Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Thoughts on the Kerfuffle Surrounding Ordain Women

As I begin this post, I should warn my friends of other faiths that this post deals with a Mormon topic--so I hope you will forgive me if I don't provide as much context as I could and refer to the members of my church as "we" and "our."  I, nonetheless, welcome your ideas and comments as always--even though you might find it strange that this is such a big deal for us.

Here goes:

I've seen lots of posts flying around on my Facebook newsfeed about the controversy surrounding Ordain Women.  For some background I've posted a news story here.  It seems like everyone is picking sides and hollering at each other and I've seen lots of words being tossed like grenades: "apostasy," "bitter," "disrespected," and "exclusion."

As I have considered this issue I find myself thinking again and again of . . . . ballroom dance.  And no, it is not because of the traditional gender roles that ballroom dance embraces and how they relate to feminism--it is because of everything I have learned over the past few months watching a group of dancers that I love struggle with how to deal with questions.

Let me tell you a story.  

I work as the Executive Director of a non-profit arts education organization that teaches ballroom dance to youth.  One of the things we do every year is put together competitive medleys that are a compilation of 5 latin or ballroom dances combined into one artistic piece. We then take these medleys and compete at the United States Ballroom/Latin Formation Championships, which happens to be held at one of the meccas of ballroom dance in the United States: Brigham Young University.  

The ballroom medley thing sounds simple enough. But let me assure you that getting 16 people to unify their minds, hearts, and bodies in a way that they can each dance their individual part in harmony with a partner and the collective group is no easy task.  It takes months and months of dedicated practice to produce 4 minutes of synergy on the dance floor.  It is a process that stretches not only the dancers, but also the coaches to their limits. You become intimately familiar with your own physical and emotional strengths and weaknesses--as well as those of the entire group.  It is an enormous exercise in communication as everyone tries to understand and produce their part of the choreography with exactness.  

And so there are questions.  Lots and lots of questions.  The dancers ask things like:  "Do I step with my right foot or my left?"  "Where do our arms go?" "Should my focus be up or down?"  And the coaches ask things like: "Is that clear?"  "Can I see it again?" "Should I demonstrate it one more time?"  "Are you able to get to your spot?"  

The questions are essential to the success of the group and to the unification of the whole.  Questions facilitate communication and understanding.  But it is easy to get impatient with questions. You get annoyed when someone asks a question that you already know the answer to, or when someone repeatedly brings up a problem that isn't a problem for you. You just want to move on.  It seems to slow things down.  You roll your eyes.  The coach gets frustrated.  

Our Youth Latin team had an especially difficult time this year with questions.  They had suffered a huge disappointment the year before when they did not make the top division of their event for the first time since our Studio began entering this competition.  Throughout the year it was difficult for  some of them to believe in themselves and to trust their coach.  While the majority of their questions were productive and sincere, it was not uncommon for the questions to degenerate into a place of self-doubt and fear.  A tough place to be.    

So what is the point of all of this and how does it relate to Ordain Women?  First, I believe that as members of this Church we are all one "team"--no matter how we label ourselves or each other.  So whether you are conservative or liberal or orthodox or feminist or gay or Molly or Jack--we are all in this together.  As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:12: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body." Like our dance team, the goal is to create a synergistic unit that moves together in harmony. 

To do that we MUST ask questions.

Questions are the only way that we will eventually get to a place of understanding and oneness.  We need to be patient with questions.  We need to respect other people's struggles.  If someone on our dance team is repeatedly tripping over their feet getting to their spot or if someone is troubled about an all-male priesthood even if we are not, we still need to stop and consider the issue because it affects all of us--and it needs to be done in a way that doesn't shame.  We need to recognize that even though the status quo may be very comfortable for us, sometimes change is required to get to the next level--to grow closer to God.  

Our dance team hated changes.  They would just get comfortable with something and then somebody would ask a question and often this would lead to the coach changing things.  More questions.  Any change--even a small change--just seemed uncomfortable and unnecessary.  It was hard for them to see how much better it looked and how imperative both the large and the small changes were to the overall picture.

I am very grateful to members of the Church who ask unorthodox questions and challenge the status quo.  My hope is that we will move to a place where it doesn't take so much courage to ask hard questions at Church.  And that those who are seeking answers to questions that are important to them--even if it is a question that isn't important to us--will be given a safe space within our walls and not outside our gates while we explore our faith together.  

 Many years ago I heard this story, which I think of often.  I call it the Parable of the Ham:

A young woman was preparing a ham dinner. After she cut off the end of the ham, she placed it in a pan for baking. 

Her friend asked her, "Why did you cut off the end of the ham?"

And she replied, "I really don't know but my mother always did, so I thought you were supposed to." 

Later when talking to her mother she asked her why she cut off the end of the ham before baking it, and her mother replied, "I really don't know, but that's the way my mom always did it." 

A few weeks later while visiting her grandmother, the young woman asked, "Grandma, why is it that you cut off the end of a ham before you bake it?" 

Her grandmother replied, "Well dear, otherwise it would never fit into my baking pan."

I find this story to be very applicable to many habits in our Mormon culture, even though it often seems to be very taboo to be the one bold enough to ask why we cut off the end of the ham.

