Making history with a prayer

When Jean Stevens stood up to the pulpit on Saturday morning, I was driving seven kids in my minivan. We’d been listening to Conference the way you listen when there are seven kids in the car, which is to say, it was mainly background noise. I’d been waiting for this moment ever since I heard members of the church asking for women to pray in General Conference, and especially since I’d heard rumblings that it was going to happen. Call me clueless, but until this winter, I hadn’t even realized that women didn’t pray in General Conference. So I was surprised to find myself shushing the kids with a catch in my voice, and telling them that they needed to sit still, listen to President Stevens, and remember this moment. They saw the tears in my eyes, and I think they probably all thought I was crazy, but in the moment, to hear a woman invoke the Almighty, felt very powerful.

Over the last two days, I’ve seen quite a few reactions to “the prayer heard round the world,” but today I’d like to hear what you think. Were you aware it was happening in advance? What was your reaction? What do you think this means for the body of the church?

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

53 thoughts on “Making history with a prayer

  1. I was aware it might happen in advance. My reaction to fist-pump (which, I acknowledge, isn’t proper prayer protocol even if I am at home). I think, unfortunately, it means very little to the body of the church save a useful argument in one’s position when stating that women should be able to offer both the invocation and the benediction at sacrament meeting.

  2. Sorry for not getting what the fuss is about. Women have always prayed in Sacrament meetings, stake and ward councils, etc. Why put so much stock in this? Yes – its seen around the world, etc. etc. But its not like suddenly we were allowed to enter temples or take the sacrament.
    While serving as a stake Relief Society president, I was assigned by our Stake President to attend priesthood meetings and address the brethern; I gave prayers at stake, multi-stake and regional conferences with general authorities and been taught by General Authorities in small leadership training meetings.
    What’s the gospel and the Church really all about? Covenant making; covenant keeping and emulating the Savior – all of which involves our relationship and treatment of others.
    So in the perspective of eternity, what am I missing here?
    If there’s one thing I have never felt short-changed or slighted about – its being a woman in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have been given opportunities and privileges; been stretched beyond what I thought I had the capability to do; been respected and not only listened to, but asked for my opinions and directives, etc. I am in awe of what the Savior’s Church has done WITH me, in spite of what I considered my reality to be. I honestly believe I have been treated better and respected more in LDS Church settings than any other place I meet or work or serve, with the exception of my home.
    As far as prayers in General Conference, I see it as moving beyond what was probably a “Mormon culture occurance” rather than something monumental.
    I’m open to understanding what I’m missing.

  3. My reaction was similar to yours. I cried when President Uchtdorf announced Sister Stevens would be giving the closing prayer. I didn’t expect to cry, but I sobbed. My family usually only watches the Sunday sessions as a family, so I called my husband and children into the room. My voice caught as I told my children that they are about to hear history. They saw me cry during the prayer. I felt a tremendous amount of peace and joy. I felt the Spirit testify to me so strongly in that simple yet profound act.

  4. Kay – sisters give invocations and benedictions in my ward sacrament meetings and stake conferences. Not so in your ward??

  5. i agree with lynn. i’m not really sure what the fuss is about. i feel equal to my husband, father and brothers in every way.

  6. Lynn,

    You must be younger than me. Women didn’t pray in sacrament meeting when I was a kid and once we were allowed to we could only say the closing prayer. When I was kid in the 70s women didn’t talk in General Conference, or sit on the stand. It is fine if you or someone else doesn’t care about that but some of us notice and care – especially if we are mothers. I never felt it was fair that my 10 yr. old daughter went to Activity Days once a month when her 8 yr. old brother when every week to scouts. I don’t think the church intends to send a message that boys are more important but we spend more money on them than we do girls.

  7. I didn’t get the big deal either. The assignment was made months before letters were delivered asking for it to happen.

    Could’ve been a shorter prayer. Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon benedictions were the perfect length for a closing prayer.

  8. Lynn,
    I have been in wards where women are not allowed to pray in Sacrament meetings at all. I have also been in wards where women are not allowed to give the opening prayer in Sacrament meeting.

