Dealing With the Problem of Men’s Participation

One issue that people seem to raise against extending priesthood to women is its effect on men. Men, the argument goes, will be less engaged in the Church if priesthood is not a male-only domain.

Because this is a practical, rather than a normative, claim, it doesn’t call for a revelatory solution. Moreover, to the extent male engagement is a real problem, the problem continues even if and after the prophet receives a revelation making priesthood available to men and women. And if it’s a real problem, we need to deal with it. Keeping men engaged at the expense of women is not a justifiable goal, but keeping men engaged is. As Julie points out on another thread, we “need to consider how to keep a generation raised on ‘yours is a sacred duty . . .’ rhetoric active after they aren’t unique any more.

The good new is, I don’t think it would be that hard to continue male engagement even in a world where all members could hold the priesthood. I assume, of course, that it isn’t exclusivity in holding the priesthood that encourages male engagement; rather, it is the ability to exercise that priesthood by, among other things, serving in callings that demand the use of priesthood.[fn1]

If I’m right in my assumption, the easy solution is this: smaller wards. In my Chicago ward, we’ve been blessed with very active, engaged members. But not a whole lot of them. When the ward was formed, we had about 70 people in Sacrament Meeting. Today, a little over two years later, we’re up to just over 100 (partly from baptisms, and largely from people moving in).[fn2] We function, and we function relatively well, but we have no fat—there are no made-up callings—and we’re understaffed in every auxiliary. And basically every member, as best as I can tell, feels ownership, responsibility, and belonging.

Assume that suddenly all of the women in the ward were to receive the priesthood, and were eligible for the administrative positions in the Church that require priesthood. Assume, further, that all of the callings that require priesthood today were to go to women. In my ward, that would not diminish the need for men to serve, or their ability to do so, at all, and I suspect that our engagement with the  Church would not be diminished either.[fn3]

[fn1] This is just my gut feeling, of course—I certainly don’t have any empirical evidence on the effects of holding v. exercising priesthood. But I think it’s a fair assumption; being ordained a deacon at 12 doesn’t seem to ensure that a boy will stay in the Church (at least, based on ward rosters I’ve seen), but boys who actively pass and bless the sacrament, eventually hold callings, and otherwise engage with the Church seem much more likely to stay. I realize, of course, that there’s a causation/correlation issue here, but then, this is just a blog post.

[fn2] Note that both the 70 and the 100+ numbers include kids.

[fn3] I haven’t discussed my opinion on the ordination of women in the post because it’s irrelevant to my larger point, which is that there are simple, practical ways to continue to engage men in the Church, even if they were to lose their exclusive hold on priesthood. That the Church is run, at the local level, by lay volunteers means that there can always be ways to serve.

That said, it would be disingenuous of me to hide my views. Basically, like Nate, Kaimi, and Alison, I think that women should have the chance to hold the priesthood. And, like Nate, I’m not entirely sure what to do about that belief. I don’t think there is a scriptural or revelatory basis to a male-only priesthood. That said, on a practical level, I don’t know whether agitating lobbying is more beneficial or more harmful. That said, I believe that revelation follows questions, and, in order to receive revelation, the Lord’s annointed have to ask Him; it seems pretty clear that the pleading that led to the 1978 revelation on priesthood was at least partly based on the prophet’s knowing that the restriction imposed real harm on children of God. So I’m in a bind, and I default to arguing that, at least on a practical level, priesthood isn’t a zero-sum game.

39 comments for “Dealing With the Problem of Men’s Participation

  1. “That said, on a practical level, I don’t know whether agitating lobbying is more beneficial or more harmful. That said, I believe that revelation follows questions, and, in order to receive revelation, the Lord’s anointed have to ask Him.”

    So if our April General Conference comes and goes, and there is no revelation, what will that mean to you?

    (A) A male-only priesthood is the right answer.
    (B) The leaders of the Church are denying/avoiding/____-ing the obviously right answer.

