Sending Older Women Out to the Hall to Wait

Seated Woman by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, courtesy of the MET

When I was a full-time missionary, my busy companion and I met a much less busy senior missionary. She was literally waiting in the hall while her husband was working in a nearby office behind a closed door. The couple had hoped to serve a family history mission together but instead, the church asked them (him) to serve a “leadership” mission. His responsibility was to serve in a stake presidency in a new stake. She had no responsibilities at all. 

She had a great attitude about it.  She tried to chip in where she could and look for opportunities to help. She didn’t complain. She waited pleasantly.

But I felt bad for her. She had quit her job and left her home and friends and family to serve a mission, only to end up waiting around while her husband served, with her services not wanted. As much as I loved missionary work, seeing an older sister missionary with nothing to do but sit in a chair and wait for her husband changed my perception about whether I would want to serve a mission again as an older adult.

Motherhood is often given as the excuse for banning women from callings such as stake presidencies. Taking mothers away from their children to complete time-consuming, unpaid church callings would be detrimental to young children, they say. 

But this missionary was just as far away from her children, waiting in that hall, as she would have been if she had been allowed in the office. And her children were adults. What if mature, talented women could take on some of the time-consuming positions currently occupied by younger fathers, freeing these fathers to spend less time in church administration and more time with their young children?

What if, instead of sending older women out to the hall to sit in a chair and wait, we put them to work?

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 aprilyoungb.com.

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24 Responses

  1. EmilyB says:

    My mission president’s wife did this. Spent three year in hallways, in chairs, oblivious to the language, nodding her head, shaking hands, window dressing. We sisters used to greet her in English but then the zone leaders would chide us for not using the mission language. Hello, we were just trying to make this poor lonely woman with nothing to do at least have a chance to speak once in a while! Even her talks were prepared by the APs because they wouldn’t let her speak in english at zone conference.

    • Dani says:

      That’s so strange. In my mission, we always spoke English at zone conferences. Also, the mission president’s wife would give trainings to all the missionaries, and she was in charge of medical stuff in the mission. If a missionary was sick, they had to call her and she would advise them on what to do.

      • Elisa says:

        I think it depends a lot on the area. In South and Central America, the Philippines, and other places where most missionaries are not American they generally speak the mission language at zone conferences etc. (of course a lot of mission presidents there are also native, but not all.). In my mission some conferences were English and some in the mission language.

        My mission president’s wife was also the medical advisor. She did a terrible job and I was sick for months because she didn’t take me seriously when I finally got the courage to call her and tell her I was really sick … I love her I’m just saying that’s not exactly great for either the wife or the missionaries unless she’s actually a medical professional.

  2. MC says:

    Another for instance: in the early 2000s when we had young children we were in a ward outside of DC that was full of other young families. I remember being in a ward counsel meeting and the bishop saying they needed find a few male temple workers. I asked if they needed any female ones, saying I’m sure there would be a few happy to do it and got shut down because at that time the DC temple wasn’t taking young mothers as temple workers. The bishop explained this was because they need to be home with the kids, but they were cool with the young fathers doing this.

  3. Elisa says:

    I would be curious to know how many men get called to senior missions where their wives speak the language but they don’t. Because I only ever see it in reverse. So many senior sisters in my mission who felt totally helpless because they didn’t speak the language but their husband did.

  4. Kim Barney says:

    Exactly why I won’t be joining my husband on a senior mission. I have witnessed this too many times.

  5. Holly Miller says:

    This seems like a real problem to me, too. In an area where “priesthood” is in short supply, it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the local church’s problems when women are shut out from helping where help is needed most.

  6. Katie Rich says:

    Such a heartbreaking story, and yet sadly so common in many variations. And calling these mature, talented women to positions of authority in the Church and allowing young(er) men and fathers to spend more time with their families makes so much sense. Maybe if we come to see women as valuable to the Church outside of motherhood we will work on closing the gaps in resources and training that begin at age 12.

  7. Abby Hansen says:

    Yes! Oh my heavens, yes. The empty nester who never had a career because she stayed at home when her kids is supposedly busier than the 35 year old father of 6 running his own business – if you believe the argument that says only men can serve in leadership because their wives are too busy at home with children.

    It makes no sense!

    • Elisa says:

      When you put it that way it’s hard to believe anything other than that the church simply doesn’t value the service and opinions of middle-aged and older women.

  8. Mindy says:

    If only this could be implemented.

