What Two Little Jewish Girls Taught Me about Being a Mormon Male Leader
I used to teach piano lessons in my house. Every day after school, I had five to six kids coming in and out. These kids were great—thoughtful, well-behaved, if not the most diligent at practicing the piano.
In the month of December, we always did a Christmas recital. After all, the majority of my students came from my LDS network, and once my oldest started a Church of Christ preschool, I thought it was still a safe bet that everyone was Christian.
In November, we began picking our music, and I gave two sisters who were also relatively new students their songs. We found and agreed to go with “O Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night.” They returned next week having not practiced their songs…at all.
They were nervous and fidgety. I explained that perhaps they wanted something more fun, but those songs were perfect for their level. “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” were just a little too advanced.
Still, something wasn’t right. And, then, I thought to ask, “Does your family celebrate Christmas?”
As you can tell from the title of this post, their family was Jewish.
I felt horrible for days after. Calling their parents to apologize (they were very gracious), apologizing to the girls, ordering a bunch of Jewish holiday piano books and arranging something for each of them. (We had to force things a bit, but someone somewhere must have sung “Hava Nagilia” during their Hanukah celebrations, right?)
I think back to that situation often and wish I could explain it to my male Church leaders. I had years of interfaith chaplaincy training and yet, I didn’t think twice to ask how they wanted to participate. I assumed I knew what was going on.
I was their piano teacher after all. I knew what was right for their levels of experience in piano training. I knew what the favorites of the beginning students were. I gave those songs quickly and confidently and didn’t think twice about the exchange during those lessons.
How often have I sat in a chair in Church, uncomfortable and nervous with the conversation in Sunday School or in ward council because of the assumptions heard in the platitudes expressed by a leader? “You don’t need the priesthood because as a woman you’re more righteous than men.” “The women can best participate in this activity by providing the food. That’s what they prefer to do anyway.”
In those cases at Church, I am the piano student. I sit and fidget because there is a power dynamic at play. Do I risk speaking up? Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe I should just stay quiet.
I don’t want to argue with a leader at Church–as the bishop or stake president, he is privy to more information about the rest of the congregation than I am. Maybe there is something in those words that others need to hear. By necessity, our leaders do sometimes need to make assumptions.
But, I hope that when my bishop sees that I am nervous or fidgety, he will stop, think, and ask if there is a problem. I hope he will remember that he is in a position of power and authority that means that he may not always have the whole picture, just as I as a member of a congregation do not always have the whole picture. Perhaps together, through honest discussion and a genuine attempt to understand, we can learn from each other.
I also realize that my implied analogy doesn’t totally work here. I am not a young girl under the direction of an adult teacher. I do have the responsibility to speak up when I am nervous and I can’t hold my leaders responsible for reading my body language. But, I believe this is worth bringing up, particularly in this current climate when so many members are being disciplined under the vague definition of apostasy.
I am blessed with good leaders at my ward and stake level who do listen to my concerns and who I do feel safe speaking frankly with. However, I worry. I hear stories from so many friends who have leaders who believe their assumptions are truths based in doctrine. They are not interested in dialogue. And, when that situation exists, we risk opportunities for productive dialogue and opportunities to build the Kingdom of God.
How can we, as those who think outside mainstream Mormon thought, know when to bring up our concerns? How can we identify leaders who are willing to listen and work with us on solutions?
How can Church leaders best evaluate when they are making assumptions that can cause discomfort or pain for their congregants?