When the bishop of a local congregation or “ward” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thanked the young men and the young women in the youth program for helping with the administration of the sacrament during the Sunday church service, some in the congregation wondered if he had taken gender-inclusive language too far. After all, only young men holding the Aaronic Priesthood prepare, bless and distribute to the congregation the bread and water used in this weekly ordinance.
When the bishop then clarified, however, that a group of young women had decided to learn to bake bread which they could then provide for the sacrament ordinance each week, the feeling in the congregation shifted. Many were touched by this simple demonstration of women and men working together to make a priesthood ordinance available to all.
While this example comes from my ward in Alpine, Utah, in "Women at Church," author Neylan McBaine shares dozens of such stories from across the globe — examples of both local congregations and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at large working within current church policies to expand the roles, visibility, comfort and leadership opportunities of women.
Of course, put the words “women” and “church” together in the title of a book about Latter-day Saints and some people line up on their respective sides before the horse is out of the gate. Those calling for grass-roots efforts to change the church’s position on who may hold the priesthood might find McBaine’s advice to “take personal responsibility, be patient, and follow the prophet” too passive. Others who are content with the status quo and wonder why others aren’t may feel impatient with accounts of women in personal pain about feeling invisible or worse at church.
People on both sides of this issue may appreciate the thoughtful exploration of church history, doctrine and culture relative to women’s issues and the numerous quotations and stories from church leaders.
McBaine’s repeated assertions that a given church policy “may not be wrong, but it is hard” for many women, and that “we cannot be what we cannot see” encourage empathy and increased sensitivity to how gender-specific practices can feel and look — especially to younger women who have grown up with far greater gender equality in the world at large.
At the same time, McBaine assumes the good intentions of priesthood leaders and individuals who struggle in one way or another with gender-related issues — even when the behavior of those in one camp is provocative to the other.
"Women at Church" acknowledges or at least implies that change can also lead to unintended consequences, necessitating flexibility and sensitivity rather than wholesale adoption of someone else’s innovation. But there is no shortage of examples to spark our imagination, including the following:
• Noting changes in seating arrangements and speaking assignments at general conference that make women leaders more visible to the church membership, a stake president asks auxiliary presidencies to sit on the stand and speak regularly at stake conference so they are more identifiable to all members.
• When male priesthood holders name and bless an infant, the bishop in one ward invites the baby’s mother to sit on the stand and then bear her testimony.
• A bishop encourages women leaders attending ward council meetings to spread out, speak up and participate in all matters discussed so their influence is more pronounced.
• A new elders quorum presidency asks to meet with the Relief Society women about how the men might better serve with them.
• In one ward, adults who speak in church do not speak at the same time as their spouse (unless they are new move-ins), so marital status is less of an issue in who addresses the congregation.
• A stake president calls a woman with a background in finance as a stake auditor, giving her the opportunity to use her professional training in a position often, but not necessarily, reserved for men.
• Young women serve as greeters in a ward sacrament meeting so the ward can get to know them better.
• In addition to recently returned male missionaries, returned sister missionaries and stake women auxiliary presidencies accompany traveling high council speakers in one stake.
• A stake president invites bishopric members being released to stand with their wives to be thanked for their service, then invites the newly called bishopric to stand with their wives when the husbands are sustained.
Some of McBaine’s recurrent references to marketing and business models of change seem only tangentially related to the issues at hand. And those looking for one-size-fits-all solutions to gender-related concerns should note that this is not a book of policy-change level prescriptions.
But those looking for a book of principles for addressing gender concerns (self-reflection, prayer, talking and listening together, studying church handbooks, experimenting, assessing), amply illustrated with local examples, may find much in "Women at Church" to help LDS women have broader impact, less frustration and a fuller personification of the expansive LDS doctrine of women’s potential.
Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), co-authored the New York Times best-seller "The Why of Work." Her most recent book is "The Temple Experience: Passage to Healing and Holiness."