How would ordaining women change the structure of the Church?

Around the last General Conference weekend I had some meaningful conversations with family members about the idea of ordaining women in the LDS church.  One recurring question was what the Church would look like, structurally, if women were ordained to the priesthood.  It’s a serious question and the people asking it apprehend something important about the LDS Church: that our leadership structure is inextricably connected to gender and that ordaining women could shake the whole thing up beyond recognition.

Mormons face a unique challenge when they are asked to envision a Church in which women are ordained, because our leadership is organized so differently from most other Christian churches.  When a mainline Protestant sits in church and thinks about female priesthood, she imagines her pastor as a woman instead of a man, but not much else changes.  The reason being that most organizations in her church (the Christian education teachers, the committee that visits the sick and elderly, the rummage sale organizers, the coffee hour organizers, etc.) are not segregated by gender (with the exception of things like a women’s or men’s Bible study group).  I am less familiar with Catholicism, but my understanding is that outside the parish priest, the lay members (both women and men) do a lot of that volunteer committee work as well.

However in Mormonism there are relatively few ways to serve that are not dictated by gender.  Music callings, Primary teachers (but not leaders) and Sunday School teachers (but not leaders), family history, and Cub Scouts are pretty much it.  If we need someone to serve in a bishopric, any Relief Society calling, Young Men or Young Women’s organizations, Sunday School presidency, Ward Mission Leader, Primary Presidency, any priesthood quorum calling, or as Ward Clerk the first question asked is whether the candidate is male or female.  Our Church is deeply organized around gender.

For this reason I wonder if it’s harder for Mormons to envision the ordination of women than it is for other Christians.  We are not just imagining the one or few spiritual leaders of our congregation as possibly being women.  We are faced with the question of what to do with all the rest of the structure as well, which would presumably look quite different.  We also have a multiplicity of offices of the priesthood, a complication that is less present for other Christians.  I wonder if for many LDS church members re-imagining all of these things is so unsettling and overwhelming that they quickly reject the notion that ordaining women could be right and good.  After all, though imperfect, there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about the Church as it currently stands.

I wonder if they also fear that sacred spaces just for women and just for men would have to disappear, and that every corner of the Church would become co-ed.  They would feel this as a loss.  I would as well.  So I would just like to acknowledge that there would be a lot to figure out if the prophet received a revelation that women can be ordained.  A lot to figure out, a lot to examine, but I don’t think it would necessitate a change to everything that is familiar and beloved about the Church.  For example, the multiplicity of priesthood offices in the Church could be a feature to build on.  When Joseph Smith said at the founding of the Relief Society, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time” (Derr, Cannon, and Beecher pg. 1) he must have meant priesthood keys (what other keys are there?), and he was giving priesthood authority of some kind to women.  Not priesthood office as we know it now, but modern revelation could build on that foundation and create an order of priesthood for women.  I am fond of Relief Society and wouldn’t want to see it disappear, replaced by mixed priesthood quorums.  But I’d also like to see it truly presided over by women.  On the other hand, creating a priesthood order for women while preserving the majority of leadership roles for male priesthood holders would leave unanswered need as well.  Perhaps both single-gender quorums and mixed quorums are the answer, I (of course) don’t know what the answer will be.

I think Ordain Women is wise to refrain from articulating a precise vision of what women’s ordination would look like.  They are calling attention to needs that exist and asking that the prophet will seek revelation.  I have some ideas about what the Church might look like, what would change, and what could stay the same.  But these are just my ideas and they are not relevant to the question of women’s ordination.  What’s relevant is what is right and true and revealed.  I believe ordaining women is in harmony with gospel truth, and that it will eventually happen.  I have confidence in the men called to lead the Church, that they seek revelation with open hearts.  I believe the Church would be expanded and blessed by giving priesthood authority to women, even if I don’t know what the Church would look like after that happened.

Finally, Harold B. Lee once said to Boyd K. Packer (both apostles at the time), “You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you.”  He meant it as personal counsel, but I think it can apply to the whole community of Saints.  Let’s not close our hearts to further light because we don’t know what lies ahead.  Elder Lee followed his comment by quoting from Moroni: “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”  I’d just like to say that the position of women in the LDS Church tries my faith every single day.  But I’m staying.  I am patient.  I expect women’s place in the Church to evolve, but I know it will happen slowly.  Perhaps the trial before us all is to learn to be one before we can receive more.

