At the recent 2014 FairMormon Conference, I picked up a pre-release copy of Neylan McBaine’s new book “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact”, which is being released publically today. I started reading it on the airplane ride home on Saturday and couldn’t put it down and I finished it the next day after Church. It was amazing. Since it is officially being released today, I thought I would share my thoughts about the book and about the message that I think Neylan is trying to convey concerning how we can improve our Church culture and our rhetoric to match our doctrine.
This is not a book about doctrine, nor does Neylan intend for it to be. Instead, it is written for men and women, Church leaders and fill-the-pews-every-week Church members. First, it illustrates how some Church culture, rhetoric, and practices unnecessarily make some women (and in many cases the men who love and support those women) feel less-than, and then it provides several suggestions for how we might change our culture, rhetoric, and practices without requiring any changes in doctrine or official policy.
Both the descriptions of “the problem” and the suggestions for “solutions” are backed up by anecdotes from a wide range of sources that Neylan collected after considering some of the reactions to her 2012 FairMormon Conference address and being encouraged to expand her work there into a larger project. She sought for stories and suggestions from Church members across the belief and political spectrum. She then pulled them together to illustrate how, when we talk about gender balance in the Church, we are not only dealing with doctrine – we are dealing with emotions, culture, public relations, and long-standing group dynamics, many of which have little or nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Neylan’s message was full of “a-ha” moments for me. One occurred when I listened to her 2012 FairMormon Conference talk and heard her describe why language matters, both internal and external to the Church, when we talk about things like “equality”. For example, When we use the words “equal”, “alike”, or “equality” in a gospel setting:
“…and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike [or equal] unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Ne 26:33),
we have developed a good internal (as in, inside the Church) understanding of what “alike” or “equal” means and looks like: God loves everyone without regard to race, color, gender, occupation, etc., and we, as disciples of Christ should seek to emulate that same principle.
Where we run into trouble is when we try to pass off this internal definition or understanding of “equal” in our external public relations messaging as a Church. The rest of the world uses a measuring stick that is vastly different to measure “equality”, and our rhetoric will fall on deaf ears if we do not recognize this fact and adapt our message accordingly.
When I say “vastly different” from the rest of the world, I mean we are different by almost every criteria the world uses to gauge these sorts of things: prominence of women’s events compared with men’s, prominence of women leaders compared with men, emphasis on women’s public teaching and influence compared with men’s, opportunities for institutional or organizational “span-of-control” and “span-of-influence” positions for women compared with men, etc. All of these are simple, basic, easy-to-calculate, easy-to-see, measuring sticks by which the rest of the world gauges the word “equality”. We have to consider what the rest of the world hears when we put out our public relations messaging or our social media posts about media stories regarding gender-related issues in the Church. We need to realize that when we talk about “equality” between men and women within the Church, but then the world sees something totally different when they look at our organization, their reaction will be to discount or dismiss our comments and messaging as not credible or misleading. When we try to pass off our internal definition of “equality” as equivalent to the world’s definition of “equality,” we will fail every time. And when we fail in the public relations space, we lose credibility.
“But who cares?” we might ask. “Since when are we concerned with what the rest of the world thinks of us? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with what God thinks of us?” Sure. Absolutely. But if that were the only consideration, we would have no need for a Church Public Affairs function! It seems like at least one of those reasons should have something to do with aligning our internal and external rhetoric. As long as we want to maintain our ability to appeal to the rest of the world through our missionary efforts, we would do well to listen to people with the experience and expertise to help us at least reduce the number of “unforced errors” on this subject.
This is where I think McBaine’s approach is so valuable. By challenging us to refine our rhetoric first, and not agitating for changes in doctrine, she is reinforcing the point that it is not only important what we say, but how we say it.
One of my favorite parts in “Women at Church” is where Neylan points out the strong and empowering message that we could send to the world about the importance of women’s contributions in the Church by making those contributions more visible. We live in a visual world, and while words are important, so are images. The recent changes in seating assignments during General Conference, for example, where Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary General Presidencies have been invited to take a more central position on the rostrum, and the addition of these women’s portraits in the lobby of the Conference Center and in the center page of the Conference issue of the Ensign and Liahona alongside the General Authorities are some examples of this being put into practice. One of Neylan’s suggestions is that we consider inviting ward or stake Relief Society, Young Women, and/or Primary presidencies to sit on the stand during Ward or Stake Conferences.
Some may consider this an example of tokenism or window dressing, since these women do not preside over the meeting. But whereas changing who presides would require a change in doctrine (as Elder Oaks’ April 2014 General Conference address made clear), the change suggested by Neylan would require no change in doctrine, nor any change in official church policy. And the benefits could be great: both men and women, old and young, would see women as well as men recognized on the stand for the important work that they do in the Church. Our doctrine is clear on this: the work that Priesthood brethren do in the Church is no more nor less valuable than the work that sisters do in their Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, and other callings. So how can it hurt us to have a visible representation of the equal value of those contributions on the stand? Making women’s roles and responsibilities more visible to both the men and the women in the ward by having RS, YW and/or Primary leaders sit on the stand, even if only for Ward and Stake Conference, does not fly in the face of anything more than our traditions and customs (and perhaps in some cases our prejudices). And if it removes a potential hurdle for our youth or other members struggling because of the imbalance in the visibility of women’s contributions, all of whom are growing up and living in a world where the world’s definition and visual depiction of equality is what they live and experience every day at school, at work, and in their other non-Church associations, and if it can remove that hurdle without changing doctrine or policy, then indeed, why not!?
We ignore or minimize the distinction between our “gospel” understanding of these terms and concepts and the “worldly” understanding to our great detriment, as it undermines our ability to be “in the world but not of the world.” We need to be not only multi-lingual in our missionary training centers as we teach the various languages of the world, but also multi-lingual in our cultural rhetoric and understanding. This will help us guide those who would welcome such empowering and ennobling doctrines if they could see them through a gospel lens, unburdened of the rhetorical baggage that otherwise prevents them from seeing the beauty of our doctrine.