Guest Post: Why Don’t Women Help Pick the Bishop?
By Abby Maxwell Hansen
My ward got a brand new bishop this month. It happens every five years, and I’d known it was coming any day. I’d recently texted the old bishop’s wife and joked about how she’d see her husband for the first time in half a decade.
The new bishopric was announced in Sacrament Meeting, like always. Extended family members of those men sat in the congregation, having traveled to see them sustained. They announced the change, and everyone had only a few seconds to process the names before deciding to raise their hands either in agreement or opposition. I don’t really know our new bishop like I knew the last one, but he seems very nice. I like his wife. Hopefully that means he’ll be a cool bishop, too.
I’ve thought a lot about the process of choosing the ward leadership for the upcoming years, and who was involved. My understanding is that it happens like this: the stake president counsels with the current bishopric, the high councilmen assigned to that ward, perhaps the Elder’s Quorum president or his own counselors who are familiar with the men in that ward, or any other priesthood leader he feels inspired to talk to. After that, he makes the decision a matter of personal contemplation and prayer, and decides who he wants to call. The number of women involved in this very important decision is zero. I don’t believe these callings come directly from God in a perfectly understood revelation, or that the stake president choosing can’t make a mistake. I think he does his best job to pick someone he thinks will lead the ward well and match up with the needs of ward. I live in Lehi, Utah – just up the road from where a currently serving bishop was arrested as part of human trafficking bust several weeks ago. If that’s not proof that stake presidents are doing their best but inevitably pick a bad apple sometimes, I don’t know what is.
In the aftermath of that bishop’s arrest, I realized that I have several female friends and acquaintances in his ward, former ward (before a recent split) and stake. Not everyone had a bad feeling about this particular bishop before he was caught, but two of the women said they did. One with a teenage daughter had been very clear that her girl could leave an interview at any time she felt the slightest bit uncomfortable with him. I wonder how different this whole affair might have played out if the women in the ward had been consulted for their opinion before calling this man to be the bishop. I’ve experienced situations in my life where a particular man gives many women around him a creepy feeling, but the men in charge seem oblivious. (There was a terribly creepy older man that I used to work with years ago. The male upper management had no idea he was a problem until the one female manager took our concerns about him up the ladder and he was reprimanded.)
So why don’t we consult with the female leadership in a ward for their ideas of who a good bishop would be? The presidents of the female led organizations likely have a different insight on potential bishopric candidates than what the men see alone. At an even lower bar, why doesn’t the stake president call at least these women in after he’s already picked the new bishop – but before extending the actual calling – and give them to opportunity confidentially voice any concerns or objections there? The bishop will be the guy who picks the next president of the women’s organization in the ward, so why can’t the women (at the very, very least) have some sort of input on who the man will be that chooses their leaders, lessons and teachers for the next five years?
To be fair to the system, women do have the option of raising their hand in opposition when the stake president calls for a sustaining vote of the new bishop. That’s not nothing – but it almost is. Our church culture is so very opposed to opposing. A ward member might have literally a split second to decide if they’re going to raise their hand and make a very public declaration of non-support for the guy who is about to be running that ward for the next half-decade. Unless a ward member knows something extremely egregious about him, I don’t think anyone will ever raise their hand in that setting to vote in opposition. I was always told that the sustaining of leaders wasn’t so much for them (as God had already called them), but an opportunity for me to show my support of that new calling. I think that’s a pretty common interpretation in the church.
When that sustaining vote is called for, the male leaders in the ward have had days or weeks to thoughtfully contemplate the change in leadership, while the female leaders get a ten second warning before the vote. And if they’re sick, in the hall with a baby, or out of town – they may miss the opportunity to vote at all. And who wants to vote no without a very, very clear reason to do so (like, everybody missed that the guy was arrested for attempted rape last year)? At that point, the bishop has already been called and spent weeks training behind the scenes with the outgoing bishop, his family has flown in from Delaware to support him, and the stake president is standing at the pulpit declaring that God has specifically called this particular man to be the next leader of the ward. Is the church really genuinely asking for female input at that point, when the social pressure is so intense for women to agree with and sustain the decision that had long since been made already without them?
Next year we celebrate one hundred years of women voting in America. What I would like to see in my church now is real votes for women – not the false appearance of a sustaining vote that we have in place now. Change the policies so that women are consulted on everything that affects them and their lives – especially on who their ecclesiastical leaders will be.