Madwoman Out of the Attic

a feminist trudging forward in a patriarchal world

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Making Church Better For Women

I've been thinking of concrete, practical, realistic things an individual bishop might do to make church more woman-friendly.

I, along with a lot of other women I know, find going to church pretty hard sometimes, particularly when we go into Sacrament meeting and see men in suits presiding every Sunday. Men and boys blessing and passing the sacrament. Men getting the majority of airtime at the pulpit due to high council Sunday, General Conference, etc. Men being quoted continually in all talks, lessons, discussions. Men meeting for hours before church every Sunday to decide on callings, Sacrament meeting topics, 5th Sunday meeting plans, ward projects and goals, etc. Men counseling members who are troubled.

In our church, it's all men, all the time.

So what could a brave, compassionate bishop do to ameliorate this situation? Here are some ideas:
  • call a woman to be Sunday School president. There is a major dearth of women in leadership positions. Let's show confidence in women by making them leaders whenever possible.
  • encourage all teachers to make an effort to quote from women in lessons. This may mean going outside the manual a bit and dipping into Chieko Okazaki and Sherri Dew, but so long as the quote supports the objective of the lesson, let the teachers know that this is acceptable. Afterall, we all know that maleness and preisthood is not a prerequisite to having deeply meaningful spiritual insights that all can benefit from hearing.
  • Have the Relief Society President attend every single meeting in which plans for the ward, callings, welfare, etc. are discussed. This includes bishopric and certainly PEC meetings. The bishopric could only benefit from having a woman weigh in on subjects like Sacrament Meeting topics, callings, etc.
  • Another option besides having the Relief Society President attend all these meetings would be to call a woman as an assistant clerk. This female assistant clerk would be invited to come to all the bishopric meetings, thereby giving a much needed female's perspective to discussions.
  • Invite the Relief Society President and her counselors to sit up on the stand in Sacrament meeting every Sunday. Thereby creating a visual picture that women and men are equally valued in this church.
  • Lay off the rhetoric about how much more spiritual women are and that's why they don't need the priesthood. Likewise lay off rhetoric about motherhood being the equivalent of priesthood. Admit that there is no plausible justification about why women don't have the priesthood, just like there was no plausible justification about why blacks didn't have it. Admit that no one knows why women don't have the priesthood.
  • Let women know that they may bring another woman in with them when they have appointments to speak to the bishop. For women who have been raped, abused, etc. it could be very threatening to be alone in an office with a man they don't know well.
  • Make sure women and men alternate for closing and opening prayers. Also make sure women are the anchor speakers sometimes. Likewise, because there are some Sundays which we hear exclusively from men (High Council Sunday) be sure there are a few Sundays in which women are the only speakers. This balance of male and female speakers would communicate a message that men's and women's thoughts and spiritual insights are equally important.
  • Call more men to primary, thereby promoting the truth that both genders are equally capable of nurturing children. Reality is that many kids are without father figures, and it would be a huge benefit to interact more with men in church.
  • In Young Women's encourage leaders to make a conscious effort to acknowledge the many different lives women will lead. Acknowledge that not all the young women will marry and have kids. Several will not marry, several will marry and get divorced, and several will marry and need to work. In all of these situations it is imperative that the girls are prepared for a career. Encourage several career nights for the young women throughout the year.
  • Let young women know that their spiritual growth is just as important as the young men's spiritual growth. Encourage activities that support this spiritual growth.
  • Call couples to have co-equal joint callings. For instance, there could easily be a Ward Mission Leader Couple
  • be flexible when women want to hold the baby during private baby blessings in the home.


Blogger jana said...

An interesting list Caroline! I think it's always helpful to find practical ways that women can be more involved. :)

11/12/2006 11:17 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

lots of great ideas here. many of which could be implemented right now without impinging upon church guidelines but which would have a wonderful impact by communicating visually and subconsciously that women and men are equal in the eyes of god and the church.

hear, hear!

11/13/2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger Deborah said...

"For women who have been raped, abused, etc. it could be very threatening to be alone in an office with a man they don't know well."

Actually, it can be highly uncomfortable even if you *haven't* had a trauma.

Great list, Caroline. My most interesting calling was the sixth months I planned sacrament meetings. Under the "direction" of a wonderful second counselor, I picked topics and called speakers. Relieved a time-consuming the burden from him -- I suppose he had veto power but he never used it -- and I loved the opportunity to think and pray about the needs of the wards, to talk through ideas with speakers, to follow up with notes and feedback, to coordinate music with the sacrament music coordinator. What was "one more job" for a busy counselor become a labor of love for me. Ultimately, I think it was the congregation that benefited from this singular focus.

11/13/2006 4:11 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Thanks - many of the later ones are due to Amy's input. :)

Deborah, what a fantastic calling. I would LOVE to have a calling like that. Then we could get back to Jesus and get away from emergency preparedness.

