The Third Counselor

I once served on my ward Sunday School presidency.  Unlike most auxiliary presidencies in the church, the Sunday School presidency has often been a mixed gender group, usually consisting of a male president, two male counselors, and a female secretary.  I was that female secretary.

I arrived at my first presidency meeting prepared to fulfill my secretarial duties. I interpreted these duties as taking notes.  At first, I tried not to overstep the bounds of my secretarial calling.  I was not called to counsel, so I tried to keep my mouth shut.  That was difficult because the president kept asking me for my opinion.

I eventually came to the realization that this Sunday School president didn’t care about notes.  He wanted counsel about how to best serve the people in his stewardship, half of which were women.  Naturally, he wanted a woman’s perspective on how well Sunday School classes were meeting the needs of the women who attended them.

I’ve looked back on that experience and wondered, was my Sunday School president typical? Did the female secretary usually serve as a third counselor with a more feminine viewpoint?  The most hopeful part of me would speculate about whether a rising generation of young Sunday School presidents like that would someday lament the lack of feminine input in their bishoprics and high councils and even in their Quorums of the Seventy or of the Twelve and things might change.

My hopes were dashed when I read this:

If needed, the bishopric may call a brother to serve as ward Sunday School secretary.

Church Handbook of Instruction (CHI), 12.2.4. 2010 Edition. Emphasis added.

The 1998 Edition of the CHI had stated:

If needed, the bishopric may call a ward Sunday School secretary to assist the Sunday School presidency.

The newer edition of the CHI has been out since 2010 but until I read this particular passage, I had no idea that two years ago my vagina had disqualified me from yet another church calling. This new information has set my mind onto a completely different speculative path; how many other callings that were previously gender neutral have been or will be declared male-only?

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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31 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    I don’t have much of a comment, other than to say: how sad. The church is losing out on one of their best leadership resources, the women.

  2. Ziff says:

    Seriously? This is just absurd. I agree with Jenn: why waste women’s talents? Even if we (institutionally, at least) can’t imagine that women might get personal fulfillment out of a calling where they can lead a bit, why not think of the people being led? Wouldn’t it be nice if the leaders could be drawn from a larger group of people? Sheesh!

  3. Whitney says:

    When I read that, I thought maybe it meant that the SS secretary SHOULD be a woman, but it’s ok for it to be a brother if there aren’t enough women….? Silly me. Is this in Part 2 of the CHI, or part 1? I had no idea this policy had changed. And unfortunately I can’t access part 2 on the church website (down for maintenance, apparently).

    • Libby says:

      Whitney, I love the way you read it — I wonder if there are any bishops who decide to interpret it that way?

    • April says:

      Unfortunately, in context, the handbook does not seem to imply that women should be considered for this calling at all. On the bright side, I don’t think many bishops have read it and many women continue to serve in this calling. Of course, there is a dark side to this general ignorance as well. Why are longstanding policies like this changed without any public announcement and explanation? Does church leadership prefer that the general membership not notice and therefore not express opinions about policies?

      • Whitney says:

        April, I agree. This change in particular really upsets me. In training meetings, they say they want more participation & contribution from women in ward council meetings, but then they eliminate what few leadership positions women have (other than the ones over women & children)–eliminating activities committees, and now this. What is going on here?!

      • PostScript says:

        I don’t believe this was actually a “change” in policy – it was actually a reiteration of a policy that’s always existed, but was worded in such a way that people didn’t necessarily realize that they were in violation of it. The all-male SS presidency dates to the pre-block-meeting days when the Sacrament was a part of Sunday School opening exercises: the presidency was all-male since they were presiding over a priesthood ordinance. (I’m just barely old enough to remember taking the Sacrament twice each Sunday, once in Sunday School and once in Sacrament Meeting.) Now that we don’t have any priesthood ordinances associated with Sunday School, I think it would be a wonderful policy change to allow for women in Sunday School presidencies. (I once saw a SS president get around this by calling two “class presidents” instead of any counselors!)

