Empathy Without Works is Dead

piney woods of texasLast Saturday, my husband, our 13 year old son, and I enjoyed a thirty minute drive through rural east Texas to the Morris County Twin Cinema in a tiny town called Daingerfield. As we drove, I opted to discuss a miscommunication I’d had earlier in the week with my older brother, something that had already been resolved. But before I got to that point in my monologue, my husband made a classic man-mistake by offering me what he perceived to be the solution to my difficulty with my brother.  Please understand that, over the course of our twenty-eight year marriage, I’ve told my husband a billion times that I’m a big girl and can solve my own problems, that when I speak to him of the issues in my life, I don’t need him to fix anything: I want empathy. But when I opened my mouth for the billion and first time to repeat his training, the shadow of words I’d read just hours before left me speechless.

Earlier, in the shade of our cabin’s porch, the sound of crickets had been the background music as I read Neylan McBaine’s Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact  in order to write a review for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I paused when I encountered the passage that bothered me, yet didn’t take the time to reflect about why it bothered me. In the car with my husband and son, the reason suddenly became crystal clear.

In Chapter 10, McBaine details how, at the request of one sister, a stake added an informal forum on women’s issues to their annual women’s conference. In the words of the initiator:

The idea of having a session at the upcoming stake women’s conference came to me, the idea being to have a very practical session where we could talk about what could be adapted right here, right now in my stake that would help women feel empowered. (121*)

She added that she hoped the member of the stake presidency assigned to preside at the conference would moderate the session. She writes, “an additional benefit would be having the sisters [experience] their male leader listening to their suggestions and concerns [and] that, in and of itself, would be empowering (121).joyous woman

In other words, the woman who suggested the forum intended it to generate an actionable plan for improvements that could be implemented in her stake. She anticipated that having the sisters see a man empathizing would be a pleasant, and possibly empowering, side effect.

But listen to how the counselor in the stake presidency described the forum:

I was honored that I was the guy the women wanted to hear them out. . . 

The gender forum at our stake women’s conference didn’t have an agenda. It was just a conversation. It was an opportunity for the women to share how they are feeling about their place in the church, not just among themselves but directly to a male leader. We didn’t have a list of next steps that came out of it. I didn’t do anything proactive; I was just responsive to what they told me. It was far more important for women to talk than for me to talk to them.

The tone was grateful and appreciative, not angry and accusatory. They said they’d never had a place to express their feelings like this before to a male leader without any fear of being reprimanded or patronized. I was glad to do it. I was so glad they knew I was the guy to call. (123)

Let’s bullet that:

  • The gender forum didn’t have an agenda.
  • It was “just a conversation.”
  • It was an opportunity for the women to talk about their feelings to a man.
  • No list of next steps came out of it.
  • He didn’t do anything proactive, but was only “responsive” to their feelings.
  • It was “far more important for women to talk” than for him to …?
  • The women felt grateful because he didn’t reprimand or patronize them.
  • He was glad to be the “guy to call.”

Do you see the problem? I do. For him, listening was the solution when the women hoped for action.

Ladies, is this a problem of our own creation?  Are we settling for empathy without works? Have we taught our men to think that we want their empathy, not their solutions? Do men recognize that we need them to step up?

The reality is, LDS women canNOT solve the gender problems we encounter in our local church communities. Not unless a man okays our solution first. If we want more female speakers who are called to speak on their on accord and not because of who they are married to, a man generally makes that decision. If we want to accompany our daughter, or have a female leader present, during worthiness interviews, we need the approval of a man. If we want to take the young women on their own High Adventure, we need the approval of a man to go forward with the activity. And so on and so on. Yes, we need men. We need men of action, not simply men with listening ears.

Next time you find yourself with an opportunity to discuss gender issues at the local level with a priesthood leader, please, for the sake of us all, don’t settle for “just a conversation” in which you  “share how you feel” and walk away thinking something has been accomplished. I certainly don’t mean to burden our women with the responsibility of male behavior. Heaven knows, we’ve had enough of that. But I do want to encourage my sisters to ensure the men we speak to understand our expectations. Our men may well think hearing women out is the solution because that’s how we’ve trained them. Its certainly the way I’ve taught my husband. But what we need is to let these good men know that, regarding gender issues, we do need male allies who will be actively engaged in implementing solutions, men who will push to solve the problems we women are not allowed to address. We need men with faith–both in the Lord and in women–and we need their good works.

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. James 2:17

woman sunflowers

*My citations and quotations are taken from an Advanced Reader Copy provided me by Dialogue in order to facilitate my review of Women at Church. Because the ARC is an uncorrected proof, some changes may have been made to the published version.


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