I think God is like the truth-teller in Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

The 9th Article of Faith says God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”  It can be difficult to know those great and important (or superb and dazzling) truths are there but remain untold, even if for good reason.  I don’t know what they are, but I do know that there has to be more to come for women in this Church.  I think we hamper our sensibilities if we declare that unchanging doctrine means there is no more doctrine.  Or none of that kind of doctrine.  I hope that the difficulty of envisioning how the Church would look with women ordained won’t prevent us from being sensible to more light.





Derr, Jill Mulvay, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher.  Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society.  Deseret Book, 1992.


  1. I can only say from personal experience as a convert, and whose family is still Protestant, that their church functions day to day like ours. They still have almost all male pastors and ministers, that the committees that visit the sick and elderly are mostly comprised of SAHM’s, and in the broadest sense, their sisters do the same kinds of things as our Relief Society. Children’s classes are taught by women (like primary), music is usually handled by a male, etc. Ultimately, women still answer to a board of male deacons or alderman. There are some female pastors, and occasionally a female led congregation, but it is the exception not the rule. Just my experience with southern Baptists.

    • I hear you, FWIW. The churches that ordain women regularly are for sure particular denominations, like Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, ELCA (Lutheran), Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, and some others. But several large Christian denominations don’t (including the biggest one).

      Is there anything structural in the Southern Baptist church that prevents men from doing the traditionally female committee work? Or is it just tradition, as far as you understand? The male priesthood in the LDS church leads to a quite formal separation of how people can serve, but maybe other denominations have similar formal/structural separations that I don’t know about.

  2. I don’t have a problem with having some male-only or female-only spaces, but I look forward to a time when fewer callings are defined this way, granting us more flexibility to assign callings based on individual talents, preferences and needs instead of gender.

    I think I might like a system in which men and women meet together 3 weeks of the month and separate to discuss issues that pertain more to men or women once a month. Our curriculum already accommodates this, since men and women study the exact same text three weeks of the month, and only differ in curriculum once a month.

    • I agree, April. I think a lot of what we do currently could be kept and would still look familiar, while at the same time giving more flexibility to assign callings to people based on things other than their gender.

  3. I think the biggest challenge for most people would be to be forced to truly separate “priesthood” from “male.” Right now it is easy to say “I prefer that the priesthood lead this” or “we need priesthood leadership.” But I think there would be some awkwardness for some people to realize that perhaps the real discomfort is the idea of men being answerable to women, or women having authority over men in a decision making process. Priesthood has slipped in our language to be a more palatable version of saying men or male in many contexts. Often we do not mean power of God, we mean men. If power of God really and truly always meant that there would be some uncomfortable truths to face for all of us I imagine.

    • Oh my gosh, Em, I have never thought about this that way, but it makes so much sense!

      EmilyU, I think I’m often so dismissive of the “what would the Church look like” because I feel like people are trying to detract from the question, “Should women have the priesthood?” Thank you for writing this post–I never thought about the discomfort in restructuring as a way for some to dismiss the original question outright.

  4. Men of colour were granted access to the priesthood in 1978, and the leadership of the church is as white as ever. Even if women were granted priesthood access, is there any reason to believe that they would be able to permeate upper ranks that nonwhite men have not been able to break into?

    • We have black area authority 70’s in the states, black bishops and branch presidents, etc. At least we do where I live. I couldn’t tell you whether, on the basis of activivity, blacks are fairly represented in leadership positions. I think it would be different if sisters were ordained because you would automatically have about 60% of the membership suddenly having the priesthood.

  5. “I wonder if for many LDS church members re-imagining all of these things is so unsettling and overwhelming that they quickly reject the notion that ordaining women could be right and good. . .” I like this a lot and wonder the same thing.

    One perspective I’ve heard is that women should have their own “priesthood order” (and perhaps already do) – so we shouldn’t ask permission from men, or seek to inherit the male tradition and model of priesthood. However, one could also suggest that by ordaining women, the current model would be naturally transformed into something that accommodated a more “feminine” model. (in my mind this may mean non-hierarchical, non-vertical, more horizontal organizational structure.) I don’t pretend to know how God works His/Her wonders, but it’s all very exciting to think about.