    • tiffers says:

      This is what I thought too. The secretary should be female, but if needed a brother may be called.

  4. KLC says:

    I agree this is absurd, but not as absurd as having a SS president, 2 counselors and a secretary in the first place. Who needs them? The curriculum is set by SLC, the age groups are set by SLC, the investigator class is under the ward mission leader, the children are under primary, the bishopric calls the instructors, what else should this group of 4 people be doing? The only realistic answer I can imagine to that question is they could be available as substitute teachers. Really, why in the world do SS presidencies even exist?

    • Whitney says:

      Maybe so they can provide training for SS teachers? You know, because the presidency themselves receive so much training on how to teach….?

    • Libby says:

      Oh, EXCELLENT points!

    • MKOH says:

      This was my first thought as well. I’ve been a secretary in a SS Presidency and my husband has been a counselor in a different SS Presidency and both of us did absolutely nothing for our callings. I’m not even sure what the President did, other than occasionally find a substitute (which the teachers should be able to do) and attend lots of leadership meetings.

      I can’t think of many callings left that are gender-neutral. Male primary teachers can only be called with their wives or another man so they rarely get called anymore. There are a few left– Gospel Doctrine/Essentials, librarian, YSA rep, ward missionary. But really, not too many.

      • speckles says:

        I’ve been SS secretary before too. I actually think the secretary has the most important and pretty much only job in the presidency – taking roll. That was my main job anyway.

      • PostScript says:

        We don’t take the role in SS in my ward because it’s not reported anywhere, so what’s the point?

    • Mhana says:

      I’ve had the same thought. In our ward there are four Sunday School teachers under the jurisdiction of the SS presidency — three teen classes, and Gospel Doctrine. So…as many teachers as there are members of the Presidency. It sort of seems like it would make sense for these to be one and the same, except that would mean only men could teach Sunday School. I had a conversation with my husband about this the other night, questioning the purpose. He said they should ideally be training teachers. I said I would resent going to a meeting where people who are not teachers teach me how to teach. It seems unlikely I’d learn much I couldn’t get from reading “Teaching no greater call” at home in my PJs. He said that not everyone is a professional teacher. A valid point, but then wouldn’t it make sense to have the professional teachers inthe ward offer those workshops? You’re trying to teach a skill, not a principle. So you can’t just declare yourself qualified. It would be absurd to call a ward music specialist to teach people to play piano if he/she couldn’t do it him/herself. Same applies to teaching humans.

    • Ziff says:

      Good question. My guess is that it’s a vestigial calling, left over from pre-correlation days when the Sunday School was a more autonomous organization.

      Also, I’ve been a Sunday School president, and it was definitely a nothing calling, as you (and others) suggested.

      • KLC says:

        Ziff, absolutely, as was said once on BCC I think in reference to something else that doesn’t need to exist anymore, the SS presidency is the apendix in the body of Christ.

      • Tom D says:

        It depends upon how you magnify your calling. I’ve been Sunday School President twice (about 12 years apart and in different states). During that second calling there was a period when I got depressed about having such an apparently trivial calling when other got to serve in presidencies and bishoprics, but I eventually worked through that and got back to work taking care of the classes and workers (5 youth classes, 1 adults class, and the library).

        After serving for the usual (for my ward) 2.5 years I was released with a hearty and very real “thank you” for service well done and, much better still, a very warm and peaceful feeling in my heart of, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” This wonderful feeling from the Lord began a week before my release and lasted for weeks after it. It was as powerful as any approval I have felt from the Lord since I returned home from an honorable mission over 20 years ago.

        With Christ’s help I hope to someday fully conquer that inner part of me that wishes for position and prestige and is all too easily inflamed by the tempter’s whispers. In the meantime I can testify that God appreciates all of the good we do in whatever calling we receive, but we must persevere diligently, patiently, and humbly to win the prize/successfully come to the rescue. I do know that God leads not just the President of the church, but also the bishops, the Sunday School Presidents, the parents, and the individuals who truly wish to follow Him.