    I want to be satisfied waiting on the Lord. As full-time missionaries bemoan with the complaint, “Every member a mission president,” I don’t want for every member to play like President of the Church. And I believe that every member should magnify his or her own calling. The process is more important that the outcome, I think. My hope, perhaps an impossible hope, is for everyone to find great happiness in the Lord’s Church, as it is constituted in their own time. The Gospel message of faith, hope, and charity is a wonderful message, and I enjoy gathering with the Saints each Sunday for the happiness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I know some persons don’t find happiness in the Church today, and won’t until the Church is changed is some way or the other — I suppose this aways has and always will be the case. I believe that one can find happiness in the Church today, as presently constituted — and they could in the old days, as was constituted then — and they will be able to in the future, as may be constituted then — all if they choose to. In the meantime, the learning process of waiting on the Lord is also a sanctifying process.

    All this said, it would be disingenuous of me to hide my views. I leave it totally to the President of the Church and those who sustain him. He holds the keys — this is a matter between him and the Lord, and I’ll sustain him as he sustains the Lord. Like Lincoln once said of Blondin, everyone else should be quiet and be prayerful so that Blondin (and Lincoln) can make the decisions they have to make. And then, (A) or (B)?

  2. Our stake in Canada was characterized by one High Councilor as “a tired stake” we have STP going on all over the place. I can easily name 8 or 9 guys who have served as Bishop twice. 2/3 of our Stake Pres. has been in the Stake Pres. before. In one ward they were looking for a new EQ Pres. and there just wasn’t really anyone to serve and this new family moved in from BC and he got called to be the EQ Pres. plus he is a city planner so he can hopefully speed u the proposed Temple! We have an inactive guy on the High Council and that’s been how it is for some time now and I can alos list several former bishopric members, high councilors and one former stake presidency member (also had been a Bishop) who haven’t been to Church in a long time. We are slim, slim pickings when it comes to men in our stake who are willing to serve and once released, willing to serve again and in my ward we have a micromanaging Bishopric who are “killing the willing” as they say so I suspect we may see some more dropouts as a couple of weeks ago the YM Pres. walked out of a meeting and was upset and wasn’t at Church last week so I dunno! we’ll see.

    I know the women in our stake are just as overburdened as the men are. I think when you are strained for resources you pretty much cut out and limit the extraneous stuff and so you get to the meat of the potato and you ask yourself what are we really doing, why are we doing it and can I make this easier on people to attend and not be a humongous waste of time.

  3. So if our April General Conference comes and goes, and there is no revelation, what will that mean to you?

    None of the above, necessarily.

  4. Very well put, Sam.

    I think church service encourages men to be better because it involves them in a higher purpose, urges discipline and self-control, and provides them endless opportunities to be involved and feel important.

    Exactly the same way it encourages women to be better!

    I’ve never been in a Priesthood meeting, but if what they are teaching in there is, “Men, you need to righteously exercise this Priesthood because it’s the only thing keeping you above all those dumb broads,” then we’ve got bigger problems.

  5. I’ve certainly felt more valued when I’ve lived and served in smaller wards and branches. The only problem I see with proposing that as a solution is that it could make youth activities more difficult. There wouldn’t be enough young men to form full scout troops, and they would need to do scouts in community troops instead of ward troops. But, of course, even that would be a good thing for those of us who are entirely frustrated with the way most church-chartered scout troops are conducted.

  6. I think the “smaller wards” idea is really interesting and mitigates the male participation problem nicely. However, I worry how smaller wards would translate into smaller YM/YW numbers, an important contributing factor to youth activity (at least outside Utah).

  7. Thanks everyone. Re: the youth, I actually think there are advantages to small youth programs. Our ward has 5 YW and 2 YM. The leaders—all of whom are excellent—have worked hard to get to know the youth personally and tailor activities and lessons to their particular needs. Many of our youth come from families that aren’t active in the church, and the leaders provide great spiritual (and temporal) support to them.

    Once a month, they’ll do joint activities with youth from neighboring wards. They could do it more often if they wanted, but they’re happy as it is.

    In a way, I think the smaller youth program allows our youth more engagement in and ownership of their experience with the Church. YMMV, of course.

