Spiritual Capital


It has been my experience that, while we’re all ideally “sisters” and “brothers” in the gospel, certain people within local stakes and wards carry a bit more influence and status than others.  There’s a certain amount of ethos that people carry that makes one’s ideas more heard/accepted, and that gives a person a certain amount of power beyond what is/isn’t bestowed by the institution.  I call this status/influence/ethos “spiritual capital,” a term that I picked up from Patrick Mason (and which he blogged about at Times & Seasons in 2006).  Mason argues that, especially when a person moves into a new ward, there is a certain amount of spiritual capital a person needs to earn before they can start acting in heterodox/different ways without losing their credibility, or else they would essentially withdraw against insufficient spiritual capital funds.

The amount of spiritual capital a person earns comes from a variety of factors, both within and without their control.  For example, some attributes and actions that would earn a person spiritual capital (based on the wards I’ve attended in my adult life) would be:

  • male
  • heterosexual
  • married
  • children (and ideally more than two)
  • a temple recommend holder
  • conservative political ideology
  • regular church attendance
  • a calling in a presidency of a Bishopric, quorum, or auxiliary
  • tenure in a ward/stake –  having been in the same area for a long period of time
  • regularly doing home or visiting teaching
  • reliably fulfilling church duties/callings
  • volunteering to help at activities, or to help people in the ward
  • being generally friendly and outgoing
  • not rocking the boat or complaining

Conversely, you can also spend your spiritual capital in your ward by doing and/or saying unorthodox things – wearing pants to church, for example, is one way to spend your spiritual capital.  Asking the bishop to change the Sacrament meeting speaking schedule to allow for women to be the concluding speaker would be another.  In my current ward, having an “Obama 2012” bumper sticker would be a great way to dump your spiritual capital straight down the drain (and probably get your car keyed, to boot).  Obviously these things are going to vary from ward to ward – I could probably show up in pants in an Oakland ward without spending too much (or any) spiritual capital, but doing so in a highly traditional ward would spend virtually all of the spiritual capital I could possibly earn (and maybe even get me released from my calling).  This is why simple things like what you wear and what you say might seem like trivial things on the surface, but in our highly correlated church, wearing or saying the wrong thing can actually be quite costly.

The consequences of spending your spiritual capital can vary.  They can range all the way from people shifting uncomfortably in their seats to being released from callings, or even shunned by a large part of the congregation.  Some can be a good investment: in his article, Mason gives an example of a time where he talked about Joseph Smith and seerstones in the presence of a man in his Bishopric and the Stake YW President, which they hadn’t heard about before.  Because he was then able to frame those concepts in a faithful context, and because he had built up a good amount of spiritual capital, he was then asked to give a fireside about the translation of the Book of Mormon and was able to broaden the minds of his ward members and possibly make the ward a more welcoming place for discussing historical issues.  There have also been women who have been able to make substantive changes on the ward and stake level by spending their spiritual capital to make constructive suggestions on how to better include women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and others on the margins.  When spent wisely and with the right leadership in place, spending spiritual capital can ultimately make a person’s congregation more accepting, which levels the playing field and makes it easier for others to both earn spiritual capital and spend it with less negative consequences.

Conversely, there have been women who have been released from callings for simply saying the words “Heavenly Mother,” and there have been people who have refused to allow their children to be taught in church by somebody who has publicly supported same-sex marriage.  And because the quantity of our spiritual capital is often limited by circumstances beyond our control (gender, marital status, and sexual orientation, just to name a few), and the cost of spending our spiritual capital varies so much by location and leadership, we might never be able to accrue enough spiritual capital to speak or act according to our deeply held heterodox beliefs without overdrawing, no matter how long and devoted our service in our congregation may be.

