Book Review: Neylan McBaine, Women at Church

August 28, 2014

By BHodges
Crossposted at By Common Consent
women at churchWomen at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (released today) appears at a tense moment for LDS church members with regard to gender issues. Some members have advocated for ordaining women to the priesthood while others have asserted that manifesting dissatisfaction with the status quo is inappropriate. As for author Neylan McBaine, she loves being a Mormon woman. But she also believes “there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women at church” (xiii). Situated between these two poles without disrespect to either, her book has two main goals: First, to identify and acknowledge the real pain felt by some LDS women, and second, to offer solutions to provide a more fulfilling church experience for them—solutions that fit within the Church’s current administrative framework.
McBaine says the first goal is important because some church members are comfortable with the status quo, believing that their personal satisfaction suggests everyone should be similarly satisfied. She includes personal accounts of a number of LDS women from various backgrounds to convince readers that there are real issues to grapple with and that simply dismissing concerns isn’t an appropriate or effective response. “How can we dismiss others’ pain simply because we do not feel it ourselves?” she asks (23). If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “I don’t see any problems” or “my wife doesn’t see any problems,” the first half of the book (the negativity of which McBaine feels compelled to apologize for in her intro) is required reading. If you’re already convinced there is room for improvement, you might find the book useful as recommended reading to others.
The second goal reflects McBaine’s pragmatic and deferential attitude toward the church itself. She doesn’t really enter the debate about women’s ordination and she doesn’t offer scripture-grounded theological defenses of current practices. After a cursory overview of some of the developments in the church with regard to women’s roles, she encourages members to become familiar with the church’s current policies in order to identify ways to broaden the roles of women in the church without overstepping current boundaries. She includes a number of specific strategies already happening in local wards and branches throughout the church in order to prompt more local reflection and innovation. She calls for expanded roles for women in ward councils, more teaching and pastoral opportunities for women, and greater inclusion of women’s voices in church talks and lessons. A companion website includes resources members can use to find teachings by LDS women. Practicing what she’s preaching, almost every chapter of McBaine’s book includes an epigraph by female LDS leaders past and present. Almost all of her suggestions rely on direction in the Church’s Handbook of Instructions which encourages local leaders to “adapt some Church programs” according to their local circumstances as appropriate (68).
Above all, McBaine asks members to recognize strides the church has made in the past few years while still hoping for greater alignment between the church’s egalitarian ideals and its actual practices. She invites people with different perspectives to recognize their fervor is borne of devotion to the same cause:

“Because we are working in the art of redemption, we all care very deeply. If we were simply trying to offer an amusing social outlet or after-school youth program, we might not care quite so much, and we might not feel triumphs strengthening our very souls and failures chipping away at them so acutely. But our relationship with the Church is a reflection of our relationship to our faith; although we might cognitively separate the two when it is convenient or needful, the reality is that the way we feel at church impacts the way we feel about our faith. Faith, at least the way Mormons approach it, is neither practiced nor cultivated in isolation, and the communal relationships and interactions are the road on which faith finds its way. Despite the fact that we already have dedicated and good-hearted leaders, don’t we want to make the Church experience even better if it is in our power to do so?” (67–8).

Women at Church is more devotional and practical than many of Kofford Books’s other titles. It isn’t an academic book; it’s a pastoral book intended to encourage greater compassion and cooperation among practicing church members—especially between women and men, but also between women and other women who, McBaine says, can sometimes pose the largest obstacle to women’s fulfillment in the church. McBaine’s prose is fluid and familiar. But instead of oversimplifying things (as such accessible writing is apt to do), her style more often makes problems seem more pressing even as McBaine makes practical solutions seem within reach. Bishops and Stake Presidents will begin to better understand and recognize the disconnect many women feel, making McBaine’s suggested solutions all the more welcome. Women who read the book will learn how to initiate fruitful conversations with fellow church members and leaders in order to make their church service more fulfilling. I think all readers will walk away with an increased desire to improve gender relations in church culture regardless of where they stand on questions about women’s ordination. All readers will likely also find something or other to bristle at, but if read with charity, this book lays out an impressive span of common ground and a number of practical solutions (many pertaining especially to young women) like:

  • Inviting female leaders to sit in on bishop’s interviews with young women.
  • Assigning young women as visiting teaching companions.
  • Recognizing differences among women; avoiding prescribing characteristics to the entire gender that do not fit.
  • Equalizing activities and budgets for Young Men’s/Young Women’s programs.

Women at Church engenders true empathy and inspires faithful action—a potent combination for those who wish to enrich the experiences of LDS women at church. But the book is only the beginning, if the companion website, womenatchurch.com, catches on. The site provides a place for church members and leaders to share their own experiences in order to generate more ideas going forward.
***
Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), xxi+189 pp. A preview of the book is available here and a Q&A with the author is here. If you’re in Provo tonight you can also check out the book launch event at Zion’s Books. More info here.