On Mission Hierarchy, Gender, and Organizational Communication

In support of RAH’s Sister Missionary Leadership Project over at fMh, here’s a post about my mission originally published at Both Sides Now in July of last year.

In our mission we had APs and “Traveling Elders” who assisted with a lot of the nuts and bolts of mission organization (for a primer on the organizational structure of LDS missions, see here). They acted as extra eyes and ears for the Mission President (MP), traveling around the mission area and checking in with different companionships, helping to arrange apartments, discussing difficulties in different areas or companionships, etc. Because mission rules prevented the young Elders from visiting one-on-one with the Sister missionaries, the MP created a calling he dubbed the “Coordinating Sister.” It was the Coordinating Sister’s job, once or twice a month, to travel around the mission area with her companion, work with other Sister missionaries, and then report back to the MP. From my vantage point it was a very helpful calling, since mission culture and rules meant not only that Sisters were often more isolated than Elders, but also that they typically felt very inhibited about discussing problems in companionships with their District or Zone Leaders or even with the MP. (I should probably note that neither I nor any of my companions served as the Coordinating Sister.)

Every few weeks the MP had a meeting in the mission home called “Mission Council” that all the people called to serve as leaders (Zone Leaders, District Leaders, APs, and the Coordinating Sister and her companion) were required to attend. The point of Mission Council was, among other things, to convey information about new policies, follow up on major, mission-wide issues, and generally to make sure everyone was kept up to speed. One month, about four months into my mission, we had a visit from our local Area Authority (the ecclesiastical leader who presided over our mission area). He attended Mission Council, and as soon as the Coordinating Sister and her companion walked in he stopped the meeting. He explained to the MP that “women do not hold positions of authority in the Church,” and insisted that they be released from their callings immediately, that the calling itself should be eliminated, and that sisters should under no circumstances be part of Mission Council.

The MP was a very mild-mannered man, deeply measured and politic in his behavior. He acquiesced and dissolved the calling of Coordinating Sister. Privately he explained to me that he did not understand the Area Authority’s directive, since it was difficult for him to keep tabs on the Sisters as it was, and he needed someone to help him. His solution was to continue the calling in an informal and unofficial capacity so that it would technically not exist, but it would instead be “just Sister missionaries doing him a favor.”

It was quite clear that the MP disagreed strongly with his superior. I want to emphasize this: clearly not every man in the male-only LDS leadership feels quite so zealously about the necessity of excluding women qua women from positions of authority. I should also point out that the Area Authority did not offer any theological justification for his desire to formally exclude women. This was not a priesthood calling, and it did not involve women in positions of authority over men (the two reasons usually called upon to justify gendered hierarchy and sex-based separation of spheres in the church). It was simply his word and his status as an authority figure that were appealed to, with the implication that he must have had some compelling underlying theological – or, at least, divinely inspired – rationale. All of this amazed me, particularly the top-down, almost military nature of the hierarchy. After all, the MP was uniquely aware of the specific situations of his missionaries, far moreso than a leader who came by to visit for less than a week three times a year – yet the MP’s experience and authority were not given consideration.

This incident stuck with me after I returned home, particularly after I took a class on organizational communication. It occurred to me that the focus on excluding women as such from any leadership capacity on a mission was an example of focusing more on the traditions and culture of an organization than on its unique needs.  Organizational psychology has long studied the way people have of becoming deeply invested in the bureaucratic structure and rules of an organization, even if said structure/rules no longer serve their original purpose of helping the organization run smoothly. This particular situation, in terms of organizational communication, was complicated by both the nature of church hierarchy and the religious belief that the Area Authority held a certain amount of divine sanction to change things within the mission. I am interested, and curious, about the ways that faith traditions intersect with and influence organizational traditions. Particularly in the LDS church – and especially in the tightly-structured missionary program – the tensions between emphases on individual faith, tradition, and bureaucracy may very well produce unintended consequences. It seems that the role of women is often the medium through which these organizational tensions are expressed.