11/13/2006 9:15 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

now, caroline, that's some crazy talk. jesus rather than emergency preparedness!?!? you're bordering on heresy...

you know, i realize that preparedness is important. and i realize that we have few forums in which a whole ward is together in a single meeting. but they could at least have only *one* talk on preparedness and have the other one be centered on christ. couldn't they?

deborah--that sounds like a fantastic calling. and what a great way to have the bishopric still in charge of sacrament but relieve them of some of the burden of work they carry. there's so very much for them to do as it is, so why not delegate a little.

11/14/2006 12:05 PM  
Anonymous manaen said...

My mother was the Ward Clerk for a couple years back in the 1950's. This was during the Church's rapid growth in Orange County and the new bishop called her. She signed certificates, tithing receipts, etc. -- until Marion G. Romney noticed her on the org chart while visiting for Stake Conference. She then became "Special Assistant to the Bishop," preparing all the same documents that he then signed.

11/14/2006 7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Call more men to primary, thereby promoting the truth that both genders are equally capable of nurturing children. Reality is that many kids are without father figures, and it would be a huge benefit to interact more with men in church."

While I like the list, this one gives me pause. We could call more men to some areas, but the whole "pdophilia" issue would require men to be called in pairs. Not that all men are pedophiles, but there is a hyper awareness of this issue.

I would add that young women should be interviewed with the RS president present, or by the RS president. She should be able to have the training and ability to assist a YW through the repentence process, with counsel from the bishop(to keep priesthood ties intact)

11/14/2006 10:06 PM  
Anonymous obi-wan said...

call a woman to be Sunday School president.

Great idea, but unfortunately not possible according to the Handbook -- I know of two bishops who at different times have tried this and have been required by their presiding authorities to follow the Handbook and put a man in the position instead.

I frankly cannot think of any reason why this needs to be the policy, so maybe the suggestion should be "fix the dumb policy that prevents sisters from serving as Sunday School President."

11/15/2006 6:14 AM  
Anonymous ola senor said...

as far as the prayers go, Perhaps I haven't been as observant as I should be. Our current ward generally has a male give the opening prayer. Other wards have alternated. The reason one of the counsels gave was that they wanted the priesthood to open the meeting. Which

11/15/2006 10:02 AM  
Blogger amelia said...

...which makes no sense at all. i think that's what the last comment was going to say. since the bishopric opens the meeting before the prayer is offered.

as to the scare of pedophilia--i find it repugnant to argue that just because there are pedophiles in the world, we shouldn't have men work with children. hell, maybe we should start using men as studs and then keep them away from their offspring altogether. they might, after all, turn out to be pedophiles just cause they have male sex organs. i realize the church needs to protect itself and its members from false accusation and from liability in the instance that there actually is a pedophile in our midst. however, if we were to operate on this principle all the time we'd end up like afghanistan under the taliban just because it's possible that a man might get the wrong idea if he saw a woman's flesh or hair. or we'd live with the sexes totally separate because men might rape women. it's no more likely that a child will be molested by their primary teacher than that i will be raped; indeed it's probably much more likely. shall we cease all male-female interaction in order to prevent rape?

11/15/2006 5:55 PM  
Blogger amelia said...

that was supposed to say that it's probably much more likely that i would get raped than that a child will be molested by their primary teacher.

11/15/2006 5:56 PM  
Anonymous Tanya said...

I want you to know that after reading your suggestions I called my Bishop and thanked him for doing many of these things already. He is open-minded to doing what makes people feel comfortable. As long it does not specifically go against the doctrines (i.e, having women bless and pass the Sacrament), he is open to hearing and thinking about it. I was in a Ward Council where he brought up an idea someone suggested and asked what we all thought about it. His mind was not made up on the topic; he was completely open to what we all had to say. He always refers to the Relief Society President as President So and So, and not in a condescending way. I was in Ward Council where he scrapped the entire meeting and opened it to a testimony meeting because he felt that we (and himself) needed the spiritual experience more than we needed planning.

I just wanted to make sure that there are men in leadership who do things. And not because they are making an effort to, but because it just makes sense to do so.

11/15/2006 6:18 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

manean, that's awesome that your mom was ward, special assistant to the bishop. I hope more women get callings like that in the future.

anonymous, I agree that the church is trying to cover it's tail by making primary callings two person if one's a male. But I think it's kind of a shame that so many men and children suffer because of a very few bad incidents. Why not just make a rule that no doors can be shut? Or start building buildings so that there's a window into every classroom? I like your idea about the Young Women and Relief Society President.

