Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thoughts on Presiding and Partnership

This is a topic that comes up often in feminist discussion. Below are some of my thoughts on how these two notions of presiding and partnership are not necessarily antithetical.

I think that the doctrine of presiding as it relates to partnership is there for us to see and it isn't what people describe it as when they are frustrated about it. Personally, I think those who insist the word preside is a problem or that somehow in the Church presiding in the home means something akin to lording over or controlling or being better than or being 'over' a wife are missing all that we are taught. Such insistence to me ends up being part of the problem. We need to be willing to look beyond our limited language and seek the language of the Spirit which transcends Webster or feminist theory or logic alone.

Some use bad examples of marriages to 'prove' that the Church's use of presiding is wrong. But we need to just acknowledge that a woman simply stepping back and doing nothing is really missing the boat, as is a man who dominates. Any other permutation that includes control, abuse, manipulation, or power struggles is inconsistent with the doctrines surrounding partnership and what priesthood presiding is all about.

I think the covenants of the priesthood plus the covenants of the temple can work together in a harmony, a dance if you will, with each partner in the marriage seeking the guidance of the Spirit to truly counsel together in righteousness and equal partnership. A true presider in the gospel sense (look past the limitation of language -- what is the Truth in the gospel sense?) is nothing to be feared. I see, in fact, it potential evidence of God's love for women.

So why presiding? Why not say they are equal partners and be done with it? This is totally my opinion, but I think part of it may be that the presiding brings a covenantal responsibility (this is not to say priesthood is a prerequisite to good husband-hood or fatherhood, but I do see it as bringing a covenantal accountability and covenantal promises and power that can help a marriage and family). And a true presider SEEKS the counsel of his wife. That dynamic and responsibility is in my view inherent, implicit in that priesthood duty. A true presider gets that. Just because some men don't get that doesn't mean that that principle isn't true. (And, btw, that goes for at church or in the home... priesthood holders who get the spirit of the priesthood in my mind get what it means to seek and listen to counsel of those around him...it's not about lording over).

A presider will see and understand that his wife is his partner. He'll know of her strengths and lean on her to use them in ways they feel right about in their family. She might be the better teacher, so it might make sense for her to take the lead on FHE. But he's plugged into that process, rather than sitting back letting her take over. By the same token a wise wife doesn't just sit back and silently let her husband lead. She has a responsibility to be a true partner and to discuss and decide things together with him.

The true spirit of priesthood is about service and seeking God's will and seeking others' well-being, not self-interest and control and all the things people fear with the word presiding. This spirit is not inconsistent in my view with the principle of partnersthip.

I think there is wisdom and *order* in how things work. I see presiding as a first critical element that is a foundation to a true partnership. If the man is not willing to preside in righteousness (D&C 121, which is really quite opposite of 'being in charge' of someone), then partnership cannot happen. If a man does not choose to really receive his wife with all his heart, then she will not be treated as a partner. I think the choices that a man makes about how he views and treats his wife sets the tone for the marriage partnership (even determining whether partnership can even happen) and the family culture. And I think we can see that reflected in how covenants unfold, starting even with priesthood training at a young age. (I felt the power of that at a recent Duty to God orientation meeting...POWER there to prepare young men to be real men who cherish their wives and serve with the Spirit. None of this lording over business.)

When a woman sees that her man is willing to (or at least trying to) make such loving and righteous choices, then -- and only then -- is she invited to also covenant to do her part to be a full and equal and righteous and D&C 121 type of wife and mother. There is a message there to me that God cares about the well-being of His daughters and there is no compulsion in His order of things.

By the same token, I think He has ways to remind His daughters that they, too, should not use compulsion or power struggles in order to prove something in their marriage. (We strong women do have a tendency to sometimes be too strong and maybe even too independent in our marriages, many of us, if we are honest with ourselves...imo. Partnership is interdependent and both parties need to be willing to engage in that partnership.)

