New leadership roles for women alters LDS mission culture, hints at deep, long-term ramifications

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 10:50 p.m. MDT

Today, women like Fields serve in new positions as sister training leaders, participate on the new mission leadership councils, train elders and sisters in district, zone and mission meetings, are responsible for the welfare of all other sister missionaries and report directly to the mission president or his wife on sisters' issues.

In the past, mission councils only included zone leaders, a position reserved for men. Sister missionaries continue to be part of the district and zone structures of a mission, and they report weekly through that structure about the work they have done, but the old model restricted their training opportunities and allowed little leadership opportunity beyond the role of senior companion.

These changes, and additional responsibilities given to the wife of each mission president, are altering the experience of each missionary in a force that has grown today, according to church spokesman Cody Craynor, to number more than 85,000.

Major impact

Elder Austin Fuller's mission is winding down. At 22 years old and 22 months into a two-year calling, the Muskegon, Mich., native has been around long enough to see the impact. He recalls feeling frustration about the responsibility he had for sister missionaries when he had fewer tools to help them. Elders and sisters can't go on exchanges, for example, and elders are not allowed to counsel sisters.

"Sister missionaries had very different missions a year ago than they do now," says Fuller, who was released as an assistant to Las Vegas Mission President Michael A. Neider last week. "Sister missionaries are among the most successful in our mission, and it's because of their new role as leaders in mission leadership council and in learning and training. Exchanges have accelerated the rate they learn and improve, and it's helped to lift and improve our entire mission, because now we can truly reach and train everyone."

Another sister training leader in the Las Vegas mission, Sister Emily Veazey, 20, of Minot, N.D., said last week her experience and that of her female peers is changing their lives.

"It's helping us be the leaders we need to be in the church in the future," she said. "It's helping us be the mothers we need to be in the future. We're going to be able to take everything we learned here, how to work with others, how to help them, how to strengthen and inspire them. Finding the one isn't just something we're doing now. We're called to be missionaries and leaders the rest of our lives."

For example, she said her planning was vague a year ago. After mission leadership councils, zone training meetings and exchanges, she's learned to plan better with her companion each night. She calls it planning celestially, which she described as having the faith to follow those plans the next day.

Fields, Veazey and other sister training leaders in Las Vegas say they are grateful, too, to sit in on ward council meetings — planning sessions of congregational leaders — and see women participate.

"The Relief Society president in the ward where we work is absolutely amazing," said Sister Haley Furstenau, 20, of Chicago. "I've really learned service from her. She's a great role model in my life of selfless service and charity."

For decades, church leaders have encouraged women to participate fully in church councils where they serve. Mormon young women serve in presidencies of their classes, but mission leadership councils give them an opportunity to give input in a different way, one they may use on ward and stake and general church councils in their futures.

That may be by design.

"Priesthood leaders cannot afford to overlook the experience, wisdom, sensitivity and insight women bring to such deliberations," Elder M. Russell Ballard wrote in his book, "Counseling with Our Councils," which first was published in 1997. "And women who do not work to contribute all they can in the council setting sell themselves short."

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