Obi-wan, absolutely. New bullet:
fix the stupid policy about women not being Sunday School Presidents. I had heard that they put that in the handbook since some people felt uncomfortable with a women being in a position to give advice and oversee men (i.e "the priesthood"), and that's why that policy was born. Make's me nauseous.

Amy, you're awesome. I couldn't agree more. (I stole your ideas about windows and doors open in my paragragh above.)

11/15/2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous madhousewife said...

In our ward women are frequently the concluding speaker, and on some Sundays only women speak. Ever since they moved away from having couples speak on the same Sunday, it's been like this.

We also have, historically, had lots of men serving in Primary. That changed somewhat when they passed the No Man Left Behind law--but when there is a male teacher and he doesn't have a partner, they just leave the door open. As frustrating (and offensive) as this policy is, it's for the men's protection as much as the children's.

I do think there are some great ideas here. It's interesting, though, because just this morning Dennis Prager was talking on his show about how women make up 70% of first-year rabbinic students (in Reform Judaism), and how men have steadily withdrawn from religious work as the women have gained more prominence. Obviously there is more than one possible explanation, but the theory that men feel superfluous or unneeded when they don't have a unique male role to fill is a reasonable one.

I may be unusual among feminists in that I *like* the idea of gender essentialism, and to me the fact that women don't hold the priesthood is far less troubling than the fact that women lack a divine role model--for want of a better term. I mean, Jesus is a good role model for anyone, but as you pointed out, the church is really focused on men. The theology is problematic in a way that other Christian theologies aren't. If God is actually genderless, then of course God can embody both the traditionally "male" and "female" roles. But since we don't believe God to be genderless but a literal Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother's invisibility renders *women* invisible--in the eternal sense.

Anyway, I'm curious what others think.

11/15/2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I'm so glad you have such an open, understanding bishop. That's fantastic.

Madhousewife, it's great that your ward sometimes has two female speakers on Sunday. I don't think I've ever experienced that in my ward.

The no man alone with children rule is interesting. I wonder if someday bishops will not be allowed to meet alone with women and children with a closed door, if it's a matter of protecting both parties.

I personally don't buy the idea that priesthood is only for men because men will then wimp out on being involved if women get ordained. I know some very smart people who think that, but it makes me uncomfortable because I think it suggests a low opinion of LDS men. Would they really sluff off responsibility and involvement, just because women could now also be involved in a similar way? I would hope not.

Interesting about your take on women and the priesthood. I think I could more easily accept women not having the priesthood if women were equally involved in counseling, administration and planning in the church. But so long as priesthood is so closely tied with any kind of decision making power, I can't get behind the idea of an all male priesthood.

Like you, however, I am seriously concerned about the lack of a female divinity in our lives. If families are eternal, and we are eternal, who do we as women have to look to as a role model? An absent, murky, disconnected female divinity who has no relationship with her earthly children. Is that our future? Depressing.

11/16/2006 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a man whose first, and still favorite (when i'm back in a family ward i'm volunteering), calling was to teach primary before the mission (i had the 8yr old, recently baptized ones, and now they're going on their missions) i'm more than a little bothered by the "no man left behind" policy. in fact i find it personally offensive. however offensive i find the policy, i understand why they've done it. i can take having my feelings hurt (i'm a big guy) if it's beneficial to even one little kid.
i like caroline's idea about a window in every classroom (although i think then you'll all start complaining about the panopticon). and i hope that at some point the church will find a better way to prevent such terrible incidents without making me feel like i'm suspected of being a creep just because i'm willing, and eager, to be a primary teacher. i know that i've always been surprised to hear from my parents (in various leadership callings) about the number of people who feel perfectly comfortable turning down a primary calling when they would never think to reject another more "high profile" assignment.

11/16/2006 11:17 AM  
Anonymous JKS said...

It is currently church policy that men cannot teach primary alone. Our ward usually has at least three male primary teachers. They either teach in a pair, or with their wife, or if they currently don't have a "partner" called one of the presidency sits in on the lesson part.

11/16/2006 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Tanya said...

You know the whole explanation of why women don’t hold the priesthood has always bothered me. I have a friend who has an interesting theory on it. She basically said people hold on to that thought because if they thought otherwise they just plain couldn’t take it. For example, if they actually thought that the problem was that the church was out of line for not allowing women to hold the priesthood, or that women aren’t supposed to hold the priesthood but we don’t have a clue why they would completely lose their testimony. They want an explanation so bad that they will take any answer they can get-even if it does not make any sense.

I agree that it is difficult that priesthood is equated to power. I think I would be fine without the priesthood if women could still administer, or if we could have equal decision making power. I would also feel better if a few things were dropped from the various temple ceremonies. I also wonder though, if women were allowed to have more power would I be more willing to buy into the explanation that women are more inclined to have the spirit and therefore didn’t need the priesthood? I think I might. I think that I could buy that maybe for some reason physiologically we are more inclined to feel it.

