Mary says:

      “Letting them still be right is an important part of getting the leadership to consider something new.”

      Unfortunately, these words are very wise and the way it works.

  11. Mary says:

    I’m torn. I would like to pop open the sparkling cider and toast your victory, but I’ve been in this church too long.

    I’m wondering if you floated the idea that women also provide structure, stability and counsel that is just as valuable and vital as the men’s.

    I still don’t think he gets it. The commonly stated belief, these days is the way boys are taught to be men is to not be women. In effect, be the opposite of women.

    So, if the man is providing the structure then the woman is, according to Thesaurus.com, disorganized. If the man is providing stability, the woman is providing doubt, instability, spinelessness, uncertainty, weakness, insecurity, unsteadiness, variability and wavering–also antonyms provided by Thesaurus.com. If the man is providing the counsel, the woman is the one receiving the counsel.

    I agree he conceded your point and that is no small thing, but I also agree with Anna that he doesn’t seem to understand or care how dangerous it is we’ve been bringing up our boys with the idea that the way to be men is to be not women, rather than raising both genders to simply be good human beings who are true to their best natures.

    • Florence says:

      Can we do both–Can we toast the victory AND recognize that the lds church a very long way to go?
      I do not see what I said as a landing spot. I see it as one tiny baby step towards where we need to be.

      • Mary says:

        Yes, because I’ve found that when I toast victories, more victories join the one I toasted.

  12. Jeff says:

    This is a nice exchange. Glad to hear he listened to your point of view and seemed genuinely to try to understand where you’re coming from.

  13. Ziff says:

    Nice going, Florence! I’m glad you were able to help him see the complication. I’m still with Lanabean and Mary in that I think that church leaders use “preside” to mean exactly what it means, and that they’re just hoping that the more patriarchal members will like that part, but that the more egalitarian members will pay attention to the “equal partners” part. But I would love it if efforts like yours were able to help church leaders move toward deciding that maybe “preside” could mean something other than it typically means.

  14. Rachel says:

    Wow, this is a very hopeful exchange! I’m inspired by your steady strength in continuing the conversation. “Nevertheless she persisted!”

  15. Heather says:

    I love this so much. I admire the careful way you persisted but where still assumed good will on his part, creating an environment where he could then not be defensive, but humble and open to your argument. Great analogy with the primary song! You are my shero.

  16. Adrienne Robinson says:

    So, I have learned that someone can only preside over me with my permission and acquiesence. I am not, by nature acquiesent, so my husband (and to a certain extent, my bishop) wisely, keeps his presiding to a very bare minimum. Generally harmony ensues.

  17. Chiaroscuro says:

    thank you for speaking up and sharing about your conversation

  18. Mean mama jones says:

    It looks like many feminists will find themselves separate and single forever and ever.

  19. Pammy says:

    I love this! You stood for what you believed and stuck with it! Little by little good change is coming from people like you….one person making a difference!

  20. Trevor says:

    Props for your persistence and ability to keep it civil

  21. IDIAT says:

    I’m glad you felt the conversation was civil. My guess is that a more seasoned Seventy would have answered your initial question with “doctrinal” and left the POTF completely out of the discussion because, as you noted, it has nothing to do with priesthood. Had he answered “doctrinal,” I have the feeling that whatever he would have said wouldn’t have convinced you (or any other dedicated LDS feminist for that matter), since you implied in the OP that you “know” it’s not doctrinal. My guess is, too, that a more seasoned Seventy would have discerned your position and not have spent a great deal of time trying to convince you otherwise. As for the POTF, there just isn’t any getting around the fact that it is patriarchal in nature. The fact that it was written “to the world” means its intended audience is mostly composed of non-members, and the husbands referred to therein would not be priesthood holders. The real question might then be: How do non-member husbands who don’t hold the priesthood “preside” over their families? Given the continued uproar over the wording, it’ll be interesting to see what language is excised first: preside over or as equal partners.

  22. Karen Millett says:

    Florence, thank you for your courage. We need more brave woman like you to make the road more fair to all of us.

