‘They want us for the work, but they don’t want us to be visible’: LDS women react to stand removal

Bay Area women explain the “hurt,” “heartbreak” and impact, especially on young members. “It’s not about recognition,” says one, “but it’s actually about being recognizable.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A bishop speaks to the congregation during a weekly sacrament meeting in Auckland, New Zealand. Women's leaders recently were removed from routinely sitting on the stands at Sunday services in the Bay Area.

For more than a decade, women’s leaders were invited to sit on the stand facing the pews during Sunday services among some Latter-day Saint congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It was an uncontroversial tradition until October, when an area president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ordered an end to the practice.

The move felt arbitrary to many members and was made without consulting any of the women affected, all of whom were devout believers. After a Salt Lake Tribune story about the edict, many women in the region and across the country are writing letters to church headquarters in Salt Lake City, explaining why the tradition had been good for women — in a faith governed by men — as a sign of inclusion and gender equity.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast with two women who have felt the impact personally: Amy Jensen, who served as a Young Women leader in Lafayette, Calif., and Laurel McNeil, a current Relief Society president in Sunnyvale, Calif.

One solution, they suggest, to bring uniformity to Latter-day Saint services: Invite women’s leaders to sit on the stand in congregations around the world.

How did you feel when you heard that this practice had been discontinued?

Laurel McNeil • I was hurt and wounded. I lost several nights of sleep. Our local leaders have been amazing. They have struggled with this change as well, they did not want to do it. They’ve seen the blessings and how positive it is overall. … I was angry. They [church higher-ups] want us for the work, but they don’t want us to be visible. And that really felt personal, yet it wasn’t really about me. It’s not about me sitting on the stand. It’s about us representing the sisters’ voices and being a part of the equation and the great work that the church does.

Amy Jensen • I just was heartbroken because I couldn’t do anything but think, “What am I going to tell my children? What am I going to tell my daughters and my Young Women, who asked for this [sitting on the stand], who told me how important it was to them?” I just didn’t know what I would say to them. I still don’t really have the words to explain to these girls what happened.

Did the area president ever talk with you or other women leaders to make the decision?

(Courtesy) Laurel McNeil is a Latter-day Saint Relief Society president in Sunnyvale, Calif.

McNeil • The information was given to our stake president [who oversees a number of congregations], and then it was left to the stake presidents to deal with it. My bishop personally spoke to over 35 individuals before he did anything. A lot of bishops have had to spend a lot of time with a lot of people counseling and speaking so that people won’t leave. They don’t want women to leave. They want to keep us together. And they’re working really hard to keep us together throughout this process.

Did the authority give you a reason for this change?

(Courtesy) Amy Jensen has served as a Latter-day Saint Young Women leader in Lafayette, Calif.

Jensen • Not a clear or explicit one, no. The reason that I heard from my [male] leadership was that it was about uniformity.

What’s been the feedback since the Tribune’s story?

Jensen • I have been getting amazing feedback, actually. It’s been a blessing to me to be able to understand this in a little bit of a broader way. This isn’t really a Bay Area issue. There are wards and stakes that are practicing this in other places [including] in Europe. I heard from a girl from Texas who was excited because they were just starting this in her ward and stake, and she reached out to tell me how grateful she was that they were starting it there. In places like Missouri, the women presidents of the stake have always sat on the stand during stake conferences.

McNeil • I have had overwhelming support. I’ve had people reach out to me that I haven’t spoken to in 40 years. And my son’s friends. Just really overwhelming support and love for the church and the gospel. Mostly they want to continue to move forward and find ways to communicate appropriately with the powers that be. One of the things that’s been hard for me is that it felt like such a forward-thinking move and such a small, simple action, right? That really spoke volumes about how we work together and care for each other.

Have you launched a letter-writing campaign to the general women’s leaders in church headquarters?

Jensen • When we first heard about this, we didn’t know exactly what to do. Many of us decided [to] write letters to the area authority. I’ve received many of those letters and have given them to my stake president, and he has made sure that they’ve gone on. But when I started thinking about how to reach more people, I decided to write an open letter to the general women presidents of the church, expressing how much this tradition had meant to us and hoping that they would hear my voice. I invited other people to sign on. … We’ve had about 2,000 people add their name to the letter…from more than 20 countries. One woman, I believe from Austria, said one of the reasons that she thinks it’s important is because if a person who is a stranger to the church comes into one of the sacrament meetings, that they can’t see the full picture of the breadth of organizations in our church that care for our members. So they wouldn’t know about the Relief Society or the Young Women program because it’s not represented in that first glimpse that you get if you are a stranger to our church…. It’s not about recognition, but it’s actually about being recognizable.

McNeil • My secretary, who serves with me in my Relief Society presidency, grew up in a small ward in New York. And when I told her about this [female leaders sitting on the stand], she said … what a difference that would have made to have a woman on the stand for that congregation. … It’s a validation of the contributions that sisters make, not just any individual, but it speaks to all of them. The bishop represents all members of the ward. So would a Relief Society president or a Young Women president or a Primary president, for that matter. I mean, like, my husband doesn’t even know who the stake primary president is. She could walk past him on the street and he wouldn’t know who she is. Right? Because there’s no visibility. But the stake president would never walk past him on the street without him knowing.

A Tribune commentary proposed Latter-day Saint women stay home from church on March 17, 2024, which would be the 182nd anniversary of the Relief Society’s founding, as a sort of protest. Would you support that?

McNeil • I think we should show up but do nothing. No conducting the singing, no teaching Primary, just show up and then let everyone see how well a Sunday operates…without the sisters.

How do you think this move is affecting young Latter-day Saint men and women?

Jensen • Young men and women today are growing up in a digital age that is much different than how I grew up, and they need different things because of it. They do need to know [more gender equity] in a visual way. They need to be able to see it. Words are not enough for them. I believe that those words are sincere. I know that we are loved. I don’t doubt that. I know that we’re important. But our rising generations need to be able to see it.

McNeil • It makes it concrete for them, especially for young women. It’s a powerful example for young men, but young women compete and excel academically, in sports, and in the workforce. The only place that they see themselves — or don’t see themselves — reflected in that way is in church. And that visual is important. Optics matter….It is a way to bring us together to unify and be supportive to everyone.

What would you ultimately like to see happen on this issue?

McNeil • I would love to see sisters on the stand in every ward everywhere, or at least be given the option.

Jensen • One of the young women who wrote a letter said, “I’m OK with uniformity. So let’s just have all of the stands everywhere have a woman on them.” I think that would be pretty great.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To receive full “Mormon Land” transcripts, along with our complete newsletter and exclusive access to all Tribune religion content, support us at Patreon.com/mormonland.

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