After an LDS Visit, I Wonder if Female Clergy are the Problem

Latter Day Prophets, courtesy of mormonthink.com
Latter Day Prophets, courtesy of mormonthink.com

As a professional Mystery Worshiper, I would say that their web presence is possibly the least visitor-friendly site I’ve seen. The services are lackluster, noisy and unprofessional without much music and no technological bells and whistles. The messages are shallow and amateur at best, the dress code rigid, the women oppressed, and the moral life of their founder sets the standard as a sex-obsessed charlatan. Decisions that affect the world-wide church are made by a tiny group of old men to whom complete obedience is expected. Yet the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) continue to show rapid growth and continued impact around the world.

By any standard, other than adherence to anything close to orthodox Christian theology, this is a successful church.

What’s the deal?

Two things: organizational genius and a well-developed method of meeting one of the greatest of human needs: a sense of belonging both socially and spiritually.

The Mormon Organizational Genius

The LDS church is a tightly run, autocratic institution. The twelve Apostles and Prophets make all necessary decisions, including coming up with any new revelations about Mormon doctrine which can be pretty fluid. No democratic process to slow things down. No general or local conferences where everyone might have a say in the decisions. It’s tight and clean, well-funded and efficient.

There are no paid clergy or staff at any location. Various councils meet periodically and assign roles and responsibilities to the members. These responsibilities are frequently changed, so no one gets stuck in any particular service position for an extended period of time. The Sunday messages actually consist of “testimonies,” usually two per week, about twenty minutes each. These are also assigned. Each ward has its own Bishop, who generally stays in office for about five years. He oversees the functioning of the entire ward. Despite the fact that this is an extremely time-consuming job, there again is no financial compensation.

Buildings are functional, spacious, and utilized by several different “wards,” which are geographical groupings. Because Mormons are required to tithe, massive amounts of money flow into the central offices which permits them to fund rapid and worldwide expansion. Those monies then are used to build the local meeting places. Utilities and building maintenance needs are also funded by the central organization. I was unable to find any information about LDS finances on their official website so I don’t know their yearly revenue, and the Wikipedia article about LDS finances stated that “The LDS Church has not publicly disclosed its financial statements in the United States since 1959.” But they’ve got to be taking in billions every year.

Even without knowing the details, it is clear that such a structure frees the local gatherings from any fiscal concerns so energy can be spent on building and expanding their communities.

The Mormon Community

Because the wards are arranged geographically, people attend services with those who live close to them, and children and youth see their church friends at their local schools. There is no such thing as a mega-church where people come from extended distances for a worship show. They are there with their friends. Home groups are a piece of cake to set up. There is an active ethos of caring for one another. They are not alone.

From the time they are eight or nine years old, boys have an active role in the church services as those who distribute the sacraments (pieces of white bread and cups of water) to the congregations. They are ordained deacon at age 12, and can obtain full priesthood, the Melchizedek Priesthood, by age 18. At that point, they have the authority to give special blessings to family members and others and, under authorization of their own presiding priesthood leaders, can ordain other men to the priesthood.

Then there is the strongly encouraged two years of mission, which in my opinion is the cornerstone of the community. Young men may being their missions at 18, and the young women have just been granted permission to begin theirs at age 19. It used to be age 21 for the females, which effectively kept many of them from mission since early marriages are fairly common among Mormons. However, it is now expected that far more women will engage in that two-year service period.

Those who go on mission are very much isolated from their families and deeply enculturated into Mormon rules and regulations, doctrine and theology. They learn above all to be obedient to their superiors in the church. It’s not an environment that they would easily leave upon their return. It is also not an environment that teaches or encourages independent thought. Those years of mission would function much like initiation rites into fraternities or shared combat experience among veterans. It bonds them tightly to one another and to the church which sends them.

Add to this the extreme secrecy that surrounds the Temple rituals and the theology that says unless a woman is “sealed” in a Temple marriage, she will not have a place in the Celestial kingdom. The combination creates strong in-group cohesiveness with multiple social benefits. People always have a group to offer support and friendship. Furthermore, by means of their missionary training, essentially every Mormon knows how to explain the basics of their faith and invite others into the church.

