Review: Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact

imageNeylan McBaine’s book about how much we can do to maximize women’s roles in the service of God came out in August 2014, but it only recently came to my attention.

It is interesting to read Neylan’s book in light of having so recently lived through this past year, with the launch of the Ordain Women discussions/conversations and the excommunication of Kate Kelly. Neylan makes it clear that she is not agitating for changes that aren’t already possible within the current structure of the Church. From something she wrote recently, it seems some have criticized her for going beyond the mark.

Due to my own study of this matter, I was a bit disappointed to see a book so uniquely focused on the issue of women. This comes because I have studied the effect ordaining women has had on other denominations. So while Neylan isn’t agitating for female ordination, I was a bit cautious reading of some innovations that take away from the opportunity for men to have space to feel safe at Church. Also, frankly, it appears to me that the great challenge for the Church is retaining men, particularly retaining men from outside America. However we don’t want to lose anyone, male or female.

Neylan brings much that is wonderful to the fore. She does point out painful circumstances some women and those who love women have experienced. However she also shares how at times individuals, both men and women, have adjusted their stewardships to more richly bless all in the congregation.

I have lived a life where I have enjoyed the leadership of many single Relief Society Presidents over the decades, have often had the chance to participate in ward councils (even when not even in a presidency of Relief Society, Primary, or Young Women), had the responsibility to provide bread for the sacrament, and have had chances to participate alongside “the men,” as when members of our stake spent the extended Thanksgiving weekend mucking out the still-sodden homes flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

Even so, I have had my moments of banging my head against stupid (as I perceived it at the time). I enjoyed many of the innovations and insights Neylan discussed throughout the book.

The one that inspired me the most was the story of a woman who made a sacrament of preparing a loaf of sacramental bread. In addition to flour, she used yeast, salt, olive oil, honey, and water, all ingredients with scriptural significance. She then kneaded the bread by hand and carefully kept it covered with a white cloth, rather than the red cloth she usually uses. I was deeply touched. Yet when I tried to tell members of my family about it, they were non-plussed or actively negative. Not that they had a problem with a woman preparing the sacramental loaf. Rather they perceived that this could turn into an odd sort of competition, a way women (who don’t have the confidence in baking bread that women in my family possess) could feel further marginalized.

As I read Women at Church, I was frustrated by the lack of footnotes. When I finished, I found that there had been references after all. However lacking any kind of signal in the text that these were present, it was impossible in the kindle version to flip between the references and the text. Thus I would suggest that future books of this nature at least include some kind of annotation to allow a curious reader to locate the source when something catches their interest.

If you participate in a book group with other Mormons, I think this would make an interesting text to suggest.

I liked a quote from Elder M. Russell Ballard’s book Counseling with Our Councils, though I would have worded it a bit more strongly:

To be perfectly candid, I sometimes have a difficult time understanding why so many of our leaders fail to see the vision of how working through councils can enhance their ability to accomplish all that the Lord expects of them in their respective stewardships. . . . It is a shortsighted priesthood leader who excludes or ignores sisters, failing to take full advantage of their understanding and inspiration . . . . It is easy to understand why many sisters are frustrated when they sit in council with priesthood leaders and are not invited to make substantive contributions to the council.

I would also repeat something I wrote months ago in an April 2014 post titled A View of Keys:

So a useful conversation that might occur on this topic regards the extent of this great middle ground where both men and women may serve, and whether there are pockets that rightly belong to this great middle ground that have been relegated to one gender or the other due to folkways unrelated to the keys unique to salvation or creation, respectively.

If your pocket of Mormondom has been failing to take full advantage of the power of women (or anyone else, for that matter) due to tradition rather than policy/revelation, it’s time to shake things up and do better. If you need any ideas about what the challenges and potential solutions might be, I’d recommend you give Neylan’s book a read.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

17 thoughts on “Review: Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact

  1. “It is easy to understand why many sisters are frustrated when they sit in council with priesthood leaders and are not invited to make substantive contributions to the council.”

