Women At Church Should . . .

I attended my first FAIRMormon conference in 2012. It was a wonderful experience to associate with other church members that did not consider it unfaithful to “think” about church subjects. One of the speakers was Neylan McBaine who presented “To Do The Business of the Church: A Cooperative Paradigm for Examining Gender Participation Within Church Organizational Structure.”

That’s a long title. Basically, she spoke on the challenge women face in a male-dominated church environment. And, she gave numerous examples and ideas on how we can work within the boundaries of Handbook II to elevate the involvement of women and girls in church. These concepts have been expanded upon in her book Women At Church – Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact. (The quotes below are from this book.)

From the Audience: “It sounds like a feminist rant to me!”

Unfortunately, at one point in my life, I would probably have agreed.

Pain in the Church

Prior to McBaine’s presentation, I had only heard “whiny feminists” in sound bites and headlines; I had never given real consideration to the frustration that many women feel in a gendered-segregated, patriarchal church.

She made me realize that we often fool ourselves into perceiving leadership or opportunity equality even when it does not exist. In practice there are substantially fewer opportunities for women to share their gifts and leadership talents with the church than there are for men.

From the Audience: “Are you saying women should be ordained to the priesthood? You apostate!”

So, that’s where you’re going to go? Fall in line, keep your mouth shut, or get out??

Like other institutions, the church suffers from cultural momentum that hampers its responsiveness to healthy change. McBaine gives the following quote from Melissa Inouye.

It is a peculiar feature of church culture that when someone proposes a practical change to how things are done within the Church, such as making church procedures more responsive to local cultural realities, or creating more opportunities for women to be involved in decision-making and pastoral care, such proposals for “reform” often run the risk of being called insubordinate, incompetent, or unfaithful. (pg 28)


Gender issues are a relatively new cultural development when compared to the many thousands of years of recorded history. As late as 1962 when it was “legal” for a husband to abuse his wife if the injury didn’t require too many stitches. Fifty six years later, distinctions in the US between the opportunities available to men and women are largely gone. For young people (<60 years old), . . .

The Church is the only place many of the members have ever experienced institutional gender divisions. They have little context or understanding for where gender divisions  came from or what their benefits might be. This doesn’t make the Church structure wrong; it makes it hard for some people to embrace unquestioningly. (pg 33)

The tension between these differing boundaries—one espoused by our external institutions and ideals and one espoused by church doctrine and practice—breeds a conundrum for many women. Why are the beneficial structures and opportunities they enjoy in parity with men not similarly reflected in their church experience? (pg 61)

Entrepreneurial Dynamics

As a startup business owner, my only hope for survival is to be creative and innovative as I try to navigate a path among behemoth competitors. Consequently, conformity to institutional constraints, when better alternatives are available, is quite frustrating to me. Often the opportunities for change are there, but cultural practice, naïveté, or insufficient courage, both from the pew and leadership, impose artificial limits.

More often than not . . . we hesitate to see the Church as a flexible, living organism that is built for the members. Instead we make the mistake of thinking that it is the members that are built for the Church. We lose sight of the Church as the support system, and, in President Lee’s words, we “mistake the scaffolding for the soul.” We think that because we have always done things a certain way, that it is the only way that a need can be met—when, in fact, individual members’ needs usually require some spiritual and organizational imagination to comprehend and address. (pg 77)

Yet, there is hope and we are each part of it.

New cultural practices don’t just spring out of the ground. The way we shift culture is to create culture, to offer another version of a practice, another way to show obedience to the word of God. And any other version starts with a vision of how things could be. We encourage positive innovation by deliberately approaching practices and habits with an eye to restoring faith where it might otherwise be weak. (pg 81)

Sometimes change for the sake of change is healthy, it keeps us flexible so that when change is required we know how to do it. It also helps us recognize what is intended to be fixed and unchanging (doctrine) and what is merely culture and practice.

From the Audience: “So, you want to just tear up the Handbook and do your own thing. That would cause disorder—and we all know where disorder comes from.”

What Can We Do?

What impressed me about McBaine’s 2012 presentation and her book were the ideas she for elevating the roles and participation of women within the scope of the current Handbook. I’ve listed a few below. (The following are my titles and descriptions for ideas in the book. Page numbers show where each can be found.)

  • Schedule women as the closing speakers. (pg 127)
  • Schedule unrelated male and female speakers (not just husband and wife). (pg 127)
  • Regularly ask female leaders to speak and conduct training. (pg 128)
  • Invite stake women’s leaders to accompany high councilors. (pg 129)
  • Introduce the stake women’s leaders in ward conference. (pg 129)
  • Recognize the service of the wives of male leaders, both when they are called and when released. (pg 130)
  • Have female greeters, even the young women, at the doors of the chapel on Sunday. (pg 130)
  • Equalize the budgets for both boys and girls activities. (pg 132)
  • Encourage equally challenging activities for both boys and girls. (pg 133)
  • Have “career nights” for young women as might be conducted for the boys. (pg 134)
  • Publicly honor the advancement and achievements of the girls, just as for the boys. (pg 134)
  • Have the young women teach the young men, so that each may know that there is power and authority in the other. (pg 135)
  • Allow girls to invite a female leader or parent into interviews with male leaders. (pg 137)
  • Do not give generic appreciation and platitudes of female characteristics because it devalues those women that have other gifts and talents. (pg 143)
  • Recognize mothers in priesthood blessings to children. (pg 144)
  • Cite women authorities in talks and lessons. (pg 145 and 151)
  • Conduct a special Sunday School class and use Daughters of My Kingdom or Women of Conviction as the text. (pg 149)
  • Hand out the free book at Mother’s Day, Words of Wisdom: A Collection of Quotes from LDS Women (pg 150)
  • Respect what people wish to call themselves, such as women that use their own last name or a hyphenated name. (pg 153)
  • Use the title of women in leadership roles, such as “president” for leaders of the Relief Society, YM, and primary. (pg 155)
  • Males leaders should speak about doctrine with women, not to women. (pg 157)
  • Have women speak to (train or encourage) men on male responsibilities. (pg 158)
  • Men should not claim to understand women or instruct them in their duties. (pg 161)
  • Let the Relief Society lead without men imposing themselves. (pg 16)

. . . and my personal favorite:

  • Call a woman to serve as sacrament meeting coordinator. (pg 98) In consultation with the bishopric, she plans subjects, speakers, and coordinates with the music leader and auxiliaries. This calling would relieve a substantial burden from the bishop and counselors.

The Big Obstacle(s)

While serving in leadership positions, I have brought up some of the above ideas in a couple of ward council meetings. In one case, I was completely ignored, as if I had not uttered a word. On another occasion I received the response, “that’s not in the Handbook,” as if we can only do what the Handbook explicitly allows.

Unfortunately, the opportunities for change depend on two things:

  1. Ward/Leader roulette. Some ward cultures and leaders will be open to change and some not. There is often substantial disparity even in adjacent wards and stakes.
  2. Women’s unwillingness. While it may be easy to blame the men. McBaine reports that women are often shutdown by other women. President Nelson quoted Elder Packer in the October 2018 General Conference:

“We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out.”

Final Thought

Revolutions, by definition, attempt to shift culture by disrupting it with force, replacing existing systems with new ones. Our process of cultural change is not revolutionary. . . .

So adapting practice within our culture often requires assessing, attempting, pausing, reassessing, reattempting, and building consensus, rather than just putting a lead foot down on the pedal. This may require greater patience and a longer timeline than we would like, but the only effective way we shift practices is to create new practices, and that takes time. (pg 167)

Good luck and hang in there.


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