  8. I have a fair amount of experience in small branches, and from what I’ve noticed, the key to keeping the youth active is involving them in running the branch and giving them callings. A 16-year-old is completely capable of teaching a Primary class, for example. I got my first calling at age 11, as pianist for the Spanish Branch in my stake, and after that I was ward organist for most of my teenage years. Having a real responsibility that makes a difference is a great motivator. In many cultures, especially historically, teenagers have functioned basically as adults. I think having programs that are built around serving the needs of the youth rather than integrating the youth into programs where they are expected to serve may be a mistake. Ordaining the YM and YW and then giving both genders real callings from the age of 12 might actually be a good idea.

  9. I absolutely believe that holding the priesthood makes me a better man, father, and husband. I believe this is true for many, many LDS men. But if priesthood can only make you a better, more engaged, more religiously observant, better serving, more socially responsible, &c, &c, if your wife is _not_ allowed to have it, then you’re a pretty, um, unimpressive man.

  10. I spent three years in a tiny ward–small enough that when the EQP moved out, the Executive Secretary took over and the Bishopric went without an Executive Secretary. Small enough that when the stake presidency listed the names of the ward leadership in ward conference, everyone laughed when the Sunday School President was named, because no one knew who he was and he hadn’t been to church in years. Small enough that we only had one active young man.

    And I felt like I was needed. I felt like I was an instrumental part of the ward. I knew all of the active members fairly well, even those I had little in common with. We were a tight-knit group, and eagerly included anyone who was there, even if they were only there for a few months. We felt bad about moving out of the ward because we were needed. I was very active in the ward, and I contributed a great deal to it.

    Now I’m in a large ward. I’m not needed. I have a filler calling. I don’t really know very many people in the ward, and I don’t feel welcome when I show up. I don’t have much incentive to show up, and no one seems to care if I don’t. I’m still active, but I’m not engaged.

    So I definitely think we need to move towards having smaller wards. Regardless of whether or not women have the priesthood.

  11. I am sceptical that the main benefit of the priesthood for maintaining male participation is getting lots of callings. My belief is that a significant percentage of men need to be needed as men. Not as androgynous calling-fillers. If getting callings was the point, there would be no agitation for a unisex priesthood, since women can and do get worked like mules in the church just like men. The belittling response–the “man-up” response, like Brad Kramer gives above–misses this point. In fact, by assuming that men should be manly–by assuming that sex differences are real and make a difference–it is self-defeating. The unisex priesthood only makes sense if sex as a category is as imaginary as race is.

    Putting that aside and just riffing on small wards in general–I have observed that small wards are pretty exhausting on the faithful, burn out the people of middling activity who become less active where in a larger setting they might have kept on, and have lots of inactives because the members don’t have the time to devote to bringing back as many as they otherwise could. I also think they make it hard to run youth programs that are much fun; I say this as a current youth leader. The benefits of small wards are real, but every coin has two faces.

  12. I don’t see how extending ordination to women would change the supply-demand of people to callings. Ideally, today every man and woman currently holds one calling. If the gender requirements were eliminated for all (or almost all) positions, every man and woman would each hold one calling (the number of callings would not change–nor the number of people)–it would just be that the gender of people in each of the positions might differ from that of the current office holders.

  13. Greenwood, my comment has nothing to do with calling scarcity. It has to do with the positive socialization effects of priesthood-worthiness requirements and priesthood service (which are actually close to isomorphic with worthiness requirements and church service in general), and with my skepticism that those positive effects are dependent on the exclusion of women from priesthood. Gender complementarianism does not depend on the absence of a unisex priesthood, any more than it depends on any other fact of social life (at any given time or place) that is a product of sex differences.

  14. Anyone wonder whether the change in missionary age for young women, which is bringing so many more of them into service, on a partity with young men, could be eventually a precursor to extending the priesthood in some fashion to women? All the really difficult and spiritually demanding part of bringing people into the church is done just as well by sister missionaries as by elders, so holding the priesthood is not a prerequisite to effective service. This is being done in conjunction with a unitary curriculum for the young men and young women that emphasizes understanding and having faith in the gospel. If women have the same training and the same experience of relying on the Spirit to find people and teach them, are we laying a foundation for them to accept and sustain each other as equivalent in other church roles as well?