    In fact, as recent as last year, I had a bishop tell me that women are “not able to call upon the Spirit in prayer to open a general meeting of the church ” (ie: sacrament meeting). While I appreciate that you may not see the significance of women praying in GC, there are bishops and stake presidents around the world who simply do not allow women to pray in Sacrament meetings and Stake Conferences.

    While I personally has also been given opportunities and privileges in the ward, I am also a woman who does not sit idly by. I am opinionated and am not afraid to express my opinions and my thoughts. My Bishop knows this and often asks me because he knows that I will be honest. I refuse to be sidelined because of my gender. That said, when the same bishop (who I respect and who I believe respects me) tells me that I cannot say the opening prayer in Sacrament meeting because I am a woman, there is a problem. Maybe it is cultural problem, but a woman saying both an opening and closing prayer in General Conference, for all of the world to see, is a reason to celebrate.

  9. I knew it was coming, and I thought I was among the group that didn’t really care about it. But then it happened, and I felt it. I felt peace and power, but most importantly, I felt heard.

    I’ve often been made to feel like making suggestions about any issue related to gender in the church means being heretical, ungrateful, or lacking in perspective; like if I really had a testimony, I wouldn’t question anything and roll with how things have always been done. That prayer demonstrated to me that if I ask a question from an unselfish place of faith and genuine desire to help others, my suggestions matter and are absolutely welcome. I loved that feeling.

  10. The fact that it is no big deal to many seems like a good thing to me. Many who don’t think it is a big deal, like Lynn, have always had experiences of being made to feel welcomed and valued in the church and that is fantastic! I don’t get worked up (or hyperventilate about it – Elder Holland) but I was thrilled to see women offering prayers in conference. I have had times when, despite serving in a leadership position, my opinions and participation in meetings and councils were dismissed or discouraged. It is a cultural problem, not a doctrinal problem. But setting an example of equal participation in conference is an important step to changing that culture.

  11. Giggles- I know that’s what the Media Spokesman said, but I’m doubtful that’s accurate. While I’m sure they assigned the speakers, music, and even prayers a few weeks prior to the start of the ‘Let women pray’ campaign in January, I think it would have been a very simple change to switch 2 of the 8 prayer-givers to women. No one needs more than a couple months notice to give a prayer. I would wager that’s what happened. Not a big deal. I fully understand why the Church wouldn’t want to admit that they responded to the campaign. But I believe it would be too much of a coincidence for there to be 180+ years of no females praying, to all of a sudden the Church being 1 step ahead (1 month ahead) of the women who started the campaign.

    A simple prayer may not be a big deal (men’s and women’s prayers are hardly distinguishable from one another), but because there was no doctrinal reason to be excluding women from the opportunity to do so (for so long), means that this was way past due. I just hope it will continue.

  12. For clarification, I have a 20 year old grandson on a mission (I’m 65) and joined the Church in the mission field, so my gospel experiences encompass both that frame of reference as well as in communities with significant number of members and those where we were in the minority. And at the end of the day – love and friendship to all my sweet sisters in the gospel. And I mean that with all sincerity.

  13. I can understand why some would think it is no big deal. I can understand that some women in the church have never been marginalized by their priesthood leaders. Some women have never been told condescendingly, “You women are so SWEET!” by their stake president. Some women have never been made to feel less than complete equals with their husbands, bishops, and other priesthood leaders. Some have never felt the cold sting of unrighteous dominion. Some have never wanted more. But I have. And many others have. A small prayer was a small step and meant a great deal. I cried and rejoiced.

  14. I feel terrible saying this, but in all my 30+ years in the church, I never noticed that women didn’t give prayers in general conference. How could that have escaped me?

    If I’d known, I would have been campaigning for it. And so, yes, I’m thrilled…..even if I hadn’t realized it was an issue in the first place!

