Gendered Unity

Every ward or branch I’ve lived as an adult has struggled with the dilemma of how to increase a sense of unity among the Relief Society sisters. In some places, demographics have dictated a natural split between the transient (a few months to a few years) young college and graduate age students, wives, and mothers and those who live in the ward on a more permanent basis: more established families, families with grown children, and retirees. We’ve also lived in a branch split by language differences in which about half of the members spoke English as a native language, about half spoke some form of Spanish, and a few spoke other languages like Portuguese and Tagalog.

In all cases, there was an obligation felt by the Relief Society presidencies to increase unity among the sisters. We tried planning enrichment meetings that would encourage cross-generational and cross-cultural interaction. Some things, like potluck dinners with recipe exchanges worked pretty well. But we couldn’t ever make it stick; women naturally segregated themselves by common interests or backgrounds, and always a few women were left out. Those lonely women were generally not actively excluded, but because there was no strong sense of inclusion, they often felt rejected and unwanted, or worse, completely anonymous. (There is something to be said for personal responsibility here: if you want to be included, you need to make an effort. But it may be that for some people that effort is too much; they are compelled to rely on others to carry them for a time.)

There is a special concern for young women turning 18 and entering Relief Society. No longer are they the sole focus of dedicated Young Women’s leaders; now they are just one of a crowd of many women with their own cares and worries to attend to.

As I have been thinking about this quest for unity, I realized I’ve never once heard the men in the ward talking about increasing unity within the Elders Quorum or the High Priests Group. In ward councils, we’ve talked about only unity among the sisters, or throughout the ward generally, but never about the men specifically. Why is that?

Is it that men don’t care as much about feeling loved and supported by the members of their organization? Is that the men have already been split apart, so that generally speaking, older men are in the High Priests Group, and younger men are in the Elders Quorum? They don’t have to try to overcome the natural tendency to self-segregate based on age because the segregation is imposed on them by their offices in the priesthood. And the Young Men, already priesthood holders at the age of twelve, have their opening exercises with the other quorums of adult men. Could that make the transition from priest to elder easier?

Or perhaps the time men spend on a mission helps the transition. They leave as fledgling elders and return ready to settle in to their responsibilities in the ward. Women of a comparable age are not given such a clear transition to adulthood within the church other than marriage.

To summarize: in my experience (admittedly limited, as I don’t attend priesthood meetings on a regular basis), men do not focus on increasing unity amongst themselves and within their quorums and groups. Relief Societies do focus on increasing unity among the sisters. While the difference may be explained in part by gender expectations, another component may be structure of the organizations, where men of all ages, including teens, begin their meetings together and then split by priesthood ordination, and women are more strongly separated from the young women who will be joining them in a few years, with no further official divisions between older and younger women (or women who have held certain leadership positions and those who have not, analogous to the High Priests Group).

What has been your experience in your congregations? What does it mean that there is no “High Sisters” or “Matriarch’s Group”? Will there ever be unity among the sisters?

27 comments for “Gendered Unity

  1. There have been some attempts in the past to get more “togetherness” in the Elders and HP Quorums, one I know of being dividing them up into three groups and assigning each to work specifically on advancing one of the three goals of the Church; Proclaiming the Gospal, Strengthening the Saints, and Redeeming the Dead. I think it failed mainly from lack of direction. From my experience, men tend to prefer being told where and when to be, then going and doing.

    Anyway, in my experience, the greater sense of the need to be self dependant tends to get in the way of even wanting to look for more unity with each other. Unless it’s really bad or really convenient, how often do we ask our Home Teachers for help, or even ask who they are if they’ve never visited?

  2. I don’t know what to make of this. I hear my quorum talk about the need for increased unity among us, but I’ve never heard the RS talk about increasing unity among the sisters. Presumably because I attend a priesthood quorum and not RS.

    In ward councils, quorum unity or RS unity hasn’t been a focus from anybody, but when the subject has come up, it has come up from the men. Usually as a rationale for an icecream social or a softball game, something like that. I assume this is because the RS meets more frequently outside church so they don’t feel a need to discuss why they are doing it.

