What Should We Expect From Our Leaders?

Last year, Mike said something to me about Church leadership that I found radical. This was a surprise since Mike isn’t a radical kind of guy. We were talking about things done by our Church that I (and he) had problems with, and I asked him how he could remain so calm and unaffected.
He replied with, “How can I expect more from my leaders than I could expect from myself.”
This blew me away. I had grown up in the Church expecting that leaders would indeed be more spiritual, closer to God, stronger, etc. than the rest of us. Of course I expected them to be more in tune with God than I.
But Mike’s comment exploded that perspective, and it immediately resonated with me. It struck me as a beautifully generous and a beautifully egalitarian way to view my leaders. That they are just like me – strong is some ways, weak in others, and generally trying to do their best.
Given this idea that leaders are simply humans, bound to be fallible personally, professionally, and even ecclesiastically, I sometimes ask myself what I should expect from a Church leader. It’s been a rough road these last few years, but I’ve come to accept that I shouldn’t expect them to see the world as I do, or to perfectly understand my perspective.
But what should I expect? I recently told a good man in our ward, a man who I think will be our bishop someday, what I as a feminist hoped for from a leader. I emailed this to him: “In the past, facile explanations from leaders about why women don’t have the priesthood have been hurtful to me. In my opinion, the best thing they can possibly say is, ‘We don’t know why. Maybe it will change. I hope so. But in the meantime, I want you to know that we love you and want you here with us.'”
Maybe it’s too much to hope for this kind of response from every leader, but I still do. I continue to expect leaders to care, to want to understand even if they can’t. In the end, I simply expect sympathy and goodwill.


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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  1. Mike says:

    I don’t think the idea is all that radical.

  2. Naismith says:

    As a non-feminist leader (a past Relief Society president), I’ve actually given this some thought and I think that what you ask is not fair. I’m not gonna lie and say that I hope the Lord changes things, because I don’t believe that. Being a convert and seeing how things are done differently elsewhere, I think that the current practice does a lot of good in strengthening families, by providing an active role for men at times when they are commonly left impotent. When a marriage takes place, the mother of the bride is the third-most involved person, setting the tone of the celebration, making key decisions, and organizing the details. The father is often reduced to little more than a checkbook. But in an LDS setting, dad gets to be a witness to the ordinance.

    Of course if the Lord changes things, I’ll accept the revelation. But I don’t personally feel the need for change.

    So as a leader, I would say, “We don’t know why. I understand this causes you pain, and I am sorry for the hurt. But I want you to know that we love you and want you here with us, and we need your voice.”

    The other thing is that I think leaders should strive to avoid hurtful sexism and stereotypes that fall short of the respect for women shown by general authorities. A few years ago, a new sister showed up at Relief Society, and I asked her what brought their family to town. She replied, “Graduate school.”

    “Who is going to school?” I asked. “What program?”

    She paused for a minute before explaining that she was pursuing a doctorate in music. I wished her success and introduced her to some faculty and students in her college who were also RS sisters.

    Later she told me that it meant so much to her that I had not asked, as she had expected, “What is your husband majoring in?”

  3. Deborah says:

    Caroline and Naismith’s hypothetical responses are not all that different. Both would acknowledge the hurt as something real, express love, and actively embrace, rather than minimize or belittle, the voice person expressing their discomfort with current church policy. I’ve had a bishop who radiated this empathy in word and deed — not everybody can be him, but it’s not a bad thing to strive for . . . by keeping the conversation open with our neighbor-leaders and modeling this level of empathy and regard ourselves.

  4. Michael says:

    Ask not what you can expect from your leaders but, instead, ask what your leaders can expect from you.

  5. Judy says:

    I wouldn’t be in the church if I hadn’t adopted Mike’s attitude years ago. Over the years we have had close enough association with some who have become general authorities that I continued to think of them as regular people even after they had those callings. I never did feel that they were somehow more divine than I was. That has allowed me to be quite open about my feminist ideas and I have found that as long as I try to fulfill my callings they let me be. More and more I find that many men in the church agree that there are gender issues that need to be addressed but they, like us, don’t see a venue for it at this time. Some do what they can: a stake president who invited stake RS and YW presidency members to participate in high council meetings, two bishops who allowed me to arrange for RS group prayers for sisters in times of illness or stress when I was RS President, invitations to speak with high council members in sacrament meetings. I think we should be careful not to set church leaders on a pedestal just as we don’t like to have that done to us as women. We are all just trying to do our best.

  6. M&M says:

    This post actually reminds me of Pres. Packer’s most recent talk.
    He made it clear that we are all equal before God, that no person is more important, regardless of calling, but that there is an order of things. I think this can apply to every element of life — to the Church and to the family. We are ALL important to God, and no calling or position or responsibility makes any one — male or female — more important than the other.