  15. I loved it. Most of the time I don’t give a thought to gender in the church. I am happy not to hold the priesthood–I’ve got PLENTY of responsibilities in my home, thank-you-very-much! But every once in awhile the issue of gender equality occurs to me–like not being able to say the opening prayer in sacrament meeting (yes, our ward adheres to that) or be the final speaker when there is a priesthood holder on the same program–I was the mother of seven children in my late 30′s and was assigned to speak the same day as a newly returned missionary was speaking. I wouldn’t even have noticed it except that my bishop called to say how sorry he was that he was going to have to switch the order in which we were speaking–his original intent was to have me be the “key note speaker” [his words, not mine--he apparently liked my talks] but a member of the stake presidency had told him the final speaker had to be a man. I tried not to mind that switch. I really did, but for the life of me I could NOT understand how closing out a meeting was a priesthood function–especially when I was a lot older and more experienced. I KNOW that is not what the gospel is about, that we will all be blessed for HOW we serve, not WHERE. But I would rather the limiting factor be agency, NOT gender. I want to KNOW that I am equal, not just be told it. Do I want to hold the priesthood myself? No. Do I support my priesthood leaders in their responsibilities? Yes. Am I thrilled with this change in policy? YES!!!

  16. To me gender issues in the Church always involve whether or not women’s voices are being heard. Some wards and stakes are better than others in giving women opportunities to speak (and by “speak” I don’t simply mean giving talks, but being valuable sources of insight and leadership as well). Anything that can be done by the general leadership to support those who are already seeking women’s voices, as well as encourage those who aren’t actively doing so, is welcome indeed. I cheered after the prayer was finished! I also think the announced changes in missionary leadership councils to include more women’s voices is a wonderful step.

  17. I am another who knew it was coming, thought I didn’t care, but was SO happy when it happened. I am not really a “feminist” by nature, but have an 8 year old daughter who has noticed that she has Activity days only every other week whereas her brothers all go to their scouts every week. I do not want her to feel inferior in anyway and admit to wondering what the reasoning is there.
    Our Stake Conference was a couple weeks ago and it made me smile that they had all the Stake YW and RS presidents speak as well as a prayer offered by a sister. I’m so grateful that at least in my ward and stake we seem to be “culturally progressive.”

  18. So many thoughts go into this….I don’t care. I’ve never felt inferior and like I had to fight for ‘rights’ that men received. I have felt the reason there is more given to men is because, as women, we are naturally given a stronger connection to God and we don’t need ‘more’. That is completely my opinion that I’ve come to as I’ve watched and listened to the Spirit (as an only girl with seven brothers, I’ve seen the additional programs for men).

    With that, as I have read these comments, I realize that I have been blessed by not having leaders that made me feel less than just because I’m a woman. I’m grateful for that and sad to hear that others have not had that same privilege. My simple prayer at the end of the day is that we can see the Gospel for what it is and remove any cultural influences that are not aligned with the doctrine of our great church.

  19. One more thought. Cubs and Activity Days have been mentioned here twice. I just have to say that if the move is made to “equalize” them, then I vote for making them BOTH be only twice a month!! (I’ve noticed the cost differential too. I just figure it is b/c the scout program is more expensive and to be chartered you have to have X number of meetings.)

  20. One of my sons asked me “Why did it take 183 years before women were allowed to pray in General Conference?” I said, “Because for all those years men have just been trying to take care of us.”

    If this makes some women happier, then I am happy for them. But to me, it does not make one little difference. I trust our Prophet completely. And besides that, I didn’t even notice until someone brought it to my attention about a month ago.

  21. Jen, your bet might be accurate. Or, don’t you think it’s quite possible that there was inspiration involved in choosing the women to pray? That this year it would matter who prayed, so to choose a few women? Because God knew those letters would come, and yeah there are good reasons to be able to say the campaign did not affect the decision. Who’s to say He couldn’t have done that? I’d rather believe truth was told and honest desires expressed on all sides, and everybody goes home happy.

