Female LDS missionaries don’t always see their own leadership, according to study

(Photo courtesy of Maggie Scribner) Maggie Scribner, who returned from her Latter-day Saint mission in the Philippines in December, said she developed leadership skills while overseas. She was a sister training leader during her mission and had to help other women deal with issues.

They give public speeches, often at a moment’s notice. They resolve conflicts with roommates they are paired with day and night. They journey to unfamiliar lands, learn new languages and try to befriend the strangers they meet there.

All of these abilities gained by female missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can make them effective leaders. But new research released Tuesday from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah Valley University shows that the women don’t always recognize the value of the skills they acquire during their 18 months of church service.

That’s why Robbyn Scribner, the project’s assistant director, decided to point out these skills to her daughter, Maggie Scribner, while she served her mission in the Philippines from June 2018 to December 2019.

“She would actually come to me and say, ‘Mom, this is so hard. I have to tell these other [missionaries] they’re not allowed to call their parents every single day because I’m their leader,’” Robbyn Scribner said. “ … And I’m like, ‘Maggie, you don’t understand. You are learning leadership skills right now. The things that you’re learning, they’re going to serve you the rest of your life.’”

Between December 2018 and early January 2019, the Utah Women and Leadership Project used an online survey to collect 625 detailed responses from women who had served full-time Latter-day Saint missions.

“People didn’t just skim the surface,” said project founder/director Susan Madsen. “They went deep and gave us lots of stories and lots of details.”

The research examined the leadership skills these “sister missionaries” developed, how they used them after returning home, and what experiences they wished they’d had during their church service “to be more prepared to lead in their current lives.”

As far as Madsen is aware, this is the first study that has “documented the experiences of returned sister missionaries this way.” It is "vital,” the research brief states, “to understand how we can develop and strengthen girls and young women in all arenas, including religious settings.”

The research recommends that church officials and others “be more intentional and explicit in framing what missionaries learn as the leadership skills they are” and have more formal and informal leadership positions for female missionaries. Training for those moving into leadership roles, it adds, should be consistent for all missionaries.

Researchers also suggest creating female-only learning opportunities, such as networking or mentoring events, and holding workshops about unconscious bias and gender trainings for mission presidents and other leaders.

Applying skills back home

The top five skills that women said they learned while serving their missions were public speaking, followed by conflict management, courage, interpersonal skills and problem-solving.

“‘Public speaking’ was the top skill mentioned in any category, as missionaries had to speak frequently to large or small groups, often with little notice, throughout their missions,’” the research notes. One woman wrote that her mission “taught me that my voice as a woman in the church is important and should be heard equally among [male] priesthood leaders.”

Maggie Scribner said she “learned to problem-solve. I learned to create relationships with really different types of people from different cultures, different backgrounds.” At one point, the Orem 20-year-old worked with a person in a senior leadership position with whom she struggled to communicate. Scribner said she had to figure out ways to “accomplish the things that we needed to do.”

(Photo courtesy of Robbyn Scribner) Maggie Scribner, right, with her grandmother, Cecile Scribner, who also served a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1960s in Australia.

While in the Philippines, Scribner was a “sister training leader,” managing other female missionaries. When Latter-day Saint authorities lowered the minimum mission age in 2012 from 19 to 18 for men and 21 to 19 for women, a surge in female missionaries followed. With that, they gave more responsibilities to women. The church created mission leadership councils in 2013 with women and men serving together. Women took on the role of sister training leaders, responsible for the training and welfare of female missionaries assigned to them.

“Sister training leaders will continue to proselytize and will also spend time each week training and evaluating the needs of female missionaries,” the church stated in a news release at the time. “They will report directly to the mission president on the needs of sister missionaries.”

Of course, simply being a missionary in a country where the Utah-based faith doesn’t have the dominating presence it does in the Beehive State, represented a “big leadership role.” Scribner said. There are about 785,000 Latter-day Saints in the Philippines, a nation of 105 million people. Members "really look to you as a major asset to their [congregation], which is something that you’ve never experienced before as a 19- or 20-year-old growing up in Utah.”

Scribner hopes to apply what she learned from her mission in her future career as she continues to study public health at church-owned Brigham Young University. Other women surveyed by the Utah Women and Leadership Project said they applied their leadership skills to other roles they held in the church, in school and in their jobs.

“Leading in an educational environment is by far the most common experience reported,” the brief states. “However, a small number listed very senior leadership roles in project management, business and engineering.”

About 20% of women said they brought leadership to their family roles. “As a mom,” wrote one, “I can tactfully but assertively approach teachers to advocate for my child.”

Fewer than 2%, though, “talked about using leadership skills in their community roles,” including politics and campaigning, according to the brief.

Reflections on mission experience

The “vast majority” of women surveyed “were positive in looking back on the leadership skills gained or strengthened while serving a mission,” according to the research. An overwhelming number agreed that women need to be prepared to be leaders, and a large number disagreed with the notion that men in the church need to learn to lead more than women.

Maggie Scribner’s grandmother, Cecile Scribner said “of course” women should have leadership experiences on missions like she did.

The 78-year-old Elk Ridge resident served in the 1960s in Australia at a time when there were not many female missionaries. But her mission president was “very progressive,” and she became a sister district leader, traveling across large areas to check on the other women.

“I had tons of leadership responsibility,” she said.

Looking back at her mission now, decades later, Cecile Scribner said it has “affected every part of life," including positions she’s held in the faith. She credits a lot of that to her supportive mission president, the late apostle Bruce R. McConkie.

(Photo courtesy of Cecile Scribner) Cecile Scribner, right, with her mission president, Bruce McConkie, on her last day of her mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Australia.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project found there was “a striking difference between the experiences of sisters with presidents who respected and appreciated sisters and those who did not (consciously or unconsciously).”

Latter-day Saint missions — there are more than 400 around the world — are overseen by married couples, with husbands serving as presidents. But together, the men and women are designated as “mission leaders.”

A “small but fervent” group of women said that while they did gain valuable skills on their missions, women did not get to lead for various reasons, citing lack of opportunity, bias or discrimination “or a prevailing attitude that women were only to follow, not lead,” according to the brief.

The majority of the women surveyed talked about leadership roles and assignments they wish they would’ve had. "Nearly 10% specifically mentioned that they would have liked to be a district leader, zone leader, or assistant to the president, roles assumed only by male missionaries.”

Others said they wanted “to have more female role models” and “additional training during their mission.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.