  1. I tihnk your MP wa a wise man. They removed sisters from my mission, because the MP’s wife could not speak English (among other things).

    If I were called to be bishop again, I think I would hold a monthly meeting and call it Ward Sister’s Council. I would include RS pres, YW pres, Primary pres, and Singles rep. I would use the meeting to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the sister. I feel that the other councils don’t cover the subject adequately.

  2. Wow, Galdralag, that’s really sad. I guess the Area Authority felt like he needed no other justification than the one he articulated: women aren’t leaders. If this is a common idea, it kind of exposes as a sham all the other justifications that are so common in the Church (the priesthood is required for calling X, etc.). Depressing.

    I wonder what this Area Authority would have done if he were over a region with a mission of all women. Isn’t Temple Square such a mission? Would he have allowed women to preside over each other? And if so, that’s nothing more than what was going on in your mission.

  3. As a missionary, I spent a few days translating for our Area authority at District (ie, Stake) conferences.

    There were several things he said that I wanted to censor, but one of the most shocking was when he upbraided the church leadership for having a woman say the closing prayer at District conference. Keep in mind that my mission had been organized for less than 5 years at the time, so everyone was exceedingly new to the church. That he would spend time chewing these faithful, well meaning people out for not following “the order of the church” for something so trivial and undoctrinal really struck me as bizarre.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Recession Cone – wow. That sounds terribly awkward. I have never lived in areas where the leadership worried about women offering invocations or benedictions, but I’ve heard plenty of stories. Such an odd thing to fuss about, especially since, as you say, most people were still learning the Mormon cultural ropes.

    Ziff – good question. This particular Area Authority would come to our mission every few months, and he always placed heavy emphasis on gender. It would be interesting to know what he would do if he were over an all-female mission.

    wonderdog – interesting. I’d like to hear more about your idea for a sister’s meeting. Is there a reason that it couldn’t be covered in ward council? (genuinely curious, not challenging you)

  5. Here’s the thing: while I genuinely appreciate and fully support what RAH is trying to do, I confess that I have my doubts. I’ve noticed quite a few commenters over at fMh saying that they think MPs have quite a bit of autonomy. My mission experience (which was, admittedly, almost exactly one decade ago) doesn’t bear that out.

    Yes, my MP did have a certain amount of autonomy. He was able to set the standard for things like music, entertainment, reading materials, P-Day activities, and the like. But when he made choices that the Area Authority disagreed with – which he did several times – he was put in his place immediately.

    For example, in addition to the situation I described in the post, there were numerous other small points of contention between the two. My mission was in a tropical area. Elders rode bikes, and our meetinghouses did not have AC – just screens and ceiling fans (not even panes in the windows). The MP didn’t require the Elders to wear their suit jackets to church – the standard white shirt and tie was enough in that heat. But the AA came and mandated that mission-wide, all Elders must wear their suit jackets for the full three hours. There were quite a few incidents like this, all of them revolving around things that most people would think are pretty small potatoes. Unless this was an anomalous situation or things have changed a lot in the past ten years, I think MPs are likely subject to far more supervisory rigidity than we may realize.

  6. He sounds like a…unique (and troubled) personality. I wonder what the MP does or is supposed to do if they are working with an AA that is giving bizarre or otherwise bad instruction? Can they discuss with someone else in the hierarchy, like the presidency of the seventy?

  7. This is giving me much to think about, especially because I’ve recently landed in a ward with a bishop who feels quite strongly about gender. I’ve had a number of conservative bishops in my day, but none for whom gender was important in the way it seems to be for this one. He recently gave the priesthood quorums and then the Relief Society a lesson on women in the priesthood, which he pitched as a return to basic gospel principles of the family in opposition to insidious intellectualism. The accompanying handout was a mishmash of quotes from various historical periods and unattributed Venn diagrams indicating that men and women are alike in some ways, not in others. He’s clearly a devoted and utterly well-meaning man, and just as clearly has quite a dominant personality. Furthermore, it’s been evident to me in our few interactions that my husband is the person of real interest to him in our family. I’ve rarely been so grateful for my Primary calling.