  9. MDearest says:

    As I observe the description of this person’s world and her place in it, my heart aches. I see someone who is isolated and may be quite lonely, and hasn’t any ready power to do much to change it. I wonder how much energy it takes her to erase herself in order to maintain a pleasant face. I wonder about her mental and emotional health, I don’t know if any of this is truly her experience but I do know one thing. If this is her reality, no one around her notices.

  10. Lori says:

    Interesting, my husband and I were both looking at senior missionary service mission opportunities recently – independently of each other – and then talked about it. We will soon be in a position to very easily serve anywhere in the world, but this exact situation is the #1 reason I may choose not to go.

    Of course, my husband reminded me that as adults, we are perfectly capable of picking up and going home if a mission doesn’t turn out the way we expect.

    • Seripanther says:

      Unless they lock your passports in the safe. But maybe they don’t do that to senior missionaries.

      • Ducttapeandcover says:

        I’d have a major problem with them doing that to anyone. There is no way I’d let that happen to anyone I know.

  11. Rachel says:

    Thanks for writing this, April. This raises such evocative and important questions. That image of the woman sitting outside the room with nothing to do is heartbreaking.

  12. Em says:

    Oh man. You’re so right. And so often the position of senior sisters is really sad. I remember my second Mission President’s wife often fondly referred to me as her “trainer.” The mission president lived within my area (ok technically a block outside of it, but close enough) and for the first few weeks I was assigned to the area we lived in their basement. They had come to the field a scant 3 weeks before I moved into their basement. He was a very busy bee. She was largely alone with no clearly defined role and no one to orient her, listen to her, give feedback. Even after we had a space to live that wasn’t their basement they wanted us to come over in the evenings as often as possible (after our work time was done.) Come play the piano, come sing hymns, come have ice cream, come talk. She confided her profound feelings of insecurity — he had the bluff energy of a football coach (not the screaming profanity kind, more they “go team, in it to win it, get your head in the game” kind). She was very very shy. I was glad to be there for her and support her, but what an awful state of affairs. She had a lot to offer but with no real job and no one to train or orient her it was all a lot to try to figure out. And what a waste! Even if by the end of their tenure they carve out a space, the first few months of wandering aimlessly are a loss to everyone. My first mission president’s wife decided her job was to try to push nutrition on the missionaries, teaching us lessons on healthy eating, bringing fruit to meetings etc. I never knew what the second Mission President’s Wife’s vocation was as I went home a few months into their tenure

    • MDearest says:

      Thanks for adding your experience. Of course the wives receive no official training or guidance in the field. If the missionary department saw the wives of MPs as fully functional adults with time and skills to offer in service to the work, (as opposed to housekeeping service for ordained male leadership) there might be more help for them.

      But this might enter into the dangerous territory of endowing women with power to act, for which those women would need authority. Better to let them flounder and rely on sister missionaries for unofficial training, since sister missionaries’ authority is well-contained.

  13. Lmzbooklvr says:

    I remember how upset I was when I found out that my skills and education wouldn’t be considered if we served a senior mission, just my husband’s. It was one of my first cracks in seeing that it wasn’t just individual people making things unequal for individual women but a system that was inherently unequal for women.

  14. Dani says:

    I completely agree. One time I saw a church leader and his wife. A bunch of people were gathered around him, talking to him, and his wife was off to the side. No one was talking to her. It’s sad that this kind of thing happens. Also, I had never heard of senior couples going on a mission somehwere solely because of the husband. That’s really sad to hear. In my mission, the senior couple did things together; neither had more leadership roles than the other. It’s absurd to base the mission choice only on the husband.

    • Elisa says:

      From what I’ve seen they often make assignments based on a man’s professional experience or language skills and then the woman figures out what she can do around that. Sometimes more effectively than others.

  15. Lynn in Europe says:

    Church leaders (at all levels) call young fathers to be bishops (or to other heavy callings) precisely to cement their loyalty to the church above all else: after all, these young men constantly hear that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home” (and similar), but are asked to sacrifice that most important thing for the church. This means the church and the rewards of office/church service become their primary source for personal validation (or at the very least, it strongly competes with or proportionately replaces the validation that they would have received from spending time and energy with their spouse and children).

    Honestly, it’s very effective. I also think it’s incredibly insidious. But it is the reason why no one should hold their breath thinking that the church will ever call older women (nor even older men most of the time) to these kinds of time-consuming callings. After all, such callings are the mechanism for creating loyalty to the institution, so why waste it on people who have already proven their loyalty?

    Sigh.

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