  22. It sounds like several of the commenters here have had bad experiences with the cultural norms of some church leaders. I grew up in small town Mormonland, but lived most of my adult life in regions where church members are a decided minority, and many are adult converts. However…in both places, it all depends on the habits of the individual priesthood leaders. Ana of the Nine kids: It is an absurdity that you couldn’t be the closing speaker! Our ward has women “close” when a man has spoken before. I’ve given opening and closing prayers in Sacrament meetings. None of these things are in the handbook–they are all someone’s weird preference.

    It reminds me of when we started the three hour meeting blocks. Some leaders were freaked out about babies being present in priesthood meetings…but if Mom was busy in Primary, then by golly, Dad had to step up. It’s that old “traditions of your fathers” thing that simply has to be stamped out now and then.

    It’s a good example to have women praying in General Conference. It shows those Old Schoolers that they need to relax a little. Sometimes, we should quietly write letters to express our concern about cultural norms that have no obvious doctrinal basis. I just try not to keep score about “fairness” when maybe it isn’t about that at all.

  23. It’s interesting to read other people’s experiences. I think that everyone’s point of view is valid, and my mother experienced a hell of a lot of unrighteous dominion during my parents’ divorce.

    But then we moved from small town Missouri to England (long story) and I’ve grown into the gospel on this side of the Atlantic with very little of the same experience. The Scouting programme is not church-based over here, and the Faith in God activities are held once a month, if that. Usually once every six-eight weeks, even. I’m sure I’ve given opening and closing prayers in Sacrament meetings, have never been told to leave the room when nursing a child, and so on.

    I was happy to see a woman giving a prayer, if only to think that the precedent will quelch these strange goings-on in wards that won’t let women fully participate in Sacrament meetings. Good. Glad for the change.

    But I also thought the prayer was too long; I’m not a fan of prayers lasting more than a minute or so, no matter who is giving it.

  24. I am with Lynn and Sarah. Maybe growing up across the oceans in areas where members are very much in the minority changes things.

    I have given both prayers in sacrament meetings – I am always the final speaker when I speak in Sacrament meeting.When I was new RM I was asked to pray at a regional conference with apostles in attendance (they didn’t ask the boy RM’s too and the other person praying was the Stake Relief Society president)

    We don’t have cubs/scouts here so the activities are the same. More money is spent on the girls as they do something – the boys usually end up playing ball.

    I used to want to live in Utah to see what it is like to be were you are not a minority – but with all of the feminist talk out of there recently I am happy to stay in the minority on this side of the world. Here we get treated like equals at church. I see this as a Utah problem not a church problem.

    I would be disappointed if ever when I gave a prayer or a talk people were more concerned about my gender than what I was saying to my Heavenly Father.

  25. I actually wrote a letter in February to ask for a woman to pray in General Conference. This has been a very meaningful experience for me. I have always loved to participate in the prayers that bookend the sessions of General Conference. At those times I feel so united in love and purpose with the entire population of latter day saints. I grew up in a tiny branch in Upstate NY and live here again as an adult raising my own family. Most of the time, I have felt very alone in my worship and in my gospel-based life choices, even among my own family, but at General Conference I am always buoyed as I feel and see myself a part of something beautiful and big. When a woman stood and said a prayer as a representation for the entire church, I just felt grateful. So very, very grateful. I also felt heard. Maybe they did already have the schedule set long before there was a letter writing campaign. Maybe they changed two prayers after the fact for the benefit of a small group of women. Maybe they didn’t have to, because they were inspired ahead of time. It doesn’t matter to me. I felt heard by heaven. Maybe most people will think I’m silly, but I felt that God understands my heart and does not scorn it.

  26. I missed all of the live viewing of general conference due to an out-of-state funeral (funeral services Saturday, travel home to Utah Sunday), but I am very happy to hear that women gave two prayers in conference. I believe that our Heavenly Father honors the prayers of women and men equally and I am glad to see our general authorities recognize that in a public way as well.

  27. Regarding prayer length (because boy, those were some doozies), I have been told that there is actually a timer on the pulpit that the prayer-givers keep an eye on to measure their prayer to the right length. Depending on the timing needs of the session, it may be set to a longer or shorter time. Wish I could remember who told me this, but it seems like it was a reliable source.