  15. Interesting question Raymond.

    I have certainly noticed that former sister missionaries form a disproportionately large subset of Mormon feminists. Something about the experience (which I never had, not having gone on a mission) seems to push many women into feminism.

    I think the church has a great opportunity right now to get a jump on the massive amounts of disaffection that could be caused to all of these new women going out in the field.

    But I cynically think it will take all those women coming home, feeling disaffected, and joining the ranks of the “evil feminist activists” for the Brethren to start taking it seriously.

  16. nat, which way is the arrow point on that one? By which I mean, do you think that maybe women more inclined to feminism are more inclined to serve missions?

  17. I’m not sure, Julie. All I know is that I’m immersed in stories all the time about how women came to a “feminist awakening” in the church. And mission experiences would definitely rank as one of the top 5.

    (Also up there are eternal and historical polygamy, the temple, depression after years of following the church-approved model of proper womanhood, etc.)

    If there was a proclivity for “potential” feminists to serve in the past, I think the age change may have adjusted for that slightly; I was no feminist at the age of 19, but if the policy had been in place at that time, nothing could have stopped me from going, simply because I was zealous to serve God to the maximum extent possible.

    It will be interesting to see how the increase of sister missionaries affects feminist ranks within the church. As a feminist, I am optimistic about it. :)

  18. I mean not to waste a good post by the excellent Sam Brunson, but for my own part, I refuse to entertain solutions to this “problem” until those who insist that it would be a problem pony up some hard evidence to that effect. I know of no correlation between decline in male participation and ordination of women among denominations that currently ordain women vs. ones that don’t, so I see no reason to believe that it would be a problem for the LDS church.

    Until they do, there is no qualitative difference between insisting that men would abandon the church if women were ordained and raving histrionically about the monsters under one’s bed.

  19. I think you can make up very plausible scenarios where women’s ordination would lead to increases in male participation in the church. Here are a couple:

    1) Women’s ordination will lead wards to function better through a number of avenues – more flexible man power resources, access to more spiritual gifts of more members, supporting wives or daughters in callings.

    2) The pure excitement of such a big revelation would draw many members – men, women and families to reengage with the church. This may especially be true for the younger men that have left.

    3) It will bring the ever increasing number of women leaving the church back to church and the fact is that men go where the women are (can’t we at least be as cynical about this as people like to be about men’s laziness?).

    The fact is that this change would be so big that it would be hard to predict its effects on things like men’s participation. I for one would be shocked if it made men’s participation go down. Even if it did it would select out douchebag men who are just in it for the power, control and status – the exact type of guys that 121 already tells us have said “amen to the priesthood of that man”. So even it it did go down the average quality of the participating male priesthood holder would rise IMHO.

  20. Thanks for the nice words, Jack. I agree that there’s no evidence that ordaining women would lead to any loss of men’s participation. That said, even if it did, as I hope this post demonstrates, it’s not a tough fix. And, in any event, I don’t see any downside to policies that increase members’ engagement with the body of Christ.

  21. K… so after reading each of the “women should hold the priesthood”-related posts and most of the comments I have one question that I’m hoping someone can give a real good answer for without attacking/sarcasm/ridicule.

    It seems the most argument holding the most weight for why women should be ordained is that there are many women who feel personally offended/hurt/marginalized because the don’t have it, and therefore the church/Lord ought to make changes to make these women feel better and more included.

    My question then: Is the “make members feel good/happy” a legitimate objective that the church organization should be striving to make? Any time ANY change it made, it makes someone happy and someone else upset. Does making group A feel better justify alienating group B? Should satisfying those who want female priesthood more important than alientating those who absolutely don’t want female priesthood? If you can’t satisfy both, why is satisfying one group inherently better than remaining satisfactory to the other?

  22. Jax, nat’s link is definitely worth the read; it provides a wide array of carefully-considered reactions to the question of women and the priesthood.

