Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Me and the Priesthood: A Series of Vignettes



Some of my earliest memories include receiving priesthood blessings from my father. I remember a blessing when I was constipated at the age of three, blessings at the start of every school year, a blessing when I was 11 and woke up in the night nauseous and anxious and shaking uncontrollably, a blessing when I was trying to decide whether to serve a mission or get married, a blessing before my wedding day. After each blessing, I felt loved, comforted, and known.

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Most of the boys in my church age group turned twelve before I did. I remember each of them being called to the stand as the months paraded on and raising my hand to sustain them in their new callings as Deacons and priesthood holders. I watched them in ensuing weeks as they trooped white-shirted through the chapel aisles, wielding trays of bread and water, serving silently but visibly. I felt an increasing internal agitation, a painful little itch somewhere in my thorax, as my birthday approached. And on that sunny September day, I was handed my Primary graduation certificate with a handshake from my bishop on the podium. There was no sustaining vote for me, no encircling rite of ordination after the meeting, no subsequent increase of responsibility or service.

I knew women weren't eligible to receive the priesthood, but I was angry. My pride was wounded. I knew myself to be just as capable, just as responsible, just as righteous as my male peers. Let's be honest: I also thought I was more mature, more knowledgeable in the gospel, more prepared for such a privilege than they were. It rankled inside me for a long time that these boys I saw at school who said such crude things were entrusted to serve in the church in a way that I wasn't. 

It was the first time I really understood that being a girl in the church was different than being a boy, that regardless of my efforts and my worthiness, there were many opportunities to serve that were closed to me.

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I always knew I wanted to serve a mission. It was not a commandment for me like it was for my male friends, but I was excited to go. I was in high school when our prophet, Pres. Hinckley, made a statement about sister missionaries (in Priesthood session of all places) where he, in essence, said that missions were primarily a priesthood (male) responsibility and that the reason women couldn't go until they were older (21 vs 19 for men) was because the church was trying to keep the number of women serving "relatively small." I was bewildered and hurt that this statement on a subject so near to my heart had been made in a meeting I wasn't allowed to attend, and I felt that the church I so desperately wanted to serve didn't honor or value my desire simply because I was a woman.

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I was 20 when I sat in the office of my singles' ward bishop at BYU. I nervously laid out each of my reasons for wanting to be a missionary like pearls between us and asked if my motivations were worthy. He reluctantly handed me a packet of mission papers, but he informed me that women were not encouraged to serve, that my number one priority should be thinking about marriage and family. He knew I was seriously dating a wonderful man in our ward, but I wasn't sure I was ready to get married. I left the interview clutching the papers with a heavy heart and feeling like my offering wasn't enough.

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I worked up the courage to consult with the bishop of my home singles' ward over the summer. When I nervously asked if he thought it would be okay if I served a mission, his smile and exuberant affirmation warmed me.

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I loved my missionary service. It was brutally difficult, but I wanted to be there. I served alongside mostly young men, and I came to love and respect many of them deeply. It rankled sometimes that I wasn't eligible for leadership service positions, but for the most part I enjoyed working with my district and zone leaders. Once, as a formality, I asked a zone leader for permission to leave my ward boundaries to say goodbye to and introduce a struggling investigator who'd moved unexpectedly to the Elders in his area (the investigator lived about 15 minutes away but was in our singles' ward boundary, just not in our family ward's boundary). The zone leader left a message on our answering machine telling us that we could not go. I called him back and said that we knew what was right for our investigator and we were going anyway and who was he to tell us no when most missionaries wouldn't have even asked and we were just trying to be obedient. My tirade wasn't exactly Christlike, but he gave us permission to go (with qualifications). I chafed, knowing my anger had less to do with this Elder and more to do with the knowledge that I would always be the one asking permission, never the one granting it.

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In one ward I served in, the bishop had previously excluded sister missionaries from PEC meetings because they were not men. We held the same calling and authority as the Elders, but because we were women, we were not welcome. He thankfully reconsidered his position around the time I got there, but I always felt like an intruder in PEC after that and had a burst of anxiety that my voice was not welcome any time I needed to speak.

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There were a few times over the years where I met with various bishops to discuss matters that were very sensitive and personal. I felt so awkward and ashamed to talk about such issues with a man, especially one so much older than myself. I remember desperately wishing I could talk to a woman who might be better able to understand me, might better know how to comfort and counsel me. 

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Jay and I were asked to speak in church in a previous ward. The bishopric member asked Jay to speak for 15 minutes and me to speak for 10. Jay was asked to speak last. I'm sure the bishopric member didn't mean anything by it, but I was hurt and angry. I felt like my voice, as a woman, was considered less important. I worry that, in our culture, we unwittingly pass on the message that what women have to say is only important for women (and children) to hear, while what men have to say is important for everyone. We are slowly improving in this regard, but I still yearn for more strong women who are treated as spiritual leaders for the membership as a whole, and not just for women.