  3. “in my experience(admittedly limited) men do not focus on increasing unity amongst themselves and within their quorums and groups”

    It has been talked about and is the subject of conference talks (quorum unity). Perhaps it’s not talked about to you. Perhaps you don’t notice because you’re like most people and not overly concerned with things that don’t seem to concern you (on the surface).

    But it’s often on the minds of the men. I don’t think men get worried about how the Priest will feel excluded when they become an Elder. But there is concern about unity among all the Elders, Teachers, etc. generally. There is also often concern about some of the older Elders not feeling a part of the EQ, as well as some of the younger High Priests feeling like they aren’t part connected with the older HPs.

    But generally, I don’t think it’s right to say men aren’t concerned with unity. At the same time there is something “different” there, in how men approach the concept of unity and how it is actually lived up to (or not). I don’t think I can elaborate it clearly though.

  4. I just came off a stint in the EQ Presidency. Quorum unity was always on our minds.

    But here’s an angle on things: My observation has been that in many cases, if an Elder has leadership qualities and/or a talent for guiding young men, he’ll be called into a Bishopric or some other calling that makes him into a HIgh Priest by virtue of the calling. That’s what happened to our most effective secretary just a few months after he came to the ward. It’s all well and good that way.

    But what it does is segregate away the men known to be willing to take the most active roles in the Church. Effectively, the HP group has virtually all the old experienced dedicated people, and the Elders have all the inexperienced young people, and all those with less dedication, and a very few older fully active men whose turn hasn’t come for, or are simply content without ever having, a calling which requires being a High Priest.

    This prompts the question the RS has never had, connected to unity: Why do we keep all the really good Mormons away from the men who could really use the their advice, in that third hour of instruction?

  5. I did say my experience was limited. However, Conference talks aimed toward the YM to increase unity in Quorums do not translate well to Elders Quorums, and rarely (if ever) are they aimed at the adults. There is an assumption we already have unity, having made it into the fraternity. My experience also includes Bishopric and Ward council meetings where this has never been discussed, but not in EQ presidencies, where it is more likely to have been discussed. I was not intending my opinion or experience to be taken as a representative of all, just my feelings on the part I’ve seen. I’d likely also missed out on lessons of unity growing up in a ward where I was almost always the only one in my Quorum.

    To me, the RS and the Priesthood are two very different beasts. The RS seems more interconnected through Visiting Teaching and other activities that build unity, where the Priesthood is tasked with Home Teaching whole families (rather than just the Quorum member in that family). Activites tend to be less teaching and discussing and more sports and helping people move (which should be a ward activity to help, not just a Quorum job).

    Like the RS, the EQ could have a more difficult time with approaching unity (as opposed to the other Quorums) because there is no real distinction needed to be part of the group. The YM are age groups and the HP have Bishopric exprience (largely). I think the more to the Church goal committees was an attempt to create more unity, but I don’t think it worked as well as was hoped.

  6. People no longer know how to socialize or be ‘unified’ and is a rare occasion to see otherwise for me. Visiting and home teaching is now mostly lesson and a ‘is there anything we can do for you/can we leave with a prayer’ that sometimes feel empty. Same with activities that are meant to promote unity. Forced and empty. Unity in my experience happens when people get together out of the ward and do something without the bishopric/EQ/RS announcing it. Do ward actives to help educate and serve but with the intention of only doing that. To ‘unify’ requires work outside the ward. Example- In a singles ward during summer break, a large group that were in the ward for years would see movies, fireworks and have movie marathons at their house. This group often invited others that were new and encourage that intangible unity. These were not often announced officially in church. Those invited got a ‘one on one’ that wasn’t forced and the group interaction enforced the feeling of inclusion. A previous family ward had families that had different holidays where they would throw parties and invite other families from the stake. This helped unify not just wards but the stake.