    I’ll try to give a quick reply here to your question, but take it with the caveat that it doesn’t represent any kind of consensus view. But I think your question, as formulated, elides some important considerations. The issue is more than “mak[ing] members feel good/happy”; it is addressing an issue that legitimately hurts certain members, and quite plausibly prevents them from achieving their potential, without either a doctrinal foundation or a compelling explanation. That is, there is no scriptural or revelatory reason (at least, not one that has been canonized and delivered to the body of the Church) that priesthood should be male-only. It is current Church policy, but Church policy surrounding who holds priesthood has changed over time (including racial restrictions and ages for getting priesthood).

    And, as I take pains to point out, the priesthood is not zero-sum. Someone else’s holding the priesthood does not diminish my priesthood. White priesthood holders did not lose anything in 1978. Similarly, if the prophet were to announce that priesthood would be available for women as well as men, that would do nothing to diminish my priesthood.

    I’m not making an affirmative case for women holding the priesthood here, though I think there is a strong case for it and, if the prophet were to announce the change, I would be fully supportive. But my goal was merely to point out that one of the main potential harms that has been asserted (though, as Ms. Jack points out, has not been proven and may well be specious) is easy to address without in any way altering doctrine. And the administrative change that would solve the problem (e.g. smaller wards) has been successfully navigated many times, including by my current Chicago ward.

  23. Jax, I’d argue that it has, in fact, almost nothing to do with hurt feelings. We’re told that God is just, and it stands to reason that a church dedicated to worshiping such a God ought to strive for the highest human approximation of justice we can manage. And, practically, we can’t afford to waste the talents and skills of anyone in the church–building Zion demands the fullest employment of everyone’s gifts. Jesus didn’t tell any of the laborers to bury their talents, and yet we currently tell women that many of their gifts are not wanted in the church.

  24. Hurt feelings are the *symptom* of a problem that exists regardless of those feelings.

    Our church leaders currently do a lot of bad medicine trying to address the symptoms without addressing the root cause. (But women are incredible! You get to be primary president! We’re saving you from this burdensome responsibility!)

    The problem is inequality. The problem is a failure to live up to Zion’s promise. The problem is stilting the growth of half of the church’s members, and therefore the church as a whole.

  25. Jax, I think you could flip your question around and ask if the Church is in the business of making men feel welcome enough to participate by keeping women from participating fully (kind of the argument that motivated this post).

    But really, Nat, Kristine, and Sam have great answers, I think.

  26. Why Men Hate Going to Church [Paperback]
    David Murrow
    From Publishers Weekly
    “Murrow, a television writer and producer, asks and effectively answers the question: “What is it about modern Christianity that is driving men away?” Just 35% of American men say they attend church weekly, he reports, and women make up more than 60% of the typical congregation on a given Sunday. Murrow contends that the church caters to women, children and the elderly by creating a safe, predictable environment. This alienates anyone fond of risk taking, including young men and women, but men are affected most. In order to reach men, Murrow suggests, churches must “adjust the thermostat” to embrace the masculine spirit: let men lead; give them tasks; encourage pastors to show strength and teach men through object lessons, letting them discover truth for themselves. Two of the best outreach methods: start rigorous mentoring programs and help men make friends with other men. Murrow bases his conclusions on what he claims are legitimate biological and cultural gender differences. He is aware that these observations might offend, and his thesis will find few takers among those who believe that the church needs less, not more, male influence. But Murrow’s work is quite likely to get an enthusiastic reception from many Christian men. It contains sharp observations that will provoke much discussion—and, perhaps, some change. (Mar. 24)
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. “

  27. Ziff,

    I don’t think this is a men v women issue. I think there are a LOT of women out there who believe female priesthood would be wrong and would leave. Someone stated in a post on one of the blogs (to many to go through and find) that they think there are more women than assumed that would like the equality of the priesthood, but that they don’t say anything because they don’t want to be seen as different/revolutionary/progressive/etc – that feeling is because I think the majority of people (including the majority of women) think the idea is wrong. I think many would feel the church had gone astray and would consider leaving. I don’t think it is just men, I think it is the women as well.

    I think we need men to be engaged because it is what they’re supposed to do, and not because it is unique to men. That is just bone-headed.