    Is it mere coincidence that this bishop is also a die-hard Scouter?

  8. I don’t know exactly how the Area Authority Seventies fit into the hierarchy, but I would think that the mission president would have a direct contact in the area presidency, if outside the U.S., or in the presidency of the Seventy, if in the U.S. And if I were the mission president in that situation, I’d be on the telephone immediately with that contact person.

    Wearing suit jackets to church in hot weather is a silly cultural artifact that makes no sense at all. If a jacket over one’s shirt is required for worship, what a pity that all those un-jacketed women have been missing it all these years! Of course, if men didn’t wear coats to church in the summer, we couldn’t freeze all the women by lowering the A/C down to make us overdressed men comfortable.

    And excluding women from councils is directly contrary to instruction given repeatedly by Elder Ballard, among others.

  9. In the Winnipeg Mission the new MP had a sister mission invited to Zone council and I have a picture to prove it. I FULLY agree that missions need to have some senior sister(s) who helps other sister missionaries out, even if it was the Mission President’s wife. I would imagine that some concerns that sisters have would better be met or discussed by another sister. My second MP was a great guy and I didn’t get the vibe from him or sister missionaries that he was uncaring to their needs as well as the elders. In saying so I know plenty of mysogynistic men in the Church, who have done some real damage. In my stake our stake president is HUGELY mysogynistic who is too old to be a GA so he is bucking for MP but I hope he never gets it.

  10. @ Mark B. I agree! And in my Caribbean mission it was coats for the elders and nylons for the sisters. Nylons are a cruel punishment. It was a rule not worth following considering the heat and humidity.

    Why don’t MPs or other leaders directly challenge and explain their perspectives to their superiors? Oh, wait, I know that answer. Ours is not to question why, they think for us and we obey.

  11. My daughter is in MTC now. One of her roommates in the zone coordinating sister and attends meetings. Apparently the area authority was not updated on the way things are done now.

  12. It’s not just now. When I was in the MTC almost 20 years ago my companion was the coordinating sister and attended meetings. (I attended them too, as pianist. I don’t know why–maybe because my comp and I weren’t supposed to be separated. I vividly remember the branch president turning on me with withering scorn to inform me that some smart remark of mine was “an elder comment.”)

    But it sounds like if Galdralag’s AA had overseen the MTC that system would have been abolished and we women returned sequestered from the workings of authority as a sign of how special we were.

  13. In my mission, we had something similar to what Galdralag had in terms of a coordinating Sister. Ours were called “exchange sisters” and had the responsibility of going on exchanges or splits for 24 hours with each member of a female companionship once every transfer (six weeks).

    While I agree with this being in place for numerous reasons (equality and responsibility not being just a priesthood thing), I found that our exchange sisters were, more times than not, the equivalent of a really bad AP or ZL in that they were super pushy and judgy.

    Basically, when you went on exchanges, you were terrified. You knew that the exchange sister was, literally, taking notes on you and that you could expect the MP to bring things up in your next interview. They went from being a great idea in theory to another bad experience for the mission.

    Besides living in fear of the exchange sisters, I think the exchange sisters themselves were put into a bad situation. It was expected of them to find problems and report back. I recall one of my MP mantra’s to be “return and report” (what a shocker we had a huge culture of telling on each other in my mission).

    I recently had a very thoughtful discussion with a more intense exchange sister from my mission.
    After she tried to get back into contact with me recently, I wrote her a very thoughtful, but honest email about how some of her conduct as the exchange sister had affected me. To my surprise, she admitted to it and the toxicity of our mission in some regards.

    Finally, my mission also had “sisters conference” where all the sisters would get together for a big meeting sans the Elders. Sounds amazing in theory, but ours consisted of wearing pink, writing songs (I felt like I was at girls camp) and being taught how to best dress and accessorize ourselves now and to make our husbands happy in the future. “Sisters: never let your husband see you in sweats.” Needless to say, as a feminist, I was ready to burn my bra on the spot.


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