Mud and Stars

Two women* looked out from the same bars.
One saw mud; the other, the stars.

Originally, the couplet started with “Two men….” I saw the couplet, and the change, in the comments thread of a blog post about Elder Ballard’s remarks at the recent European Area Sisters’ Meeting.

(I use the term “remarks” generously, as the focus seems to be on 8 words out of the entirety of his comments. I wouldn’t really expect less from my wolfy friend.)

So what’s the deal?

“Don’t Talk Too Much”

What did Elder Ballard say? You can watch the video of the conference here. It’s not in written form (nor am I certain it ever will be), but you can find a transcription of part of his comments below.

“Just think what we know. And yet sometimes I think we become comfortable in our own little associations within the wards and the branches in this part of the world. And my plea with you tonight, the blessing that I would ask our Heavenly Father to grant unto you individually and collectively, would be that you would never ever take lightly what you know to be true, that you will become pioneers as the first pioneers, women of great faith and great strength and great power and courage, that you will let your voices be heard.

We cannot meet our destiny of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in preparing this world for the Second Coming of the Savior of the world without the support and the faith and the strength of the women of this church. We need you. We need your voices. They need to be heard. They need to be heard in your community and your neighborhoods. They need to be heard within the ward council, or the branch council.

“Now, don’t talk too much in those council meetings – just straighten the brethren out quickly, and move the work on. We’re building the kingdom of God. We’re preparing the world for the Second Coming of the Savior and the Redeemer of the world.

‘Oh, how nice! …wait, did he just tell women to not talk too much?’

Well, unless he actually tells us, I think it’s difficult to prove exactly what Elder Ballard’s intent was with that comment. What you end up believing will be based, in large part, on how you feel about a number of other topics.

I, for one, choose to sustain the apostles, which colors my perspective against throwing the book at him.

Julie M. Smith, over at Times and Seasons, conducts what I think is a fair analysis. Maybe it was a joke (in which case, how dare he joke about something like this! or thank goodness he recognizes the tension as is trying to address it!). Maybe he was serious in that women (or non-key holders – we’ll get to that later) should not speak too much at these meetings. Maybe he was saying that talk is cheap, so we should move through it and onto action. Each, I think, is a fair reading, and I’m not sure that they can’t all be true (they’re certainly better than readings coming out of the NOM crowd).

Imperfect Leaders

What if, in what I consider to be the likeliest scenario, Elder Ballard made a joke that some might consider to be in poor taste?

I home taught an elderly couple when I was in high school. I can’t remember the husband’s name – let’s call him Hank. Years, even decades, before I met him, his bishop allegedly accused him of stealing paint (I think that was how the story went – who knows, at this point, what happened; it’s irrelevant anyway). From that time on, he didn’t go to church, and whenever I went to visit him with my dad he was a grizzled, embittered broken record.

He deprived himself, and his family, of the blessings of the gospel over a misunderstanding. That’s tragic.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but think of Hank as I read through comments made by people who are “SO glad (they) got out when (they) did after reading <expletive> like this from MORmON church leaders.”

A Church spokesman writes this about local leaders, but I think it applies just as well to the General Authorities of the Church:

“In 30,000 congregations led by lay leaders, it would be extraordinary if it didn’t. Serving as a stake president or bishop [or apostle] is demanding and exhausting, and by and large they do a remarkable job of it. Likewise the countless men and women who serve at various levels in wards and branches. But 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.

“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.”

I love those lines, particularly the admonition at the end.

Let me tell you a story that relates to that admonition.

In my professional life, I occasionally build or deliver content for workshops and seminars. One of my more popular workshops, based on a story of a hairless hippo, helps participants practice the skill of receiving feedback (I’ve blogged about it before).

The comment I hear most frequently when I give this workshop is, ironically, “Do you have plans to do this with our managers?”

(A sad commentary on leadership in those groups, that.)

But a comment I hear almost as frequently goes something like this:

“Okay, receiving feedback, I get it. And it’s great and all, don’t get me wrong. But what I really need to learn about is giving feedback. That’s something that would really help me.”

And I laugh a little inside when I hear this, because the skill that people are most interested in learning is the one that puts the onus to change on someone else. If you’re giving feedback, it’s the other person’s responsibility to modify their behavior. If you’re receiving feedback, there’s a good chance that it’s your responsibility to modify you’re behavior.

Again, I tell that story because of that last line, that admonition. There may be some part of you that hones in on the “church leaders need training” part. While true, most of us ultimately have no control over that. We do, however, have control over how much charity we have for those which lead us. That’s what we’re accountable for.

Hank’s old bishop could totally have been an awful person that jumped to conclusions and ruined Hank’s day. Yet it was Hank that stopped going to church, and it was Hank who most felt the consequences of that.

What’s more, those who lead us today would likely echo what the apostle Paul wrote:

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly (Hebrews 13:17-18)

Another translation reads,

“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way (NIV).

Almost one year ago, President Uchtdorf spoke in General Conference about how Church leaders sometimes make mistakes. He said,

“To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”

Reading commentary on this part of his talk, I think that some people missed the point. This comment wasn’t meant to condone our chastisement of leaders, or even an invitation to enumerate as many instances of this as possible. It was meant simply as an acknowledgement of reality, followed closely by an invitation to remain committed to the Savior’s church. President Uchtdorf continues,

It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of mistakes made by men. But in spite of this, the eternal truth of the restored gospel found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not tarnished, diminished, or destroyed.

