Those who know me know that I spend a lot of time thinking about “women’s issues” and the Church. In the past few years, for various reasons, I’ve done less writing and talking about those things. But once in a while, thoughts morph into words that I feel are worth recording, if for no other reason than for myself and my children.
Tonight is one of those times. My thoughts here won’t necessarily be polished or complete, and this post will be long. But I do feel strongly about what I share. Perhaps at some future time I may organize these thoughts more, but for now I wanted to get them out of my head.
First of all, I will summarize some themes that are folded into, but not necessarily explicitly shared, in what I write below. My thoughts are organic enough at this point that they cannot yet be organized into headings or some other similar structure.
– Theoretically speaking, change models that are solution-based (usually established in reactionary modes to solve problems) do not provide collective and collaborative progress that are needed to address complex issues. (This notion reflects my professional lens, which will not be discussed here in detail. But you can search on collective impact for more on the theoretical framework for effective change.)
– The Lord’s kingdom works in ways that mortal structures and organizations cannot fully reflect or replicate. As such, mortal models of change can easily fail us if used to determine what “should change” in the Church. (I think this video from President Eyring reflects well what I mean. A Harvard graduate and former Stanford professor, Pres. Eyring says tenderly but boldly, “The main thing you do about [academic/professional models of leadership and organizational functioning]….Forget it. We are in another kind of thing here.” I believe unless we approach conversations deliberately acknowledging and seeking for that “another kind of thing” we will fall short of what we can and should do as a people.
– The doctrines related to gender issues are rich, layered, and complex. In my opinion, most dialogue about gender issues in my opinion doesn’t come close to exploring, acknowledging, and including these critical doctrines (which include, but aren’t limited to, the doctrines related to revealed truth about premortality, mortality, and eternal life; marriage, family, parenthood, and gender (beginning in that premortal family council setting); the plan of salvation (including the determination that the Son (of our eternal, spirit Parents) would be the Creator and Savior of our world and leader of the mortal Church through all dispensations); the Fall; priesthood, prophets, keys; partnership (in the family and in the Church); councils (in the family and in the Church); commandments, covenants, and ordinances; the Godhead (important both to understand in isolation and when considering other doctrines, such as those related to gender, to ordinances and covenants, the Fall, and the Atonement); the nature and character of God; the scattering and gathering of Israel…. My opinion is that such doctrines are too often glossed over and assumed to be understood, and policy/practice issues are too quickly focused upon.
– Related to the previous point, I believe wholeheartedly that “true doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior quicker than talking about behavior will change behavior.” (President Boyd K. Packer, link below.) I believe this is also true for Church culture, practice, policy, structure, and organization.
– I believe the Savior’s Atonement must be deliberately put at the center of our discussions if and as we explore potential options for change and improvement in the Church. Otherwise, I believe we risk failing each other collectively (and perhaps risk harming ourselves individually).
And now, more of my thoughts.
Anyone who is familiar with discussions about women and Mormonism knows that there has been much talk in the past couple of years about “possible changes” that could be made in the Church. Some have wanted core doctrinal changes (e.g., ordaining women to the priesthood) but others take more positions that are considered by many to be more moderate (I assume that means not demanding ordination but still asking for policy or structural change).
Although I can understand where a desire for such suggestions are coming from (and I am not opposed to changes that are truly inspired), I have not felt comfortable with most of these suggestions — not because I think they are all poor ideas, but because there is a general undercurrent to the collective discussion that leaves me feeling uneasy.
For example, a friend of mine recently wrote, “I feel like the drive for notoriety is the curse of our generation.” Although she wasn’t making this statement in the context of women’s issues, the thought resonated deeply with me and is actually what spurred me to write tonight.
In the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I think the drive for structural/organizational equality and visibility for women carries especial risk. More specifically I fear that the core doctrines of our faith about equality through the Atonement could become clouded both within the Church and outside the Church in the broader conversation that continues to focus essentially on practice and structure without addressing doctrine. I also worry that the rising generation and our young adults may suffer from spiritual malnourishment and misdirection if the trajectory of conversations about change continue to revolve around visibility for women or other externally measurable variables.
Perhaps engaging a few thoughts of others would be helpful to help explain my own thoughts. I recently read an interesting article by Melissa Inouye entitled Visible Women. I think she brings up some important points about deeply problematic cultural issues that many of us in developed countries do not understand (even as gender issues still exist in developed countries). She explores, for example, serious challenges in Africa. She (I think rightly) asserts that because of unequal marital dynamics that are endemic to the culture,
LDS women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo often have a very limited view of their own capability. According to a former “sister mission president” in the DRC who has visited hundreds of Congolese Sunday meetings, more often than not, Young Women’s lessons are taught by men because the women who are called to teach don’t come prepared. The same is true for Primary.
