Originally published August 21, 2018.
Early in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members began referring to each other using the titles “Sister” and “Brother.” In fact it was the practice in New Testament times as well (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; Philemon 1; James 2:14-15, NT). This practice stems from doctrinal teachings and belief in the nature of the human family, that every person on earth is a child of God and is therefore related, a member of God’s family. The use of titles expanded quickly to include referring to a man by the title of his calling such as “Bishop,” “President,” or “Elder.” When I was a child, my mother taught me as her father had taught her that you show respect for adults by using someone’s title whether “Sister,” “Brother,” “Bishop,” “President” or even secular titles such as “Dr.” Even now that I am an adult, I still use titles when speaking to other adults and I am teaching my children the same principles and practice.
Movements such as Ordain Women have pointed out the inequality of calling the male president of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint auxiliary “President” while continuing to refer to female presidents of auxiliaries as “Sister.” I’ve noticed a growing trend among our local Church leadership of equalizing the use of titles and referring to the presidents of the women-run auxiliary programs as “President.” I don’t know if this is part of a Church-wide effort to give women leaders equal recognition with their male counterparts but I know there are women who appreciate the effort and claim it as a victory for women.
I hope, however, that we as women and we as a Church won’t lose our sense of the power inherent in the title of “Sister.” “Sister” as a title has come to mean so much more to me than a simple moniker. Where some may see its continued use as demeaning or subordinating, I see tremendous power. I’m going to share some thoughts on women’s callings in the church and why I see the title “Sister” as ennobling and powerful.
Women serve in a variety of callings (volunteer assignments that you don’t choose) in the Church of Jesus Christ. They run auxiliary organizations (i.e. Primary for young children, Young Women for girls ages 12-18), they teach (e.g. Sunday School, Primary, Young Women, Mission Preparation, Seminary), they minister (formerly known as Visiting Teaching), and more. Some of these assignments are high profile, some require heavy time commitments, meeting planning and execution, budgeting; they all require spiritual and temporal preparation and planning. Ideally, any person in any Church calling will also fulfill his/her assignment to the best of his/her ability and serve out of love for her/his fellow person. The end goal of any and every calling (men and women both) is to bring individuals and families closer to Christ, to help people live the Gospel and make covenants with God, and to encourage fellow members of the Church to “endure to the end” (i.e. keep the commandments, live the Gospel, repent, live worthy for eternal life).
As I mentioned above, several of the callings women and men fulfill in the Church are leadership positions designated as presidencies. It has been the practice of calling a man “President” + last name if his calling/assignment is as president of a man-run auxiliary. Similarly, the bishop or branch president of an LDS congregation also bears that title in Church/social settings among members of the Church. I found it interesting in a short article on ThoughtCo.com that the author equates certain titles with “power” and “authority.” Rachel Bruner writes that referring to a person by the title granted them in their current calling “acknowledges and identifies their current authority. Authority is specific to each title. Knowing the title enables you to know what authority and power they currently possess” (“How to Use Appropriate Titles in the LDS Church,” 29 May 2017 <www.thoughtco.com>). On the surface this provides adequate insight––a visiting or new member will know which man is in charge of the congregation because he will be the only person in front of the congregation referred to as “Bishop” or “President.” It is reasonable to follow from Ms. Bruner’s logic that a person without a title also does not possess “power” or “authority” in her/his callings. My experience as a woman in the LDS Church who has served in a variety of Church assignments has taught me that this is simply not true. While it has not long been the practice to call a woman serving as president of a Church auxiliary organization “President,” it does not mean that she has been serving without power or authority.
Allow me to share an outstanding experience from a regional auxiliary training meeting two years ago at which Sister X of one of the General Auxiliary Presidencies gave a spectacular training to primary presidencies in six stakes. Sister X commanded a large room (though not large enough––we didn’t have an aisle by the time we crammed in all the chairs and people were still standing in the doorways and hall). She was dignified, loving, humble, and sincere. She earned our respect within moments of standing to begin the training. She exuded confidence and confidently led an open discussion. I’m embarrassed to say that I offered the first comment of the evening and, though it took her by surprise and wasn’t the exact response she had expected, she ran with it and the most extraordinary discussion ensued in which women leaders throughout our region simply and comfortably shared their concerns, ideas, and successes in their callings. Sister X, without script or paper in hand, facilitated this discussion. It was in this 30 or 45 minutes of sharing that I received answers to my prayerful questions written down ahead of time. Sister X continued with her planned presentation points when this initial discussion had its fill.
I knew instinctively that I had witnessed incredible leadership and power in this training meeting. Sister X spoke for a fraction of the total time. She initiated and helped shape a meaningful, Spirit-filled, and inspiring discussion that provided me and the auxiliary president with whom I attended and was serving with much needed direction for our struggling branch auxiliary. When I greeted Sister X afterwards and we spoke briefly of missions, she took my hand and looked me in the eyes and I knew she understood both the pain and growth I had experienced as a missionary. I felt love and gratitude from her in that moment. She represented the Savior in the most compelling sense because she loved, understood, bore my burden, and compassionately reached out. And she did this as Sister.
My experience with Sister X reiterated to me the power available to all women as they minister formally within set apart Church callings and as they minister informally, one-on-one in sacred, shared moments of Christ-like service.
This power is available to you! Whether you are fulfilling a formal Church assignment or offering one-on-one support, you can minister powerfully. If you have ever visited a home or an individual in the course of your duties in order to share a message, to counsel, to uplift and you not only have the Spirit with you but you have also prayed earnestly beforehand for heaven’s aide in magnifying your calling, then you will know the power with which you can minister. That power is just as real, just as tangible as a man’s priesthood because it is priesthood power. If you have received your Temple endowment and if you have been set apart in your calling, you have priesthood power to draw on in your calling, in your home, and in your life. And you don’t need an honorific to know that you can perform just as well in your calling as a man can in his. You don’t need a title to call down the powers of heaven.
But if I do have to be called something, I think I would much rather maintain the traditional “Sister” title shared by my fellow women in the Church. Let me be known by “Sister” because that is the highest honor I can think of. To be known as someone’s sister is a familial designation that should communicate the existence of mutual sharing, compassion, love, understanding, empathy, selfless service, and mutual respect. If I serve as a “sister” then I will be serving as the Savior did. He consistently refers to Himself in the context of family relationships. He is both father and son (see Mosiah 13, BoM). He is our brother (e.g. Matthew 12:50, NT). He is our friend (see Matthew 20; John 15, NT). He is the perfect example of the perfect parent and the perfect sibling. If the Savior is most content to call Himself our brother, then sister is good enough for me, too.