This brings me to a key point: the system of spiritual capital is fundamentally limiting to women.  No matter how much spiritual capital we can amass, we still only operate with that single currency.  Men are given the ability to earn an additional – and entirely separate -institutional capital (in the form of priesthood) that gives them both institutional and spiritual power, including the ability to make the final decisions and have veto power over other people’s decisions.  While women can gain a comparatively high amount of institutional power (as a Relief Society President, for example, or even as a member of a General Auxiliary Presidency), they cannot earn the administrative and spiritual power that is only available to priesthood holders.  No matter how high the office, women in our church can always be overruled by her male priesthood leader. They are prohibited from making certain decisions – a woman cannot issue a calling, for example, without approval from her priesthood leader.  A woman certainly cannot initiate disciplinary proceedings.  Even women at the highest levels of church governance have a man above them that can rubber-stamp or veto her decisions.  She can give advice, earn spiritual capital that buys her clout and influence, but when it comes down to it, women are still only operating with the ability to provide feedback, and as April recently pointed out, feedback is not enough.  It’s influence, not power.  But since we have a currency, we often feel that what we have is enough, particularly because we can amass a lot of soft influence, and because we risk spending most or all of our hard-earned spiritual capital by asking for something more. But until women have the opportunity to participate in the administrative roles that are currently afforded only to male priesthood holders (in addition to earning spiritual capital), we will be systemically disadvantaged in our church congregations.  So whether it’s through female ordination, restructuring the Relief Society to have broader and more meaningful spiritual and institutional authority, or some other option, until something is fundamentally changed in the highest levels of church governance, women will be working with Monopoly money instead of real cash.

Do you see the system of spiritual capital operating in your ward or stake?  How is your experience similar or different to mine?  What are ways that women can gain spiritual capital in your area, and what are ways that women spend it?  How would you change the current church structure to allow women more institutional power, if at all?  


Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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24 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    “This brings me to my point: the system of spiritual capital is fundamentally limiting to women. No matter how much spiritual capital we can amass, we still only operate with that single currency. Men are given the ability to earn an additional – and entirely separate -institutional capital (in the form of priesthood) that gives them both institutional and spiritual power, including the ability to make the final decisions and have veto power over other people’s decisions.”

    Yes! Absolutely right, Liz. I do see the system of spiritual capital operating in my ward, much as you describe. One way to earn spiritual capital — or at least some room to be a bit heterodox — is if you’ve amassed spiritual capital through service, like bringing people casseroles and fulfilling your calling really well. If you’ve done those things, people will be more willing to not utterly discount and reject you, despite some heterodoxy on your part.

    How would I change things? I think we need to open up every single level of administrative and institutional power to women — bishops, area presidents, GA’s, prophets, etc. And at this point, I see ordination to the priesthood as the only way to accomplish that.

    • Liz says:

      Thank you, Caroline! Agreed that a good amount of service goes a long way – the willingness to be one of those people who will get things done and help out members in the congregation can gain us a ton more spiritual capital than I sometimes realize.

  2. Alisa says:

    I think I have a negative spiritual capital in my ward, where I’ve been for three years. For all the reasons you mentioned. During my second lesson as a teacher in Relief Society, someone started making non-related comments bashing Obama. I outed myself as a registered democrat, and jaws of two women on the front row dropped. As we took our son trick-or-treating a few weeks later, a neighbor told me that my confession alone would keep me from a leadership position in the ward and stake. Which is OK. I just wanted people to know that we weren’t all thinking the same way about politics, and that they didn’t contribute to the feeling of unity we want at church.

    So I’m a woman, feminist, a professional, a liberal, and a mother with a child with special needs. Lots of reasons to not have spiritual capital. However, I just wanted to mention what can happen when you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, and say you don’t really go and aren’t super committed, you can sometimes become a project. Not in a bad way, but in a good way, at least how I’ve experienced it. Through my father’s death and an injury my husband suffered, my ward’s Relief Society has served me. They have checked in with me. They have taken me out to lunch. They have brought gifts. They have done secret Santas for my family. They have fed my family, many times. I know that I may be a project, but I try to return their kindness and offer my honesty and sincerity back. Through losing my pride and my spiritual capital, I’ve learned through the ways the ward has served me that there is something beautiful and wonderful about our Mormon people. And oh how I love them, appreciate them, for that.

    • mylifeintune says:

      This concept of “spiritual capital” puts words to why I feel so uneasy about expressing myself. It’s not only about the capital (or lack thereof), though–it’s also about losing comfortable anonymity; it’s knowing I’ll be spoken about in bishopric or relief society presidency meetings; it’s second-guessing every comment I make in church to make sure I don’t come across as “rocking the boat” when I don’t mean to be. “Spiritual capital” refers to how I come across to everyone else, but the things I just mentioned are more how it feels to be me.

      I think I have a lot to offer my ward leadership. I know I have views they haven’t heard before; I can explain things in ways they haven’t thought of before. I think so much of the problem with patriarchy is ignorance–the inability to see things in another way because they aren’t even aware there is another way to see things. And as a woman, the only way I feel it’s appropriate for me to speak up is if I’m asked, but I won’t be asked because they aren’t even aware of the questions.

