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Lessons on Women and the Priesthood: The View from 2012

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 19, 2012

It’s way too early to be up writing, and probably this post – which is published in first-draft form, seldom a good idea! – will show the effects of the hour. But I woke up and can’t get back to sleep; rather than lie there going over and over the same ground in my head, I got up to record my middle-of-the-night musings in pixels.

Probably most of us who attended Priesthood meeting or Relief Society yesterday heard a lesson from the George Albert Smith manual, “The Holy Priesthood – for the Blessing of God’s Children.” A friend wrote to me late last night about her response to the lesson as given in her ward. I hope she’ll excuse me for quoting anonymously from her note – I haven’t asked her permission – because it gives me a chance to express some ideas I’ve been wrestling with lately, and to do it one step removed from any reference to my own ward, since it’s the ideas I’m wrestling with, not the presentation of our teacher or the comments of anyone in our class.

After leaving Relief Society today, I have been very discouraged. Our lesson (as I assume was the same church-wide) was on “The Priesthood.” Being Relief Society, of course, we really only touched on our roles in helping prepare boys for priesthood and in supporting our husbands/sons/fathers/etc in their priesthood. And therein lies my discouragement.

I heard suggestions like “make sure he is well fed” and “make sure you show him a positive uplifting attitude so he can go out and do his callings.” And I mostly agree. But — who supports the wife who takes care of kids and probably works and then goes out to do HER calling?? Where are the lessons telling the men that they need to support her in all her roles? I keep getting the view that ultimately, in the minds of many Church members, women ONLY, or at least primarily, exist to support men. But where does support leave off and, I don’t know, enabling, start?? So many strong women who hold SO much together– and yet too often I feel this sense of many who just want to pat us on the head and send us back to the kitchen. As if our little lives and little minds are really just secondary to what the men have to do. (I have to say, many men I know are really getting it right — I am blessed in [my husband] who is beyond supportive and understanding).

Additionally we were subjected to the input of one group today who stated that “we need to teach our daughters to dress modestly so they don’t become a distraction to the young men.” (Apparently that was said in similar format over the pulpit at recent Stake Conference by the Stake President). That just left me in tears. …

I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I love our prophets and apostles. I don’t doubt the Gospel or my savior. But church members — meh. I consistently feel like such an outsider.

I suspect that no matter how much we love the gospel and sustain our leaders and want to, in the words of the question appended to this lesson, “stay true to these responsibilities,” many wards had similar discussions and more women than this friend – especially those thoughtful enough to have been reflecting on the lesson all day – were similarly discouraged. Add the many women in my position (no man to send off to his assignments well fed, no son to prepare to receive the priesthood) who felt similarly out of place and out of touch with the priesthood as presented by many teachers.

How to respond? Deep breath …

This is a beautiful lesson, as written. It is a lesson that showcases the unique mission of the Restored Church, the unique repository of God’s authority to perform the ordinances of salvation. The historical aspect is included, which helps bind us as a people to our past and our future. The lesson stresses personal worthiness and service to God’s children. It is a beautiful lesson, and coming from the words of a sensitive man like George Albert Smith, there are poetic passages and an emphasis on the tender-practical, not just the logical-theoretical.

The difficulty for many women in discussions of priesthood, I suspect, arises from the several uses of the word priesthood, and the way those uses are confused and conflated.

Priesthood as authority. The Lord’s kingdom is one of order, and he requires that those who perform the ordinances given for our salvation be authorized by him, performed according to his instructions, by those called and ordained under his direction. Every Melchizedek Priesthood holder should be able to trace his authority step by step back to the Lord Jesus Christ (if we need a refresher course on how to do that, say so in the comments). It is this authority that is the power behind the performance of priesthood acts; it is this authority that comes with responsibility for the Church organization and its functioning in the world.

Priesthood as shorthand for quorum activity. When someone says “Bishop Bingham said something interesting in priesthood this morning …” he isn’t necessarily claiming that the bishop was invoking the authority of God to issue a “thus saith the Lord” pronouncement (interesting would hardly cover such an instance!); rather, we understand that “priesthood” is a brief way of referring to the regular meeting of a priesthood quorum.

Priesthood as shorthand for men. When someone says “The priesthood will please help fold the chairs and stack them against the wall,” nobody assumes that any divine authority is called for; rather, we all understand that it’s a call for the men of the ward to lend a hand with a routine task.