    This is not a men v. women matter. Many men in ward councils never “make substantive contributions to the council” — this is because the bishop controls the agenda, and rarely asks for meaningful discussion of substantive topics — even if he did ask for meaningful discussion, we aren’t culturally accustomed to such in our church meetings — this isn’t intended as a slam, but just expectations management — but men in these councils learned a long time ago that substantive decisions aren’t made and meaningful deliberations aren’t held in ward council — as women in councils learn this through their attendance, they won’t be so disappointed as time goes by. Of course, there is another approach, and that would be towards making ward council a substantive and meaningful meeting, where the work of the Lord can occur through participation, understanding, and inspiration. I have heard some stories of moves in this direction in different wards, and I am glad to hear them. Change is slow sometimes.

  2. Hi jl,

    You write “Many men in ward councils never ‘make substantive contributions to the council‘”

    In my experience, the ward councils I have participated in are true councils. In one I remember in particular, the senior missionaries were reporting on members they had visited who weren’t coming to Church. One of these families had a deaf son of an age to be baptized. The father was either disfellowshipped or excommunicated at the time, and was no longer married to the boy’s mother. His new wife was trained in ASL, but the family had told the missionaries they were unwilling to return to Church unless the Church provided an ASL translator (the new wife wasn’t Mormon).

    This senior couple told us this information, followed by their assessment that this request was not reasonable. The Church hire an ASL translator for 4 hours on a Sunday for a boy who wasn’t even baptized, living in a family where none of the adults were Mormons in good standing? Yet I spoke up and said that I thought it was entirely reasonable to accommodate the family’s request. I think I had some jurisdiction as I was the representative for the Primary in that meeting. I indicated that I would take responsibility for following up with the family. The bishop also indicated that his wife was trained in ASL. So for a time before the family moved, they would attend Church in the front and the bishop’s wife would sign. In time the boy and his step-mother were both baptized and the father came back into full fellowship. Years later I had the privilege of attending the young man’s Eagle Scout ceremony, and the family had grown and was fully active.

    I recall another time, when one of the male leaders was diligently taking notes. I think at the time I was a ward Family History Consultant, and our bishop was including us in the Ward Councils. Anyway, I had been in a number of the councils, and been quite impressed by this diligent note taking. Then one day, the bishop gave this man some assignment, which was duly noted. But the man’s wife was also in the council, and she mentioned that “he takes notes, but that doesn’t mean he ever reads his notes later…” It was actually a really funny moment.

    Again we get to the matter of Mormon sub-cultures. Just because someone has never seen Church governance done properly doesn’t mean it isn’t being done properly elsewhere, or that it hasn’t been done properly for decades elsewhere.

    Where I live councils are also conducted within the other organizations. In addition to “presidency meetings” for the different auxiliaries, the “in service” meetings I have attended are sometimes more akin to councils than anything else. And in my current calling as Music Director (versus Ward Music Coordinator), we all who have stewardship at the ward level (accompianists, choir directors, music director, etc.) hold a council at least annually to discuss the music-heavy Christmas season. As the person who waves her hand, I have been given responsibility for years now to select the hymns, which I maintain on a google doc that is available to all to view and edit, complete with the themes for the year and links to the applicable conference talk. Thus even for my portion of the music stewardship, I have implemented a virtual council structure, where all affected may change and update the document as required, so all (particularly the accompianists) can know what will be happening and/or change things if some need arises to do so.

    So Church governance can include women (duh) and it can be “done right.” Rather, I don’t believe I have ever seen it done wrong (i.e., not including women, not taking into account the skills of all in the council).

    However inasmuch as there are pockets where Church governance is a mini dictatorship, I would advise folks who are in a position to do so to help love the dictator out of their foolish ways.

  3. I have only become aware of this site recently.

    Meg, I have appreciated your studied and frank analysis and comments about the subjects you have addressed. I know this post is about the book but all discussions of women’s participation in church is tinged with the idea that all “real leadership” roles are reserved for men. The quotation marks are used to indicate I believe this is a fallacy.

    I am a man, 51 years old. Besides Ward Mission Leader three times I have never presided, from deacon on up, over anything in the church, if that can even be considered presiding over anything. Being a “priesthood leader” is rare even among men. If one were to look on the outward signs of my activity and participation levels one might think I were a shoo-in for such, in fact I have people openly tell me so whenever a new bishop is to be called.

    When I was young I admired the apostles. I wondered if I could be one of them. People told me I could after all. I felt guilty for feeling that I could, and told myself that I didn’t really aspire to be an apostle but only to be like them.

