The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a time of change, and women of the church locally and abroad are benefiting and encouraging this evolution.
Though it began in the United States, the church is no longer just an American church. Church statistics reported in 2013 that more of its members reside outside of the United States, reaching 170 countries across the globe. More than half of these numbers are women.
Though the top leadership of the church may not reflect that diversity, it does within congregations of church members on the local level: its branches and wards.
Sui Lang Panoke, founder of Rethink International, has experienced this. She is a Native Hawaiian Filipino Chinese Irish American who was born in Hawaii, raised in Salt Lake City, and lived on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. for 13 years.
Her ward in D.C. included members from across the country and around the world who lived and worked on Capitol Hill. She said the experience of seeing people from various cultures and backgrounds come together through Christ was very powerful for her. She went from feeling like a minority in Utah, to feeling like part of the majority in D.C. This was transformative.
“Our ward was a microcosm of the world in many ways. It was socially, culturally, internationally and even politically diverse and somehow despite our differences, we became a family and Capitol Hill became our home. We found unity through Christ,” she said. “I can now bring that perspective to the table – I know what a truly inclusive culture and environment feels like. And when you have experienced it, you know what to strive for.”
That knowledge also informs her work at Rethink International, a global social enterprise that challenges people to rethink how and what they think through the design and delivery of custom learning products with a purpose.
“One has to be willing to intentionally surround themselves with people who look, act, think and live differently than they do in order to broaden their perspective, deepen their understanding and work towards resolving their own unconscious biases,” she said. “This is how inclusive cultures are created. Strengthening one mind at a time.”
Panoke feels the church is doing this on a global scale, but recognizes that – especially for people of color – its progress can feel very slow. Panoke said she has come to understand that the church, because it is a global church and encompasses many cultures, can’t move as fast as some of its members would like it to.
Melissa Inouye, an Asian American professor and author who has lived in America, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and recently moved to Utah from New Zealand, agrees.
To illustrate, she cited “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Today, some Americans see that as a very conservative document. But for many heavily patriarchal cultures across the globe, that is a revolutionary document because it speaks of men and women being equal partners within the family.
“The leaders of the church are between a rock and a hard place. In places where women are judges and politicians and doctors, if you don’t do things fast enough, you look sexist and reactionary. But in other places where male and female roles are more rigidly separated, if you do it too fast, then you look immoral and Westernized,” she said.
This is why the doctrine of the church stays the same across the world, but cultural norms on the local level are important and differ. From members’ perspectives, Christ’s message of good news is for everyone, but in every place and time people have to interpret it within their own cultural context.
In every ward Inouye has worshiped in, there were similarities and differences. For example, while Utah culture dictates white shirts, ties and dark pants and shoes as the church attire for male members, in New Zealand it was perfectly acceptable to wear dress shirts with lava lavas and flip flops.
Within those wards, as well, when a baby was being blessed in church, the mother could hold the baby while the male priesthood holders administered the blessing. That does not happen often in Utah.
And while a 2011 Pew Research study found that 56% of LDS women and 59% of LDS men in America said the “more satisfying kind of marriage is one in which the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the house and children,” this is not the norm on a global scale.
“Abroad, women working is the norm,” Inouye said.
Susan Madsen, professor at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, echoed that. She’s seen this as she travels speaking and presenting abroad.
“In Denmark, 95% of the women work. That’s just what you do, that’s the culture,” she said.
Madsen recalled Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, saying in 2014: “If the Lord is hastening His work, we cannot keep doing things the same way we have always done them.”
Madsen, Inouye and Panoke all feel women can be bolder in their involvement within the church. And leadership within the church encourages this as well.
“No matter if I’m at Brigham Young University or abroad, women are hungry — hungry for people to tell them that they really are of worth for their minds, their passions and contributions. Women want to know and feel they are called to contribute in their community,” Madsen said. “We need to get women to understand that they aren’t supposed to be in a box, and not just get by in this church, but thrive. And thriving may look different than they think.”
Women and men need to be equitable partners in this change, and create a sense of belonging for all who join the church, whatever their background or culture.
“Every single background, every family structure, everyone belongs here. At the end of the day it is not about the institution. It is about knowing and understanding the Plan of Salvation and the role that Christ’s Atonement plays in that plan. His Atonement is what makes our salvation possible. May Christ always be our focus moving forward,” Panoke said.
Madsen also hopes women will follow the admonition of Sheri Dew, author and CEO of Deseret Book, who said in 2013: “I believe that the moment we learn to unleash the full influence of converted, covenant-keeping women, the kingdom of God will change overnight.”