      • Alisa says:

        I should have added that while losing my spiritual capital has made me see some of the best things about Mormons, it probably doesn’t do much for effecting change, which is the point of the post. Although I have been encouraged to see that I receive this kind of outreach while at the same time being my authentic self. Maybe they want me to change, or maybe they love me just how I am. I feel better assuming the latter, so I will.

      • Liz says:

        Excellent point, MyLifeinTune – there’s a certain amount of spiritual capital we gain by not showing all of our cards. I moved into my current ward about a year ago and gave a talk early on that showed my hand as more of a heterodox member, and I’ve been very aware of how I’ve had to earn back the spiritual capital I hadn’t realized I had spent by being more “outside the box” in my new ward than I had been in my old one.

      • Ziff says:

        I think that’s an excellent point, MyLifeInTune and Liz, about how once you’re labeled as unorthodox or whatever, it can be difficult to ever get spiritual capital back in some areas because anything you do or say will be seen with suspicion. It totally makes sense that once you’ve got that label, for example, anything you say pretty much can be framed as subversive in some way, even if it’s not at all intended in that way.

    • Liz says:

      This is gorgeous, Alisa, and I’m so glad that this has been your experience. I also think that there’s something beautiful about our community that often transcends the differences among us. Sometimes I wonder if the best way to get rid of the “spiritual capital” is to refuse to play the game… I just don’t know which is more effective: playing the game and spending wisely, or refusing to play and going for broke. I think we probably need some people willing to do both things, and probably other things that I didn’t even address in this post.

    • Ziff says:

      I’m so glad to hear that people around you have been so good to you in difficult times, Alisa!

  3. Mike R. says:

    With respect to you and Patrick Mason, I think I’d call it “social capital,” as it’s social standing that’s accumulated, not spiritual merit. It also applies outside church — in any group of people, diverging from the group risks marking you as an outsider who might change the group in negative ways, unless you’ve already established your credibility as an insider. As a general matter, I have no objection to the system — you don’t really have a group without some way to tell who’s in and who’s out, and trust should accumulate as you get to know someone. As a specific matter, though, it’s pretty horrible to see that list and realize how many people are perpetual outsiders in the kingdom of God.

    • Liz says:

      I think that’s fair, Mike – it’s definitely more of an outward measure, rather than an internal merit (which is where I would usually put spirituality, as more of a status before God than before man). I’m guessing Patrick coined it to specifically refer to the capital we gain within our specific church congregations, but that’s just a guess. I also agree that there are variations on this theme in virtually any social structure we encounter, but it seems that LDS churches are a bit more rigid/correlated than some other faith traditions I’ve experienced. Thanks for commenting!

    • Amelia says:

      While I understand that what Liz (and Patrick) refer to as spiritual capital seems the same as what is called social capital in other kinds of groups or communities, I think to use the term “social capital” for Mormon contexts elides some very real, very problematic aspects of this issue in Mormon groups. When I lose social capital in my Mormon community, it can have deeply spiritual consequences. I may not be able to go to the temple, I may not be able to baptize my own child, I may not be able to pray or speak publicly in my own community. Sure, similar things might happen in other social groups, but if we believe that participation in Mormon communities and rituals bear real spiritual fruit (a point with which few practicing Mormons would disagree; as a non-practicing Mormon I accept this point, too–I think there are actual, real spiritual benefits to being able to fully participate in a Mormon community), then I do not think it’s accurate to recast this dynamic as one that is purely social.

      • Mike R. says:

        I keep thinking of something I heard Maxine Hanks say recently, about how excommunication results from a failed relationship between a person and the church, or church leaders, and about how readmission to the church, in her case, had to do more with rebuilding that relationship than with changing anything that she had taught or believed. I don’t bring it up to blame victims; plenty of failed relationships involve an innocent party. I just mean to illustrate that consequences may be deeply spiritual — if church is worth being a part of, then being cut off isn’t some meaningless social trifle — but the dynamic is still essentially social.

        I’m not tremendously invested in the term, but I suppose I prefer “social” not to elide the seriousness of the consequences, but to emphasize that the origin of those consequences is in the community. If you can’t pray publically in church or attend the temple, it’s because someone you know isn’t letting you, not because you’re spiritually deficient in some way. I also prefer to remember that when we make people outsiders in the kingdom of God, it’s our failure as a society that’s a sin more than the individual’s failure to conform.