  23. Angela C says:

    Very well done! I’m unfortunately getting pretty tired of this conversation, though. It reminds me of how tiresome it was to potty train my kids. It was necessary, but at some point, having to continually point to the potty and hand out M&Ms for basic toilet skills is a repetitive drag.

  24. Mary says:

    I’ve been thinking about this. While I still think the concession is a cause for high fives, the church could do as it was advocated by fMh to abide by President Kimball’s motto and lengthen its stride.

    It was reported by Mormonleaks that the church has 32 billion in the stock market. If that 32 billion is invested in a vehicle that yields 3%, the church would have a nice, safe 1 billion dollars in passive income, annually. I’ve heard the church doesn’t need our donations and could survive indefinitely on its current holdings. That appears to be the case.

    The church could literally make enormous, bold, sweeping changes that alienate 99% of the members in the pews and still exist as an organization. Gay marriages recognized, embraced and sealed in the temple? Fine. Eradicate the scientifically disproven parts of the Word of Wisdom? Great. Throw patriarchy out the window with every scripture, teaching and temple ceremony that supports it? Wonderful. Polygamy? Gone. Enthrone Heavenly Mother by Heavenly Father’s side as His only wife and full equal? You got it? Talk about Her? Absolutely. Eliminate all teachings and practices that violate boundaries and groom potential victims? Let’s do that. Alter the emphasis on everyone being married and in a nuclear family and replace it with teachings about simply being good human beings? Done. Eliminate the three hour block? Yes!

    The church could make all of these changes, lose all of it’s membership and still survive. Possibly even thrive. The leadership could make every one of these bold moves that makes it an inclusive organization with healthy teachings. It could change structure entirely and still exist.

    It doesn’t. Any changes happening are baby steps and those baby steps only come after huge amounts of effort on the discontented membership’s part. I’m not going to discuss why. I haven’t asked any of our leaders. I’m not sure of their reasons. I will say, it’s evident the leaders are fine with things the way they are. If they weren’t, they could change them.

    • Guest says:

      Maybe, just maybe, the Church doesn’t do any of those things because it is a Church led by Jesus Christ. Maybe those things would be wrong for His Church.

      If marriage in the Eternities requires a Male and Female entity bound together Gay marriage can not be sealed – it would be pointless.

      If the Word of Wisdom is more about obedience than science looking for scientific evidence, rather than faith, is pointless.

      I the male entity of the Eternal one of marriage is the only one requiring priesthood maybe equality for women only comes in the Eternal Oneness.

      Not sure how you get rid of Polygamy – it happened. And to take the next one, if Polygamy can be eternal maybe we have multiple HM’s.

      The fact is that there are many things we do not know – very many. And to try to limit God based on “Modern Day Received Wisdom” is just a pointless excersise.

      I would suggest that on the matter of “Equal Partners” and “Preside” it means whatever works, and is in harmony with God’s will for the couple involved. I have know couples where the wife controls the money, and those where the husband does. Neither is right, or wrong. If it works for them – it is right for them. The same is true for each aspect of the partnership.

      • Mary says:

        I’ve held a mindset closer to yours and I understand what you’re saying and where you are coming from.

        In order to understand why I believe changes need to be made in order for this to be truly Christ’s church, you would have to go through my experiences.

        You’re grateful you haven’t and I pray you never do.

      • differentguest says:

        Ah, AndrewR, you can’t hide your apologetics behind anonymity. We know you and your way of thinking all too well.

  25. Florence says:

    Mary “In order to understand why I believe changes need to be made in order for this to be truly Christ’s church, you would have to go through my experiences.” Love it!

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, Florence.

      I also wanted to tell “Guest” he wasn’t abiding by President Nelson’s counsel to fast from social media. 😉

  26. Florence says:

    To IDIAT: I am uncomfortable with your implications and guesses. Just to set the record straight 1) I don’t “know” it’s not doctrinal. I asked a real question, seeking for a real answer. And 2) the Seventy was about as seasoned as they come. I prefer not to share the entirety of our interactions with you, but I can say that throughout our exchange, particularly when we spoke face to face, he listened carefully and came across as genuinely wanting to be a help to me. He recognized that I was asking a sincere question and did not jump to the conclusion that I had any “position” that I needed to be convinced out of.

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