The {hidden} misogyny of reactivation efforts

How many active, full-tithe-paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders does it take to form a ward? No, it’s not a lightbulb joke.

15 — to fully staff a bishopric with clerk and secretary, high Priests group leadership, Elders quorum presidency, young men presidency and a ward mission leader.

How many active, full-tithe-paying Relief Society sisters does it take to form a ward? Well, technically none. While total membership for a new ward ranges from 150-300 minimum depending on location, there are no requirements for how many women are needed to form a ward.

“Prospective Elders” have their attendance at meetings tracked in church systems and are expected to progress toward ordination.  They are regularly discussed at PEC meetings and included in ward conference reports. There is no corollary for a prospective Relief Society sister.

Missionary efforts throughout the world prioritize finding, teaching and baptizing men through district goals and mission-wide reporting indicators.

As it’s organized now, the church requires men to fill its core leadership positions, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of reactivation efforts coming down from the general level are aimed at retaining, reclaiming, and ordaining existing/prospective Melchizedek Priesthood holders.

One such reactivation effort has been recently launched from Elders Ballard and Rasband. Unlike come past efforts which have focused on reactivating families recommended by each organization, this renewed emphasis for reaching out to less-active Melchizedek Priesthood holders is more of the same old strategy in updated packaging: Keep the men in the Sacrament pews and filling the callings.   Despite the PEC having the unique designation to “meet regularly to discuss Priesthood matters,” this initiative for reactivating formerly active, ordained men is a task given to the entire ward council.  Reactivating prospective ward priesthood leadership is of high enough priority that we even need the women’s contributions, ideas, work, and combined human resource meeting time!

The new/old initiative has already been rolled-out over wide areas of the United States and is well-organized into specific steps: select 2-3 less-active MP holders, gather intel on their life’s personal details, select appropriate fellowshippers from the ward to visit them, make appointments, cite authority “We are here to visit you at the request of Bishop _____ and two apostles of Jesus Christ, Elder Ballard and Elder Rasband.”  Teach a lesson, promise blessings, exercise the priesthood, follow-up, continue in prayer. It’s a carefully detailed process with the desired result being that the man (+/- his family) returns to full activity and temple blessings.

When I asked our Exponent II facebook group why they thought the emphasis of this program was for men-first and families-second, a variety of hypotheses presented:

“There are already more active women than men. Women are more faithful and active. It makes sense that this outreach is going to the demographic that needs it.”

“If the men come back, their wives and families come along. It makes sense to target them first.”

“We need men to fill all the ward leadership callings. Without men, the ward couldn’t function. It’s a move for the ward’s longevity.”

It is pedestalizing to a toxic degree to believe that since women are “naturally more faithful” and stay active in greater percentage, that they do not require general-level reactivation efforts like the men do.   To my knowledge, no women-specific reactivation effort of this scale has ever been launched from church HQ.  The men get it it packaged and reheated like bad left-overs again and again.

If women are more likely to stay active, and if retaining men in church activity is of such high priority, why don’t the ward’s efforts go toward strengthening his wife and family first, in the hopes that he would follow their righteous examples, rather than the opposite?

Simple: by targeting men in less active families first, it emphasizes that men lead their families in spiritual matters, regardless of faithfulness or activity, and discredits the power of women to be a moving spiritual force for their husbands. These asymmetrical efforts to reactivate men rarely go through reactivating their wives in hopes that he will “come along” with her.  It illustrates an underlying belief that men and women are not equal leaders of spiritual matters in their homes.

As far as how to fill leadership callings with active, capable and qualified individuals, our friends at Ordain Women have pretty well fleshed that one out.

After all of the meeting-minutes spent discussing and human-hours dedicated to reactivating men, is it really even the right approach to begin with? Many sincere, loving attempts to extend friendship to sisters in the Relief Society happen every day, through the hands of visiting teachers, compassionate service leaders and good people trying to do the work of Christ.  Do the menfolk really require an additional, more corporate approach than what local wards and stakes are already doing for their women? Perhaps the men should pattern their next program after the visiting teaching model: reach out one-by one, be a friend, do what he needs, show love without judgment, accept him where he is and make room for him in whatever state he comes.