Outsiders see attractive, friendly, family focused, generally moral people. Behavioral standards are high: no alcohol, coffee, tea, (soft drinks are fine), or tobacco. Although the LDS church no longer condemns outright those who experience same-sex attraction, sexual contact is reserved only in marriage, and only between men and women (hence again the young marriages).

In addition the LDS church can and does excommunicate members for thinking and speaking outside accepted faith guidelines. When one’s entire social and support community is found within the Mormon culture, the threat of excommunication carries significant weight. Although those who are excommunicated can still attend services, they may not partake in the sacraments or participate in any leadership role. It’s an effective shunning practice that keeps people in the fold. According to the 2006 church leadership handbook “formally joining another church constitutes apostasy and is an excommunicable offense; however, merely attending another church does not constitute apostasy.” Anyone aware of these rules will be extremely hesitant to investigate other religious traditions and beliefs, although there do appear to be growing numbers of disaffected Mormons.

So What?

In this year of retirement from being a United Methodist pastor to becoming professional church visitor, I’ve written many analyses of various fast growing church plants. United Methodists are certainly not among them. I keep looking for the commonalities and why we United Methodists, with our rich theology of grace, structures of accountability and important connection and more open arms are seeing such serious decline.

Two reasons are obvious:

1. We’re fighting like cats and dogs over issues of sexuality which is really a fight over biblical interpretation.

2. Our bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it seem that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.

But a third may be the death knell we absolutely don’t want to acknowledge: the decision to ordain women and bring them to positions of highest leadership. Things change when women–or any previously oppressed group–take leadership roles. But I’m writing specifically about women here. I am one, after all. One who very much believes God called me into the ministry of the ordained.

But it hurt us. The fast growing churches as a rule do not have female clergy. They also do not employ collaborative decision-making processes, which most women prefer. I know I’m speaking in generalities here, but have to start somewhere. As a rule, women are less interested in empire building–and that appears to be a major motivation in some of the fastest growing churches I’ve looked at–but more in the healing of the world and active engagement with those on the margins. We don’t have as much access to the male-dominated uber-wealthy who often provide massive funding for the highly conservative churches.

I’ll write more about this later, but this thought has been dancing at the edges of my mind for some time, and I wanted to go ahead and put this out there.

I welcome all comments. I think it is time we talk about this.

12 thoughts on “After an LDS Visit, I Wonder if Female Clergy are the Problem

  1. I do not think that female clergy are the problem. (I am not sure of the Biblical basis for ordaining women but was blessed with a remarkable woman pastor who helped me in grow in grace in many ways.) I think the best analysis of the United Methodist church problem can be found in the The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy by Rodney Stark. It details why the Methodist church grew from small numbers to dominance in the mid-19th Century and the “reforms” that contributed to its subsequent shrinkage. It is important to realize that the shrinkage of the Methodist church (in terms of its share of the churched) began to shrink in the 1860s not the 1960s.
    At that time, the Methodist Church went from a very high commitment, “exclusive” church to the present “no commitment” inclusive church. The 18th Century Methodist church was exclusive in the sense that people had to meet high expectations for living a pious life and doing works of mercy to join. (If you didn’t attend class meetings, you could not attend worship.)
    In the 19th Century, the Methodist Church began to focus on being “respectable.” Pews were sold to the wealth. Clergy were professionalized with a seminary education providing cultural isolation from the membership. (I will only touch on the harm that some seminaries do by focusing on academic education rather than faith development. People come to them wanting to be pastors and leave wanting to be professors.) Uncomfortable doctrines like human depravity were forgotten. How many modern Methodists believe in their heart of hearts that their nice neighbor who has no faith in Jesus is really going to hell? As a result, what evangelism we do is selling the “Christian lifestyle” rather than offering the lifeline of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Given the modern cultural resistance to Christianity, folks will work harder to recruit members for the rotary club, than they will evangelize. Since we are afraid to remind people of their need for a savior, most sermons are therapeutic (How being part of the church can make you a happier person) or exhortations to good deeds (God wants you to make the world a better place.)
    The LDS doctrines may seem illogical; but the LDS appear to take them seriously. Do we really expect United Methodist church members to take Methodist doctrine seriously? Heck, could one in ten even tell you what our United Methodist doctrine is? If you asked ten clergy would you get eleven different answers? Up until recently (e.g., Bishops Jones and Willimon) the United Methodist Church didn’t even think doctrine was important enough to make it accessible to the general membership. And when we found that the membership did not understand baptism or the Lord’s supper, we didn’t just go to the doctrine and develop educational programs. No, we chartered groups to rethink the doctrine. Is that the action of a church that takes doctrine seriously?
    Where we need to go from here is: 1) Start movements like Wesley’s Methodism to revitalize the United Methodist Church; 2) Teach our clergy and congregations that sitting in the pews and “playing church” is not acceptable — we are expected to make disciples and we expect them to become disciples. If they want to “play church” they can become Episcopalians (playing is more fun with better costumes); 3) Have clergy and lay leaders able and willing to define what a disciple looks like, establish an intentional process for disciple making, and let the congregation know that growing in grace and becoming a disciple is expected — not an advance course for a “holy few”; 3) raise up bi-vocational non-seminary educated pastors. Our churches are too small to support clergy with huge student loans to repay; 4) eliminate most of the bureaucracy. Slim down the discipline to what really matters and expect churches to follow it. Refocus Annual Conference organizations on helping churches become vital and make disciples rather than trying to micromanage their churches. Take a hard look at General Boards and Agencies and eliminate all of them that are not essential for the survival of the denomination; and, finally, 5) Have clergy and lay leaders willing to set the expectation to, and provide the example of, living the Christian community like our LDS brothers and sisters. We need to take care of our own. There should be no United Methodist in need (not because of government programs); but because their church family is caring for them.
    If we do these five things, I firmly believe that the only way we could keep from growing would be to lock the church doors.

