In Defence of our Local Leaders: The Otterson LetterBy: Hedgehog
The recent letter from Michael Otterson, public affairs, appears to indicate that only one of the very many issues some Mormon women have with the church has been recognised and acknowledged: namely, difficulties with local leaders. He recommends greater recognition that “we are all human, and occasionally we say things clumsily or we lack sufficient sensitivity or language skills or experience. The Church is a place where we make mistakes and then hopefully learn to do better. It is also a place where we allow others to make mistakes and improve.” Whilst it’s true that this problem does getting an airing online (I’m certainly guilty of this), it’s far from being the only, or even the major problem.
The following comments made over on BCC put this well:
Kristine A : “I get that humans are imperfect. I do. I’ve had knuckleheaded bishops that I give a pass because, hey we’re not perfect. My main source of marginalization doesn’t come from lone, rogue individuals — it comes from the church organization, from the handbook that changes and says women can no longer serve in Sunday School presidencies, from articles in the Ensign, the exhaustive pushing of gender roles down my throat, from the culture that it creates, from the behavior that it encourages..”
Howard : “Yet is wasn’t the local leadership level that “forgot” to invite women to pray in GC for a mere 182 years or continues the troubling temple litany [liturgy?] or limits the number of General Women leaders and female GC talks to a fraction of the male metrics, etc, etc. and generally the slights of local leadership make up only a minority of feminist blog article criticisms.”
To add, it also wasn’t our very local leaders who, for a time during the last couple of decades, originated the instruction that women were not to be permitted to speak last in sacrament meeting, or to give a closing prayer. Those instructions came from higher up the chain of command, whilst the local leaders on the ground had the thankless task of implementation. For all my complaints and frustrations from time to time, I certainly recognise that my current crop of local leaders are genuinely doing their best. They are well meaning, and selfless in their service. They are obedient, trying to get things right, and some of the things they are trying to get right is just that sort of instruction that doesn’t appear in a handbook, but filters down the chain of command nevertheless.
Bro Otterson states that “What this argues for is better training of leaders and members, and more patience, more long-suffering, more sensitivity and Christlike behavior on the part of all of us. Bishops are extraordinarily busy, but like local leaders, should be particularly aware of how easy it is to come across as patronizing or dismissive when a woman wants more than anything to be listened to and feel as if she has truly been heard.”
So let’s ask who is doing the training? How are we training the trainers? Because, worldwide training broadcasts aside, local culture can be heavily influenced by what is going on at area level, local training being something that is passed on and repeated down the chain of command like a game of Chinese whisper. And from what I’ve seen of the Worldwide training broadcasts, one thing they don’t model is how to negotiate disagreement within a council.
We recently had our stake conference. Let me first state that, overall, it was a delight. I attended both the Saturday evening, and Sunday morning. The sessions managed to be Christ-centred, for all they were also about hastening the work. The music was wonderful. There was one thing however, that did disturb me. And that was a presentation by the visiting Area Authority (who was really lovely), in which ideas described as principles in the quotations he was using, he very clearly elevated to the status of doctrine (he used the descriptor both in speaking, and in the headings of his visuals) in his own presentation. Now maybe some will say I am being picky about this. But I think it is important. And it is representative of what can happen. I’m left wondering, are our local leaders, as an act of obedience, going to feel compelled to see and teach these things as doctrine? Or are they going to stick with principle, given that description originated with an Apostle?
Additionally, this sole suggested solution, more training, cannot address the bulk of the problems, explained rather neatly by Kristine commenting on a Julie Smith’s excellent T&S post:
“Local leaders can, perhaps, be trained to be more careful of women’s feelings, but unfortunately, the problem is that women are structurally and systematically marginalized. Training local leaders to address the ways that they “feel” marginalized is like reminding ER docs to call for a psychiatric consult to deal with the shooting victim’s unhappiness about his gunshot wound.”
Another commenter on the same post recently experienced a rare training session by our General Women leaders. I’ve never heard of one being held here, but I can hope. However, the example set by the accompanying male GA was unfortunate.
Rachel: “At a recent training for the RS, YW, and Primary Auxiliary presidencies we were excited to hear from members of the general presidencies of the church who had come in person. The training was scheduled for 2.5 hours on a weeknight. The first thing that happens is that a member of the 70 stands up and gives a very good 1/2 hour talk that does not seem to have any relation to what we are supposed to be discussing. At the end of the talk he asks the members of the GA presidencies to stand and give each other a hug, and tells us that these are spiritually strong women. I guess he was supposed to introduce them but he never mentioned their names or offices. Maybe he forgot them.
“I just kept thinking, would a member of the 70 ask the first presidency to stand and give each other a hug? Wouldn’t that seem patronizing and disrespectful? And although that was a very good talk, it didn’t have anything to do with training auxiliaries. And if they needed someone to open the training, why couldn’t we have heard from one of the women who had come to teach (especially when we do not hear from them very often)? I wonder how the women felt as they were talked over and talked down to, and if that happened everywhere they went to teach.”
If this is representative of what our General Women Leaders have to put up with day in day out, it’s likely going to be a long time before there’ll be anything like the necessary training for respectful, equal interaction between male and female leaders at the coal face. What we get may depend both on how accustomed our leaders are to working with women in the outside world, and how much they’ve absorbed from the patriarchal culture of the church.