More importantly: the work of stewardship and salvation must be seen as pertaining to the individual regardless of sex, ordination, marital status, or leadership potential.   Funneling a ward’s resources into following a program primarily targeted at  men only works against a ward council’s unique inspiration about who from their ward needs the most loving care and attentive visits.

Guys, take note: the women are already doing it right.


Violadiva is an oxymoron, a musician, a yogi, a Suzuki violin teacher, a late-night baker of sourdough breads, proud Mormon feminist, happy wife of Pianoman and lucky mother to three.

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38 Responses

  1. Dani Addante says:

    I never heard of this reactivation effort. It makes me sad that the church cares more about its men.

  2. On my mission, we had a goal to baptize a certain number of males. The goal applied to male and female missionaries–we were all supposed to be looking for men to convert, and females were only of interest if they converted alongside their male husbands or fathers. No correlating goal for women existed, and the reasons were explained to us this way: the church needs men to administer the church in priesthood callings. The church does not need women.

    Without the priesthood, women are a liability, not an asset. We need church services, but we are not allowed to provide many of them because we are banned from the priesthood. This is only one of many initiatives that involve Mormon women in the goal of seeking out the more desirable kind of church member–the male kind.

    • Angela C says:

      In my mission we tracked “con padre” discussions and results but they counted equally with baptizing women and children. It irked me, but nobody heeded it or truly asked about it. It smacked of a church wide initiative that my president didn’t think was very important.

    • Dani Addante says:

      That’s awful! Don’t they realize that without women there wouldn’t be any men? First they tell us the church wasn’t complete until there was a Relief Society, and then they go and do things like this that imply that only men are needed. This makes me really sad…

  3. m says:

    Has anyone considered WHY men leave the church in higher numbers? What needs of theirs are not being met that leads to this? I’m guessing that the same things that may lead them to leave are also implicit in this “reactivation effort” and therefore doomed to fail. What a waste of time and effort.

    There’s no sense here of a “lost sheep” approach, considering individual by individual.

    • Violadiva says:

      I think it’s a symptom of how patriarchy hurts everyone, including men. No man or man-child over age 12 ever has a female spiritual mentor. They don’t have visiting teachers. Men are cut off from being influenced or nurtured by women religious leaders. I think it hurts society when we don’t care for each other reciprocally.

    • Angela C says:

      I think it’s because rather than inviting them to come to Christ and listening to them, with men it’s all about shaming them into doing a duty.

  4. Anon says:

    About a year and a half ago, my stake split. At stake conference, the new boundaries were revealed, along with the explanation of all the deliberate planning and design that went into finalizing the new boundaries, some of which looked bizarre on the map. In a lovely power point presentation, we were told the boundaries had to be drawn to ensure the “ideal” ratio of Melchizedek priesthood holders to the rest of us—1:7. This ratio allows enough Melchizedek priesthood holders to “nurture” the other ward members.

    While I appreciated the transparency, it was disheartening to realize that not only am I, a well educated, capable, adult woman lumped into the same category as grade school children, but that my husband is worth seven of me to the church.

  5. Laura says:

    While it does make me mad that men are more valued and their voices are more important in the church, I can see why they are focusing on this right now. As you said the women have been doing it right for some time and the men of the church are way behind in this effort.

    However, I wish the deactivation efforts for both men and women focused less on a check list of what level/status they should be on and more on where that individual is and what they need. My brother is a 19 year old who has not gone on a mission and not been ordained an Elder because he is not ready yet. This makes him a pariah at church so he simply does not go. Talk about a lost opportunity. One size simply does not fit all.