Where the Church functions as it should, women are strong leaders and teachers in the Young Women’s and Primary organizations, strong participants in councils, powerful teachers, and humble but deliberate (not passive) followers. In that regard, Inouye’s example presents a compelling concern about situations where culture and doctrine do not align. And clearly some visible, tangible examples of strong female leadership and execution of callings could be helpful in such situations. (One point I would like to make about the article is that even as she mentions the bottom-up + top-down change model, which I actually agree with to a point. I don’t think Inouye comes anywhere close enough to reflecting how many examples of guidance the Church provides in its teaching and training and storytelling in Church magazines, conferences, materials, and training. It is, after all, ultimately the responsibility of individuals to seek to understand what the Church actually teaches, and those in Africa are no exception, cultural barriers notwithstanding. Our leaders invite them up to the level of the doctrine that can unite us, rather than seeking first to adjust the Church to try to manage all the various cultural and personal challenges that can divide us.)
As a case in point: Inouye makes an interesting note that Elder Oaks gave a talk on gospel culture that was first broadcast to stakes in Africa, which to me acknowledges that our Church leaders are very aware of cultural issues in various places that undermine the doctrine that men and women are equals.
When we consider possible solutions to such real cultural problems, I always go back to the statement by (then)-Elder Boyd K. Packer that “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. …”
The reality is that cultural problems run the gamut. They don’t just include gender issues, and too much focus on policy change to accommodate local limitations to me seems deeply problematic. In addition, the many types of concerns that people have within the Church are so varied and complex (to the point of potentially creating our own sense of -ites-like special-interest groups that clamor for the Church’s attention) that I think we risk perpetuating a sort of learned helplessness among our people. Let me be clear: I believe our leaders care deeply about every kind of special-interest challenge that people face, and we should care, too. And yet, aren’t such challenges also part of mortality? To assert that the Church should be able to manage everyone’s pain is unrealistic and, I believe, a potentially serious hindrance to our individual and collective growth.
Let me be clear. I sympathize and have sometimes felt this special interest pain. I was single longer than I had ever intended. I have chronic health issues that have meant I haven’t been able to have as many children as I would have liked and sometimes teachings about family and children have hit some of the deepest pain I have felt. I have sometimes felt alone and different with other trials I have had.
But isn’t that what the adversary would have us feel? I do believe strongly in the power of connecting with others who can empathize with our specific challenges. So, for example, I am a huge fan of problem-specific support groups (when they are productive and recovery- and solution-focused, not enabling victimhood or drama). I participate in them myself. (See below.) And, of course, we are commanded to “mourn with those that mourn” as Mosiah 18 declares, even when we can’t empathize from experience.
But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we can change or remove others’ pain. There’s a saying in my support groups that goes something like this: “There is a God, and it is not me.” I think that when we seek to help others, we need to be very careful about not trying to put external things or people or anything else other than the Savior in front of people as their solution. There may be stop-gap solutions people can try to address their pain (e.g., support groups, therapy, personal choices to process their pain), but the Church is ultimately designed to bring us to Christ, and to bring Him to us through doctrine, priesthood ordinances, covenants, opening the way for conversion in this life and salvation (and potentially exaltation) in the next.
I’m reminded of another favorite quote from President Ezra Taft Benson, who was the fourteenth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.
This principle expressed by both President Packer and President Benson reflect principles I learned as an MBA student nearly twenty years ago. My emphasis in my program was in organizational change and behavior. A professor and dear friend taught us that to influence organizational change (paraphrasing what I remember from the notes I took): The further people’s feet need to move, the more their hearts need to be touched. The One who touches us is our Father, made possible through the Savior’s Atonement and His Light, and through the power and gift of the Holy Ghost.
I mentioned that I participate in support groups. I was blessed to be inspired by people in addiction recovery and came to realize that these support groups could help me with addictive patterns of thought and coping that feed anxiety, insecurity, and drama-seeking. I have a saying on my mirror that I wrote when the Spirit was trying to teach me when I was in the throws of the most intense part of my personal recovery process (which is still definitely ongoing). It says, “When pain is in control, judgment is inevitable.” The Spirit made it clear to me that whenever I am driven by pain or anger, my judgment is always clouded, and I’m usually unChristlike in my behavior and thoughts at some level.
I believe this pattern is true in a more collective sense. We as humans are wired to REact. Fight or flight is the rule when we feel threatened or hurt. I believe part of overcoming the natural man is to learn not to be in reactive mode so that we can find God and His peace.