Bro Otterson closes his comments about local leaders with the suggestion that “local leaders should always be given a chance to listen. If approached prayerfully and sincerely, most will” and to take your RS president with you, if that’s going to help.
Unless the particular negative experiences were caused by the leader in question, is there really much he can do? Isn’t this simply adding to his burden? As Julie Smith expressed it in her post:
“..to suggest, as Brother Otterson does, that the problem is poorly-trained local leaders and that women should talk to them about their concerns ignores the reality of these concerns. (And, again, creates frustration in the face of his numerous statements that the church is listening to women.) These issues can only be addressed on a church-wide level. …
“Not only does pushing the issue to the local level not address the problem, but it may exacerbate it. I can’t imagine that the church will be a better place if every woman with issues spends a few hours talking to her bishop about it. Given that the bishop is powerless to implement change, it is only natural that he would perceive the woman’s concerns as a worthiness/testimony issue or a pointless complaint. But even if he is completely sympathetic, what succor does that give the woman when it can’t change the policy?” [emphasis mine]
Women have certainly commented on several blog posts discussing the letter how talking to their local leader did not help, and sometimes did exacerbate their problems:
Melissa : “I spoke to my Bishop about my struggles & concerns. I was literally dismissed with a wave of the hand, told that those things weren’t important, and never given a calling again after that.”
Moon River : “I thoughtfully considered speaking to my bishop for a full year before I met with him. I prayed and prayed, and waited until I thought the time was right to bring up my “feminist concerns”. I told him, tearfully, that it is painful for me that if NO women showed up on a given Sunday – Sacrament meeting could still go on. There would still be someone to preside, to conduct, to pass the sacrament. If no men showed up, there would be no Sacrament meeting. He accused me of looking for reasons to find fault with the Church. And questioned my worthiness – I was serving honorably in the YW Presidency at that time, reading scriptures daily and praying daily (as I continue to do). I just wanted *one* person to understand. To say, I hear your sadness and I understand it – your feelings are valid.”
Kelsey : “Having done this with many different bishops, RS presidents, and even temple presidents/matrons/staff, I can say that in the best case scenario I have had leaders be very kind while acknowledging that they have absolutely no insight to offer whatsoever, contrasted with leaders that are quick to assume apostasy and lean towards discipline.”
Amy : “It’s really frustrating that there is this suggestion that if I just talked with my leaders more, everything would get better. The reality is, they can’t fix the problems. These are structural issues, ones that cannot be fixed on the local level. This isn’t about my feelings (though, obviously it hurts them). I don’t need a pat on the head for my woes. I desire change. Even more, when I do bring concerns to my very loving and kind priesthood leaders, the response is usually that I need to have more faith. Even when they suggest that yes, I do have a point and yes, that makes sense, the answer is still the same. It’s my fault for not just not being blind to the problem.”
Maryann responded to Amy with:
“I can only say it is better than the response I received from my stake president when I asked why something was the way it was. His priceless response was “That is above my pay grade.””
Which strikes me as being open and honest. If a little lacking in empathy, at least it refrained from judgement. It’s my favourite.
Kristine A. has jumped right in, and describes her somewhat better experiences talking to her Bishop here. The following was telling I thought:
“At the end he said, “Well there’s nothing I can do about those. Why don’t you write to SLC?” I told him I had written to SLC and received an answer that I should seek answers to my questions through appropriate channels. So here I was. He then counseled me to ensure I was bringing these questions to Heavenly Father in prayer. Done, doing, will do!
“There was a break in the conversation and I asked him if there were any way we could try to forward the questions up the ladder to SLC? He hadn’t thought of that and agreed that we could try. He would send a copy of my letter to the Stake President with a preface that it was from an entirely faithful, sincere sister in his ward with some questions he was unable to address.”
Yes, it was Kristine who had to suggest her concerns be forwarded. A Bishop doesn’t appear to be trained to do this. A member of my family is currently serving as a Bishop, and he’s expressed frustration about the difficulty he has getting his own concerns about implementing various ideas from above heard further up the chain, never mind passing on those of his ward members. Just maybe, when a local leader suggests greater faith as the solution to these issues, it is because that is precisely the answer they get whenever they try to raise a concern of some sort. There’s a much wider problem in the way in which those lower in the hierarchy are treated by those above them.
In a comment on Julie’s post Dave recommends:
“If they are serious, they need to send letters to local leaders, not LDS blogs. If they are serious, they need to give women who encounter difficulties with local leaders (say a bishop who pulls a woman’s temple recommend for doing what Otterson asks and sharing her concerns with her bishop) an avenue of recourse within the Church system.”
Perhaps so. I’d add, if this is what we have to do, speak to our local leaders, then it’s only fair that our local leaders be forewarned that the recommendation to do just that has been made, and given guidance on how they need to respond, perhaps to forward the concerns up through the chain of command, if we really, really need to take this long route. How many hands will Kristine A.’s letter need to go through before and if it eventually reaches Salt Lake?
- What experiences have you had taking concerns to your local leaders?
- Do you feel confident about taking concerns to your local leaders?
- If you are a local leader, what are your feelings about Bro Otterson’s suggestion that these issues be brought to you to deal with?
- How would you like members of your ward/stake to approach these issues with you?
- What have you had been taught during leadership training, and did any training address these issues?
- How do you feel about the suggestion that there’s a wider problem in the way the hierarchy functions?