    Thank you for this great perspective, Emily.

    • P.S. I feel that benevolent patriarchy is as intoxicating (to both men and women) as any addictive substance. Few, if any, of us want to go through withdrawals.

  6. I can imagine this easily, because I have some familiarity with Quakers, members of the Society of Friends. Like us, they have lay ministry at the local level. And women have served in ministerial roles at least since the 1800s in the U.S. For those who have studied feminist history, Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister and felt that her suffrage efforts were a natural outgrowth of her religious faith.

    So yes, I can envision what this would look like. I’ve seen it on the ground and talked to women who live it. And I am not convinced it is the best thing for women. A lot of Quaker meetings struggle with male involvement.

    I agree that the question should be all about what is right and true. I do not support Ordain Women, because it has already come up with the answer for which they want affirmation. To me, the real question is what is the Lord’s desire for his daughters. It seems to me that the church teaches a Third Way, which is neither the male-on-top patriarchy of old, nor the gender-sameness of modern “equality.”

    • this little gem says it all:

      And I am not convinced it is the best thing for women. A lot of Quaker meetings struggle with male involvement.

      What’s best for women in Naismith’s world? What’s best for women is primarily a question about men.

      I agree that the question should be all about what is right and true. I do not support Ordain Women, because it has already come up with the answer for which they want affirmation. To me, the real question is what is the Lord’s desire for his daughters.

      In other words, she does not support Ordain Women, because it has already come up with an answer that is not the answer she has already come up with. She presumes to know what the Lord desires for his daughters. It’s a safe question for her, because she presumes to already know the answer.

      It seems to me that the church teaches a Third Way, which is neither the male-on-top patriarchy of old, nor the gender-sameness of modern “equality.”

      Wow. Some “Third Way.” She can’t even begin to articulate what it is, and all sorts of people can point out just how much it exemplifies “male-on-top patriarchy of old.”

      And I can’t believe anyone needs to point out the utterly obvious fact that we’ve never actually achieved either “gender-sameness” or “modern ‘equality'” and really can’t actually say what a world with them would be like, but given that Naismith seems to have missed that, I’ll go ahead and point out it–and mention as well that “gender-sameness” is not actually the goal of feminism. Equal opportunity for growth, education, leadership, service, etc, between men and women will not automatically eradicate all differences between men and women.

      Naismith, I realize you’re working entirely with straw arguments here, but next time, do try to come up with a few better ones, OK?

  7. I agree with Naismith that the ultimate question is, and should be, what is the will of God. The reason I support the Ordain Women movement is because I think they are doing an important work in getting us – the church – to think and talk about the current situation and to wonder if it is the will of God, or if there is yet many great and important things for God to reveal.

    Like April, I appreciate many of the gendered spaces that the current structure creates. I think formalizing/acknowledging the priesthood of women is important, but I tend to believe that it should be done within the context of Young Women and the Relief Society. I think many things could and would stay the same.

    On the daily local level, I think that recognizing and formalizing the sacral role women already serve in as ministers of the gospel (as teachers, care-givers, missionaries, presidencies, etc.) with an explicit priesthood that acknowledges their work as authoritative, power of God stuff (which currently to me always seems a bit strange; that’s how we talk about priesthood, then talk about women doing those things too, just without priesthood) would break down what has been termed elsewhere as “priesthood creep”. We wouldn’t see women excluded from callings because someone starts thinking “maybe that’s a priesthood responsibility….”. It is or it isn’t, no problem. Women have the priesthood.

    Otherwise I think only the immediate three levels of presidency would/should change. Namely, the Bishopric, the Stake Presidency, and General Authorities. And that change could be done either by literally equivalency (Wards, Stake, General Church co-governed by co-equal/jointly presiding councils – i.e. – we double the people on the stands) or by having the presidencies drawn from either quorums – the current priesthood quorums and the Relief Society priesthood quorums. But the daily/weekly/local church – beyond the bishopric – could continue largely as is, excepting the reduced “priesthood creep” mentioned earlier.

