When Visitors Ask the “Head of the Household” to Call on Someone to Pray

home-teaching-446364-gallery A common Mormon custom is that home teachers, missionaries or other priesthood visitors will ask the male householder, as “head of the household” or “the presiding authority in the home” to call on someone to say the prayer. I think most people who follow this custom are trying to be polite. They have been taught by (male) leaders that this is a sign of respect to the (male) householder. However, it is extremely disrespectful to a woman for an outsider to enter her home and define her relationship to her household, describe her husband as her head/president, and imply that she is the subordinate.

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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31 Responses

  1. OregonMum says:

    I’ve actually never had this happen before. The only group that might use this is the missionaries when we have them for dinner and when they ask “who would you like to say the prayer” they always seem to look at both of us equally. I think the ‘rising generation’ has some great things going for it.

  2. Big L says:

    This happened to me just this week! And I didn’t know what to say or do. The missionaries asked my husband to call on someone and so he did, even though my husband and I switch weeks who is in charge of prayers…. And it was my week. I was left feeling kind of numb after it happened. It felt like a slap in the face that my husband just went along with them, although I know he didn’t mean offense by it. I’m just not one to speak up though. I don’t know what to say and I’m afraid that the passion behind saying it would be overwhelming to them and to me.

  3. EJM says:

    I’m just wondering why missionaries are asking anyone in the house to pray, let alone anyone else?
    If I want someone to pray I’ll ask, otherwise don’t ask. There’s this assumption that the “household” wants to pray at that particular time. Just say goodbye and go.

  4. Martin Holden says:

    Like Big L we have rotated who assign’s the prayers on a weekly basis since we first got married. So If it is my week I will happily assign the prayer, and if not I just explain that I am not in charge of making prayer assignments. I disagree with EJM as I think any minister of religion would be expected to pray with those he/she visits and I would be disappointed if the missionaries did not ask to pray with us. Prayer after all is an essential part of religious life and one I struggle to make time for enough as it is.

  5. Suzette says:

    I am a single woman so this situation does not happen to me, but I am keenly aware of way things work in a home with guest, missionaries, home teachers, etc. In the past when home teachers come to give me a blessing they would give “marching orders” about where I should sit, who would pray, bless, etc.

    That doesn’t happen any more because I don’t give people the opportunity. When other are in my home I ALWAY control the situation. I thank people for coming. I select prayers. And I tell men who will be blessing me where they will stand, who will pray, who will anoint, and who will bless.

    I think this has been both surprising and appreciated.

    • Monica says:

      Exactly, Suzette–don’t give them the opportunity. This is honestly not something I consider a huge deal, and I’m pretty disengaged from all things church right now, so I have a hard time caring. But whenever we have church people over (usually home teachers–rarely missionaries) my husband makes a point of beating them to the who’s going to pray issue. He does this by saying something like, “Well, thanks for coming over tonight. Monica, who would you like to say a closing prayer?” I mean, yeah, it’s a little awkward. Technically he’s still in charge of the situation, but at least it shows them that we don’t do it that way.

      • jks says:

        We do the opposite in my house. I am usually the one to tell my husband it is time to pray so that he will pick the person to pray. So it is difficult to know who is in “charge” if one person is the one saying it is time to pray and one person is the one picking who prays.

    • Caroline says:

      That’s right. We are usually preemptive and don’t give visitors a chance to ask the man to select someone for a prayer. Either Mike or I does it first.

      • MKOH says:

        We do the same. I don’t find the need to “explain” to anyone why we do it the way we do. But at the moment when a prayer is usually said, my husband or I just jump in and ask someone to say it. My home is the one place where I never feel nervous doing things how I think they should be done, but I also don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable by lecturing to them about why I’m doing it that way.

    • Melody says:

      I like this.

  6. Laura says:

    I grew up with a single mother, and I’ve never married myself, so I’ve never dealt with this situation. But I wonder if it might be worth speaking privately with the home teacher or missionaries in question about this practice and why it bothers you, and ask them in future to address both spouses when asking who should pray. I would like to assume the vast majority of people who address such a request to the man/husband don’t mean any disrespect, and it probably just hasn’t occurred to him/her that this would give offense. To people who are well-meaning, I think explaining privately, rather than calling them out on the spot, makes them more likely to receptive to the correction.

  7. E.D. says:

    Like others, we try to anticipate the end of the night, and then I usually call on someone to say the prayer. When DH and I pray together, we typically alternate saying the prayer.

