‘A slap in the face’: LDS Relief Society leaders ordered off the stand

Area president puts an end to this Bay Area tradition. Many women are asking: Why?

It seemed like such a simple act of inclusion.

Having female Relief Society leaders sitting on the stand facing the pews during Latter-day Saint Sunday services has been a noncontroversial tradition among some congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area for a decade or more.

But to many women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the public presence of women, sitting side by side with male ecclesiastical authorities, sent a powerful signal they were an important and essential part of the community’s leadership.

Apparently, though, even that small symbol was too much for some of the faith’s male leaders.

The practice was abruptly discontinued last month, according to church spokesperson Doug Andersen, at the order of the North America West Area president, whose jurisdiction includes California.

The Utah-based faith “has a long-established practice when it comes to worship services,” Andersen says. “The general pattern includes presiding authorities sitting on the stand along with other women, men, youth and children based on their invitation to participate in the service.”

Local leaders, Andersen says, “were recently reminded of this practice.”

The heartbreaking edict, Latter-day Saint observers in the region say, was handed down to male leaders without any input from the women affected or explanation for the change.

There is nothing in the church’s General Handbook barring female officials from the stand and many wonder why women are allowed to sit with men in cushy seats on the platform at General Conference but not at the local level.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-Young Women General President Bonnie Oscarson speaks at a women's session in 2014.

In response, members in at least three stakes (regional clusters of congregations] surrounding San Francisco have expressed their concerns to lay bishops and stake presidents, while also conducting surveys and launching a letter-writing campaign to church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“It was a slap in the face,” says Laurel McNeil, a Relief Society president in Sunnyvale. “We are good enough for all this service, but not good enough to sit up there with men and present a united front.”

Being on the stand was “recognition and acknowledgment of the work that sisters do in the church,” she says. “It was a visible symbol for young men and adult men, too.”

The women who are upset about the move are all “faithful, orthodox women, not rebels or activists,” says McNeil, who gave a stack of letters from women to an area authority. “It feels like we are being punished for something we didn’t do wrong. The feelings run the gamut from anger to sadness — and they are profound and deep.”

Not only was the Relief Society representation on the stand “impactful for women, but there was also a very practical benefit of seeing the congregation from a bird’s-eye view,” writes Melanie Williams of the Los Altos Stake. “It helped the bishopric immensely as she could identify members’ needs the men might miss.”

Bay Area bishops and stake presidents “have responded with empathy and taken the time to meet individually with women,” Williams says, while there has been no communication with them from headquarters in Utah.

She says she has “never felt more ‘less than’ in all my church life. It was …such a small crumb.”

Why did the church take away that “crumb”? Whom did that threaten?

Jesus was “born to a woman, announced his ministry to a woman and first appeared to a woman after he was resurrected,” Williams says. “He would not have objected to their presence on the stand.”

The Christian Savior “loved women,” she says, “which showed in his actions, not just his words.”

Ripples from the Ordain Women movement

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Women are turned away from the all-male priesthood session of General Conference in October 2013.

In 2013, a group of women launched a campaign to ordain women to the all-male Latter-day Saint priesthood.

“Since leadership and positional authority in Mormonism [are] inextricably tied to priesthood ordination,” organizers wrote, “it is clear that Mormon women must be ordained in order to be full and equal participants in their church.”

As a public act to show their intent, Ordain Women leaders, including co-founder Kate Kelly, asked for tickets to the General Conference priesthood session for men.

More than a hundred women walked politely in a line to Temple Square in Salt Lake City and asked to be allowed into the Tabernacle but were turned away at the door.

The protest, which was repeated at subsequent General Conferences, drew widespread publicity and criticism locally and nationally.

A little over a year later, Kelly was excommunicated and many of the participants either fell silent or left the church. The impact of their actions, however, was broad and deep.

In response, church changes included:

• The men’s priesthood meeting was broadcast live for the first time, allowing women to watch it online.

• At least one woman was added to the church’s top committees making decisions about missionary work, family history, temples and more.

• The photos of top female church leaders were included in widely circulated charts of high-level authorities.

• Churchwide female leaders were moved from the side to center seats during General Conference.

• Women were added as “advisers” to the church’s European area authorities in leadership councils.

Creative inclusion efforts

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young Latter-day Saint boy passes the sacrament. Some wards have allowed young women to take the sacrament to nursing mothers in women's restrooms.

In congregations, especially in the United States, bishops and stake presidents tried to create more opportunities for women.

Members report that wards have tried allowing women to serve as “executive secretaries” to bishoprics, to become ward mission leaders, to attend bishopric meetings, to conduct baptisms of their own children, to be ward or stake “auditors,” to pass the sacrament, or Communion, into the women’s restroom for nursing mothers, and to be Sunday school presidents.