    In this one thing, I have much in common with the women of the church, with the exception that they can never hope to have such a calling. What I mean is that I am familiar with the feeling of “being passed over,” and sometimes I think I recognize the outward signs of those feelings in the actions and comments of some highly capable women. I can only describe the feeling of being passed over in one way. It hurts. It is so human.

    Now I know that these feelings I have had are antithetical to true discipleship, because I know that Christ said whosoever would be master of all should be servant of all, or something similar (too lazy to look it up right now) But I am human and sometimes wonder if I am just not worthy enough, just not good enough, just not…whew, I sound like a woman. (Is it okay to tell a joke here?) When caught up in such moments, it has sometimes seemed to me that one of the criteria for leadership in the church is not wanting it, but that is just another silly thought that pops in to my head.

    The issue really is discipleship. If every person asked in each moment whether their thoughts and actions were those of a humble disciple of Christ, content to serve in the simplest of ways with utmost gratitude for the capacity and opportunity to do so in His kingdom, never seeking “leadership” as the world understands it, and forgiving our own leaders who may sometimes forget the job of priesthood leadership is to serve in the name of Christ, and only in His name, never in our own names; we would more easily feel His loving embrace and know we are doing exactly what He wants us to do, and feeling His loving embrace there is nothing that we would rather be doing.

    I pray that we, women and men, men and women, find ways and be allowed to use all our individual capacities to their fullest to lead souls to Christ, in the church and out.

  4. Hi Joel,

    Ward Mission Leader three times!?! Wow. My hat is off to you. That is an incredible responsibility, in large part because there is never a time when you can say “everything is now done.”

    I’ll say that getting called to be a Relief Society President at age 17 kind of cured me of hankering after positions. And I’ve been blessed to see individuals who have been in positions of authority happily resume a subsequent calling that the world might denigrate (e.g., primary teacher for pre-schoolers).

    We are all part of the Body of Christ. Filling any particular role in that Body doesn’t qualify us for unique favor from God. I like to imagine how happy Joseph and Emma would have been, for example, to live in our day, serving in simple callings within a ward. I recall notations in his journal where he just talks about physical labors in the outdoors.

    There is a lady in my ward who wears her heart on her sleeve. Once I was approached about becoming the RS chorister. I told the individual extending the call that I was flattered, but suggested that there were others who would truly adore this calling. I think I knew that if I became the chorister (again) it would be a stumbling block for my friend. I forget when, but at some point my friend was called to be the chorister, and served diligently for years. Even now, if the current chorister is unable to attend, my friend will be asked to pinch hit.

    So rather than yearn for positions of power, do we yearn to be God’s hands? I think if we are of our own free will seeking to do His will, then it can become less important that we be crowned with some particular badge of supposed power.

  5. Meg, I’m assuming that the following link is one of the things Neylan “has written recently” that has caused some to wonder about whether she has gone too far recently?

    I think Neylan and her project have benefited tremendously from OW. I perceive her to be outside of the mainstream of the Church in a good number of her views, but observers can say “at least she’s not Kate Kelly! Look at how much more reasonable she is!”

  6. As for Neylan being outside the mainstream of the Church, the question isn’t whether or not she could mingle with the majority without standing out, but rather whether or not God would perceive her as being within His fold. I think the answer to that second question is an unquestionable “yes.”

  7. I am 7 of 9 children. When I was 5, Mom and Dad went school at USU after Dad retired medically from military service. I started doing newspapers at 8 1/2 with Dad while Mom worked the cannery at nights. Both obtained master’s degrees, my mother summa cum laude. Mom taught special education at my high school. Mom was my confidant. Dad was my imperfect, silent, but solid foundation. Mom, a convert, loathed Mother’s Day service because it was always so patronizing. She also hated “women’s libber’s.” Love was ever her watchword. She was fun, and summer vacations were memorable. She died suddenly, firm in the faith. Still, I have envied children whose mother’s were at home, since I was often left to myself.

    After 9/11 I lost my high-income job. 2 years later I realized I had lost my career. As we had already put my wife through nursing school, it became obvious, while I worked my way through law school midlife, why it was, when she was frustrated with school and children at the same time and asked for a blessing, that the feeling was always, stay the course, finish school. We sent her to work fulltime though that had never been our intention.
    In this world, pulling together as husband and wife, brothers and sisters, is going to require hard work from all of us with much less emphasis on who formerly, culturally, did such work, but ever with a watchful eye to the wisdom to be found in bedrock principles–there aren’t so many of those as we may have learned and assumed–and the ideal they represent.