    But most of all, I think its good that we talk, pray, and remain united as a church in thinking about this. I love the church, but as I listened to a number of conference talks this month, it just felt like we all know something is not quite right in Zion, but we’re just not sure what is wrong…

    • ” I love the church, but as I listened to a number of conference talks this month, it just felt like we all know something is not quite right in Zion, but we’re just not sure what is wrong…”

      Absolutely. I will write more about this in the future, but something that I feel is at the heart of this unease is the fact that when our leaders make earnest efforts to explain what it is that makes women and men different from each other, they always run into trouble when they get into specifics. The trouble is, the specific character traits of a perfected being (which we strive with Christ to become) are not gender-specific. They are godly traits, which both men and women are capable of acquiring. How and why eternal gender matters paired with the fact that godly traits transcend gender is something we haven’t really begun to struggle with as a Church. But it is a paradox waiting for some serious thought.

      • Exactly; Christ is the exemplar for men and women; the revelation of God in the flesh. Jesus, while a man, transended gender. As it says in the Lectures on Faith, “We ask, then, where is the prototype? or where is the saved being? … that it is Christ: all will agree in this, that he is the prototype or standard of salvation; or, in other words, that he is a saved being.”

        Not just the prototype of a saved man, but a saved being. While I still hold that revelation of our Mother is forthcoming (9the article of faith, and D&C 121:28), also suspect part is that They really are One in their perfection, and that when we talk of our Father we talk of our Mother as well – not as a “behind the scenes”, but as a full partner in our salvation.

        Paradoxes of gender and transended gender; paradoxes of plurality and transcended plurality; oneness.

  8. For me, the questions that are immediate and urgent to understand before we move forward what exactly is priesthood. What is it’s nature? How is gender relevant to it( if it truly is)? What is its role in eternity? I think these questions are not well understood by the leaders and the members and that is why the church is at a difficult position.

    I like the idea of priestesshood better than priesthood because having women being ordained to priesthood, means (to me) that we are moving within the male hierarchy and how the priesthood was legitimized since antiquity. Ordaining women to the priesthood fulfills the equality requirements as are defined in modern societies nowadays. We have quotas for women in parliaments and things like that but still, women are considered less worthy of many endeavors. However, we should move beyond the world’s definitions. The issue should be considered beyond equality terms which mostly focuses on presence and opportunities. For me, it is about potential, destiny and eternal role in the plan of salvation and exaltation.

    Having priestesshood recognized, and talking more about the role of the Heavenly Mother as a Goddess equal to God in glory and power and knowledge, is a better way (again, in my opinion) to discover the will of the Heavenly Parents for their daughters, what our eternal destiny is and understanding our potential better as daughters of God.

    The church structure might or might not change much and to me that is not important. All I want to see in the structure is that women are not simply present but are in charge of themselves and have a vision of the path they need to follow. How this gets operationalized is up to how priesthood and priestesshood is understood and revealed.

  9. I really like your point about how ordaining women will potentially require a lot of re-imagining how the Church is run from day to day, simply because the entire Church organization, at both local and general levels, is permeated by gender divides. I also think you’re spot on that the OW leaders are smart to not say that the post-ordination Church must integrate women in some particular way or other. That question is really beyond the scope of what they’re looking to accomplish.

    I guess I really have nothing to add. 🙂 Great post!

  10. Lovely post, Emily U!

    Yes, I have wondered the same thing, about how the church would structure itself– even basics such as “letting” male missionaries into the home of an LDS woman who is single or who’s husband is out of town might not be effected. (some leader told me some rule about M/F balance in presidency meetings? Like correlation? The guy is one of those know-it-alls who sometimes makes stuff up, so I didn’t buy it.)

    I have wondered if female ordination might have to be a roll-out effect, i.e. allow women to be witnesses in the temple and at baptism, have a bishop and his wife partake of the sacrament first as a symbol of the symbolic atonement being acceptable, allowing women to bless and pass sacrament, and children, as well as dedicate graves and buildings. Next step- positions in quorums and so on.

    The truth is, I don’t know, and no matter what I come up with, it doesn’t seem like an easy transition. But the practicality of having shared priesthood (regardless of martial status, gender, etc.) seems like the best way, to me, to support both genders, and better support couples and families. It will be a fun day when it happens.

    • I agree, Spunky. Given the way the Church operates in general, I think the slow roll out model is the most likely, whatever the final result.

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