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  2. My view: 1. Many men in the U.S. don’t feel comfortable with women in leadership, so they will leave. 2. Men are notoriously hard to get into and keep in church; women are the under-girders and even ‘run’ the churches without getting paid. 3. The more change in society (and in churches), the more people get afraid and tend to want everything spelled out as far as structure and right and wrong, trying to feel more comfortable and safe. 4. But those kinds of autocratic structures only last so long because there are always issues unresolved–in the “gray” areas. 5. So either the people leave when they find the faults with the structured church or the autocrats carry their power to the extreme and then get kicked out. 6. Education seems to foster the unrest that people feel when they see the faults in the church structures. 7. As people get more educated/global/diverse they tend to withdraw from these organizations and call themselves ‘spiritual’ or say they don’t go to church because they haven’t found one that will accept them or where they will fit in.

    I don’t think it’s the women or their leadership styles. It’s the fact that when people grow beyond the autocratic organization they often begin by changing in the small ways that don’t upset so many people, and then when they get to the bigger changes–perhaps like ordination of women–there is more freedom within the structure for more points of view. So the bigger structure starts to weaken. There are lots of people not in churches because they think churches are too liberal and lots of people who aren’t in churches because they think churches are backward and discriminatory. No matter what, the church that thrives at least for a while is the church who shows caring and goes where the people are with that caring. People want to feel part of a group who cares, but that caring seems to get lost once the organizing takes over. Faith gets smothered over time when it’s formalized (rules), externalized (outward forms), trivialized (petty detail) and rationalized (to justify doing our own thing)–Peter Barber.

    We seem to have been on a swing back to the past since the 1970’s, and it seems to be world-wide. I think the 1960’s and 1970’s scared us with too many changes and people started thinking it was better in the 1950’s where everyone had their defined role, churches were on every street corner, and we could pretend everything was all right be staying within our comfort zones.

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  3. Appreciated your comments on why the United Methodist Church has declined in membership over recent years. I am right on with your first two reasons…but not sure about your last reason, although it gives me some thought to consider further. I also believe that another reason could be that the Methodist Church doesn’t have as much of a “core theology/doctrine” as some other denominations have. I have known many who were raised as United Methodists, who as adults moved to another denomination/church who gave them a clearer or more easily view of church doctrine/theology. We often won’t criticize our fellow Christians on their doctrine, but they don’t often reserve that right for us. Like you, I hitting the edges here on this argument and maybe haven’t thought it out as much as I should. But it something that has been on my mind for some time.