    However, talk of the ideal must not be allowed to make the distance for those separated from it by real circumstances seem so great that they lose hope of ever crossing it, or that failing to do so in this life would leave them forever separated from it.

  8. ” Rather they perceived that this could turn into an odd sort of competition, a way women (who don’t have the confidence in baking bread that women in my family possess) could feel further marginalized.”

    I could actually see this happening, in some church sub-cultures. But I could also see such a practice, done quietly, becoming deeply meaningful to the one doing it.

    If there was a simple algorithm for determining whether all new practices were approopriate or not in all possible settings, we could dispense with all the annoying human members and replace them with robots programmed with that algorithm.

  9. By the way, I was just reminded that there will be an event Sunday night in the DC area where Neylan will be talking about this book. If you’re interested in details, e-mail me at stoutmtc at gmail dot com.

  10. “However, talk of the ideal must not be allowed to make the distance for those separated from it by real circumstances seem so great that they lose hope of ever crossing it, or that failing to do so in this life would leave them forever separated from it.”

    That’s a fantastic sentence, 7 of 9! (May I call you 7 of 9?)

  11. Meg, I appreciated your story about the Deaf boy and your fight to keep him and his family included with access to communication. I just have one small quibble. To say someone is “trained in ASL” usually has very little validity to it. This could be someone who has learned the alphabet or had one or two semesters of ASL study. Better to say how fluent someone is in the language (hopefully from a knowledgeable outside source) which is a clearer indicator of language skills.

    However, based on your story, it sounds like the bishop’s wife was skilled enough that the family kept returning to church and I’m guessing she wasn’t the only interpreter for the 3-hr block (or her arms would fall off!). Wonderful that it had a happy ending, but most such cases end in inactivity due to lack of resources or advocacy.

  12. Tiger,

    First, thank you.

    I didn’t watch much of that show, and had forgotten, but applying that name to a 51- year-old balding male with a little belly might shake someone’s faith. (sorry for making light of a serious issue) But hey, it’s funny, and no one would be the wiser unless they make me use an avatar.

    p.s. Meg, sorry for the derail.

  13. @ Tiger on December 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm,

    Not all council meetings result in bringing a family into the gospel.

    As for the step-mother, she taught in a school for the deaf, so was very proficient. I can do alphabet and a few words. I did a lot of finger signing when I was sitting with the young man in primary. He was actually pretty good at reading lips and such, it was just that the prior ward situations had made it clear that they absolutely weren’t going to do anything, other than learn the sign for “sit down.” Our bishop’s wife was also very proficient at that time.

    I now have a nephew who is deaf. When my sister and her family come to visit, they always attend Church with the deaf branch in whatever city they’re visiting. And since that time long ago with my young deaf friend at Church, I have had the experience of having an autistic child, with the need to have people specially called to be with her in Church. I have made lots of friends. I’ve also had chances to be terribly embarrassed, and have spent hours crying when friends criticized me. But by far my experiences with my own challenge have been more positive than anything else.

    In my patriarchal blessing, I was told that I was to share with those in need, in distress, or needing encouragement, and that all that I shared would be returned to me tenfold. If I had a way of doing that accounting, I’d likely find that “tenfold” is an approximation that distinctly underestimates how much I’ve been blessed.

  14. Whether councils are effective or meaningless wastes of time depends primarily on the person conducting. Those who use the meeting only to get their own ideas rubberstamped or rely only on one or two others for additional input will be ineffective in the long run.
    A friend of mine had served as Relief Society President a number of times in various wards and branches around the world. A new, young bishop called her into his office and told her that she would learn a lot from the position when she once again accepted the call to be Relief Society President. She boldly replied that he was the one who would learn from her. He seemed offended by her suggestion but in the months that followed he regularly appealed to her to her in council. After a year had passed he spoke to her and admitted that she had been correct in her assessment that he would benefit from their association. It took humility for him to ask her counsel and accept it. As I have witnessed changes in leadership ranging from ward auxiliaries to temple presidencies I have seen the potent effect of humility and willingness to innovate within the general guidelines provided. In the best scenarios there is no visible resentment of innovations in procedures on the part of former leaders and the new leadership uses counselors effectively. It sometimes seems that new leadership are called as soon as the current leaders finally get things worked out and running smoothly, or at least as far as they can perceive.

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