Church Drops Powerful Response to Claims of Mistreatment of Women

Relief Society Meeting
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Michael Otterson, Managing Director of Public Affairs, sent a letter to The Millennial Star addressing recent criticism by bloggers. The letter explains and clarifies at length, the Church’s efforts to reach out to LDS women and to listen to their ideas and concerns. It also clarifies the role of Public Affairs and their supervision by the highest authorities of the church.

A recent blog post that is addressed in the letter is as follows:

Please understand that not [all] women who wish to be seen in all their worth are seeking to be ordained to the priesthood…. What I am finding…. is that most of these women have been demeaned and marginalized by one (and usually many more) of the brothers of our faith. They have been told their ideas won’t work. They have been told they are not important. They have been told they are lesser.

Otterson responds by saying:

The point is a noteworthy one, namely that LDS women who describe themselves as feminists don’t necessarily seek ordination, but rather to be genuinely valued and given a voice that is respected and welcomed.

Otterson addresses 3 specific criticisms that had been raised on blogs to give an inside look into the intent of the senior leaders of the Church as well solutions to the criticisms posted.

Criticism 1: The Church doesn’t want to hear from women about painful experiences, doesn’t talk to them or only wants to hear from women who are “blindly obedient.”

Ottersons responds with:

“This is untrue. I can say with certainty that not one of the senior leaders of the Church would ever want any Latter-day Saint to feel demeaned or marginalized. Does it happen? Yes, of course…But we are all human, and occasionally we say things clumsily or we lack sufficient sensitivity or language skills or experience. The Church is a place where we make mistakes and then hopefully learn to do better. It is also a place where we allow others to make mistakes and improve.”

Otterson addresses this criticism by sensitively validating the feelings of the women who have experienced these negative encounters, as well as humbly admitting that people (even church leaders) make mistakes and can require the further development of many social, emotional and communication skills.

“What this argues for is better training of leaders and members, and more patience, more long-suffering, more sensitivity and Christlike behavior on the part of all of us.”

Otterson speaks of the leadership of the church who hold high positions, both men and women, as those who not only serve for decades in responsibilities that bring them “up-close and Personal with a mindblowing array of human problems.”

“In the course of their lives, apostles have spent countless hours in such counseling situations, struggling and sharing tears and helping members work the miracle of the Atonement of Jesus Christ into their lives. While their work as apostles is largely accomplished through local leaders ministering to their congregations around the world, they remain crucially aware of issues that concern the members of the Church.”

Otterson states that General Authorities themselves are not immune from challenges. Whether personally or via family members it is reassuring to know that The Church of Jesus Christ has leaders who experience the same burdens as the rest of us, “they are not aloof.”

Criticism 2: There is nowhere for women who don’t feel safe in their wards to have a conversation about some of their negative experiences that isn’t seen as subversive.

Ottersons response to this as follows:

 “This is a serious question and I think is the kind of discussion that the Brethren welcome as they seek to understand the concerns of the members. My advice is to be patient, and trust in those whom we sustain as apostles and prophets and the revelatory process.”

Otterson validates that yes indeed insensitivity can painfully be encountered by members as they endeavor to engage in sensitive conversations, he also acknowledges that offense can at times be taken when counsel is given.

The response to the first criticism seems to again be relevant here.  Mistakes can and will inevitably take place.  Further leadership training as well as life experience can assist in allowing leaders to handle such conversations in an environment that allows the individual to feel safe and validated as well as counsel in a likewise manner.

It is just as important that every member should initiate such an interview with a “willingness to take counsel as well as deliver a message.”

Otterson states that every ward has a Relief Society presidency. The women of the presidency can also offer counsel and assistance in personal matters and act as a confidante when required.  They can accompany a sister to see a bishop or stake president if required.

Criticism 3: By not engaging with the more extreme groups, the Church – and Public Affairs in particular – is not acting as Christ would.

Otterson brings insights into the structure of the Church Public Affairs Department, and the manner in which they handle groups or individuals who demand doctrinal changes.

Certainly all the staff understand that public relations is best understood as a bridging activity to build relationships, not a set of messaging activities designed to buffer an organization from others. Readiness to meet with many different groups is therefore basic to public affairs work for the Church, and we do it all the time.

Yet there are a few people with whom Public Affairs and General Authorities do not engage, such as individuals or groups who make non-negotiable demands for doctrinal changes that the Church can’t possibly accept. No matter what the intent, such demands come across as divisive and suggestive of apostasy rather than encouraging conversation through love and inclusion. Ultimately, those kinds of actions can only result in disappointment and heartache for those involved.

Seemingly Public Affairs is acknowledging the need to engage with external groups in a constructive way, yet clearly communicating boundaries that lead to constructive conversation. He continues by reminding the reader that Christ did not choose to ordain women to the priesthood when he first established the Church.

I suppose we do not know all the reasons why Christ did not ordain women as apostles, either in the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, or when the Church was restored in modern times. We only know that he did not, that his leaders today regard this as a doctrinal issue that cannot be compromised, and that agitation from a few Church members is hindering the broader and more productive conversation about the voice, value and visibility of women in the Church that has been going on for years and will certainly continue (the lowering of the age requirement for female missionary service was consistent with this conversation).

Otterson wraps up his detailed response by appealing to those engaged in the conversation to treat each other with more respect.

Inevitably, some will respond to a lengthy post like this with animosity or will attempt to parse words or misinterpret what I have said, “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Nevertheless, I hope that we will see less cynicism and criticism, more respectful dialogue, more kindness and civility and more generosity of spirit as those members who are prone to use the Internet engage with each other. As Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson said recently: “May we realize just how much we need each other, and may we all love one another better,” no matter which chair we’re sitting in.

This issue has been divisive recently and this is one of the more direct responses to the issue the Church has made. How do you feel about this issue? Was the response from Public Affairs appropriate and relevant? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE 5-30-2014: The Ordain Women blog posted a response to this PR statement. They thank Michael Otterson for the statement and say that they “are encouraged that there is continued sincere interest in more deeply discussing women’s opportunities and service in our church.” Read the full post on