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I held a calling in a stake capacity several years ago. My stewardship was minimal, but I was able to observe the workings of the authority hierarchy in the stake. I was stunned and frustrated when, multiple times, my committee's decisions were overturned and our needs were not met. Despite logic and appeals, our various requests were denied by a leader who, while a wonderful man I very much respect, was a stubborn micro manager. There was no recourse for us; we yielded to his directives (some of us with more grace than others). 

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I handed over my sweet baby, swathed in yards of gauzy white, to my husband, who joined a group of other men at the front of the chapel to give her a name and a blessing. I was so proud and so pleased, but a small part of me wished that I could be part of that sacred circle, too.




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I am currently serving in the Young Women organization in my ward. I love the girls I work with: they are bright, beautiful, and capable. Young men in our church have the opportunity from the age of twelve to serve the general ward membership in very visible ways (performing sacrament ordinances, home teaching, collecting fast offerings), which is wonderful. I have been looking for ways that the young women can likewise serve and support the members of the ward. I have suggested a few things, but coming up with ideas takes a lot of creativity and implementing ideas/seeking permission takes a lot of work. With the way the church is so efficiently run under the structure of the priesthood, it can be difficult to carve out places for women (and young women) to serve and minister to the general membership and not just children and other women.

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I first heard about the group Ordain Women a year ago. I never joined it since part of their platform and many of their methods were not in line with my beliefs, but I marveled that there were other women like me who felt unheard and underutilized, who had love for the gospel but pain from their experiences in the church. I respected their courage and grace, especially in the face of a vitriolic backlash that horrified me. I did not feel I could join them, but I understood them. I have compassion for them. 

I join with them now in mourning during this difficult time while simultaneously trying to withhold judgment on whether Kate Kelly's excommunication was right or wrong. It is not my place to judge or condemn, but to love, to acknowledge all pain and experiences as valid, to mourn with those that mourn. 

15 comments:

  1. Great post, Lindsay. Well said and heartfelt.

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    1. Thanks, Alyssa. I value your opinion.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. My own growing-up experiences with priesthood authority were similar in many ways, yet I am a man.

    I have often wondered why the Lord chooses the weak to be in authority; but ultimately, I think I am grateful for it because I believe it lets the Lord direct the Church in His own way.

    If you haven't read the following article yet, I recommend it. It let me see just how the priesthood fits in when contrasting many of the current popular trends in thinking on the issue:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/the-mormon-intellectuals-trojan-horses/

    (warning: it's wordy and brainy)

    I wish you the best; and I hope that you can reconcile your feelings with faith and trust. Priesthood power is real, whether shown through men or women set apart by men with the keys. Its manifestation is what makes this the true Church.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I did read the article, and it made some valid points, but I'm not sure it directly applies to anything I said here. My purpose in writing this was to share some of my experiences, not to criticize the church or present apologetics for any of my own 'intellectual' viewpoints.

      On the off chance you check back here, allow me to share a couple of articles that inspired me to write this:
      http://outsidethebookofmormonbelt.com/2014/04/21/perspective-and-the-ordain-women-problem/ (a great read on the importance of seeing issues from other perspectives)
      http://segullah.org/daily-special/courage-dear-heart/ (a beautifully written post on the importance of sharing and vulnerability)

      My biggest fear about the potential ramifications for Kate Kelly's excommunication is that people who openly question, who doubt, or who share experiences that don't always show the church in a positive light will automatically be assumed as on the road to apostasy. We need safe places to talk and to share. Thank you again for your respectful insights.

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  3. So gracefully put, Lindsey. You are definitely not alone. Thank you for shining the brilliant light of your love and faith despite repression. If I decide to rejoin the LDS church, I pretty much refuse to sit in a little room with an older male and confess my personal issues. Inappropriate!
    Also, it would be so fulfilling to finally see a mother in a baby blessing circle. Oh, how my heart would sing with yours!

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    1. Thanks, Aubrey! I appreciate your comment. I have to say that I don't really feel repressed (though I know there are some who do), but I do sometimes feel unheard, unwelcome in my opinions, or unrepresented. I hope that you are happy and well and that you are still sharing your gorgeous voice with others. That year at Dixie was such a cathartic one for me; thank you for being a highlight of it!

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  4. I love that the web has allowed people to share their stories and experiences with faith. I think that's one of the greatest blessings of living in this era- to know that we are truly not alone. Everyone's experiences will be different with any kind of church authority. We (especially women) do need safe places to talk about our faith. Questioning and working things out may not always result in leaving a faith, but can sometimes instead be part of the path to strengthening it. My experiences with the priesthood were very slim because I wasn't in the Church for long, and didn't grow up in it. I did receive a blessing twice: once in regards to my future and the other when I wasn't feeling well. Both were greatly appreciated, and at the moment I didn't even think about what my "role" might be in that at all. I'm sad to learn about the decision Kate Kelly's Church leaders made upon her membership.

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    1. Love your insight, Katie. For the most part, I don't mind that men hold the priesthood and women don't, but there are several things in church culture and policy that have definitely led me to do some questioning. Thanks for always being a "safe place" for me.