    If I miss the opportunity, I generally don’t make a point of it. I feel this is a classic “pick your battles” situation. However, if I asked someone to give a prayer and was corrected by a visitor, that’s a battle I would fight.

  8. spunky says:

    We actually have a prayer chart– paying the prayer has political authority in our house, because we allow the praying person to start the family discussion at dinner, because we want to teach our children that we are all equally important family members. So when we have the missionaries, which is the only time we seem to have this issue arise, whoever is assigned for the prayer that night, can re-assign to the missionaries, if they choose. I kinda love it when my 4 year old interviews the missionaries asking them who is the best between the 2 or 4 visiting missionaries at praying.

    Most of the LDS couples we associate with are feminist or know we are feminist, so usually look to me, rather than my husband, when it comes to praying.

  9. Ziff says:

    Other: The couple should explain that, to be fair, when the husband calls on someone to pray, the rule is that the prayer must be directed to Heavenly Mother, and when the wife calls on someone to pray, the prayer must be directed to Heavenly Father. Then ask which they prefer.

  10. Emily U says:

    I remember once at the dinner table my grandma’s husband asked my husband to bless the food because he was a priesthood holder. I remember thinking, what the what? Why does that matter???? I don’t think he meant to insult me or my grandma, but saying that people can be ranked in their prefered-ness for offering prayers is insulting. It’s also not right to rank people in their prefered-ness to ask others to pray, but I wouldn’t fault a well-intended home teacher who’s doing what he’s been taught to do.

    I agree with Monica, Suzette, Caroline, JKS, E.D., and Spunky that the best way to deal with this recurring cultural annoyance is to preempt it. I do it usually by saying, “I’ll say the prayer.”

  11. Naismith says:

    I am not sure how common this custom is, throughout the worldwide church. Nobody has ever handled it this way in my experience (n=1, admittedly).

    Home teachers have asked, “Should we have a word of prayer?” And then it is up to whoever to ask someone, if there is a consensus in favor of a prayer at all.

    A lot of mainstream LDS families we know have rotating weekly assignments of prayer-askers, so I can’t think it would be a problem for anyone to do the asking.

    • Naismith says:

      I understand why people would be annoyed, and I would be offended as well. I am not trying to say that it never happens.

      I just haven’t personally run into it. (Guess it is good to plan in advance how to react.)

  12. Ed says:

    Visitors have no right to tell the man or the woman of the house what to do. If the Bishop is visiting, he should offer to pray himself. Anyone else should leave it up to the man or the woman of the house.

  13. mollz says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is offended by this. Growing up, my dad traveled frequently for work. When he was away, my mom would ask my little brother to pick who should say the prayer since he was the only priesthood holder around. This drove me absolutely insane that my mom deferred her role as a head of household to my brother, simply because he had the priesthood.

    In my home now, our home teacher always asks my husband to pick the prayer, and our non-confrontational solution is that he will ask me to pray. Personally, I think if you suggest a prayer in someone else’s home, you should offer to say it yourself. If the heads of household prefer something different, they can say so.

  14. Abu Casey says:

    We’ve had missionaries or home teachers ask if they could leave with a prayer. Occasionally I say yes and stare back at them for a moment or two while I wait for something to happen. I’m usually waiting for them to ask me to ask someone else, as this is a thing that I’ve both done and had done to me (I’ve since reformed). I don’t do it to prove any point, but just to play with the awkwardness that emerges when someone doesn’t enact the next line of an expected script. Nobody thinks it’s funny but me.

  15. Melody says:

    Honestly, I haven’t come up against this problem because of my single/divorced status for twenty-plus years. My home teachers tend to say, “Would you like us to pray?” or “Would you like to have a prayer?” They acknowledge my role as head-of-household. Always have. That may be because I have owned that role and have never allowed anyone else to suggest otherwise. Nor have I ever bought into the idea that “the priesthood” isn’t in my home. It was obvious to my children (and hopefully everyone else who visits) that the presence of priesthood in my home was/is not tied to the presence of a man.

    At family gatherings, either extended family or with my own children and their spouses, people always look to me to call on someone to pray. Same thing with missionaries. I consider this particular situation a great opportunity for people to understand the value of women as head-of-household.

    I suppose if I did have a spouse, we would find ways to respectfully direct the affairs of LDS visitors who engage in this particular tradition. I like Suzanne’s comment. And I like seeing that her response to the situation evolved over time. We live and learn.