The Ordain Women movement has made me much more aware of instances of institutionalized sexism in the Church.  A small example:  As I attend the courts of honor for my friends' sons when they receive their Eagle Scout awards and I see an entire event put together in their honor, and sit through slide shows with all of the photos of their projects, and eat the cake and the goodies and celebrate with 50+ people--it doesn't feel right as a mother of 3 beautiful daughters and a Young Women's leader that the girls are not recognized for their achievements in a way that is equivalent to the hoopla that we make over their male peers.  I think it needs to be re-examined, and I don't know that I would have really thought about it without taking some time to listen to the feminists in my life (my husband is probably the loudest feminist I have in my life currently).  As I have read the perspectives of women who are active with the Ordain Women movement, I do not find them to be bitter and faithless--on the contrary I find their words to be thoughtful and faith promoting.

Now comes the part where I will balance everything I just said about questions with additional thoughts about questions.  And maybe you will be confused because you thought I was on one side and now you are going to think I'm on the other side.  But that's just my point.  There are no sides.  There is only WE.     

As beautiful and necessary and important as questions are, if we are not careful, they can also cripple us.  Someone once told me that our strengths and weaknesses are the same things, and that the key is finding the balance between them.  I have found this to be absolutely difficult and absolutely true in my life.  Don't ask me or anyone else to tell you where your balance is--like a skilled dancer, you must find it for yourself through patience and practice.  

So back to the dance team and the questions--the questions that, even if they were frustrating, were absolutely essential to their success.  They facilitated the learning and the growth and the synergy.

However, on the night of the final performance at their final warm up, in their nervousness the dancers started asking frantic questions.  Questions that were full of fear and doubt. The collective energy of the group started spiraling downward and it was as if they had forgotten all that they did know, how far they had come together, and how very, very strong they were.

When questions stop helping you grow and start causing you to shrink, you have lost your balance.

It was in that moment that we told them that the time had come to stop asking questions.  The time had come to trust.  They had to let go of their doubts and their fears and believe in all that their leaders had taught them.  They had to believe in themselves and the things they did know, even when there were things that they felt they still didn't understand.  They had to believe in each other and that their collective strength would overcome their collective weaknesses.  The time had come for faith.

And you know what?


If you would like to take a moment to watch--here is their video.  When you watch it you might be surprised to know that several of these kids stepped out onto this floor with serious doubts about this routine and their abilities to execute it.  They still had dozens of unanswered questions.  There were tears and kids throwing up in the bathroom just 90 minutes before this moment.  Some of the choreography is so new that this is only the third time it was performed.  But nonetheless, they were still able to make a decision to trust each other and their coach enough to surrender their minds and hearts and become ONE BODY, working together in harmony.  What you are seeing is faith. It is not perfect, but it is nonetheless beautiful and electrifying--and everyone in that arena felt it.

I am so grateful for the unorthodox members who ask bold and colorful questions.  They stretch me and make me think. They make me better because they challenge me to explore hard questions and never be complacent.  They will make all of us better if we let them.

And I am so grateful for our leaders who teach me and who anchor me with their examples and their testimonies of Jesus Christ.  Their words infuse my life with hope and faith and have given me light in some of my darkest hours.  Even though I recognize that they are very human, I have a deep respect for and testimony of who they are and what they have been called to do in this life.

We are one.  And we are, all of us, a formidable team. 



  1. Some really nice thoughts. Always very grateful that you sit down and write these posts.

  2. Heather - I have thought of this so much since you wrote it and keep bringing it up to people at work (going through situations it applies to here and there and everywhere). Like Lara - I am SO glad you write. I absolutely are thrilled every time you do and especially when you articulate your thoughts on difficult subjects. So... I just wanted to specifically thank you for that. You're an amazing woman. :)

  3. I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. However, I think there’s a second question that needs to be asked.

    Let’s imagine a dancer doesn’t bother to ask “Do I step with my right foot or my left?”, and instead calls up the local newspaper and tells a reporter that the dance instructor is wrong because she didn’t tell him which to use. Then when the instructor tells him he should use the right foot, he ignores her and continues to use whichever foot he feels like using at the moment. What happens then?

    I COMPLETELY support the members of the Ordain Women movement in asking questions. I’ve personally contacted the President of the Church with a complaint about a particular policy, and while I don’t know if I personally had anything to do with it, the policy did indeed get changed. The problem I see is that the Church has now answered the question, but the OWM has thus far refused to accept the answer. That seems problematic to me.

  4. Kristi--really good thoughts. I very much agree that the way that we ask our questions and how we respond if we get an answer that we don't like is crucial. I am very curious to see how Ordain Women handles the spotlight they now find themselves in. I think this is a defining moment for their leadership that will reveal their true colors. I will personally be very disappointed if they choose a path of anger and disrespect. I am hoping that the tone of faith and humility that I have found on their website and in their writings prevails.

    Whatever happens, I still believe that OW has raised dozens and dozens of questions, beyond women and the priesthood, about the role of women in our church that haven't been answered. I guess for me I am much more interested in constructive conversations and actions in local congregations than I am in huge policy changes at the global level. But I feel that in many wards and stakes there does not exist a safe space where these conversations can occur. This is what I am advocating--an open, thoughtful, prayerful exchange of ideas in our local congregations and in our online conversations where all perspectives are welcomed and appreciated. I wish difficult topics weren't so polarizing.

  5. "I find this story to be very applicable to many habits in our Mormon culture..."

    I feel this is the most important distinction to make in questioning our inspired Church leaders. There is "Mormon culture" and then there is revealed doctrine. I personally don't think the issue of a woman holding the Priesthood is a cultural issue, but only a doctrinal one, so I have no trouble accepting that women don't hold the Priesthood. On the other hand, it is obvious that the Brethren considered women giving prayers in General Conference to not be a matter of doctrine as the recent change in policy for that has shown.

  6. Your story is quite inspiring and the way you have defined is amazing. You are such a hardworking lady who works with passion and loyalty. Stay blessed