  28. Regarding the speculations of Lindsay and others, there has been talk in the Bloggernacle about women praying in General Conference at least since the last handbook was released with the line, “Men and women may offer both opening and closing prayers in Church meetings.”

    See this post from 2011:

    bycommonconsent.com/2011/10/01/let-my-people-pray-its-time-to-consider-having-women-give-openingclosing-prayers-in-general-conference/

    The Church has a good public relations department so if encouragement to have women pray wasn’t coming from other sources, something like this could have very well come to the attention of the Church well before the letter-writing campaign began, and could have been taken under consideration in the planning of subsequent conferences.

  29. I love what ErinMadamLibrarian in her second paragraph. It is okay to ask.

    Count me as one who was delighted to hear two women pray, especially since I’m one of those who’d noticed years ago that women never had never prayed. (Actually, it’s as mind-boggling to me that so many people hadn’t noticed women didn’t pray as it is to so many of them that some of us cared.)

  30. Just because you hadn’t noticed or it doesn’t matter to you doesn’t mean it had deep meaning for some of us who do care about it and had noticed. Perhaps you hadn’t had a bishop in your young adult years tell you that you were fat and overweight and needed to lose weight because no man would want you like you were (my sister had this happen), perhaps you never had a mission president totally dismiss the sister missionaries and tell us if we just visited the less actives that would be enough because weren’t expected to do as much as the elders who had the priesthood. Or maybe you haven’t had a husband who exercised unrighteous dominion almost daily in your 4 years of marriage. Nope you probably wouldn’t have noticed. But I did and am grateful that the messages are being sent through the missionary councils and women praying at conference that we are valuable and strong and capable!

    I am glad I know the priesthood isn’t about the men because I would have lost a testimony years ago. I have also had many male leaders who are kind and compassionate and helpful toward me.

  31. Well, I am really happy for those who assert that they were pleased that a woman got assigned to pray in the general session of Conference. But I’ve never been inclined to the opinion that Church leaders are liars. Seems like a downright uncharitable supposition, to me.

  32. Yes, there is a timer on the pulpit, also one on the organ and probably the conductor’s stand as well. Prayers can be lengthened or shortened, music can be faster or slower, or verses dropped or added depending on time constraints. This is for television purposes.

  33. I first wondered why no women prayed in conference when I was in high school, 20 years ago. I cried tears of joy when I heard my sisters pray in conference. It mattered to me. I have a firm testimony of this Gospel and a meaningful relationship with my Savior and Heavenly Father. And I would have still had both of these had no women prayed. It wasn’t a deal breaker for me. But it mattered.

  34. For the link above. Make sure you see the full interview which is the middle video. It will take you to the news story first.

  35. “Perhaps it will bring some understanding.”

    Thank you for the kind thought, but are you suggesting that we’re all languishing in ignorance and darkness?

  36. I hadn’t noticed, and I missed all of conference because we were out of town for Spring Break. Put me down under I’ve never felt marginalized by the men in the church, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t matter to me.

  37. In the updated 2010 red handbook it states that men and women can give prayers in any church meeting.

  38. i too, am among those that didn’t realize how much it would affect me. it was very powerful and my husband and i both looked at each other immediately after the prayer ended, having both felt how important it was.

    i have always had positive experiences as a woman in the church, but in saying that and hearing other people cite that as a reason that this isn’t that big of a deal, i worry that we are forgetting that whatever our individual experiences as women within the church on all levels of our participation (in families, sacrament meeting, in our callings, etc.), the experience of all of the women in the church for the past 183 years on this particular issue has been that we have been excluded from saying prayers in general conference until now. for whatever reason, those are the facts, universally. i haven’t felt belittled by it, because i don’t think it was done maliciously or anything like that, but i do think that it was based in unfortunate cultural traditions, certainly not doctrine, and i am so happy that we have broken that tradition.

  39. I wasn’t going to comment again, but no one has reminded us that women are given speaking assignments in general conference. I’m not negating the sacredness of prayer but if gender is what we’re focusing on, isn’t women speaking on church doctrine to the world even a more powerful statement about the place of women in the Savior’s Church?

