A recent mission-centered talk by a high councilman keeps percolating in my thoughts. The speaker hoped to inspire young men to serve LDS missions. He made it very clear that boys are called to serve missions. For boys, a mission is expected and required by God. Girls, on the other hand, can be called to serve. Missions are nice for girls, but optional.
This is fairly common rhetoric, but this speaker emphasized the extraordinary spiritual experiences offered to male on missions by giving examples from letters by a current female missionary. He spent his talk urging young men to prepare for missions by sharing experiences from an enthusiastic young female missionary. Yet, this spiritual awakening and life-changing mission is just suggested for her and it can not prepare her for the authority and responsibility that male missionaries will receive from serving a mission. And it hurt to be once again reminded of how many spiritual experiences are reserved for men, but bolstered by women.
In a 2018 youth devotional, the oft-quoted Russell M Nelson asked youth, “Would you like to be a big part of the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on the earth today?” One could argue that he is more generally discussing missionary-work, rather than missions. However, missions are often lauded as the greatest experience of a man’s life and an essential one. Why, then, isn’t this the case for women?
I’m laughing at myself a bit as I write this because I have a conundrum. I actually dislike the incessant push for all young men to go on a mission. There is far too much pressure in the LDS church to conform and follow one path to spirituality and righteousness. I don’t actually want the circle of expectations to broaden and pressure more people to serve missions. But I do want to explore why the LDS church doesn’t see how problematic it is to describe a mission as a “pivotal role in [an] unprecedented event” for men, but a “powerful, but optional, opportunity for women (Russell M Nelson, General Conference, April, 2022).” This only serves to emphasize how so many exceptional spiritual experiences are reserved for men. It also lays bear the point that men are essential to leading, teaching, and speaking for the Lord; women are nice to bring along.
In the April 2022 General Conference, M. Russell Ballard said the following about his mission experience:
- “My full-time missionary service as a young man in England blessed my life and shaped my spiritual destiny.”
- “My missionary service prepared me to be a better husband and father and to be successful in business. It also prepared me for a lifetime of service to the Lord in His Church.”
- “Of all the training I have received in my Church assignments, none has been more important to me than the training I received as a nineteen-year-old elder serving a full-time mission.”
This sounds incredible, doesn’t it? According to Ballard, his mission became the stepping-stone for both spiritual and temporal successes. Like many men, he describes his mission as transformative and life-altering. Simply being born biologically male qualifies a man to have all of these unique priesthood experiences if he chooses them; including baptizing and confirming new members, mission leadership, and continuous, and institutionalized spiritual authority and responsibility throughout his life.
For women, on the other hand, “a mission is also a powerful, but optional, opportunity. We love sister missionaries and welcome them wholeheartedly,” according to Russell M. Nelson. A sister missionary is neat and helpful, but she will not baptize, confirm, act as mission leader, or gain institutionalized spiritual authority and responsibility throughout her life. This is why I didn’t serve a mission. It wasn’t necessary for me and I honestly didn’t believe the full spiritual experiences of being a missionary were open to me as a woman. Now, I listen to these talks directed at my children and my heart breaks for young girls hearing this same message.
Some, like Dale G. Renlund, may argue that this messaging is because women are naturally more spiritual, so their divine nature doesn’t require a mission. He explained in the April 2022 Women’s Conference, “This [divine nature] is intrinsic to who we are. It is spiritually ‘genetic,’ inherited from our heavenly parents,16 and requires no effort on our part.” This matches much of what I’ve heard throughout my life about why only men hold priesthood responsibilities: women don’t need them because we are more spiritually mature. Spoiler alert: I don’t believe this is true, but instead a way to argue for continuing the patriarchal order that benefits men.
Renlund then goes on to compare missionary work to a soccer match, where all kinds of players are needed to protect and achieve a goal. This is meant to be inspiring for women, but I see missions as a feeder league in this scenario, where teams are required to include women, but they have limited ways to contribute. On this team, of course, women play a supporting role. It’s nice if they join the match and they can bolster the team’s success. The team loves women, but they don’t need the full feeder team experience because they are already so advanced in their unique soccer gifts. Their stories will be freely used to recruit more essential male players to the team, though.
This might be acceptable if women, who do not need the same feeder team experience, could also go on to join the major leagues as coaches, team captains, team owners, or on the board of directors. But they can’t. In fact, there’s a separate women’s team, but it is coached and led by men too. In reality, when the special co-ed season ends, it would be ideal if women could keep the uniforms clean, bring snacks, refill water bottles, boost morale, keep a team schedule (under the direction of a man), and watch the kids during games. And if no women show up to a Sunday game? It’s okay because all of the essential roles are filled without them.
Do I sound overly cynical? Perhaps. But listening to institutionalized exclusion and inequality couched in such kind words and accolades for women is painful and infuriating. What would I prefer? Well, in a dream world, women and men would have equal opportunities for leadership and authority in the LDS church and this disparity wouldn’t exist. If this is unrealistic, then missions should be encouraged as a spiritual calling that is optional, but equally important and life-changing for both women and men.