  6. Liz Jarrard says:

    I am a former Mormon and I live in Utah, so I am entrenched in the culture. Your article is brave and on point. I am happy there are articulate and critical thinking women remaining inside the church who are asking these questions. I personally had to leave after my divorce. I find it extremely offensive that my ex husband, who was formerly a bishop, and on the bishopric when he left me to pursue another romantic relationship when I was six months pregnant-would be considered more “worthy” of reactivation efforts than myself. A single mom, a returned missionary, a former primary and young women’s president, early morning seminary teacher, and institute teacher. You can see why when I am approached by any church member, I am continually disenchanted when I stand my ground and affirm the deeply entrenched mysoginy-it is a worldview that is very difficult to shrug off. I am better off finding my way on my own. Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading.

  7. Lily says:

    This is so blatantly against anything the Savior would ever do or anything he ever taught, it makes me gag.

  8. Liz Jarrard says:

    Also, I will say that on the other end of the spectrum, women in the church are also, perhaps because they ARE in a defensive position, misandrists when it comes to assuming that men are less spiritual and less kind and less inherently Christ-like. I think that is incorrect and inaccurate. There are different social forces at play that are more complicated than, “men just don’t ‘get it.’”

  9. B says:

    In my experience, this double standard comes out in church discipline decisions as well. Bishops are often lenient with problematic men (for example, abusers) and try to reform them by involving them more deeply in church. If an offending male acknowledges their problem, they’re sufficiently remorseful to remain in good standing. If they don’t admit fault, then God is the judge. In any case, disciplining men is counterproductive, as it might push men away from activity. On the other hand, the kind of woman who might leave the church in response to priesthood discipline (warranted or not) is no great loss to the community. I get the sense that bishops are sometimes more aggressive and skeptical with women who pass through their offices.

  10. X2 Dora says:

    Somewhat tangential: this is (one reason among many) why female ordination makes sense to me. There are people in the world who cannot receive the sacrament or be baptized because there aren’t enough active and priesthood holding men in their geographic area. Giving women the priesthood would allow the gospel to grow, and inspire a whole new generation.

  11. TopHat says:

    I’ve heard it said (and this example is married-people-with-kids-specific) that when a man leaves the church, the mother and kids stay whereas if a woman leave the church, the whole family leaves. This makes anecdotal sense to me because I feel like I’ve seen more moms with kids and no dad in the pews than the other way around. So to me it makes sense to go after women because when they leave, the loss to the church is greater, at least in people. Maybe since we’ve got the “man = breadwinner” mentality, the Church considers the loss of a man to be the loss of tithing donations and that’s another reason why they’d go after men. :shrug:

  12. Jacob H. says:

    It’s been an open secret for decades that the men, who can be active melchizedek priesthood holders and fill the essential callings, are the real treasures when it comes to missionary work and activation. That the number of active MP holders directly correlates with tithing and “health” of a ward, whereas nothing else does. As a missionary we were sometimes told privately that that is all that really mattered, not to waste time if there wasn’t a prospective MP holder in the mix. The mission president also discouraged spending a lot of time with less-active families that weren’t actively progressing, quoting President Hinckley as saying to not go after “dead wood”.

  13. Dani Addante says:

    Around the time when the church was asked why they didn’t have women pray at general conference, I read an article where a church spokesman replied by saying something like, “We’re not trying to fill quotas.” And then reading your post here, it seems that the church really is trying to fill quotas. As long as they’re filling it with men.

  14. RB says:

    Excellent observations.

    A few years ago my Bishop said we-the ward council-would spend one Sunday a month focusing on the prospective elders and how to get them active or advanced in the priesthood. I asked if we would also spend one Sunday a month on the less active sisters in the ward. He looked perplexed and then said that was a good idea that had never really occurred to him. He didn’t follow through on either “emphasis” Ward Council. Shortly after that I was released as the HPGL and he was made the SP.

    We have Stake Conference in a few weeks and a GA will attend. If he rolls this program out in our stake I will ask him the same question I asked my Bishop a few years ago: what are we going to do to reclaim the sisters?

  15. Anna says:

    I really hate to be this person… but do you have citations for this reactivation effort? I brought this up in a tear filled conversation and the person I was speaking too wanted to know where I found that information. Is it on or something?