To me, priesthood presiding is something akin to a man choosing to use an umbrella to gather his wife and children together in safety from a storm. What he chooses to do with that is something he'll answer to God for. If he uses it selfishly, he's not used it for why it was given. As he acknowledges and opens this the umbrella and what it's for (again here the analogy could breaks a little because an umbrella could be just self-serving, but priesthood service is others-focused ... and yet blesses him in the process), he provides a safe place for his wife to be right by his side. It's a signal that he's invested in her well-being and that he wants her there.

She'd be silly to ignore that effort of his just because he's a man. She'd be silly to insist that she should hold the umbrella to prove she's as important as he is. She knows she is perfectly able to hold an umbrella, but she lets him show his love in this way. She chooses to let him take the lead, as it were, in keeping the family safe from the storm. But that doesn't mean he's 'over' her or more important than she is.

Because he has made the choice to protect the family, shown his priorities and care, she feels safe next to him and then is available to wrap her arms around the children and pull them in. (Have you ever seen how hard it is for a woman not treated well to be a good mother?)

They don't have to fight over who holds the umbrella, and she doesn't have to nag him to do it or do it herself (while he's of doing something else. He's already taken that first step to 'take the lead.' But they'll probably talk as a family to figure out how they can best weather the storm together. But always, the husband/father is willing to be responsible for that umbrella to make sure it stays there over his family. If it's broken, he takes initiative to fix the holes...even as he surely will solicit help (again, not as a boss, but taking the lead to care for his family). 

A woman certainly could find an umbrella that works just as well with the function of shielding from the rain. But it sure makes life easier and sweeter when the wife and children know that the husband and father has made the choice to be there and be proactive saying, "I'm here for you. I care about your well-being." 

I think of the women I know who haven't had that kind of safety and love, and the priesthood expectation of presiding to me is a protection to them that says 1) you deserve to be treated with love and respect, to have a man who chooses to follow God and care about you and 2) if there is abuse, manipulation, controlling behavior, whatever, your covenants do not bind you to be miserable and repeatedly and grossly mistreated. The Spirit can help such women know if they need to draw boundaries, or in some cases, get out of their marriages altogether.

But there's a flip side to this partnership. A good man deserves support in his commitment, to have a wife respond lovingly to his in-tune invitations (and patiently even if his efforts aren't perfect) to come under the umbrella to work together as a couple, and then as a family, to weather the storms of life.

That's my meager (but long-winded) attempt to draw a visual of how I see presiding. I don't see it as an insult to women. I think God cares deeply about our well-being. To me presiding is an appropriate prerequisite and covenant-based accountability structure that shows God is serious about all of this.

In the Book of Mormon, when men were caught in sin or wickedness, the women and children suffered. I think the reverse is true. I think there is an important message in this. When men truly preside in righteousness, women and children can flourish as individuals and together as part of the eternal family unit.


  1. I think your analogy of priesthood presiding like a man inviting his wife and children under an umbrella for shelter from a storm is a very good one.

    My mom also came up with this idea:
    The priesthood isn't a crown, it's a shovel.

  2. My husband once told me that the times he has most strongly felt the Spirit were when he was giving someone a blessing. That tells me something huge about the priesthood.

    I think that because of the world we live in, where righteous leaders are rarely found, it is hard for men and women to understand this concept of presiding because they view it in worldly terms. Doctrine and Covenants 121 tells me many beautiful pure and loving doctrines about the priesthood that make presiding an act of love and service, not dictatorship or dominance.

    Those doctrines in return have to be exercised by those being cared for (presided over, male or female) for the doctrines to be most effective.

  3. I don't think I've told you how much I appreciate your wisdom and eloquence in sharing the gospel and your testimony. Never compromising, always speaking with care and courtesy. Thanks for that.

  4. Michaela, Thanks for sharing that phrase, "The priesthood isn't a crown, it's a shovel." It applies to leadership in general as well as priesthood leadership.