    • spunky says:

      I must have a history of being in strange wards, because in the last 2 wards and branch I was in, we used the SS presidency. As I am close to a member of my current ward’s SS presidency, he has discussed with me the techniques he has undertaken and is implementing with the teachers in order to get the entire class to interact and make comments, not just the standard/regular commenter people. He keeps an eye on the GD class and tries to notice and be sensitive to the reactions and needs of the people in the class. Sure, he is often called at the last second to substitute teach as well, but as he is concerened about making SS a place where people can learn, interact, and share, he is active in seeking, addressing, and implementing ideas on how to make SS a better experience for everyone.

      I feel sad for the people who have SS presidencies who do any less.

  5. TopHat says:

    Growing up, I remember the SS presidency as the truancy police, wandering the halls keeping the teens from ditching class.

    • Ziff says:

      I lived in a ward where the SS president did this too. Drove me crazy! He was always interrupting interesting discussions in the hallway that just happened to occur during the second hour of church.

  6. Julia says:

    A woman is serving as Sunday school secretary in my ward. She opens the lesson and introduces the teacher. It is awesome (I thought at first that she was one of the counselors).

  7. andrew h says:

    I am currently in a SS Presidency and our Secretary is a woman

  8. Tim says:

    Six years ago I was SS President in a student ward and the secretary was a young woman. The bishop in that ward was very focused on quality of teaching, and part of the Sunday School Presidencies job was searching for people who we thought might make good teachers, asking them to teach for just one Sunday, and evaluating their teaching. With the high turnover and small class size, we were constantly advising the Bishop on who should be the new teachers. The secretary was instrumental in helping decide who should teach.

    A couple of weeks ago a woman in my current ward was called to be Sunday School secretary; the very next week the Bishopric apologized and released her. I’m having a difficult time understanding why the policy has changed here.

  9. Sara says:

    I long for the day when women will be more included in church leadership positions. But having a woman act as secretary for an all male presidency is about the worst way I can think of doing this, so I don’t find this particularly upsetting or surprising. I do think involving relief society presidents and/or councillors in pec meetings is a good idea, though.

    • April says:

      I agree with you, Sara. It reminds me of the pre-women’s rights movement times when men were executives and women were secretaries. I would have liked to see change, but in a different direction, such as making any of the presidency positions available to people of either gender. I see the change that actually happened as a step backward instead of forward because instead of expanding roles for women this just removes a role a woman could play.

  10. Anna says:

    In my ward once we had a woman called to be SS secretary and the bishop went to great length to explain that this was not the normal policy, but only acceptable because the secretary was the daughter of the president. He even explained that this is the rule so that men and women cannot serve closely together because of the risk of affairs. It is back to the old fear that men and women cannot be alone together without jumping into bed.

    That was about 15 years ago, so I don’t think there has been any recent change. I think it has always been a man’s position unless the woman was married or related to the SS president.

    But I think it is a position that some bishops violate the rules, either knowingly because they think it is ridiculous or unknowingly because they have seen it done and think it is supposed to be that way.

    But even back before the block, what was called senior SS was presided over by an all male presidency and there was junior SS which was for the children that was presided over by a female presidency. When junior SS was illuminated because it turned into primary, some bishops started calling women as SS secretary to what had been the senior SS.

    I have heard more than one bishop complain that there just are not enough men for all the positions and not enough positions for all the women, so they wanted to put women into any position that didn’t specifically require priesthood and this may be the reason some bishops do not follow the handbook on this. But I think it has always been the rule.

    • I do have copies of the 1997 Handbook and the 2010 Handbook in my possession and I checked my facts before writing this post–the rule did change. That said, in my own ward we have a female Sunday School secretary, in violation of this rule, probably because my local bishopric never noticed the wording change.

  1. October 14, 2012

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