A few weeks ago I taught a Relief Society lesson on Priesthood Keys and Authority, and I thought I did a bang-up job. I approached the topic with some trepidation–in fact, 6 weeks of it. And considerable preparation too, as much or more than I’ve ever done.
For one thing, I was struggling to come up with a compelling reason the RS should be having that lesson. I wanted it to be relevant to the variety of women present. I wanted to provide some useful insight. I wanted to do more than just gracefully tiptoe around the naturally problematic dynamic that is created when you take two groups of people and give one of them any kind of authority over the other. No two ways about it. When you do that, you’ve automatically created A Situation.
I didn’t take my responsibility lightly. I knew I was bringing the eggshells to the room with me, and I knew I’d better be prepared to walk us all safely across them.
And at the end of the lesson, I thought I’d succeeded.
In fact, I thought it was one of the most engaging lessons I’ve ever taught. We had a discussion. A REAL discussion! With women sharing the kinds of things that we don’t often feel empowered to say. There was one point in the lesson where it seemed as if a light switched on in the room, and suddenly everyone was thinking. Constructively, together, and hard. It felt like more than just revisiting a conference talk. It felt like a discussion worth coming to church for, on that specific day, with that group. I couldn’t have been happier.
I quipped that the last time I’d taught a lesson on the Priesthood, a dozen or so years earlier, I’d been hauled to the principal’s office. And that I was glad I wasn’t going to have to worry about that this time, because the things I was called on the carpet for teaching then are in the Gospel Topics essay on Women and the Priesthood now. We’ve come a long way, baby…right? Right?
So it was with particular dismay that I found myself once again sitting in the principal’s office the following Sunday, listening to my Bishop explain (with a great deal of discomfort) that he’d been fielding complaints about my lesson via text all week, and needed me to tell him everything I’d said. I really couldn’t believe it.
I have no idea who actually complained. It doesn’t matter. I don’t even know for sure what they said, except that what the Bishop says they said makes me wonder if we were even in the same room. So what exactly went wrong?
How could someone sit there, objecting so vehemently to what I was saying that they were formulating text messages in their heads to fire off to the Bishop, yet never so much as raise a finger to offer an opinion? Or pose a follow-up question? Or ask me to explain an idea, or to justify a view? Or even call me to repentance?
Their objections could have powered additional discussion, from which everyone might have benefitted. Together, we might have explored angles I hadn’t considered, but I never knew those ideas were lurking in the room.
I’ll give my Bishop high marks for handling the situation. He spent an hour with me, allowed me to basically teach him my entire lesson, agreed with everything I said, and assured me I have the full support of both the Bishopric and the RS Presidency. And he said it convincingly. I understand why he had to call me in. He’s responsible for what gets taught under his ward’s banner, so he ought to be keeping an eye on it.
But what I don’t understand is why, if I didn’t say anything that caused him to raise an eyebrow, I made someone (or several someones) in the room so very uncomfortable.
I guess part of the answer is right there in my own chagrin about having to teach that lesson to begin with. One of the thoughts I expressed is my belief that women seem to feel more disconnected from our own ability to access Priesthood power today than ever before; that out of fear of overstepping, we are actually holding ourselves back.
But is the topic really so completely radioactive that no amount of care or preparation can facilitate any progressive discussion of it at all? Can we not even look outside the box, while continuing to stand firmly in it?
Or admit to having any kind of real feelings about it…or about anything else in the Church that chafes? How many problems are we creating or perpetuating for ourselves, just because we don’t dare open our mouths to each other about our very real thoughts, concerns, and challenges?
Can’t we talk?
I have learned something from the experience. I’m going to try to stop sitting through lessons, silent in my disagreement. I hear my share of things that bug me. I’m sure everyone does. And I owe it to the teacher, and more importantly to everyone else in the room, to try to drive some discussion with what I’m feeling. To see if we can get comfortable with our discomfort, let it generate some energy to maybe shine a light on problematic thinking, or figure out new and improved ways to understand and apply age-old principals to our lives. To make our tired church meetings into something that actually stretches our minds and our hearts, nudging us, collectively, an inch closer to our Christlike goals just as a result of having shown up…and really talked.