    When I really try to adopt what you have talked about — giving the benefit of the doubt and knowing that people are just doing their best — I find that I am so much happier and feel more of God’s love for me and for others. The atonement is for those who goof in my life as much as it is for me! If we hold people responsible for what the Lord is willing to forgive, we deny the power of the atonement in our lives. It’s easier said than done, but it is profound (and yet such simple doctrine, too). We need to be as empathetic to our leaders as we expect them to be for us…because they need mercy and love and compassion just as we do.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. Caroline says:

    Mike, my husband didn’t think it was a radical idea either.

    I think Deborah is right that we are pretty much on the same page. If a leader ever told me that they hoped for change too, it would wildly exceed my expectations.

    Judy, that’s my philosophy also. I do my best to do a damn good job in my calling, and that leads people to take me a bit more seriously than they might otherwise. I love your stories about women’s prayer groups and women in high council meetings.

    M&M, Yes, I’ve recently been trying to give the benefit of the doubt to my local leaders. After all, if I were a leader, I’m sure I’d be making mistakes too. It has felt good to just shrug my shoulders and tell myself that we’re all just humans.

  8. Anonymous says:

    is lesson 24 going to be posted?

  9. Cheryl says:

    I’ve been thinking of this question ever since you posted it. I’d like to try to respond by pasting something I commented on at Feast Upon the Word blog last summer, with a few minor edits:

    Some time ago I sat at lunch with some dear women friends of mine. I was the only church member there, and the conversation turned to spirituality. Because I live in Michigan, there have been some prominent LDS people here, including George Romney, our one-time and really quite beloved governor.

    Because I work in city government, my friends at this lunch were civic and/or political. That is, one is the Economic Development Coordinator for the city in which I work. The other was the Mayor at the time (she is still on our Council).

    The conversation shifted to a memory of George Romney, whom the Mayor admired very much. She admired his emphasis on volunteerism, she admired his honesty and his family. There is an award our city gives annually: The George Romney Volunteer of the Year Award. A year or so ago I wrote the nomination for the man who received this award.

    So we’re sitting there talking about spirituality, about Mormonism, about a highly admired LDS figure. And I thought, how do I invite these women to church? They are movers and shakers. They expect to lead men and women. They expect to be where the action is, where decisions are made.

    The Mayor, for all she was and is a political conservative, had left a church years before because of its male-dominated leadership.

    How would I explain to them the gender roles in the church? Would I give a scriptural basis for these roles? How would I explain that I’d like them to take a look at my religion (the place where I learned a language in which to know God, I say to them), but they would need to understand that even at the local level, the three primary leaders of the ward would be all male, that all responsibilities in the church would be decided by men, and that in many cases still, if they were going to be offered a job in the church (I’m deliberately speaking non-mormonese here), their husbands would be asked first.

    This may be something that doesn’t occur to many, but how do I explain that our University presidents will probably never be women?

    I don’t know how to explain this.

    I have had friends come to church, by the way. In the past year,of those I’ve invited, a woman friend, and a married couple, came. So it is not as if I don’t make the invitations. I just don’t know how to explain the gender roles in any way which makes sense, because they don’t make sense to me.

    When the married couple came to church the first speaker spoke on WHAT TO WEAR TO SACRAMENT MEETING (no pants for women! White shirts for men!). My visitor friends, earnestly doing some spiritual seeking, laughed about this with me afterwards. “Well, I’m glad I wore a skirt,” she shrugged. The man said, “At least I put on a sports coat.” But they had no interest in returning.

    The woman friend who came is also a healer. She was impressed with all the children in our ward. She liked this. Yet I wondered: would she be expected to stop healing if she joined the church? Only men are permitted to heal here.

    These and similar questions are questions our daughters WILL face. I would rather that my own daughter not vote with her feet – out – but that there would be some kind of real discussion about gender roles as they are taught at church.

    So how does this story relate to Caroline’s question? I have an expectation that church leaders understand the spiritual seeking of members and non members alike,and that this seeking is not answered by emphasis on appearance or gender difference. That is, I have what I think is a reasonable expectation our leaders understand the difference between what is accepted as God’s culture within the church and what is the more expansive experience outside our church doors.

    In work situations, for instance, women supervise men, women are department heads, political leaders, vibrant thinkers, business owners, doctors, lawyers, professors. In these environments, women enter a meeting prepared to discuss ideas, have their views heard, assume leadership roles where they will supervise men, manage men, hire and fire men (as well as the opposite).

    At church, it seems as if all that is reversed, and the message is: God loves you [women] so much he has created you so that you can nurture; men are the presiders . . . men are the decision makers. As a woman, your role is to accept doctrine as filtered through a male point of view, and pray to accept it. In a word: your role is to be mostly silent.

    I expect my [church] leaders to see this conflict and address it.
    I have other expectations, too, but this will do for now.