    Great post. Great comments here!

  16. Markie says:

    The only time I went ballistic was when a pair of well meaning Elders closed with, “Brother X, since it’s your home, would you choose someone to say the closing prayer?” I seethed through the prayer and then gave them a lengthy sermon that this is our home, not just his home; how we follow the prophet’s counsel to be equal partners in our marriage; how we choosing sand how feminist principles complement the gospel. I may have even thrown in a few things about how seeing women as fully realized human beings will help them find, appreciate, and be happy with a wife someday. I think I made them late for their curfew, but I think it was worth it (I promise I didn’t yell). Now my husband generally preempts the situation by asking me who I would like to say a closing prayer when he feels things wrapping up. I wouldn’t mind a repeat (one of the Elders actually thanked me a couple of weeks later), but my husband would rather avoid my ‘smack down’ mode.

  17. Georgi Lynn says:

    As a single woman in a household of one, I haven’t experienced this situation myself as an adult—although I definitely concur with Abu Casey that there is a sort of scripted, even ritualesque, element to the whole matter that can be inherently awkward.

    I do remember, though, that in my home growing up, home teachers, missionaries, and other visitors always asked my father to call on someone to pray (or at least looked at him when asking if it was all right if they “left us with a word of prayer”). Since he’s not LDS, and generally agnostic, I always interpreted the gesture as a recognition of our mixed-faith family and as a desire to not cause offense (by checking that their proposition to pray was okay with the non-member). On the other hand, he came to church with us frequently and not a few missionaries were surprised when they learned he wasn’t LDS—based on church attendance alone, he seemed to be more “active” than many of the actual members in the ward. So maybe it was just gender dynamics, or at least, I’m sure that factored in to some degree at least.

  18. S says:

    I usually punt and volunteer to pray to avoid it.

  19. Rachel says:

    When I was growing up, my siblings and I got to choose who said the dinner prayer when it was our birthday. I loved it. Otherwise, one of my parents chose. For family prayer (morning or evening) we all took turns.

    As an adult, my husband and I also take turns. When guests are present, either one of us asks someone to pray. I don’t love it when someone assumes the man will choose.

  20. Zib says:

    One of the roots of the problem is that the ward directory, as found online on the Church’s lds org website, and on LDS Tools apps on idevices and android devices, states “Head of Household” and lists the man only. Disturbing and wrong. But, since we have no voice as women, it will persist. This should change. I cringe at this just like I cringe when some person says at the pulpit that he thanks the “priesthood,” which is the power of God, not the “priesthood holders” or the “men” or the “brothers,” for passing the sacrament. Sometimes, they say “brethren,” as if they are general authorities just because they have the task or privilege of loading and passing trays around. They never call us sisters sistren. The whole “head of the home” idea is totally offensive. What am I, a child? No, I’m an adult. As a single lady, I am currently the head of my house, which is a peaceful house. Now, I’m going to go from important and equal to men, to nothing, once I get married? The way it will be listed if I marry someone in the church makes it look like he is IT, the whole shabang, so important. I, just like a child. He important, me nothing, not worthy to lick the dust of his precious feet. I refuse to have a relationship like that. It’s dangerous for the church to define relationships like that.

  21. Zib says:

    My father enforced that head of the home crap. He was the only person saying the family prayers. I never had an opportunity to speak. As such, I’m still shy at church now and in church patriarchial settings (any activity or church get-together). Afraid, in fact, because my father used to hit us for no reason except to gratify his pride, allthewhile stomping around yelling “I am the head of the home,” over and over. If you dared to speak to say anything at all, you were spanked, and often I couldn’t breathe because my head was pressed hard against his pant leg or coat while he did this–he intentionally did that so I couldn’t scream or cry for my mom’s help, while she was in the other room. He dragged me into the bathroom to spank me. My family consisted of my mom, my older sister, and me. He was miserable. I often wake up at night not breathing and gasping for air and at church I feel like I can’t breathe at all, feeling suffocated.

  22. Zib says:

    As a result of my father’s head of the home problems, I can’t stand in front of a congregation of saints and speak. I feel more than petrified to give a prayer, and the words don’t come out. It was embarrassing when I had to give a prayer in Sacrament meeting a few years ago. Outside of church and the people and settings associated with the church, I’m confident and am a very successful attorney, not with any help from my dad.

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