    I’ve read all of our canonized scripture and have no reference to any scripture that says “only men, and not women, can hold the priesthood”. But scriptural records tell me that only men have ever held the priesthood. Seeing how scripture “study” often includes looking for patterns and repetitions, the pattern of men (and men only) seems pretty well established. This is the same scriptural stance as the one we use when we say “God has always communicated his will to his people, and therefore we should expect the same today.” Can you tell me why it works when talking about modern prophets, but not for modern priesthood?

    I do acknowledge the trend of ever increasing the included circle from Patriarchal lineage, to levites, to Isreal, etc. That has a scriptural record as well. Why does this one trump the other?

    Priesthood is zero-sum. Even with men, ordaining more men doesn’t dimish my authority/power… ordaining women would also have no negative effect. Agreed!

  28. Just off the top of my head, Jax, I can think of at least 3 women in scripture that seem to have been ordained after some manner.

    Phebe: a deacon (Romans 16:1…. KJV translates it as “servant” but it is based on the Greek word diakonos which is otherwise translated as deacon)

    Junia: an apostle (Romans 16:7)

    Emma Smith: ordained to expound scripture and exhort the church (D&C 25:7)

    Not to mention all the prophetesses of the OT, and other Apostolic female figures in the NT.

  29. Jax,
    I think there are two questions: Should women hold the priesthood? Should our prophet ask God if women may hold the priesthood. Wouldn’t God’s answer to the second settle the first? President Hinckley allowed that it would be possible. Are you saying if TSM announced revelation tomorrow making the priesthood available to women that many would leave the church? I strongly doubt it!

  30. Nat- ordained in 1830 hadn’t yet acquired the technical meaning it has in the Church today. Moreover, the OT separates priesthood from prophethood.

  31. …separates priesthood from prophethood. Yes, conflating the two leads to a lot of problems even today.

  32. I just don’t understand the line of thinking that the priesthood is special because women can’t have it. I mean are men really going to think that it is no longer an honor to have the power to act in God’s name if women have it? That seems like such a juvenile response to me. I really hope and I imagine that the men of the church are more mature than that. I hope they have a better understanding of the priesthood than that.

  33. Sam: For what it is worth, I think that you massively understate the difficulties involved in creating an effective male identity for Mormons if that identity is no longer mediated through the priesthood, and I also think that you misunderstand the way in which Priesthood generates male identity for Mormons. I don’t think that priesthood does its current work primarily by making men eligible for certain administrative positions. I think that the focus on administrative and liturgical power is to view priesthood through female eyes in terms of what the current structure of priesthood denies to women. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, seeing the priesthood through female eyes is important and we should have more of it. On the other hand, I do think that doing so is going to mislead you if your goal is to understand what priesthood does for men. I think that primarily what it does for men is to link the idea of male power with the idea of godliness and righteousness. I am talking about “male power” here not in terms of feminist discourses of “male privilege” but rather in terms of something like the greek idea of male thumos — i.e. violence, assertiveness, sexual potency etc. All of that has been wrapped up in the priesthood for over a century. I think that it is a bit naive to suppose that we can easily find a substitute for something that elemental by making sure that men have access to some calling other than ward greeter.

  34. Whatever did we do for a male identity in the days before we gave every male over 12 the Priesthood? Must have been some hard times when men didn’t know how to be men.

  35. Frank: Two answers. First, we still did it through the idea of priesthood, it was simply made aspirational for young men. Second, we didn’t do it very well, which of course is part of the reason that the Aaronic priesthood was turned into a young men’s program.

  36. I’ve only skimmed these comments, so my apologies if I’m repeating what somebody else said. But it occurs to me that the new mission program is going to give us a bit of a natural experiment on this question. If mission service becomes a de facto expectation for both genders — that is, it no longer works to mediate LDS notions of emergine masculinity — then we can watch male mission participation rates and see what happens. That might give us a decent proxy of what might happen if we ordain women. The next five to ten years will be fascinating to watch.

  37. For those calling for data, David Campbell’s study last year was widely reported, finding higher religiosity (that is, participation, not just membership) among LDS and orthodox Judaism. Easily googleable, for specifics.

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