      • Amelia says:

        I completely agree with pretty much everything you say here, Mike R. And I think it’s right to point out that this problem originates in social or community dynamics. I just keep coming back to the fact that part of the price someone must pay when they lose this kind of capital is a personal spiritual price. Certainly they are not necessarily spiritually deficient within themselves when they lose this kind of capital in their Mormon community, but that doesn’t change the fact that, if we grant the reality of spiritual benefit available in the experiences denied them (e.g., temple attendance, performing rituals for their own child, etc.), they are required to pay a spiritual price. They are also prevented from doing the work of spiritually benefiting others (e.g., teaching, holding callings, etc.).

        I think those prices are real and significant. And while I think many people who lose their capital within Mormon communities find ways to maintain their own spiritual well being in other ways, I think others capitulate and conform because the price is too high for them. Not just the social price, but the spiritual price. I have, by choice, lost all of my capital within Mormon communities. But I still feel the price of not being able to attend the temple, which I love in spite of its problems. It’s a price I have chosen to pay, but I don’t like that I have to pay it. I also pay the price of not being able to minister to others in a belief context that is my own. I feel a calling to ministry and, in another religious community, would have pursued a profession as a minister. I pay a spiritual price regularly, not just a social one, because I cannot minister in my own religious community and to minister in another would require not being true to my own religious beliefs since I would have to set aside some of the more distinctive doctrines of Mormonism that I cherish.

        So I agree that there is a powerful social dynamic here that doesn’t necessarily mean something about the inherent spirituality of the person who loses this capital. But I think it’s not quite right to say that this is a purely social phenomenon. In my mind, spirituality and social connection are so deeply intertwined that they cannot be untangled. When we impoverish community members in social terms, we do so in spiritual terms, too (and vice versa).

  4. Amelia says:

    “But since we have a currency, we often feel that what we have is enough, particularly because we can amass a lot of soft influence, and because we risk spending most or all of our hard-earned spiritual capital by asking for something more.”

    This is vital to me. It offers an understanding of why it is more people don’t ask for change. Because they know just the simple act of asking can wipe out all of the years of hard work and dedication and commitment that has allowed them to have some influence, and to belong, in a community that is vital to them and, usually, to their families, too.

    It is sad what we must sacrifice in order to simply raise a question or observe a problem.

  5. Ziff says:

    I think you make excellent points, Liz, about how the system doesn’t allow for women to amass much spiritual capital at all compared to how much men can. This is just in one area, but in terms of how seriously you get taken when making comments in a mixed-sex class like Gospel Doctrine, I am endlessly amazed at how being male plus using a high council voice gets you taken more seriously than being female plus any other combination of factors you can come up with. It’s so disappointing.

  6. EFH says:

    The issue of ‘social/spiritual capital’ is not a direct consequence of gender status, in my opinion. In the Mormon context, people/audience care about the partner of the person they are examine and placing in the social/spiritual capital ladder. It seems to me that it is more of a couple status than an individual one. I also would like to add that the financial status of a couple seems to matter as well (in general at least). The man earns well and they can afford a nice middle class lifestyle while the wife goes to the gym every day and makes sure everyone in the family is very well dressed and the family looks perfect. I have noticed that this is the type of couple that everyone wants to befriend. I guess every ward is different but financial status of the family, how the couple is perceived and race seems to matter in the places I have been.

    I also would like to add that many people show their cards from day one and get surprised when they loose spiritual capital. I am surprised of this reaction. What do you expect? Do you know your audience? Most of the members in wards are judgmental because they come from a white christian background. I think we need to be smarter than this: i) let people get to know us first through friendship and service and especially via personal relationship and ii) make a statement only to offer another alternative. I have been in wards where people speak up (and say something very sound and progressive) for the wrong reasons – to show how smart they are, or to shock others, or for whatever other reasons. I do not recommend this path because you make yourself a target. We might think that we loose standing because of what we said but I do think that people perceive attitude too and they react to it. So we have to make sure we also find a way where we can stand for what we perceive to be the right cause without being self-righteous.

    • Liz says:

      In my case, I was surprised because I hadn’t realized what kind of environment I had come to. I had stayed in the same region of the country, and besides moving wards, nothing else that I could see had really changed about what I was able to say/not say at church. So I gave what I thought was a very faithful, spirit-guided talk (about what it means to sustain our leaders, on all levels of the church), only to have quite a bit of blow-back for being too “edgy” by suggesting that we shouldn’t blindly obey and that we’re responsible for our own testimonies. So… I guess the answer is that, no, I didn’t know my audience, but mostly because the allowance for variation in my new ward is soooo much slimmer than it was before. And that’s not something that was obvious to me in the two weeks I had spent there before speaking.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I loved your post, Liz. I have framed my work in Church as spending social capital ever since working with a professor who taught a class on it, but I love the spiritual capital angle and it answers spots that the social capital descriptor I’ve used doesn’t…like the fact that while I’m friendlier and more versed in scripture than my husband (excuse me while I brag), but he can get away with more than I can. When there’s a situation that needs fixing, he can get it fixed more quickly and better than I. He has access to capital that I don’t so perhaps this capital is actually social but it’s perceived as spiritual in our community.