To be clear, these are unconventional choices somewhat frowned upon and some even prohibited by the General Handbook.

In 2016, Bay Area bishops came up with a list of ways they could improve the status of women in their congregations.

Their recommendations included:

• Involving women in decision-making that affected them.

• Budgeting the same amount for Young Women activities as Young Men.

• Giving equal time in services for female and male speakers.

• Citing and quoting female church leaders on doctrinal topics in sermons, speeches and books.

• Referring to women by their titles as often as they do men.

Having female leaders such as Relief Society presidents, Young Women presidents and children’s Primary presidents on the stand was one of the items recommended and endorsed by many of the bishops.

A step back?

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Neylan McBaine wrote “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact,” a book about the ways in which the faith could offer more leadership opportunities short of ordaining women to the priesthood.

Booting female leaders from the stands seems like a giant step backward to Neylan McBaine, who wrote in her 2014 book, “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact,” about the ways in which the faith could offer more leadership opportunities without ordaining women to the priesthood. Many of the above experiments in gender inclusion were suggested in that book.

At the beginning of church President Russell M. Nelson’s tenure in 2018, there seemed to be a willingness “to increase women’s participation in church councils,” McBaine says now. “But absolutely nothing has changed in the visibility or inclusion of women in our weekly, essential, Sunday experience.”

At a Latter-day Saint service to install a new three-man bishopric she recently attended, “there were 38 men on the stand, including the entire [stake] high council, both old and new bishoprics, stake presidency and all of the sacrament blessers and passers.”

The message, McBaine notes in an email, was “loud and clear: The church can run without women, and sacrament meeting is not a place for women to exercise any stewardship.”

The church’s “patriarchal structure” makes it so “women don’t know where to turn to exercise spiritual authority or stewardship in our community,” she says. “We have enough of a toehold — we can get baptized, we can speak in [church], we can teach other women — that we are bold enough to believe that there is a place for us in that structure.”

Yet if women try to extend that toehold, “for the benefit of the church as a whole and for our own spiritual growth,” McBaine says, “we find doors slammed in our faces.”

And the line seems arbitrary.

“Why is it OK for a woman to call upon the powers of heaven to bless her congregation in an opening prayer, but not pass the plastic tray of bread or water to that congregation?” she asks. “Why is it OK for a woman to instruct from the pulpit in a sacrament meeting talk, but not sit on the stand to be acknowledged as a steward of those listening?”

The arbitrary nature “of this latest hand-slapping,” McBaine says, “simply underscores that it is a blatant power move, designed to intimidate and reassert male dominance in the core Sunday experience.”

She feels deeply that “this is not the way of [church founder Joseph [Smith], whose trademark was innovation. This is not the way of the early Christian church, where women hosted the meetings and Paul praised them for their leadership. This is not the way of the church even in the not-so-distant past, when Primary, seminary, visiting and home teaching and more bubbled up from member needs.”

If the church continues “to conform rather than disrupt, retrench rather than innovate, our community will wither,” McBaine warns. “And if women continue to have to diminish themselves so much more than men to be in good standing with the institution, they will leave.”

A sobering thought, she says, for a church trying to hold onto its young.

Future for young Latter-day Saint women

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A combined Primary, Young Women and Relief Society choir sings at General Conference in 2015.

Some years ago, Amy Jensen was the Young Women president in the Lafayette, Calif., congregation and spoke to “the intelligent, talented and faithful girls of my ward,” she says, and heard a constant refrain: Why aren’t the women more visible?

“These young women wanted to understand why the only leadership that was recognized consistently in the church were men,” Jensen writes in a letter to the area president. “When they sat with their families in the pews, they looked up and saw a church full of men, and their own experiences told them what they saw on the stand didn’t reflect the real story of their ward.”

These girls knew of the work and leadership it took from women and men to keep the congregation running, she writes, “so why, when they looked up from their seats onto the stand, didn’t they see themselves reflected back?”

Jensen took their concerns to the ward council, which includes men and women, “and it was decided that there would always be a woman in leadership sitting on the stand next to our other ward leaders.”

The girls “felt heard,” she writes, “and the ward council understood this to be a simple way to begin to address a complex problem.”

They do not want “the work of their mothers and [female] leaders” to be invisible, Jensen writes, “but recognized so they might more easily see themselves in the church they love.”

Along with many others, Jensen prays that this policy will be reversed.

Brittany Dawson in Las Altos has seen women who struggle to come to church.

“The last thing I would want is for a small change to negatively impact their experience at church,” she writes, “making it even harder to come or keeping them from coming to church altogether.”

And here’s a letter from a 13-year-old in her area that Jensen shared with her leaders:

“If you want all of the [wards] to be the same, which I believe is the reason you’re choosing to make this change,” she wonders, “then why not make the change so that all Relief Society presidents in the church [sit on] stands during sacrament meetings?”

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