My oldest son turns 12 in exactly two weeks. The day he was born, my commitment and faith in my church was second to nothing else in my life, but over the years it has dwindled down to absolutely nothing. I stopped attending church at all about two months ago.
My husband attends and takes our three kids with him. My son would rather stay home with me, but he goes anyway for now. His upcoming birthday and the priesthood ordination that would usually accompany it has us all thinking deeply. My son would prefer not to be ordained. He says he doesn’t believe in the church or the priesthood, and he’s not interested in passing the sacrament with his friends or doing baptisms for the dead. My husband really hopes he does get it. Even if my son doesn’t believe in the priesthood, my husband points out how many service and learning opportunities he’ll miss out on by not getting it. For example, he won’t be able to help collect fast offerings, something that is a meaningful service young boys in the church can participate in.
I have told my son that I support him no matter what he decides. The downside of choosing not to be ordained is all social in his mind. For example, it will be an awkward conversation with his grandparents, who are already excited about what they assume is his upcoming deaconhood. His friends all have the priesthood. I understand if he chooses to go ahead with it for now, even if it’s not what’s in his heart.
This imminent decision making event has left me thinking deeply about my life and my interaction with the priesthood. My husband and I have clearly had very different relationships with it.
For example, during high school, my stake once created a male youth priesthood presidency and female youth presidency, all out Laurels and Priests. I was the first counselor in the female version, and we’d come to meetings (for planning firesides, dances, that kind of stuff), but the priesthood presidency would make the final decisions. I remember never once thinking “That isn’t fair,” but rather, “Why do they even bother having a female youth presidency? They don’t need one. I think they’re just trying to make us feel needed.” It felt cool to have been called, but also kind of a waste of time.
I also remember one day as a teenager when my friends and I snuck onto the podium of the chapel during a combined mutual activity. We peeked back into the tiny room where they prepare the sacrament and couldn’t believe there was an actual sink inside the chapel to fill the water cups up with. We were surprised to see a laminated card with the prayers written on it for the priests to read from where they would kneel to bless the sacrament. We’d always assumed it had to be memorized, and it felt a tiny bit less magical to learn they didn’t know it by heart. It was such a cool experience though, and we felt so excited to be seeing all of these hidden secret things we’d never even known about. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe the boys know all of this stuff!” as if it was some forbidden and exotic thing.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and my husband was the Young Men’s president in our ward that I learned the bishop meets with the priests quorum every single week during the third hour. I had no idea! I have a vivid recollection of the bishop visiting Young Women’s once in our meeting and how it felt special and like a really big deal to have the leader of the entire ward take his time to come to our meeting. We were all on our best behavior and listened and wanted to impress him with our answers, I think. I look back at that and it feels so silly, knowing now that my male counterparts had that experience every week. They were being prepared to be leaders by spending time with the highest priesthood authority in our ward on a weekly basis. I can’t even imagine what that felt like.
One final memory is sitting in a youth Sunday School class one day when my favorite teacher in the ward substituted. He said, “You know, a future prophet could be sitting in right here in this class.” We’d separated ourselves in our seating arrangements, with the girls on one side of the room, and the boys on the other. Our teacher turned directly to face the male half of the room. “There’s no reason at all that one of you couldn’t grow up and be the prophet. Every prophet once sat in a class as a kid, just like you guys are now.” Then he turned back to the girls and said, “Isn’t that incredible? You could be looking at a future prophet right now.” I was an observer of the great spiritual leaders that might come to be, but not planning to become one myself.
I realize that from my husband’s perspective, the priesthood was this great thing in his life. It taught him service, responsibility, and how to lead people. It also taught him how the church worked and was organized. He understandably wants our son to have that.
From my perspective though, it was this great thing that *other* people had. It never entered my mind to question the unfairness of them getting it and me not, because hey, I was not a boy. I was annoyed at times by my male peers for acting dumb or immature in their leadership roles, but it never occurred to me to be annoyed at the system itself instead of the boys. I didn’t even see a system. I saw an order of the universe that was as factual as the law of gravity. Boys and men led girls and women. It was just the way things were in my mind.
This great priesthood experience my husband had came somewhat at the expense of girls like me, I’m starting to realize.
So my son doesn’t want the priesthood. I know that gives him less opportunities within the very specific setting of the Mormon church to serve, but there are billions of boys and men who aren’t Mormon who still find meaningful ways to serve and become kind, thoughtful, loving adults and fathers, right? And all the things he’d miss out on – I missed out on all of those things too, simply because I was a girl. I don’t think I turned out badly. And if he chooses to follow in my female footsteps, I think he’ll do just fine, too.
Pro tip #1: Don’t make up meaningless callings for girls to make them feel needed. Give them actual power and authority and decision making roles. They will surprise you.
Pro tip #2: When praising the young men for practicing the priesthood, keep in mind not only what that sounds like to an unordained boy in the group, but also to all of the young women in the ward. Find service and leadership opportunities for the young women and unordained young men that match the experiences of the Aaronic priesthood duties.
Pro tip #3: As the bishop of the ward, consider spending more time mentoring the Laurels and teaching them how the church is run, rather than spending such a lopsided amount of time with the priests.
“If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:23)