  7. I’m glad to hear the men seek unity as well. I have talked my husband about this, but he couldn’t recall unity being a major concern. But that may well speak to my husband’s memory and perception about church more than it does what is actually discussed. It may also relate to the fact that for the first half of our married life, he was the primary pianist and never went to elders quorum and had no idea if there even were activities. Now he is in a bishopric and is not a part of quorum presidency meetings.

    I appreciate your reproach, kaphor. Unity in the priesthood quorums only concerns me indirectly. Part of the purpose of this post is to learn if my perception was wrong (which it apparently is, all the better) and to see what are our different approaches to this goal of unifying the saints.

    Frank, I think you’re right that the desire for self sufficiency may be a complicating factor that hinders unity. I am also intrigued by your idea that the priesthood may act as a fraternity. Would relief society then be a sorority?

  8. My first thought is that there may not be emphasis on unity and socialization in EQ because LDS men are more likely to have other built-in social outlets (work). Since the stereotypical LDS woman is a SAHM, RS is probably their primary built-in social outlet and trying to get everyone into the group may be perceived as more important.

    I don’t think there’s much emphasis in my ward on unity in RS. We can barely scrape up 10 people for weekday activities and there are very few other evening activities. Since I have other networks (DH’s extended family, work friends, knitting groups) I’m almost glad there isn’t a lot of pressure with church activities.

  9. tek-You do well in bringing up the idea that unity must arise from the people who wish to be unified; it cannot be dictated from above because to do so results in hollow feeling interactions and a depersonalization of even one-on-one interactions. So if a ward’s leadership notices a problem, rather than organizing activities or pushing ht/vt numbers, would it be better if they just started having parties? Inviting a few families over at a time, building common experience and friendship one afternoon at a time?

  10. E.D. Gender roles and expectations adopted by members of the church are very significant in how we relate to and what we need from each other. I’m glad you have good support networks. Do you think that as society changes and women do more outside of the home that the need for RS to be the main source of socialization will decline? That we will be less unified, but okay with it because we have found other communities of support?

  11. I don’t think this issue is only amongst the women. I think it is for the entire church and world. It is easier to be social online than in person. Another method of segregation are ward/stake boundaries. We tend not to focus on what is common amongst us, our membership in the Church, Relief Society, or Priesthood Quorums. We naturally ask those that say yes. We are all busy and have a hard time putting in the effort to unite. Missions definitely help the transition from the young men quorums to adults quorums; sadly, those that don’t go on missions have a harder transition. I think this has more to do with that their “past quorum” has dissolved and they get a lot of attention as they join their “new quorum.”

    I am in the Elder’s Quorum Presidency and unity is a big concern for me (and many of the Elders that I have spoken with). I think a major difference between the adult men and women is their daily routine. In general, the men associate with their coworkers throughout the week, so they don’t feel a huge lack social interaction in their lives. Not that they don’t feel isolated and alone during quorum meetings on Sunday, just that they are not necessarily starving for adult interaction. To help build camaraderie, I didn’t call a quorum instructor. I just ask/assign different elders to teach each week. (I’m almost through the entire quorum) Allowing so many to teach has increased unity and ability to teach. We have to reach out and do inconvenient things. We can’t expect an increase in unity by continuing to do the same things.

  12. We always talk about unity and togetherness in Elders’ Quorum. In fact, it seems to be a constant theme.

    I’m sure this depends on the ward and the people.

    My personal take is that people in general are more mobile now. A lot fewer people are settling down in one place to stay there for the rest of their life. People leave at a moment’s notice to jump on a sudden job offer or to move to a bigger house. People are extending their education further, meaning they’re only living in a place temporarily until they get a degree and move away to take a job. Jobs are less secure, so people move more often. With all of this moving, people are more hesitant to make friends, knowing that these new people to the ward will probably disappear in a year or two, so what’s the point. That’s my take, anyway. I don’t really know that there’s much that can be done about it.

  13. Adam G.,

    I would say rather that many Mormons don’t make it a priority to socialize within the church. I know of very few people who don’t socialize at all.