I also think it is interesting that even though we struggle with a lack of female divine role model, we do acknowledge one. I am not sure what other religions feel on the subject, but I know of many major religions that don’t acknowledge the female divine, and they found it downright offensive that we do. Does that make us more forward thinking as a church than we realize?

11/17/2006 7:51 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...


I think in some ways the mormon idea of a Mother in Heaven is radical and forward thinking. The problem, as you mentioned, arises because she is so ignored and absent from our lives. Other liberal Christian religions don't really believe in a Mother in Heaven as opposed to a Father in Heaven, but some think that God is made up of both female and male elements.

Sometimes I go to the United Church of Christ, and there are quite a few songs that talk of God as a mother. Also, when the Lord's prayer is recited, some people start out with "Our Mother" or "Our Creator". So it seems as if some other religions are progressing on that front in interesting ways.

11/17/2006 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Tanya said...


That is very cool about the Lord’s prayer. I imagine it must be somewhat comforting to hear. I think it is out of fear that Heavenly Mother is ignored.

What do you think of the thought/concept that we have Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother but that it is only them together that make God? Is that what you meant about your statement regarding God having both female and male elements? I have heard it talked about a great deal in a church setting. It is usually in relation to marriage, achieving celestial glory in order to become like God. I was in a singles ward for a long time-marriage was a popular topic. I am just curious what you think.

11/17/2006 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Téa said...

Admit that no one knows why women don't have the priesthood.

This would be a huge step and perhaps the 'easiest' one from your list to be implemented.

11/17/2006 5:56 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I like the idea that it is only Heavenly Mother and Father that constitute the entity we call "God." But unfortunately I don't know if this goes along with the way most Mormons think about things. We Mormons more often than not adress our prayers to our "Father" so H.M. then gets left out of the picture.

I think other some Christian churches don't think of God as gendered. They see God as less personified than LDS do, so it's easy for them to conceive of God as an amorphous power that contains both male and female elements.

11/20/2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I think it sucks that you are now less likely to be able to work with primary kids. So many men like you would be wonderful in primary. What a shame that a few creeps have screwed it up for the rest of you.

11/20/2006 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just read a few comments and last time I checked blacks to hold the priesthood and if you are so worried about why woman don't, maybe you should humble yourself and be greatful for the things you do have and can do, rather for the things you don't have and can't do. Why would you want to have a woman hold the priesthood? What would that purpose hold? Woman have enough responsiblities. You need to just relax and enjoy your calling in life. You are a woman.

3/09/2007 9:12 AM  
Blogger john.white said...

Not being in LDS, I have a very interesting push-pull view of the religion. It's awesome to hear such interesting, thoughtful discussions about spirituality, and horrifying that they're necessary. Rewarding to be around people like Caroline. Horrifying to know that there are people like the last Anonymous commenter.

3/09/2007 12:55 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Thanks John. :) You are awesome. I also find it disturbing that Anonymous somehow finds it acceptable and Christian to talk to another human being like that. I may totally disagree with Anonymous, but I would never go to his/her blog and tell them they were utterly wrong about something they felt deeply about. Makes me embarrassed that there are LDS people like that in the world.

3/09/2007 3:43 PM  
Blogger john.white said...

Clearly the commenter knows the attitude is wrong. Why else comment anonymously?

Not having the courage to be public about one's convictions is a sad, sad place to be.

3/10/2007 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Alison Moore Smith said...

First visit to your blog, Caroline. From the second I read the title, I anticipated hating your post, but Ireally liked it. Thanks. Glad I found you. Here are a few thoughts:

Women CAN serve as Sunday School secretary. Go figure.

I had a friend years ago who made all the appointments and did 99% of the work for her well-traveled husband who was called to be stake executive secretary. Never understood why it was acceptable for her to do the WORK (it as not only known, but requested), but not have the TITLE.

Don't know about sitting on the stand. When I was RS president, my husband was in the bishopric. If both of us were on the stand, our children would have made the entire meeting more than unpleasant.

Don't get me started on the prayer thing. Makes me nutty. My current ward/stake ONLY allow men to open. I've got a long rant on that, but I'll save it. It's simply NOT policy, but it's certainly practiced in a number of stakes across the country, at least.

The male closing talk also irritates me, no end.

I would have loved to have held all six of my babies while they were blessed!

The disparity between the YW program and the YM/scouts has bothered me since I was in early elementary school.

Of course, I'm also bothered when people call the youth female program "Young Women's," too. Young Women, people, Young Women!! :)

Tanya said:
"You know the whole explanation of why women don’t hold the priesthood has always bothered me."

What is the explanation? I've never heard it.

More thoughts, but I haven't gone to bed and I have to get up in three hours for aerobics...

3/21/2007 1:19 AM  

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