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:
- 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?