    I think the spiritual capital is what leads to burn out for so many of us. I so carefully measured and spent my capital for years, but spiritual capital is not a regulated. It’s free-floating and can change on the whim of the current leaders of the congregation.

  8. Heather says:

    This articulates so well what I’ve learned over the years. I have lived in the same ward for 18 years and sometimes forget that I can say and do certain things not because I’m bolder or more authentic than other women, but simply because of the capital I’ve accrued. Its great that I do my VTing, come from Pioneer stock, and go to the temple, but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for being authentic. We should all have that right.

  9. Jenny says:

    Great post Liz, and great discussion too. I have definitely seen this in my ward. My husband and I have both worked very hard over the last five years to build up spiritual capital in our ward. It hasn’t been an easy thing to accomplish because of the dynamics of the place we live. There is a huge mentality here that “local is best” and if you’re not local, you don’t belong. Since we are not from here and have no family here, it has been hard to feel like we really belong. I have bent over backward to serve and be involved, only to realize in hindsight that those things have done nothing to help me build up a social network, but have caused people to think that they can use me for my services. So, I guess it’s no surprise that I lost all of my spiritual capital and then some, when it started to come out that I was not completely orthodox in my beliefs. I thought that after five years, when my husband and I were both starting to get leadership positions, that I had enough capital to let my authentic self out of the closet a little bit.
    I also naively believed that throwing some support toward OW would lend credit to OW with my own friends and family because they knew of my absolute devotion to the church. I was very surprised to find out that rather than adding credit to OW, it took away from my own spiritual capital.
    I will never get my spiritual capital back in this ward, but I think the biggest factor that is going to keep me from having capital in any ward ever again, is that my husband has disaffected from the church. Now in the eyes of Mormons I am a single mom, and that limits my spiritual capacity in every way.

  10. Kirsten says:

    Another way one’s spiritual/social capital can be affected is through how one’s spouse uses theirs or what choices he/she makes. For example, a few years back my husband took a break from church. Once he had been gone a few weeks, it was like I had become a pariah myself. Certain women in the ward ceased to associate with me or even say hello. It was as if I had a virus and they didn’t want to catch it. It was only after he came back to church that they started treating me as if I existed again. It was quite painful. I hadn’t done anything, but because he chose to leave, somehow the capital I had built up was non-existent.
    Would this have been different for him if I were the one to have stopped attending? I don’t know. Seeing as he’s a man, probably not… Maybe he would have had the sympathy vote.

  11. ron says:

    A man that has grown and developed in the way the church wants in almost all cases is the product of a strong and valiant wife that he shows loves and respect to, he may also be a widower.

    The church doesnt teach or want unrightious dominion so im specifically not talking about power hungry leaders. They have their reward in the office they hold and their glory will end there.

  1. November 23, 2020

    […] All social systems have some level of performativity – in today’s world, women often have longer hair, whereas men tend to keep it short. But if you see a man with long hair, or a woman with a pixie, you don’t usually assume that they’re performing a different gender. But because Mormonism is a poorly-differentiated social group, we require a high degree of conformity and compliance within our group, and there are high social consequences to nonconformity. Showing up to the Relief Society potluck with a beer in one hand wouldn’t just be perceived as an unusual choice in beverage, it would be perceived as a hostile display of not performing Mormonism, and people would interact with that person very differently that day and going forward.  Similarly, there are tremendous benefits to looking and acting the part – Mormons do a great job of caring for our own. We easily make friends, we have built-in social groups almost anywhere on the globe, and we can count on somebody to bring us a cup of sugar or care for our kids on a moment’s notice. The degree to which that extends past our in-group of Mormonism varies, I think, but I’ve had several people express awe at how nice it must be to move to a new place and have a community into which I could fit fairly seamlessly.  And fitting into that group requires some degree of showing that you belong.  The performance of Mormonism says to the group, “I share your values, and you can trust that we have this in common.” Similarly, the outward nonperformance of Mormonism creates rifts that vary – some people leave the church and no longer are accepted by their families and friends, and others are still included, but lose a certain amount of moral authority and spiritual capital. […]

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