  14. I don’t hear a whole lot of discussion about unity in our EQ, and any activities to increase unity are more directed at a ward level (dinner groups, for example). To be fair, this more or less matches the way I socialize at all anymore- getting my family together with other families, rather than hanging out with a bunch of guys.

    There are a few reasons for this I think. After being gone all day most days it feels rude to ditch my wife with the kids for even more hours just so I can go golfing or whatever. Outside of church any socialization that has been offered has been to go out for drinks sometime and since I’m not really one for the bar scene I’ve passed on those. Any other things to do with friends we just default to doing either with the whole families or as couples. Probably related is the fact that all of my friends also happen to be husbands of my wife’s friends.

    As I think about it more, the only things the EQ specifically does to increase unity that I notice are playing a variety of sports, and having a good news/bad news segment before the lesson where quorum members are encouraged to share something about their week.

  15. Is it any wonder we have a problem with unity in the RS when the main emphasis of the organization is the indivudal? The official language is . . . ‘increase faith and personal righteousness’.

    There is a lack of focus and purpose in RS. Our pioneer mothers gathered and physically built zion, provided charity, built hospitals, sewed for the temple, raised food, fought for sufferage, etc. They believed that together they could bring about the second coming. We don’t emphasize a unifying ’cause’. Most ‘gospel in action’ phrases in the RS Declaration,4945,160-1-12-1,FF.html
    (which interestingly is ABSENT from the RS website) are preceded by pronouns referencing the INDIVIDUAL. What is our unifying cause? What is the context by which we will work side by side and knit our hearts together in sisterhood? ‘Personal enrichment’ doesn’t really create the right context for community building. The unity of brotherhood/sisterhood in the gospel is founded upon a common testimony and common purpose. Last time I checked we hadn’t been translated into the clouds. It seems like there is a lot of work left to do. It’s almost as if we’ve given up on being the City of Enoch or doing it together. Now we’re trying it by ourselves. So much of the work we are supposed to do today is done in a silo, is introspective or anti-social.

    Personal prayer
    personal scripture study
    testifying via blogging
    provident living and self-sufficiency
    computerized genealogy
    and quality family time

    actually detract from ‘community’. As we’re working on building the kingdom for the second coming, RS hasn’t articulated the path or told us why we may or may not need each other along the way. (My two cents).

  16. in my basement sits a prime example of the lack of Priesthood quorum unity, my 22 year old son. Made an Elder at 21, he attended an quorum of much older family men who made no effort to include or even acknowledge his needs. He is a faithful enough member to continue to attend his Sunday meeting but not spiritual growth or social grow is happening. The statistics for young men who go inactive at this stage of their life will show that he is not alone in needing quorum unity. I must second the thought that unity is built by the unscheduled private gatherings within the ward family. These types of gathering are a two edged however, as it is easy to leave the less active, the nerdy guy, the not so cute girl out of social group.

  17. I think combining the YW and RS broadcasts into a female broadcast before Gen Conf, just as the men join for the Priesthood one, would increase female unity and give the YW more of a future path instead of dividing those leaders and the RS sisters twice a year.

  18. I don’t see the dichotomy many in this thread see, although I understand their sentiments.

    I think we need to change our perspective on unity a bit. Unity isn’t necessarily even being friends with another disciple, although it can catalyze unity.

    On a fundamental level, we are unified when we are good disciples within our sphere of influence concurrently with other disciples doing the same within their sphere of influence. And although we gather and meet together to recharge, to be honest I think the individual application of unity usually requires that we separate to maximize our impact on the world.

  19. I think YW 14-18 should be assigned as junior companions for visiting teaching, like the Teachers and Priests are for home teaching.

  20. I think that tek makes a good point: our society isn’t really that good at unity at all anymore, not just Mormon society but American society in general.

    Also, unity comes from belonging with a purpose. If you have a purpose and know your contribution is important to the group, then you feel like you belong. Callings can do that. I felt unity as part of a tight-knit ward YW leadership who were unified by the purpose of our service.