“As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and as one who has seen firsthand the councils and workings of this Church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny.”

Did Elder Ballard make a comment that hurt the feelings of sincere, good women and men in the Church? It seems so.

Regardless, let us pray for him, knowing his desire to live honorably in every way as he watches over us in the stewardship of his apostolic calling. Let us recognize that it is through men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators that Jesus Christ leads this Church. Let us practice patience and charity when those who watch over us make mistakes or offend us.

A Different Leadership Strategy

Importantly, doing those things – praying for our leaders, and practicing patience and charity in the face of difficulty – allows us to hear more clearly the message our leaders seek to deliver. Perhaps we can even be taught by the Spirit, regardless what is said.

Not yet having the chance to listen to the entirety of Elder Ballard’s remarks, here are some of my thoughts.

In September’s Ensign, Elder Ballard wrote a piece on men and women and priesthood power (you should read the whole thing, of course). People focus in on this paragraph here:

“Now, sisters, while your input is significant and welcome in effective councils, you need to be careful not to assume a role that is not yours. The most successful ward and stake councils are those in which priesthood leaders trust their sister leaders and encourage them to contribute to the discussions and in which sister leaders fully respect and sustain the decisions of the council made under the direction of priesthood leaders who hold keys.”

People cry out, “What!?! Sit down and shut up, is that it?” In this, they miss the point (in the same way they missed the point when they criticized this poster and announcement for not featuring any pictures of women). It’s not a men/women dichotomy. It’s a keys/no keys dichotomy.

You’re not losing that key in the couch cushion.

Do you know who holds keys in the Church, and what those keys authorize them to do? This isn’t Time Out for Women. This is a Church meeting.

Do you know who holds keys in your ward, and what those keys authorize them to do? When it comes the ward level,

“As the presiding high priest of the ward, the bishop presides over three related councils: the bishopric, the priesthood executive committee, and the ward council.”

Think about that. There are many who attend Ward Council, but the bishop presides and ultimately holds the keys to the work that takes place in the ward. Further on,

“After open discussion, the bishop may make a decision, or he may wait to discuss the matter further with his counselors. After he makes a decision, council members should support it in a spirit of unity and harmony.

“If council members have strongly unsettled feelings about an important decision, the bishop may wait for another council meeting to consider the matter further and seek spiritual confirmation and unity.”

The bishop makes the decision because he holds the keys. And all those other men in that meeting need to do the same thing that Elder Ballard counseled women to do – support the decision made by the council under the direction of him who holds the keys.

I’m no expert of Church governance or the Handbook of Instructions – and it’s been quite a while since I’ve sat in a Ward Council meeting – but it seems clear to me that we don’t make decisions in the Church in the same way the rest of the world makes decisions.

It’s not (ultimately) about diversity of thought, or practical experience.

It’s about keys.

Connect these principles to Ballard’s two comments, and it’s clear to see that, regardless of what he meant, he wasn’t being dismissive of women or displaying an archaic prejudice against women or encouraging women to sit down and shut up. He’s teaching us how the Church works.

And that concept is critical.

Effecting Change

In May of this year, Michael Otterson (the senior spokesman for the Church) wrote an open letter which he then distributed to a number of LDS blogs in an effort to provide “context missing from (the) discussion about women” and their role in the Church. He addressed the criticism that “by not engaging with the more extreme groups, the Church – and Public Affairs in particular – is not acting as Christ would.”

In response, he said,

“There are a few people with whom Public Affairs and General Authorities do not engage, such as individuals or groups who make non-negotiable demands for doctrinal changes that the Church can’t possibly accept. No matter what the intent, such demands come across as divisive and suggestive of apostasy rather than encouraging conversation through love and inclusion. Ultimately, those kinds of actions can only result in disappointment and heartache for those involved.”

But what can we do to effect change while still sustaining our leaders?

The Deseret News published a book review of Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact by Neylan McBaine. I haven’t read the book, but DN pointed out what I think are some fantastic examples of how women can be more involved (the book itself is a great example of how you can be a positive influence when you don’t come to the table with ultimatums):

  • “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.”

The author of the review, Wendy Ulrich, includes one example I absolutely love:

“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.”

Otterson himself mentions something that might be replicated, to a certain degree, at local levels. He writes,

“Some years ago Public Affairs invited three groups of women, all active Latter-day Saints and including feminists, to come for several hours each to discuss concerns. I use the term “feminist” here not to imply political activism or campaigning, but simply as a term to describe those who want to further the interests of women in a variety of ways. The first two groups included single and married women, working mothers and stay-at home moms. Several in the groups had earned PhDs. The third group consisted mostly of members of stake Relief Society and Young Women’s presidencies, and we were particularly interested to learn if there were differences in perceptions between these groups….

“For several hours, a woman staffer facilitated the conversations, and I sat in and mostly listened for a major part of the time. I assure you that these women were not wallflowers. We learned a lot, and those findings have long since been shared with members of the Twelve individually and in appropriate council settings. Those kinds of conversations are continuing under similar guidelines to promote honest discussions.”

All of this is possible not only while we sustain our leaders, but because we sustain them. We can’t have these successes if we confine ourselves to having online gripe sessions about 8 words in an uncorrelated address.

Mud and Stars

If you squint long enough (and some do), you can find something disagreeable in each and every talk by a General Authority.

But if you look for mud, you’ll miss the stars.

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2 thoughts on “Mud and Stars”

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