There may be other distinct usages of the word, but these will serve my purposes. (I think someone gave a conference talk about the various ways we use and misuse the word, but obviously a search of the word priesthood at lds.org returns rather a few too many hits for a practical search.)

I think the difficulty for women, at least some women, in at least some frames of mind, is that we sometimes forget that the word priesthood has these related but distinct meanings. When women’s roles in assisting the priesthood are discussed, the discussion too often ends with assisting the men in our lives, and overlooks women’s roles in sustaining the authority and exercise of the priesthood power itself.

That’s not entirely a bad thing, of course. For “sustaining” to have any meaning at all, it has to come down to specific actions by specific people at specific moments: A wife graciously accepts that a planned date yields to an emergency call for her husband to assist in giving priesthood blessings at the hospital. A mother wakes her sleepy son, gives him a good breakfast, and gets him out the door to meet his quorum for a service project.

But does that cover the entirety of a woman’s duty toward and participation in the mission of the priesthood? I don’t think so.

What is the mission of the priesthood? Isn’t the purpose of the Lord’s giving the priesthood to his Church to enable us to fulfill the unique missions of the Church? “That faith also might increase in the earth; that mine everlasting covenant might be established; that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers”? (D&C 1:21-23) Don’t women have a part in that?

Of course we do.

“That faith might increase in the earth” is roughly equivalent to our formulaic “perfecting the Saints.” Women contribute to that whenever we teach a class to increase gospel understanding; whenever we assist a family – our own or anyone else’s – to function by relieving distress, whether physical, moral, or emotional; whenever we lend an ear or a hand or an hour to assist young people find their way; whenever, in short, we do anything that helps one of God’s children fulfill his or her purpose in coming to this earth.

“That mine everlasting covenant might be established” has overtones not only of establishing and maintaining the covenant in our own lives, but in extending the blessings of that covenant to the dead. Genealogical research leading to temple ordinances, family history projects leading to closer ties between the living and the dead, temple attendance to stand as proxies for the dead, are all significant ways women help to fulfill that priesthood purpose.

“That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed” is an obvious connection to the priesthood responsibility of missionary work. Whether it’s serving full time missions, or ward and stake assignments, whether it’s speaking of the gospel to friends or strangers when the situation is right for that, whether it’s helping children develop a missionary mindset, whether its simply being the kind of people we ought to be when we interact with the world, women have the right and the freedom to further the work of the priesthood in this respect.

Whenever women – individually, or through collective action – help to further the mission of the Church, we are sustaining the priesthood and helping priesthood holders fulfill their responsibilities. The home and family and ward are, for women as well as for men, the most common theaters for acting their parts and fulfilling their roles. But I wish we’d recognize that women’s sustaining roles do not consist entirely of keeping the men well fed – that’s limiting our sustaining of “priesthood” to the shorthand role of “men in our lives.” We ought to talk more – ought to recognize better – the myriad ways in which the life of a Latter-day Saint woman furthers the mission and goals and responsibilities of the priesthood in its primary sense of “authority from God.”



13 Comments »

  1. Amen.

    Comment by HokieKate — March 19, 2012 @ 8:30 am

  2. Is this the talk you were looking for?
    Elder Oaks, October Conference 2005:
    “The priesthood is the power of God used to bless all of His children, male and female. Some of our abbreviated expressions, like “the women and the priesthood,” convey an erroneous idea. Men are not “the priesthood.” Priesthood meeting is a meeting of those who hold and exercise the priesthood. The blessings of the priesthood, such as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, the temple endowment, and eternal marriage, are available to men and women alike.”

    Comment by Diana — March 19, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  3. That’s the gist of it. What I’m recalling has to be older than 2005, and as I remember it there were entire paragraphs about each of those usages. But this’ll do to make my point — thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  4. Our RS lesson discussion was a lot different from your friend’s experience. It was actually very enlightening and wonderful. A lot had to do with how the teacher presented the material. The following quotes by Sister Julie B. Beck from her 2011 Women’s Conference address were also used. They were a great help in our discussion and they go along with what you presented here about distinguishing the different ways the term priesthood is used:

