Let me start by saying – and I want to be clear – that I don’t understand everything. The Lord has reasons for things that are beyond the capabilities of my tiny mind. That said, we are also encouraged to ask questions and seek revelation through studying and weighing things. It works that way for us individually and it works that way all the way up to President Monson.
I also wish to be clear that I am not agitating for anything. This dispatch, which I am publishing as a noted and venerated Pulitzer-worthy journalist, is intended to bring about discussion and serves as an avenue for thoughts to leave my crowded brain. This isn’t some zero-sum argument: women at the expense of men, men at the expense of women, etc. If anything, we can come to understand Church administrative structure better.
Additionally, I recognize that I might might easily miss some important factoids as I write this, so if you are in a position with more knowledge, be a good sport and clarify it in the comments below!
Lastly, this article could be about a number of positions (Sunday school president comes to mind), but I’m focusing on ward mission leader to go after that highest-hanging, PEC-attending fruit.
So let’s get right to it.
We recently changed ward mission leaders in my ward, and it has me thinking about how we fill the position. (Dave, if you read this, it’s in no way an indictment of you or an expression of disappointment with your call. You are a rock star, Dave, and I’m thrilled to see you in ward council every Sunday.) I’ve known countless great men who have served as ward mission leaders. Heck, I’ve even served as a ward mission leader. But I still wonder, why can’t a woman fill this role?
I’m ready for a female ward mission leader. I see no reason why a woman can’t lead a ward mission. There might be a few logistical hurdles, but nothing we can’t overcome with sheer Latter-day awesomeness.
Now before anyone starts accusing me of not understanding gender roles within the Church or assuming I’m pushing for something like female priesthood ordination, I’m not. I don’t want unigender bathrooms. I don’t want us all to have the same callings. I think the Church has a wonderful organization for both genders, even if at times, many women feel jilted. But I do believe that opportunities for growth exist in certain areas, and I merely want to explore that.
So let’s start with the basics and take a look at the responsibilities of the ward mission leader and assess whether or not a woman can do them:
All looks pretty doable, right? Ward mission leaders do not have priesthood keys. Yes, missionary work is done under the direction of the priesthood, but so is the Young Women’s program. So is the Relief Society. So is Provident Living. As Elder Oaks said:
Every act or ordinance performed in the Church is done under the direct or indirect authorization of one holding the keys for that function.
We’re also reminded by Elder Oaks that only those who hold a priesthood office can officiate in priesthood ordinances. But again, the actual implementation of ward mission work involves no ordinances other than baptisms, confirmations, and temple trips that will hopefully come to pass. And the ward missionary rarely performs those, anyway. That stuff is supposed to be outsourced to ward members.
Now in saying this, it’s important to understand that the work of the ward mission is officially under the direction of the bishop, who retains “ultimate responsibility,” and the role of ward mission leader effectively exists as an extension of that. I can easily see the argument that because of this, the role must be filled by a Melchizedek Priesthood holder, effectively acting as proxy for the bishop. I get it. And because of that, my entire treatise might be rendered moot, and that’s OK.
So let’s look at a slightly different, but ancillary relationship. Female full-time missionaries have increasing responsibility within the mission field, but as best as I can tell, are not district or zone leaders in any mission outside of Temple Square, which consists solely of sisters. Again, we go to Elder Oaks:
When a woman – young or old- is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.
So is that relationship of zone and district leaders somehow rooted in priesthood oversight? Maybe, but let’s move to the problem with that logic.
When I was a district leader and zone leader, I was never set apart. I was assigned. The transfer call came: “Hey Elder Openshaw. You’re staying in Tarragona and you’re now the district leader,” and that was it. There’s no priesthood office or accompanying blessing and setting apart associated with leadership roles within a mission aside from the mission presidency, and as best as I can tell, little reason why a woman cannot be a district leader over a bunch of men.
Which brings me back to the ward mission. What’s the issue here?
Is it the aforementioned priesthood direction issue so it just has to be a Melchizedek Priesthood holder because priesthood?
Is it because female ward mission leaders would be at a logistical disadvantage trying to hold closed-door meetings with a largely male full-time missionary base? (I’ve read similar rationale for why we don’t mix genders among ward clerks.)
Is it because the high councilor assigned to missionary work would be in an awkward situation having one-on-one meetings with a woman? Bishops meet with Relief Society presidents all the time.
Is it Proclamation on the Family-related? Just that worrying about missionary work on a larger scale isn’t the concern of women?
Looking at the chart above, it’s hard to find any issues. A woman can navigate all of those tasks just as well as a man.
Having realized the issue is clearly not with perceived ability, but with priesthood organization, I reached out to a few current and former bishop and stake leader friends of mine to see if they had any insights. The general consensus was that the ward mission leader is, indeed, effectively a third counselor to a bishop as far as extension of authority and ability to act under a certain set of keys.
Admittedly, this doesn’t totally answer the question for me, as we’ve learned from Elder Oaks and others that all organizations throughout the Church function under a specific set of priesthood keys and authority. Within a ward, that places nearly every auxiliary except for deacons, teachers, and elders quorums under the keys of the bishop, which doesn’t make the ward mission particularly unique among the many organizations within a ward. (This is why an elders quorum president is able to call and set apart individuals for elders quorum callings with zero authorization from a bishop. Of course, that president works in close association with the bishop and doesn’t just run ramshackle across ward auxiliaries, devil-may-care – Unless you’re me, in which case, you opt to go rogue as often as possible, bwahaha.)
Another interesting way to look at this is that we once had stake mission leaders, not ward ones, which from a purely administrative standpoint makes sense, because missionary work is overseen by the Melchizedek Priesthood, and while a bishop is a high priest and capable of presiding over his ward, he does not hold the keys for that priesthood office, which lies with the aforementioned priesthood quorums and the stake president. Obviously, this means that the bishop has been given authority under the keys of the stake president to oversee the missionary work of a ward.
So in some ways, the logic of a ward mission leader being an extension of the bishopric is also unclear. The bishop cannot set apart his counselors. The stake must do that. But the bishop himself calls and sets apart a ward mission leader. It is not a task farmed out to the counselors. There’s clearly a deliberate relationship there and that might be at the crux of this entire thing.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t have all the answers. Much of what I’ve written is an exercise in putting to paper the thoughts in my mind. I support our leaders and believe in their divine call. If someday we get female ward mission leaders, female Sunday school presidents, and female clerks, then great. If we don’t, then I’m not going to stand on a platform and decry Salt Lake as misguided and misogynistic. The Lord knows better than we do, and revelation and Church administration are complex things that I won’t begin to pretend I know even a tittle about.
But again, answers come through asking. Maybe someday someone in a position to ask will ask about females serving in these callings. Maybe they already have (which wouldn’t shock me).
What are your insights on this matter? I do think that something like Sunday school president is probably more easily “attainable” for women, but the priesthood complexities of ward mission leader fascinate me.