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  4. Again, Reverend I would love to talk to you about your articles. The reasons why people don’t know or understand the way things go is because they don’t take the time talk/ask those who are already a part of it. People decide to take it upon themselves to make judgements (incorrectly) and remarks that are far from the truth. It takes humility to learn about other faiths. I’d love to hear from you so that you can be fully clarified about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!

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  5. I don’t think it’s the fault of women clergy. But I think that people who want to be in a church may be more likely to prefer an autocratic style. People go to a church to learn what is right and wrong, or to be in a community with others who share the same opinions about right and wrong. If your congregation is not sure what is right and wrong, then maybe you would wonder what the point is.

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  6. So I hear multiple issues. 1. Women are more collaboratively minded and may not fit into the more corporate structure of a mega church. Recently I heard a NPR piece which reported that women CEO’s are more often put into struggling corporations because they are collaborative and hence, heal the company. Very few are hired for leadership position of well functioning companies.
    2. That fast growing churches are more autocratic than less fast growing or stagnant. They expect more conformity in thought, is that the point you are making? Although, Frazer UMC in Montgomery, AL is built on lay dreamed and executed ministries. Or at least it was while John Ed Mathison was there.
    3. I totally, totally agree we are killing ourselves with bureaucracy. We simply are not able to be fluid and see the way ahead easily.

    I wonder at comparing the history of Methodism to our situation now. Once the largest most active, conservative, denomination in the country, but now a shadow of ourselves. What made Methodism grow in the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s? Was it that it was male-led, autocratic, and expected conformity?

    If we believe in this theory, does that mean the Holy Spirit simply does not work through women? And as a female probationary Deacon I truely believe I am called to serve the church as a life-long ministry.

    All very interesting….

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    1. From what I can remember when I studied Methodist history, John Wesley and the early bishops did function very much in an autocratic manner, and very much conformist in nature. What happened at one Methodist church happened at all of them, just as it works in the LDS church. And they most certainly did expel unrepentant people from the early Societies.

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  7. Not meaning to be snarky: But …and your point is? Are you suggesting that the exclusion of women from major leadership roles and the simplified autocratic polity/structure is a good thing that we ought to be considering? As an ex-mormon I find some of your analysis to be spot on; but don’t see the conclusion to this thinking. Is growth really all that it takes to be faithful? Again not meaning to be snarky, but this article frankly perplexes me.

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    1. Good question, and I admit I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I am not one of those that thinks growth is all that it takes to be faithful. I also know that as a denominations, we are starting to suck air. At what point do we compromise theology for the sake of survival? I’d certainly like to say “never,” but to some degree, that’s part of the argument against full inclusion of the GLBT community. I am one of those for full inclusion, but one of the arguments for those who want to exclusion to stand is that “denominations that have moved to full inclusiveness are losing members.” I’ve long had a big problem with equating numbers with success, particularly in something as complex as calling people to discipleship. Right now, I’m just trying to open the conversation more.

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      1. With regards to the planting churches mentioned in other posts, you describe what you consider their appeal to young men; a chance to be “leaders” in a time where the economy and certain social mores are in flux. It seemed to be the appeal of the surety of patriarchy in unsure times. There is order because everyone knows their place. Women do not have a leadership role; never mind the whole LGBT thing. What I’m not understanding is the appeal of these churches to educated, modern young women. Why do they surrender their autonomy? Some of us who are older have seen our mothers and aunts do that to the detriment of themselves and their children. I wonder about the appeal to be part of a religious practice where one is required to be “less than.” Or as the Mormons and no doubt others call it, “God’s special plan for women”.

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        1. Such a good question: where IS the appeal? Perhaps part of it the sense that this “special plan for women” means that they will be taken care of. And marriage and obedience are their way to heaven–a woman must be sealed in a temple marriage to get her place in the afterlife. And I”m not so sure about their education: I think it is pretty constricted. However, it is my contention that the current organization of the Mormon church is limited. The Internet, with its fast access to formerly hidden knowledge, brings a lot of things to light that could stay hidden before. I suspect it will blow up. Right now, they can are and using excommunication as a way to keep people quiet but that won’t work in the long run.

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