  40. You’re right, Lynn. Women should have greater representation in the talks, too, but “one miracle at a time”, right?

    I did a little dance when Pres Utchdorf announced it. It meant that our leaders were listening, that they cared, that they thought that this was important, too.

    I think that the church is trying to bring women in better, to integrate their voices. I think some wards and stakes are doing it better than others.

  41. Women do have greater representation in the talks—there are only 9 female auxiliary leaders, and over a hundred male GA/auxiliary leaders. There are 20–25 talks in a given conference, and two of those are usually given by women. That seems like fair representation to me. Plus, at least three of hose sisters were also given assignments to speak the week before at the general RS or YW meetings. I was actually curious why they had sister dalton speak when she had spoken just the week before, but it was probably so she could give a general farewell address. It seems like Sister Beck did the same thing last October.

  42. RMM, WHAT???? Did you watch the video? No, I wasn’t suggesting anything of the sort. I just thought they had words I did not have. Words of understanding and love and how things work on the General level of a world wide church. No harsh words were said by me and that sentiment was not meant at all.

  43. Sorry, Becky. I’ve been feeling a little on edge about all the criticism directed toward the women involved in this recent project, particularly the criticism by people who very evidently don’t understand the historical or cultural issues involved.

    Yes, I did watch the video when it was released. It’s a great step forward.

    Peyton: the population of the Church is more than 50 percent female. Please do explain more about how you arrive at your conclusion of fair representation.

  44. It absolutely mattered. I was so grateful to see an antiquated tradition with no doctrinal basis changed at a GENERAL level. There is a difference between doctrine and traditions and in this matter, it was corrected. I am grateful for loving Heavenly Parents who inspired our leaders to make the change…whether through their own promptings or at the suggestion of the letter-writing campaign which in turn begged the question…I have a firm testimony that God is in charge, that change can and will come (sometimes not on our preferred schedule) and that He loves us. Yay! Fist Pumping all around!!!

  45. 48 – I agree, yes, it matters. Our current bishopric has only males speak last in sacrament meeting because they claim that is the pattern from General Conference.

    47 – I had the exact same thought about over 50% of church members being female when I read Peyton’s comment.

    These things matter to me. I don’t want the priesthood but I sure wouldn’t mind having my priestesshood now in mortality. Just sayin.

  46. As I noted in my first comment, it’s a fair representation of the current leadership of the church—about a quarter of the females speak, as do about a quarter of the males. If you want fair representation of the membership of the church, you’ll need to start a new letter-writing campaign to rearrange the leadership.

  47. I actually hadn’t spent much time thinking about this issue–it didn’t seem like a big deal to me, though I did hear my husband rant and rave against “all those feminists who are trying to make sure women get the priesthood”. He associates this simple step with that end goal somehow.

    But after I listened to Sister Stevens’ beautiful prayer Sat. morning, it clicked for me, and I was so happy I cheered! I does seem like a big deal now, and I am thrilled with the increased kindness and sensitivity our culture as a whole is showing towards women and women’s issues (though I don’t think of myself as a feminist).

    Then my husband said angrily, “I don’t want to hear that from YOU!” It didn’t faze me.

  48. Wow, Margaret. My husband probably feels that way, but if he said it, he’d be picking himself up off the floor somewhere far away.

    I loved that women prayed, also.

    One thought I had, though, was that she had to have been scared to death. I’m more frightened to pray in public than speak. It’s such a personal thing. I wondered if she was cussing us for complaining about it :).

  49. A little history might be in order. Prayer were given by sisters in all church meeting including conference in the early church and until about 60 years ago. Then the routine was established to have the 70′s of the church take on the prayer assignment which meant male members were saying prayer. It was never a statement of policy or doctrine that only male can pray but a matter of order. The current prayer indicate that the general authorities , either on their own or by the letters and comments of members recognize that this order of things was not the best and changed that tradition with conference. As we have been advised repeatedly it is a good thing to look at traditions and practices and correct those that are not in perfect harmony with the gospel.

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