    • Em says:

      I’m curious too. I was in my RS presidency meeting and got the trickle down information that we are supposed to be focusing on people who are likely to want to return, who have the most to lose (i.e. people who have made many covenants) but I didn’t pick up on a gender thing. But maybe it was because we were the RS meeting and the president was focused on us helping sisters return. Is this the initiative you’re talking about, and I just missed the gender component by being a counselor and not in the main meetings?

    • meg says:

      I am currently in a leadership position in my ward and this program of reactivating M priesthood holders was introduced a few weeks ago in our ward council. I too am having serious struggles with the program and the feeling it gives that women are not as valuable in the church as men. I am in the Seattle area.

  16. el oso says:

    I have not heard of this program in our area yet. If a leader looked at the best ways to get every family member attending, then they might think of going to reactivate some men. All of the active adult men in our ward who do not attend with their wives have a combined 1 minor child in their household. There are over 10 minor children who usually attend only with their mother and have a less active father. Getting those dads active will have the complete family attending, and a seemingly bigger payback. If a younger woman, who had young children went inactive, I think that there would be a big outreach to her and her family.
    Our bishop and ward council look to help everyone in the ward. Getting a good home teacher for a single adult, financially stable sister was just as discussed as helping large families, inactive members, new converts, etc. I pray this continues.

  17. Ziff says:

    Thanks for calling attention to this, Violadiva. It’s a very depressing statement on who is and isn’t valued by the Church.

  18. G. Upshaw says:

    I read this blog with great interest and was shocked. I’ve been a member all my life, served a mission in Brazil 40 years ago and am reminded of the following scripture in which the “sheep” (and sinner) if which Jesus speaks are gender-neutral.
    Luke 15:3-7

    3 And he spake this parable unto them, saying,

    4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

    5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

    6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

    7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

    My Mission President replaced a couple of zone leaders (with myself and a current member of the first quorum of the seventy) who had declared their zone would focus on baptizing “quality” in which they were only going to teach persons of whom they thought had leadership potential. I remember discussing this concept with the zone when I arrived. Who are we to decide who is “quality” and who is not? Every soul – AGAIN gender neutral – is great in the sight of God.

    D&C 18:15-16
    15. And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!

    16. And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!

    I fail to find the “7:1 ratio” in the scriptures or in the Church Handbooks.

    • G. Upshaw says:

      Corrections: * of which
      * 1:7 ratio

      Also: D&C 18:10 Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;

      A “soul” is also gender neutral.

      “Soul” in a generic sense, however, means a person. This was common usage in the nineteenth century and earlier (i.e., Gen. 17:14 andMosiah 18:28) as it is today. “Soul” is sometimes synonymous with “the whole self,” or what might be described as one’s “being” or “essence.” Scriptural passages speak of “enlarging” the soul (Alma 32:28; D&C 121:42) and of imploring others with all the “energy” of one’s soul (Alma 5:43). The word occasionally also appears as a metaphor implying “strength” (D&C 30:11;31:5) or “heart” (2 Ne. 26:7, 10-11). “Soul” often is likewise used to refer to a person’s intimate feelings or desires, as when one pours out one’s “whole soul” (Enos 1:9; Mosiah 26:14) or when one is commanded to love God with “all thy soul” (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30-33; Luke 10:27). Other connotations are suggested by the word when it describes an entire community (Num. 21:4; 1 Sam. 30:6; Acts 4:32).

      “Soul” is often used where the term “spirit” might also apply (1 Ne. 19:7; 2 Ne. 1:22; D&C 101:37). Here the soul is essentially that aspect of all human beings which persists independent of the physical body (Matt. 10:28; 1 Ne. 15:31; Mosiah 2:38; Alma 40:11). In LDS doctrine the soul, in this sense, exists both before and after mortal life, and is truly eternal (Abr. 3:22-23; see also Intelligences).

  19. anna says:

    As top hat mentioned, when the wife/mother in a family leaves the church, the rest of the family often follows. I left the church when my children were adult, and still all but one followed me out. My married son is the only one still active as he had his own wife to keep him active.