As such, I believe when pain is the dominating force behind any change effort, it is inevitable that REaction will creep in. And yet our doctrine makes it clear — we are here to “act and not be acted upon.” (2 Nephi 2)
Which brings me back to the dialogue about women’s issues. (Other Mormon women have recently shared thoughts on the problem of pain being the driver for change. I submit their thoughts to you for your consideration (see here, here, here, and here).) I will, again, use Inouye’s article to explain my thoughts. (At this point, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to take on the author of the Patheos article; her visibility post just encapsulated in my mind both the potential value of talking about real cultural and gender issues and the concern I have with how and why certain solutions are being suggested.)
Inouye outlines some suggested changes she would make, and then explains her bottom-line reason for suggesting them. Rather than try to paraphrase what I see as the pinnacle point of her thesis, I will quote her directly.
Since young women comprise half the rising generation of the Church, thinking and acting in ways that protect their ability to feel like they belong here is not a fringe issue, but a mainstream concern. Appearances [i.e. visibilities] aren’t everything, but appearances do matter because they express our internal values—the values that we are trying to transmit to our daughters.
In the developed world, our daughters are growing up in a culture where they will expect to be treated as the full equals of men. If they go to university and find out that at this university, male professors are addressed as “Dr.” and female professors are addressed as “Ma’am,” they will switch universities. If they go to work at a law firm and discover that female junior associates are asked to make copies and compile binders while male junior associates are asked to write memos and go to court, they will switch law firms.
When they go to church, members of the rising generation will be [and already are] much more sensitive to apparent gendered asymmetries in language and responsibility than my own generation, or my mother’s generation. Appeals to fulfillment in future wifehood and motherhood will not [and already do not] solve the problem for them because for their generation, being a sensitive spouse and an attentive parent are roles to which both men and women aspire. More than any generation heretofore, our daughters will want to know how they can serve in the institution of the Church itself. They will recognize that the Church is not like just any institution (that it is a sacred institution led by divine revelation), but they will also see that it has an institutional life ranging from leadership to budgets to classes to social events to vacuuming. And if they perceive that women’s contributions are not needed and women’s spiritual authority is not respected in Church institutions, they will be inclined to switch churches.
Contrast this statement with one from Sheri Dew, which was written in her book, Women and the Priesthood.
“Despite the significant participation that women already have in the Church…there would seem to be ways in which the visibility and legitimate involvement of women in the Church could be enhanced — and without altering doctrine, covenants, or ordinances….“The idea of change should neither surprise us nor alarm us. Changes in policy and administration, as distinguished from doctrine, are ongoing because the Restoration is ongoing. Changes that have occurred during my lifetime would require a book of their own….Today women are much more involved in ward and stake councils than they were twenty years ago….[she mentions other changes as well]“Although I can see ways in which the participation of LDS women in the Church could be further enhanced, if nothing changes in my lifetime in this regard, it won’t affect my testimony one white. I’ve had far too many witnesses that the gospel is true and that the keys, power, and authority of the Savior’s kingdom have been restored to let organizational issues discourage me.”
In my mind, there is a critical difference between these two perspectives.
And this brings me to the pinnacle points of my thesis. Because I believe that we are here to act and not be acted upon, I reject the idea that somehow unless the Church structure and function changes, our young women and women are doomed to leave the Church. While that idea acknowledges and sympathizes with the reality that some individual women choose to leave, it also undermines the choice millions of women have made to believe, to stay and, to trust the Lord and His order, His wisdom, and His will made manifest through His processes and His servants.
I challenge the model of starting with pain to determine changes that need to be made within the policy and functioning of the Church. As long as contention and personal will drive models for change, I believe we will fall short of the amazing process President Eyring describes. (Elder Ballard also recently discussed this process: “Let me also observe that none of the Twelve are shrinking violets. We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion.” I have witnessed first-hand how those discussions include having discussions and seeking input from all levels of the Church. That process can be slower than sometimes we want, but it is being guided by God. Without trust in that, we cannot engage the Lord’s process for change.)
I believe discussions about policy are simply incomplete at best and dangerous at worst without deliberate, continued, thorough, faithful discussions about doctrine. People who study, savor, and submit to doctrinal truths are then prepared to discuss policy, but I do not believe the process works the other way. When prophetic words about core doctrines, such as those taught by Elder Oaks in the last General Conference, become a “review, not a revelation,” (borrowing words from Julie B. Beck) then I think we as a whole will have the ability to tap into God’s guidance and power as His desires us to hasten His work.