  10. snc says:

    cheryl, i think you are trying to anticipate problems before they even exist. don’t decide for them what they will or won’t wonder about. let them have their own journey. joining and being part of the church is not primarily about gender roles, it is about covenants, coming to Christ and we all have access to those blessings! if we look at church membership as a competition for position and perceived power, i think we miss the boat.

    obviously this is something that bothers you but maybe it wouldn’t bother those women. each persons journey is different. don’t apologize for the truth of what we have. focus on what you know and love. and remember that not all women see or feel things as you do. so many women love being women in the church, even smart and educated and capable women! not all women will have the questions you do, so my suggestion is to try not to project your questions and concerns onto others. let them experience things in their own way and dont think you have to protect them from things that bother you because they may not bother them.

  11. Cheryl says:

    I appreciate your comments – but I know I am not projecting. And I certainly know many wonderful women love being in the church. Most of the time I actually love being in the church, though I do not define myself as wonderful (!)

    Most recently (within the last two weeks) I was having lunch with a friend and we were talking about Mormonism. She told me that several years ago she and her husband had taken 8 weeks of lessons (the discussions). She had attended church with a close friend. Her brother is a member. At the time she was searching for a church home.

    The missionaries challenged them to baptism. One of the missionaries asked her husband, as head of the home, to offer a prayer.

    “But,” said her husband. “I am not the head of the home. We are co-heads.”

    This is how my friend remembers the conversation:

    The missionary said: “Well, you know. Being the one who makes the important decisions, the financial decisions.”

    My friend said, “these were such boys. Just boys. But I decided then and there that I would never join this church.” Then she continued. “My husband must have felt the same way, because he asked the missionaries to leave, and we never had them back.”

    I relate this because the conversation made me feel so sad. I hadn’t invited this confession . . . it came naturally out of our conversation. My reply to her was one of affirming the church. I have continually invited her to come to GD class, which I teach. But the definition of gender roles, as they came through to this couple years ago, is a huge stumbling block.

    People DO look at these things. I am often in conversation about the church, and I invite people. And I know gender roles are important – how they are discussed, how they play out in reality. Because it’s one of the things women talk about, what they specifically ask about.

    I know that women join the church. I know that sometimes they bring their families. But I wonder how often women turn away, for these very reasons. And I think we are naive if we think that these questions are only a form of projection.

    The issues are very real.

  12. Caroline says:

    anonymous, the lesson should be posted very soon. probably tonight or tomorrow.

    Cheryl, beautiful, beautiful comment. Every word you write resonates with me. I very much admire your bravery in inviting people to church. I don’t think I ever have, except once when I was teaching RS. But that was a college friend who understood well my struggles with gender roles in the Church.

    I think I have sadly come to expect that some wonderful talented people just won’t be interested in the Church because of the way it is structured. That’s a shame for us.

    More later…. baby is calling.

  13. Caroline says:

    Cheryl, what a nightmare about the topic that Sunday you did invite friends to church. It reminds me of the time my husband, ward mission leader at the time, invited an investigator, and that week the whole hour was devoted to the history of the branch. The investigator later joined another faith because “they talked about Jesus there.” Ouch.

    I love your expectations about church leaders. I think I am a bit less optimistic, though. I hope that leaders will recognize the difference between core principles and Church culture. I hope that leaders will see the problems and address them. But I don’t expect that at this point, because I think I’d be bound to be disappointed.

    As my economist husband says, “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” Kind of sad, but so true in its way.

  14. Dora says:

    Thank you for your comments Cheryl. You’ve given gentle and firm words to what I’ve been thinking for ever so long, with ever so much more grace.

    Yes, gender issues, and the way they are construed by members of the church, are a very real problem. And as much as I try not to be upset at other wonderful women within the church who project their own version of what it means to be a daughter of god, I do get upset when those images limit others. It is one thing to say, “My life is full enough as it is, and I have no desire for additional responsibility, etc.” It is quite another to say, “Because I feel so fulfilled in my life, so must everyone else, and therefore women should not be given XYZ.”

    As to the original topic. I confess that I expect a great deal from my leaders. They are given the mantle of authority, and blessings to help them accomplish what they must. I’ve had some wonderful leaders. And I’ve had one who was not only not benevolent, but also involved in doing harm. And yet I still have hope that those who are called are doing their best, acknowledging when they aren’t, delegating as they should, and listening and tending to the spirit AND people who they are responsible for

  15. madhousewife says:

    I’m not inclined to invite others to church because I have testimony hang-ups. However, in the days when I did not have such hang-ups, I was still reluctant to invite friends to church because I had no idea how I would explain my acceptance of certain things, including the (seeming) gender inequity. I have a close friend who is black, who has expressed interest (mostly intellectual) in the church, and once upon a time I might have invited her to church, and she probably would have come, but I can’t imagine what her reaction would have been upon finding out about priesthood ban. She may very well have taken it in stride–after all, there’s no *current* priesthood ban–so very possibly this was projection on my part, but the church’s racist past really distresses me, and the fact that it isn’t current–though it is dreadfully recent–doesn’t comfort me.

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