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.