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  5. A semi-related anecdote:

    I often felt a little singled out in American culture generally during my young adulthood because I bear a certain physical resemblance to Osama bin Laden. Having an international terrorist for a celebrity look-alike gave me, to say the least, some unwanted attention. And there were times when I thought I had in pretty bad in the culture that surrounded me.

    After getting married, though, I realized that whatever they might think of me, people had always noticed me. For my entire life. Because my wife blended in better with the rest of the population, people noticed her less, remembered her less, listened to her less.

    It's helpful sometimes to know when other people have a similar experience of the tensions you've dealt with. I've found that it's also interesting to learn about the tensions you haven't experienced and try to understand how they inform others' experience. And maybe hopefully bit by bit we can find ways to make life better for everyone.

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    1. I love this, James. We all have times in various situations where we are considered "other" from a group. This setting apart can be isolating, but it can also give us a certain credibility or memorability, as you observed.

      This semi-public foray into feminism has been somewhat uncomfortable and lonely for me. I've found myself empathizing with others in the church who have different backgrounds or opinions from the status quo (democrats, for example). I agree that seeing things from another's perspective is an essential component of compassion.

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  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Lindsay. I've been trying to decide how much to weigh in on this topic, because as usual, I have plenty to say . I too empathize with women who feel ostracized in the church or like their contributions matter less because of their gender. Church culture and the doctrines of the church don't always line up with each other, but that is changing.

    I remember reading a talk given in priesthood session years ago about how missionary work could not be accomplished without the constant use of the priesthood. The priesthood is God's power delegated to man for the salvation of souls, and every day, missionaries use God's power to bring salvation to His children! Of course missionary work could not progress without it. When I was a missionary, I knew I needed God's power every day to do His work. I felt the gift of tongues when I heard words leave my mouth in Italian that I didn't know I knew. In this and many other ways, I felt God's power work through me to bring hope and knowledge to His children, and I know you experienced the same. A few days after returning home, I met with a church leader to release me from my missionary service. We spoke for a little while about my experience, and then he thanked me for my service. In that moment, I felt something lift and leave me. It was like a jacket I had worn for a year and a half that I took off. I recognized it as what we call the "mantle" of a missionary that had left me in that moment. Reflecting on that experience, I wondered, "Where did this mantle come from that I have been wearing so long?" I knew immediately that it could be none other than a priesthood mantle- God's power given to me to teach His children in Sicily.

    I no longer have the mantle of a missionary, but I still use the power of the priesthood. What kind of a mother would I be if I couldn’t use God’s power to teach my son and to partner with God in the work of my child’s salvation? I know that temple covenants I keep give me priesthood power and blessings that protect and guide me in motherhood and many other areas of my life.

    Culturally, our understanding of the priesthood has been more narrow, even though the priesthood has directed the workings of the church since it was restored. I did not have less power as a missionary ten years ago just because no one told me in conference or in the MTC at that time that I was using the power and authority of the priesthood. Sister missionaries today should more readily recognize the priesthood power they exercise after Elder Oaks stated that quite clearly in his talk this last conference. His remarks are part of a cultural shift I am gratified to see happening in the church, but are not new doctrine.

    We should use the power of God’s priesthood every day as women. There are some mantles that are temporary, like those of a bishop or missionary. Women are not currently asked to bear certain priesthood keys and there are mantles we do not wear. But this does not diminish the very real power of the priesthood I am grateful to receive through inspired priesthood leaders as well as my personal relationship with God.

    I have my personal theories as to why women and men have different roles in the church at this time. I believe that most gender role disparities are divinely established by a loving Heavenly Father, but others are cultural. I try to be patient as one by one, these cultural role divisions are removed and we as women are beginning to understand our role in the priesthood more clearly.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, Rachel. I still miss our late-night chats (I married a man who falls asleep within literally 90 seconds of lying down--doesn't leave much time for pillow talk!).

      I taught a YW lesson this month on how we (as women) access and recognize the blessings of the priesthood, and I used several similar thoughts to what you shared. I'm so glad the doctrine we teach is slowly shifting from "how can women support the priesthood" (so passive and blah) to "how can I access and use the priesthood in my daily life?" We certainly never had any lessons like this when I was in YW.

      My point in writing this post was not to say that I want the priesthood or that I think women should be ordained, but rather to say that there are women who are hurting (myself included) as a result of the patriarchal culture of our church. In fact, most of the experiences I related here are the result of culture, policy, or practice and really have nothing to do with the priesthood itself. I think it's important to have an open conversation about this where all voices and experiences are welcome. I, like you, am hopeful that we will continue to see shifts in church policy and culture that more accurately reflect the gospel in regard to women's capacity to serve in the church.

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  7. This is beautifully and honestly written. Thank you so much for daring to be vulnerable. It's so hard, but I find it the most attractive trait a person can possess. I truly appreciate you sharing your experiences, and I can emphatically empathize with what you've shared. Lots of love.

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