I will be very specific here: Part of the reason I am uncomfortable with some of the suggestions being made for change is because I feel that some of them bump up against doctrines and risk undermining and potentially watering down critical, core doctrines that the Church teaches. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Church’s functioning and practice transcends gender issues. God’s plan is a whole. We ought to be sobered and careful and completely reliant on God’s doctrine and the divine council system (which demands the best of men and women alike) before discussing what is doctrine, what is culture, what is change-able, and what needs to stay constant. (Nevermind the fact that only God’s authorized servants can determine and change doctrine. It is our job to study and learn and understand it.)
Why is the council system so important? Because without people committed to doctrine (rather than contending about it), without self-will put aside, and without both charity and covenant-keeping, God’s voice cannot be heard nor fully manifest. Unity comes ultimately from doctrine and conversion — from changed hearts, not changed policies. Even in the secular world this is true. Only when a shared and unified sense of purpose is felt can complex issues be addressed and lasting change be implemented. The beauty of the council system is that it does provide for honest and forthright discussions, even if the process of change can sometimes feel slow and is not always visible to the unconverted eye.
So how can we help our youth? I believe we must seek to be converted ourselves and we can unflinchingly teach our daughters doctrines of the kingdom in faith, even if we don’t fully understand the doctrines ourselves. We can model asking questions in faith and choose to believe rather than focus on doubt and give more power to pain.
I want to say that my daughters are strong young women. They have had questions about gender issues since they were young, surely in part because they have heard me talk about them. I believe we will be held accountable for what we don’t teach them even in the face of our own faith struggles along the way. And I will testify that I have seen time and time again that God teaches my girls personally and powerfully when they are pointed to true doctrine and when they are encouraged to go directly to God with their concerns and questions.
We need not fear the future if we do our part in teaching and trusting the doctrine.
This doctrine is not hard to find. It is taught simply to children in Primary, explored by youth in the Come, Follow Me curriculum, taught by missionaries around the world, and proclaimed by living prophets and apostles today and is evident in pattersn of prophetic and scriptural teachings across dispensations. True doctrine will expand our views and open our hearts to engage the process of hastening the work. Then and only then will we truly be prepared to receive whatever God still wants to give us and to engage in the process of helping the Church press forward and grow.
This work transcends any of us, and transcends any of our limited perspectives. Knowledge of those doctrines alone will not save us or our children. We must each act in faith on those doctrines, however we can where we are — as our prophets have said, being true to what we do know even as we wrestle with what may hurt or confuse us.
I know that in the years I’ve been involved in online discussions, I haven’t always had charity for those who struggle. I sometimes came across as arrogant and intolerant. I have since had very personal, life-altering experiences with coming face-to-face with the limitations of my knowledge. In spite of my firm and unshaken testimony of the Church and its doctrines, I found my faith deeply challenged. Even the knowledge and testimony I have had, without God’s help to rebuild my heart and my foundation, I would still be lost — even with a testimony! I have needed and continue to seek that inside-out change that only God could give me. This journey has required me to renegotiate my expectations and my relationship with the Church.
And so even as I do not share the gender-related pains that some women do, I have felt the kind of pain that shakes the very foundations of one’s life. And as much as I still struggle with the struggle involved in mortality, I think all of us, eventually, as President Benson has said, are “backed up to the wall of faith.” There can be unity in our mortality if we will allow ourselves not to be defined by instead refined by our pain.
Elder Neil A. Anderson recently quoted Pres. Benson in a talk that I think is relevant.
The miracle of God’s hand in the history and destiny of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is understood only through the lens of spiritual inquiry. President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Every [person] eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there … must make his stand.”23 Don’t be surprised when it happens to you! [emphasis added, and by the way, I have been surprised!]
By definition, trials will be trying. There may be anguish, confusion, sleepless nights, and pillows wet with tears. But our trials need not be spiritually fatal. They need not take us from our covenants or from the household of God.
I will conclude with these thoughts. If your trials do take you from the covenants of the house of Israel, know that people do care about you. God cares about you. I pray you may come to find the peace of God and come to want to join with us again. There are many of us who will save a seat for you.
Because even as you may choose to leave for a time, I know that the saving ordinances and covenants and authority are found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This really is “another kind of thing.” I suspect we will continue to be surprised, challenged, and delighted by what God may ask of us as a people as He hastens His work and as we prepare for the Savior’s Second Coming. And even as the soul-stretching process that people go through to come to Christ continues to leave me “sore amazed,” I believe with all my soul that the answer to all of our pain is Christ.
I conclude with two of my favorite scriptures.
The first is from 2 Nephi 26, which I just happened to read today.
For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness.
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.
Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.
Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.
The plan of salvation is the ultimate manifestation of equality. All are alike, all are invited, all will have opportunity to accept or reject the Savior and His saving ordinances. Nothing needs to change in the Church for that truth to be real. It just is — because of who the great I AM is.
The second scripture is from Helaman 5.
Remember, … it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.