    I think the priesthood (with its specific responsibilities) helps do this for men. I also think Sister Beck was trying to give women the sense of ownership of specific responsibilities – that we have important work to do just like the men do – but I don’t know that it caught on. RS feels like fluff a lot of the time.

  21. Thanks for the discussion everyone. Stephanie, I completely agree that we are unified by common purpose. Working together, even as we have different roles to fill, can help us to feel part of a shared cause, and that is a very uplifting and powerful feeling. That shared purpose can make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves even when we are working on our own, as Cameron N points out.

    But what about people who are not able to work with us? It may be because health, family responsibilities, or other obligations preclude a satisfying level of activity. Can they through work on individual goals feel like part of the group because the group shares those same goals and priorities?

    And how do we help our young people who are transitioning into adulthood and becoming part of the vast volunteer network that is our lay clergy? Cassandra’s idea of including YW in VT could help. What else can we do? Or should we do?

  22. it depends how large a group your relief society is. mine in courtenay is small and interesting people in it so it is easy to connect. you cannot expect rs to do overbearing amounts of counselling if someone is in a lot of need for help. YW to be included more in VT (i.e. a few times per year) sounds good. but,. there are a lot of activities on offer for people where likeminded folks can connect. not like in the old days in the Pioneer West when basically there were only other mormons to socialize with…

  23. Rachel, I think that can work in the short-term. Essentially what you are saying is be a member of the church without a specific calling or responsibility. Sometimes life gets overwhelming and people have to take a step back. But, in our culture of callings and service, I don’t think it really works to sustain a feeling of belonging in the long-term.

    I think the key is to help each member contribute at a level that is satisfying *to them*. I’ve seen a scenario play out repeatedly in my ward. Sister A is given a calling to do X. It turns out to be too much for her, so she either asks to be released or just stops doing the calling. The conclusion on the part of ward leadership is that she either can’t handle a calling or doesn’t want one. In most of the cases, she then has no calling for a long time and begins to feel like she doesn’t belong. I think a better solution would be to say, “Sister A, I am sorry we gave you a calling that isn’t a good fit. Could you tell me what you think you could handle and would enjoy? A Sunday teaching calling? A weekday calling? Something you can do from home? etc.” In every case I can think of, the women want to contribute, they just can’t contribute at the level being asked of them.

    As for transitioning into adulthood, wow, that is a tough one. I don’t have many answers. All I can say is this: of the youth who I have taught before they graduated, the ones who seem satisfied with the church are the ones who found an LDS group to immediately join – institute, singles ward, BYU schools. I can think of very few who stayed at home and just joined the ward RS or priesthood who actually stayed active for very long.

  24. The stake president asked my husband what he would do to “energize” the ward. He said he would encourage missionary work and temple work. Rachel, I think that could answer your question of

    But what about people who are not able to work with us? It may be because health, family responsibilities, or other obligations preclude a satisfying level of activity. Can they through work on individual goals feel like part of the group because the group shares those same goals and priorities?

    Missionary work, temple work, family history, indexing are all individual goals that contribute to the whole and are a good way to involve members who might not be able to serve in other ways.

  25. no way ! i just got my first calling sustained and i got my blessing. Why is this no big deal for me. If i do not get a calling I will be totally OK with it. It sure was nice that the calling befits my skill set and that I got a blessing. why worry????? What I SURE DO NOT understand but I guess it is human is (at stephanie) when people just STOP DOING the calling without communicating ??? what is that all about. where is the spirit of being accountable.

  26. christine, it is usually because 1. they are overwhelmed in their personal life and don’t want to let people know, 2. they hate the calling to begin with but feel they have to accept any calling (and assume that accepting it and not doing anything is better than saying no), 3. they are coming to church less and less anyways, 4. they don’t feel like the ward leadership listens to them to begin with, so why bother? There are lots of reasons. I think empathetic listening on the part of ward leadership helps (and not putting people into callings that are too much for them to begin with. I’ve seen this happen a lot).

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