    “I’ve learned through studying the history of Relief Society that we have and live with an inseparable connection to the priesthood. The Prophet Joseph Smith put the sisters in the position to receive all the gifts, blessings, and privileges of the priesthood. We need never confuse the idea of those who hold the priesthood in trust, with the priesthood. The priesthood is God’s power. It is His power to create, to bless, to lead, to serve as He does. The priesthood duty of every righteous man is to qualify for the blessing of holding that priesthood and trust for the Lord so that he can bless his family and those around him. And I will say the priesthood duty of sisters is to create life, to nurture it, to prepare it for covenants of the Lord. Don’t confuse the power with the keys and the offices of the priesthood. God’s power is limitless and it is shared with those who make and keep covenants. Too much is said and misunderstood about what the brothers have and the sisters don’t have. This is Satan’s way of confusing both men and women so neither understands what they really have. Sisters and brothers each have every ordinance, every gift, and every blessing available to them to get back to our Father in Heaven, and no one, male or female, is left outside of those blessings to qualify for exaltation. There is a unity in the council and the covenant that is required us to get there. Neither the man nor the woman can ascend without the other. We are inseparably connected in that way. And I understand how special women are. I understand how special men are. And together we’re more special. We become what the Lord wants us to become.” (page 8 )

    and then this from pages 9-10 “Mine is a home where every hour is blessed by the strength of priesthood power. That is your responsibility, sisters, to help your home be a home that is blessed every hour by priesthood power. It isn’t just when Dad is there. It’s not just when Mom is there. It’s not just when a priesthood ordinance or blessing is being performed. It’s every hour as ordinances, as covenants, are made and kept.

    I especially love that last line. When we are keeping our covenants, whether single or married, part-member family or active then the power of the priesthood is there in our home.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — March 19, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  5. Ha I didn’t know an 8 and a ) made a smiling face with sunglasses! That smiley face is supposed to be an 8.

    [Fixed by adding a space -- I'm leaving this comment for the information of other readers who've faced that problem. -- AEP]

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — March 19, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  6. Thanks for this, Ardis. (I was the person who asked Ardis the question.). It was exactly what I needed. I thought our teacher did a nice job of engaging the women in the class (the objectionable and discouraging comments came from the peanut gallery), but it just felt like something was missing (and usually is when we discuss this subject). You NAILED it, bless you.

    And I a honored that you call me “friend”. ;)

    Comment by Anon this time — March 19, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  7. Thank you, Chocolate, for that reference. I think we have the materials in our Church rhetoric for a better recognition of women’s places and roles; it’s the “peanut gallery,” in Anon’s phrase, the habitual limitations that some of us put on our own recognition and discussion, that can be discouraging.

    I would, however, as always, appreciate a wider application of these principles than is usually included even in such positive Church materials, even from Sister Beck. This line: “And I will say the priesthood duty of sisters is to create life, to nurture it, to prepare it for covenants of the Lord” doesn’t go far enough in describing women’s connection to the priesthood. I can’t create life, and my power or opportunities to “nurture it, to prepare it for covenants” is vanishingly small. What little opportunities are available to me as an aunt, a teacher, a friend, are so miniscule as to give almost no meaning to life. I don’t believe God created me to have no purpose in mortality. Not to recognize that I, like all women, can and do promote the priesthood purposes of God through activity in the Church and in the world, in addition to or even in place of female biological function, is to put a stamp of meaninglessness, worthlessness, pointlessness on our lives. That, as my friend said, is discouraging. I have to go beyond the rhetoric of birthing and nurturing for there to be any point to my life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  8. It seems like when men are praising women and womanhood, they talk about how the women in their lives are useful to them–to men. “I value my wife for all she does to make my life wonderful.” or “We couldn’t live without the capable and wise women who mean so much to us.” It’s only natural for men to see it that way. But the problem is when I don’t have a man to appreciate me, then it seems that I have no value worth appreciating. That’s the crack we fall through.

    I have to know that I have been created because I deserve to live, not just because a few men need me. But that’s hard when it all starts with Eve being created because the first man needed someone. That’s another gap that faith can fill until you get a stronger testimony.

    The trick for the men is to realize that some of the time, when they put womanhood on a pedestal, it’s not the one we want to be on. And we have to remember than men want to be needed, too.

    Comment by Carol — March 19, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  9. Interesting post and discussion in the comments. I recently heard a member of our Ward stand up and talk about how his wife’s work as the Relief Society President has caused him to respect and value her wisdom and leadership skills so much. I thought it was interesting that he wasn’t saying that her value was based on how well she served *him*, but how well she lead the members of the Relief Society. It was a welcome change from the usual “pat on the head” comment we hear.