    So, what I see with this “only the men are worth any effort to get into the church, reactivate, or keep, is that the church is shooting itself in the foot as far as its own future goes. If they want future generations, they need to convert and keep the mothers. Sure, the men do the daily operating and administration of the church today, but only the women guarantee that there will be men ten+ years from now. The church knows that about the only men they keep are happily married to an active wife. Yet, if they keep treating the women as second class junk, there is only one place that is going to lead. Sorry church, you just shot your foot.

  20. Karen says:

    I read this article here just last week. Imagine my dismay when the HP group leader called my husband yesterday (Sunday) to ask if he and the bishop could come visit. My husband said no, but the conversation revolved around why my husband had gone inactive.

    Nothing was asked about me going inactive. No one wanted to come visit me.

    My husband and I have very different reasons for not attending right now, but I have to agree with what is said here: I do not matter, only my priesthood holding husband matters. I do not want to have anyone trying to reactivate me, but it is insulting to know that no one cares because I am a woman.

    • Violadiva says:

      This breaks my heart, Karen. You experience illustrates why this approach is so, so misguided. Wish I could bring you a hot loaf of bread and visit you because we’re friends and that’s what friends do. It doesn’t smell the same coming over the interwebs, but the intent is the same.

  21. Sunlife says:

    In our last stake conference, a member of the Q12 visited. In Priesthood session he told the men that the Church has run the numbers every way and the statistics say that when a Melchizedek priesthood holder is reactivated, more members come back to the Church than in any other reactivation. As someone who dabbles in statistics as part of my profession, I found this statement interesting and somewhat troubling. I don’t know what analyses they are doing or what variables they are throwing into the model, but it strikes me as likely that they are using a predicted likelihood model and then drilling down into the different subgroups and looking at the difference in odds of multiple members of the family returning to church with one person’s reactivation.

    While I kind of like the idea of the Church doing something as smart as using statistics to model reactivation efforts, I also feel a little sick about human souls being reduced to a numbers game.

    Also, statistical models of this type assume the current organization of the Church. They cannot model what might happen if women held the Priesthood as well. Would reactivating a woman who was a Priesthood holder have the same effect as reactivating a man? We can’t know that because we can only use statistics to answer questions about the current organization.

    Finally, I wonder what the models for individuals look like? If women are more likely to be reactivated as individuals (which I think is probable), maybe the question should be, “What can we do to make it more likely that a reactivated woman will bring others with her?” The answer to this question might be giving women more meaningful ways to participate in the Church, giving women a greater voice, etc.

    I have seen this same kind of effort focused towards several groups, not just men, and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In an Asian country where I lived for several years, the mission president only allowed the missionaries to teach English-speakers because English speakers were more likely to be able to serve in the Church from the moment they are baptized. When serving on a stake council, the stake president told a room full of relatively wealthy white members of a diverse stake that he wanted to baptize “your friends” – people who are wealthy (and presumably white) who can be leaders in the stake. I sympathize that our male leaders are overwhelmed and are trying their best to lighten their load by bringing in some help. But I think we constrain the Lord when we decide to focus on reactivating/baptizing a small subset of his children.

  22. Carrie Ann says:

    I was at the regional conference where this “activate the men” message was shared. I was really upset by it, and I sent letters to 3 members of the 12 apostles. Today, I received a letter back from Elder Christofferson.

    As part of the letter, which was a personal response to the letter I sent, and clearly not just a form letter, he said, “We want to assure you that there was no intention to imply in anything that was said there or elsewhere that it is more important to reactivate men than women. Every soul is precious.”.

    This gives me hope that things will change, and that the intention was not to exclude the women from the activation efforts. Hopefully, in the future, it will be presented by leadership in a way that better reflects that…

    Thanks for this post, and for also caring deeply about issues like this!

  1. February 1, 2019

    […] desirable husbands, and hold a life-long badge of honor compared to men who do not serve missions. Church activity retention programs are often geared toward the returned missionary demographic. No matter the diligence and efforts […]

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