Natalie Brown: How many women does an LDS ward need? Technically, none. Practically, a lot.

And therein lies the problem with the church’s policies and messaging.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson and then-Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon receive a warm welcome from Latter-day Saint women at a meetinghouse in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 2023.

I do not usually pay attention to routine procedural changes made by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I noticed, though, when a number of people remarked how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ updated guidelines for establishing “wards” (congregations) and “stakes” (clusters of congregations) took women for granted.

The church’s December news release explains that, starting in 2024, “stakes will need 150 active, full-tithe-paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders [all men] capable of serving in leadership positions. They will also need a total of 500 participating adults.”

The new rules also state that “wards need 250 members and 20 active, full-tithe-paying Melchizedek Priesthood holders who are capable of serving in leadership positions. Each ward also will need 100 participating adults.”

Although in many if not most cases, a majority of the “participating” adults in a ward are women (who are not specifically mentioned in the release) women, under these guidelines, are not required to establish a stake or ward. And, as a woman, that hurts.

We know, of course, that in practice women are fully expected to help staff their wards. They often perform most of the service. Yet the policy’s phrasing takes women’s service for granted even while their gender disqualifies them from serving in the leadership positions that are deemed necessary for the church to function. As Laurel McNeil told The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast recently after a church leader directed that women’s leaders no longer sit on the stand during Sunday services, “They [church higher-ups] want us for the work, but they don’t want us to be visible.”

Women remain largely invisible

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma Hale Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith, served as the faith's first Relief Society president.

A critical mass of women is not technically required to form a ward. Although programs like the women’s Relief Society and the children’s Primary are headed by women, the release assumes the availability of women while also implicitly suggesting that such programs are less critical ward functions. Here’s the kicker: If we are honest, they are less theologically critical, at least in many of the ways the church currently frames the gospel. And the church’s policy guidelines reflect that perspective.

Women, including Heavenly Mother, remain largely invisible in our theology beyond their biblical roles as helpmates to their husbands and mothers of children. Brigham Young disbanded the Relief Society in 1844 before reorganizing it in 1867. Until recently, programs like Relief Society were simply referred to as “auxiliaries,” underscoring the way in which women are construed as supporting actors but never stars of their own stories. Women do not preside over organizations or ordinances that the church deems necessary to salvation.

Efforts to increase women’s visibility at church, such as having them on the stand or using Young Women as ushers, can be welcome changes. Yet these innovations, when permitted by male authorities, can also come across as mere busy work to mask the fact that our theological understanding of gender and cultural practices often fail to meet today’s needs.

Bad messaging

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) These three women spoke at the October 2023 General Conference: President Emily Belle Freeman, left, head of the global Young Women organization; her first counselor, Tamara Runia; and Amy Wright, first counselor in the children’s Primary general presidency.

We know the church needs women. Indeed, quite a few women suggested to me in response to this news release that we simply stop showing up and let our absence be noticed. Yet policies such as these send the inadvertent message that women are organizationally and theologically less necessary than men. We could technically organize stakes and wards with no women.

This disparity has unintentional consequences. It sends the implicit message that women are not as important within the church. It leads directly to a culture in which men are more sought after and valued than women because they can assume vital leadership positions. It risks saddling many women with the emotional burdens of feeling unnecessary and second class. Women become problems for male leaders to address rather than assets.

A church that treats women as less necessary is a church that many women will leave — and they will take their families and priesthood-holding spouses with them.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.

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