This is a guest post from Shannon.
I read the post of July 28, 2016 by Stephen Marsh with great interest. I was so intrigued by it that I sent a link for it to several friends. It articulates some real frustrations that many people have with material that comes from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and highlights some real problems with lessons that may be poorly thought out. One of the people I sent the link to is a close friend that I have known for over 30 years and she is currently one of the members of the Relief Society General Board. She has held this position since being called by Sis. Linda K. Burton at the beginning of her Presidency. She is very active with the Relief Society Board and holds several positions with various committees at Church Headquarters. We regularly have discussions about church doctrine, history and church governance. (I cannot use her name in this article since doing so would require her to get permission from the Relief Society Presidency, which would take some time and would subject this article to review. I have let this blog’s administrator know who it is and they have confirmed her participation.) My friend disputed Bro Marsh’s assertion that
It turns out that the entire 2016 year of Visiting Teaching messages were not drafted or chosen by the Relief Society Presidency but were picked for them and written by the all male correlation committee. As you might suspect, the messages often are mostly men lecturing women on things such as to how to suffer joyfully.
She was a little upset with the post and let me know the reasons why. For all of the time she has been on the Board, the visiting teaching lessons have been prepared by the Relief Society. Her quote, “Visiting Teaching messages are decided on, prepared, written, edited, approved 100% by female leaders and staff. Priesthood leaders are aware of the direction chosen by the General Relief Society presidency.” She went on to say that while all material published in the Ensign and other venues have to be passed through correlation, the committee chair confirms that in four years no changes have been made by them to any of the Visiting Teaching messages. She went on to say that it kind of amazes her that when people find out there are flaws at Church Headquarters it seems like a great epiphany to them. In her opinion, mistakes made by church leaders is no news flash. We have talked many times in the past about what significant changes there have been in Church Administration. Her report is that there is no major decision made today that doesn’t involve female leadership. The presidencies of the Relief Society, Young Women’s and Primary sit on every major committee and she confirms that these women are no wall flowers. They are contributing and are heard just as much as any other person on the committee. Women are empowered now like they never have been in the past as far as general church administration is concerned.
Now, what about that Visiting teaching message? The fact that a group of men or a group women wrote this does not change the problematic nature of the message. Stephen summarizes Elder Christofferson’s story story like this:
The core of the lesson is the story of a woman with cancer, who because of an ill guided surgery, has crippling pain. Doing the daily family ironing caused her such pain that she would have to break in the middle of it to go cry in her room.When her family noticed her pain, what did they do that illustrates the spirit of the Proclamation?
- Take over the ironing so she was not in such pain?
- Trade lawn mowing or other services with another family in return for ironing?
- Wear wrinkled shirts?
- Pool their lunch money to pay for shirt laundry services?
- Let her suffer for a year until they could afford, by saving lunch money, a better tool for ironing shirts?
The point of the lesson is that the Proclamation’s spirit led the family and the father to pick choice 5. That story was used as an example of caring for a family in the spirit of the Proclamation. Notice that it is a story told by a man about what a man did as a lecture to women about how to live their lives. It was held up as an example about how a real man cares for his wife.
I almost never read the Ensign, so without the post from Wheat and Tares I never would have known about this. As I have researched this, I read the talk given by D. Todd Christofferson in the October 2006 General Conference Priesthood session. The story has been changed somewhat for the Visiting Teaching message and in a way that does no service to the women of the church. As I read the talk, I am confident that Elder Christofferson had no intent to portray the women of the church as unimportant slaves or second class citizens whose duty it is to suffer, yet this unintended message raises its head. Where do we lay the blame, or is there any blame to be laid for anyone? I am confident that the writers of the visiting teaching message had no mal-intent. My friend on the Relief Society board was emphatic that there was no malice involved on the part of the writers.
I wonder if there isn’t some way we can deal with talks, articles, lessons or whatever else comes from Salt Lake that we find stupid or demeaning or doctrinally and historically incorrect without dropping F-bombs and throwing our phones. I believe there is something very fundamental to our discussion that is not being recognized or accounted for, and that is the fact that the church is not a fully circumscribed, perfectly homogenized monolith. The Church (whatever definition you may choose for that entity) is made up a myriad of factions. Each faction varies in size and composition and is constantly evolving. This is also true for the leadership of the church. As much as they try to give the impression that they are completely united on all matters and “never is heard a discouraging word”, it is simply not the case. Greg Prince’s two excellent books, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History and David O McKay and The Rise of Mormonism give lie to that silly notion and those are only two books of many.
With that in mind, what of the Church in general? I am sure all of the readers of Wheat and Tares and readers of all of the rest of the other blogs are well aware that they are in the minority of church membership. I wish I knew what the real number is, but my experience is that 80% of the regularly attending church population could not care less about understanding our church’s history, doctrine, or theology. They see no problems, they believe that faith and ordinances are all they need, they just want to go to church each week and “learn about Jesus”, feel love and be happy. The only real difficulty is that malcontents, like me, keep bringing up “controversial subjects” creating headaches and unhappiness. For this large group, the visiting teaching message in question was just fine and for every letter that the Ensign received taking issue with the visiting teaching message, they probably received ten that loved it. The bulk of the people who work for the church in the bureaucratic positions are of this type and the majority of General Authorities come from similar backgrounds (kind of depressing, isn’t it?) On the other hand, there is a contingency with the church hierarchy who think much more like Wheat and Tare people, including some General Authorities. There is a constant push and pull, give and take going on inside The Great and Spacious Building (my title for the church office building) about direction, curriculum, magazines, web content etc. and it never stops.
I was just re-reading and article by J. Bonner Ritchie published in the May-June 1981 issue of Sunstone Magazine. The article, “The Institutional Church and the Individual: How Straight the Gate, How Narrow the Way”, has a couple of lines that I think are relevant to our topic. He recounts a very intense discussion he had with his mother on a particular doctrinal point. “As my mother went through a series of arguments, I think she felt that she was teaching me a very final truth. What she was in fact doing was teaching me a process in which questioning is important, in which debate is useful and fun. A process in which having a different opinion is not a reason to reject, but a reason to discuss. Pg. 29 (emphasis mine).
Ritchie has challenged us with a lofty goal. It is not easy for me – I come home from church some weeks just cursing a blue streak. I cannot believe it is possible for a group of otherwise very nice and sincere people to be that ignorant, bull headed, and stupid. Those of us out in the hinterlands don’t have the luxury of knowing any curriculum writers or magazine article writers personally so that we can have a more charitable view of them and their product. We are left to guess at motives and context and we try to make sense of what at times seems confusion and foolishness. I put aside the Visiting teaching message because I don’t believe that teaches a true principle and I must base my beliefs only on what is true. We would all be better off if we could say to ourselves, “It is true?” instead of, I will believe it because it comes from an approved source. Elder Deiter F. Uchtdorf in his October 2013 conference address “Come join with us” told the whole church that sometimes leaders of the church don’t know what they are talking about (my paraphrase). The test that anything that anyone says must pass is – Is it true? Is this a true principle? My challenge in the future is to not get angry, just put aside the untrue. Fortunately, my friend made me stop and reassess my initial reaction and in so doing I hope I have closer to the truth.
How can we could be more charitable toward church leaders who may give inelegant examples in their talks?