Can We Talk?

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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.

 

Food Talk by Yau Hoong Tang licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

14 Comments

  1. A Happy Hubby's Gravatar A Happy Hubby
    July 26, 2016    

    Very good point. In any relationship that has important and significant topics that are “off the table”, the relationship will not go as deep.

    I have come to see much of the reaction that you found to be nothing more than fear and insecurity. Fear that if we say anything that isn’t quoting right from a general conference talk that we are one step away from leading people astray. But in doing so, we are pushing people away. I count myself in that latter camp.

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      I like the idea that we’ve got to get past the place where there are things we can’t discuss in order to take our relationship to the next level. When applied to the Church, this gives me much to think about. I know a lot of people who, despite living faithfully, don’t really seem to want to think too hard. Those of us who slog around in the gray areas are often judged unfairly, when in reality we’ve fought hard for our faith and continue to do so every time we take on a new question.

  2. Scott Smith's Gravatar Scott Smith
    July 26, 2016    

    I’m a broken record, but you just keep doing wonderful work, so I’ll just keep saying “Great Job”.

  3. Morgan Poland's Gravatar Morgan Poland
    July 26, 2016    

    Similar experience. I asked my Bishop to let me speak to my complainers. No dice. I eventually stopped going to RS. It was really uncomfortable being in there not knowing who my haters were. I was/am also very unhappy that the my complainers could do so with impunity. Oh well.

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      Yes, one of the challenges of this situation for me is not knowing details. I would much rather have had the opportunity to come to an understanding with my accuser(s) face to face. For one thing, I want to understand them. For another, I want to understand how I failed to communicate my ideas effectively because that will help me going forward. I’m left feeling quite misunderstood and like it’s been swept under the rug. No real growth allowed and no path for continued dialogue.

  4. John Beck's Gravatar John Beck
    July 26, 2016    

    Fear. That’s what keeps people from talking.

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      Pretty sure I’ve heard something about “perfect love casting out all fear”…or something like that. Maybe we’re missing something.

  5. RBP's Gravatar RBP
    July 26, 2016    

    I agree that speaking up can make a difference. But it can be tricky and sometimes painful.
    It can be difficult to participate at church when some people have insular thinking, and that is what seems to be welcome. On occasion I’ve felt joy in small successes. Once the TFOT lesson was on President Uchtdorf’s talk Is It Working for You? The teacher asked his question wondering why it isn’t working for some. The first three people who piped up said something like, You get out of it what you put into it. I then said that some people have had difficult experiences, and told about my friend who had had two of her kids die of the flu in one year. Eleven months apart. My friend’s husband would come to church and sit in the foyer reading the newspaper. It subtly changed the direction of the comments. More compassion, less rameumptum (sp?). It doesn’t always come out so well, though. And can feel like an uphill battle. The example I used was very safe.

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      It always feels like an uphill battle to me. My hope is that we can get the message out that there are so many people feeling like they can’t speak up, because I believe (and have experience that tells me) there are. Knowing that might give enough people courage to eventually move the needle, even a little bit.

  6. Dawn Mccomb's Gravatar Dawn Mccomb
    July 26, 2016    

    Herein lies the very problem with our church. If you have a thought that does not line up exactly with “the Brethren” you are a problem. If you are in a leadership position with that rouge thought you need to be managed. God forbid we use the brains He gave us to question and discern!! The church really is true! That does NOT however mean that we have had everything revealed to reach of us and if we don’t question how can we really be the people God needs us to be?
    Because we know the church is true we should explore why and how and when and who! It’s our duty. Fear is a lack of faith.

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      I do believe we each have a responsibility for our own spiritual quest. Obtaining answers to life’s big questions for ourselves seems to be the point of the whole thing, and such a quest is, of course, how it all began. So we need to be in the habit of asking all our questions. Not just the ones we already know the “preferred” answers to, but also the ones that may have no answer. Those kinds of questions are where faith begins to come into the equation.

  7. July 26, 2016    

    Tough stuff. I commend you for your integrity! It’s very difficult for some to allow differences of opinion, but I keep thinking of what Joseph Smith said: “It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” And yet, we still find that some of our fellow congregants would like to trammel others over understanding of doctrine. It also seems many interpret the injunction in the BOM against contention to mean that any differences of opinion or viewpoint are “of the devil.”

    • Susan Hinckley's Gravatar Susan Hinckley
      July 26, 2016    

      Thanks for sharing that JS quote. I recently heard someone say, “good hearts can disagree” and it’s a similar expression, and one I’ve decided to adopt. I’m as allergic to contention as they come, not because of any connection with “the devil” but because I just don’t like it. I hadn’t considered that this might be what drives some of the hesitation to engage in discussion with differing viewpoints on Church topics. Thanks! I’m going to think more about this…

  8. Shantel's Gravatar Shantel
    July 28, 2016    

    I’m sorry. That socks.

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