Change – Part 1 – Change Agents and Women

I’m reading an interesting book entitled: Change – How to Make Big Things Happen by Damon Centola. It is a fascinating look at social networks and how change is propagated. While reading, the following two fascinating questions came up:

How does change occur in the Church?

What are the symptoms of an organization that marginalizes women?

Change Agents

Every organization must change in order to remain viable as the culture changes. The Church has certainly changed over the years. While many people may think that core church doctrine does not change, that is not the case. In fact, there are few, if any, doctrines that have not evolved. Even the LDS doctrine regarding the nature of God is different in 2021 than it was in 1830.

So, how does the church change?

We sometimes think that leaders lead, guiding organizations into new territory, calling us to progress beyond the current bounds. That may be the case when an organization is small. But, in larger organizations, leaders actually follow the trend of the body of members. Alternatively, they may be compelled by external circumstances to make changes in order to preserve the integrity of the organization.

When I speak of change, I’m not talking about management, administrative changes, such as new manuals, church meeting times, new logos, and church programs. I’m speaking to substantive social change, like implementing and removing priesthood restrictions, promoting gender equity, advancing LGBT inclusion, and so forth. In these cases, change is risky. A leader that moves too soon, risks becoming irrelevant.

But, if leader’s don’t lead, then how is changed effected in an organization?

It occurs through change agents on the periphery. People on the margins. People that are willing to take risks. People that may not be widely visible to the organization. People with no significant leadership responsibility within the organization.

As people on the margins begin to adopt or promote change, the change becomes more widely know. As this network grows, the social influence spreads and it becomes more viable for others to adopt the change. The more “risky” or invasive a change is to individuals, the more close associates one needs before personally adopting it. At some point, critical mass is reached and the change (whether positive or negative) will take hold and sweep through the organization. This social characteristic can also be leverage intentionally by leaders.

“There is a measurable critical mass in organizations and populations that, once reached, can trigger a sweeping change in people’s behavior.” (Centola, p 181)

If leaders are in touch with their organizations, they will incorporate valuable social changes in order to maintain their own relevance and coordinate the change across the organization. If they move too soon or too late, they risk relevance and credibility. Consequently, effective surveys are the thermometer of leadership of large organizations, this includes politics, business, and church leadership. Leaders that don’t get out much or rely on middle management may find that they are out of touch after damage is already done.

With respect to churches, I am left with the questions:

If change requires a critical mass of proponents within an organization, what happens when the organization formally or informally marginalizes those people that advocate for change? If these people not longer participate, is their influence still felt?

My expectation is that institutional evolution will be retarded and it risks becoming irrelevant to the wider population. Membership numbers may be an effective measure the viability as well as its effectiveness in “selling” the values of the organization.

Orthodox members will push back against the “evil” influence of external forces. I agree that institutional stability can be valuable in maintaining credibility. But if society is ready to be more loving and accepting of their fellows, the church shouldn’t postpone those changes too long.

Change in an established organization becomes a careful dance. In the LDS Church, the implementation and reversal of the LGBTQ policy is a fascinating example.

Change and Women in Church

In 2018, I wrote a post on Nylan McBaine’s book, Women At Church – Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. McBaine’s observations and ideas were eye-opening to me at the time and fascinating to consider.

While reading Centola’s book, I encountered the following descriptions of male dominated organizations. These observations come from Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor. She published a ground-breaking study in 1977 on role and impact of women in business organizations.

I’ve substituted “church” into Centola’s review of Kanter’s work in order to more effectively point to the similarities in a church environment.

[Kanter] identified several telltale signs of [churches] in which the number of women [in leadership] was below the hypothesized tipping point. Most notably, women in these [churches] occupied a “token” role. They were conspicuous at meetings and in conferences, and as such were regarded by their male colleagues as representative of their gender. As tokens, their behavior was taken to be emblematic of all women generally. They became symbols of what women could do and how they were expected to act.

At the same time, these women were required to conform to a series of highly ritualized social norms. They were obligated to show deference to their male colleagues, to demonstrated exaggerated masculine or feminine behaviors as the situation demanded, and to attend informal social events with greater frequency than would be expected of their male colleagues. By following these social norms, and conforming to their peers expectations of how they should behave as representatives of their gender, women avoided failures of coordination [of their social behavior]. (Centola, Changes, p181)

As I read this, I was surprised how well it seemed to match my observations of the role of women in the LDS Church. Think of Relief Society presidents and the wives of church leaders. How are they presented in church meetings?

Centola goes on to generally describe studies on women in the Scandinavian legislature. (As above, I’ve substituted “church” into the quotes in order to adapt them to my context.):

When the number of women in the [church leadership] was below the hypothesized tipping point, their ability to advance new [church] causes, and to address specific concerns of women in the [church], was effectively crippled.

The greatest problem for women [church leaders] who were token minorities was that they were not accepted as legitimate actors on the [church] stage. This lack of legitimacy subjected them to a [church] culture–and a style of discourse–that aggressively dismissed the value of women’s contributions to [church] debates. As token members of the [church leadership], women who were successfully [called] often found themselves ineffective at achieving their [ministerial] goals. Disillusioned, these women showed disproportionately higher dropout rates, as they voluntarily decided to [resign from their callings or not accept new callings].

I like that observation on the “style of discourse.” We have sometimes heard about women using their “primary voice” when speaking in church. Similarly, women are often relegated to speaking on superficial subjects and rarely address anything of doctrinal significance.

Reading these descriptions makes me self conscious. I recognize that I was part of the problem. I carry some burden of the guilt.


Am I an agent of change?

Ironically, I feel that I have a better grasp on subjects that would make me a more effective leader than I was just a few years ago, but at the same time it is less likely that such a role would be possible.

This may be presumptive, but in some minor way, I can commiserate with the many skilled, intelligent, and capable women that find themselves locked out of an organization which is in desperate need of them.

Is change possible?

Will it come in time to be effective at preserving the relevance and credibility of the church?


2 thoughts on “Change – Part 1 – Change Agents and Women”

    1. Thanks.
      I was a bit hasty in my composition. I just made a few minor changes to correct typos, errors, and clarification.

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