    I admire the work done in the post and think everything is correct. Still, to me, at some point, discussion of a woman’s duty toward and participation in the mission of the priesthood becomes so attenuated that it begins to describe the basic duty of any (and every) member of the church, male or female. In other words, if we cast the net wide enough, we end up picking up all members of the Church, and then I wonder what’s the point of trying to make priesthood holder vs. non-priesthood holder distinctions?

    Rather, couldn’t we focus on identifying and finding practical ways to actually include everyone in the mission of the Church/the Priesthood? For example, our Stake has begun sending out members of the Auxiliary presidencies with the High Councillors on their speaking assignments. Yesterday, for High Council Sunday, our Ward was addressed by two Stake leaders; we heard first from a (female) Stake Primary Presidency member, and then a High Councilman. I thought this idea was novel, yes, but more important than the novelty, it felt fundamentally right and seemed so obvious I’m surprised we hadn’t done this before.

    Comment by David Y. — March 19, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  10. This has given me much to think about. Our ward missed this lesson because of ward conference, and it will be interesting to see how it’s presented.

    I especially appreciate the quote form Sis Beck. “we have and live with an inseparable connection to the priesthood.”

    Does Relief Society ever mention that a man cannot be called as bishop (for example) if he is single, and his wife is always set apart as well? Or that priesthood ordinances in the temple are officiated by women? Or the valuable role sisters play in missionary work? To me, equating homemaking with priesthood is not only demeaning, but dismisses the serious, sacred, and very real roles that women fill that really do use the priesthood.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 19, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

  11. TOClark, I think those ideas do probably come up in some RS meetings — ideas like that, and ideas like “keep your man well fed,” depend on the contributions of class members and the culture in a given ward, I suspect.

    The note from “Anon this Time” that sparked this post made it clear that she didn’t need to hold the priesthood in the same sense that her husband does, and she didn’t need to be “in charge” to feel valued, and I don’t think she was seeking, and I know *I* am not seeking, anything that would blur the distinction between ordination and non-ordination. Rather, I’m noting that women, through the RS (and youth and children through their programs) are real auxiliaries to the priesthood — those organizations and the people who are part of them provide supplementary or additional help to the priesthood organization to carry out priesthood responsibilities. Individual women may and should do what they can to enable the men in their lives to carry out their individual responsibilities. But women’s support of the priesthood doesn’t end there — we are also being supportive when we carry out any service that helps further the work of the priesthood.

    I like your ward member’s recognition of his wife’s skills and talents, David. I hope the rest of the ward also recognizes that the RS president is helping the bishop, especially, but every other priesthood holder in the ward, too, by helping the ward to function, by strengthening families through relieving their wants, by helping the bishop know what is needed within his ward, and by suggesting and carrying out ideas to do what is needed. *That’s* supporting the priesthood in a very direct and real way. Members of the RS who are not officers, but who assist the president and fill their own ward assignments, are also supporting the priesthood in recognizable ways. I think if more women took that point of view, and if more men acknowledged women’s roles in helping the priesthood fill its duties that way, then we’d have fewer discouraged RS class members, and fewer sisters like me who feel marginalized because we aren’t seen as supporting the priesthood when we have no men in our lives.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  12. Someone asked me the other day if I was related to a woman who served on the Relief Society General Board. Very distinctive name, but I had never heard of her, and I realized that I rarely hear about any of the members of the Relief Society Board.

    As far as I know, we don’t sustain these women, and they are not introduced at the Relief Society General Meeting, and the only place a normal member of the church like me ever sees their service mentioned is in a random obituary.

    I just googled “Relief Society General Board” and see that these women are listed on the Church website with pictures. Is that a new innovation, or have I just never looked?

    Perhaps they’re mentioned in the Church News, but after subscribing to that briefly, I stopped taking it due to some of the peculiar content of the included “Mormon Times.”

    Oh my. This comment has been rather tangential. I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make. No complaint, just wondering aloud about a cultural blind spot I just noticed.

    Comment by Amy T — March 19, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  13. I’m loving this post and these comments. As a younger woman in the church, I’m still trying to formulate my own identity as it relates to the priesthood and this is a wonderful commentary to help me do that. I’ll be passing this along to my husband as well for reading. thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Comment by Amanda — March 20, 2012 @ 3:26 am

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