For Mormons, one effect of the personal blogging phenomenon is that it's much easier than ever before to see how people in other areas perform their church callings. For each calling that LDS women typically hold—I'm not sure about men—there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of personal blogs that share ideas, experiences, and materials. Not only are these useful resources for women newly called to an overwhelming assignment, but they also provide a fascinating window into LDS culture—and a grassroots vehicle for sharing innovative ideas that come from the trenches, not from Salt Lake. From what I gather, flash mob dances appear to be the next big thing.
One personal blogger that I regularly read—I won't link to her site, since I'm going to be mildly critical, but she is not anybody I know personally—has shared over the past year her experiences as Young Women president. (Young Women president, for anybody not up to speed on LDS-speak, is the adult leader of the teenage girls in the local congregation—essentially a youth minister. A woman will typically serve in a volunteer capacity for two or three years in the office.) She has put her heart and soul into that calling, and her dedication to the girls is beyond question. I have nothing but respect for her intentions and sincerity. But I've been surprised by and a bit critical of the activities she describes planning and carrying out for her girls.
These activities—regular weekly activities, not the big annual events like camp or youth conference—are tremendously labor-intensive for the leaders, with over-the-top decorations, props, ancillary events, and arrangements. She described one week-long event that involved a Sunday afternoon kick-off party, a complex package of treats, gifts, and messages prepared for each girl each day of the week, an extra special weeknight activity, then a concluding fireside dinner for all YW and families the following Sunday. This involved an unimaginable amount of work for the leaders, not to mention two additional meetings for the girls and their families. While I'm sure that there was some spiritual and social benefit to this labor of love, I can't imagine that the benefits were in proportion to the stress and work for the leaders.
The blogger mentioned that she first got the idea from a YW leader in another state, and on her blog hundreds of readers requested her materials in order to implement the program in their own wards, so blow-out activities like these don't seem to be isolated incidents.
I think these dog-and-pony shows put on for our Young Women are a mistake. I understand where the impulse comes from: there has been a lot of concern in recent years about retaining our kids as they transition out of the youth program and into adult membership in church. We want to strengthen their testimonies and commitment during the crucial teenage years, while we still have them. Additionally, I think there is a lot of unstated concern, even among the rank-and-file membership, about how we explain women's relationship to the institutional church and to God in an age where female ordination is becoming common in other denominations. Even though you don't hold the priesthood, we want our girls to know, you are really, really, really important to the church and to God. We'll prove it by putting on these extravaganzas.
So I know that these activities spring from real concerns. I don't for a minute think that these leaders are just status-seeking in their own congregations. But I think, ironically, the maximalist approach may actually work against the intended effect. If we want to prepare our girls for adult membership in the church, we need to prepare them—let's be honest here—for a life of serving others in very basic capacities without much acclaim, of exercising tolerance for folks in our congregations who think and behave differently than we'd wish, and of seeking our own spiritual sustenance in homespun worship services and old-fashioned scriptures. Young women whose formative church experiences by age 18 mostly entail being served in elaborate and lavish ways, being catered to personally by solicitous leaders, and receiving hand-delivered inspiration in a cute font attached to a chocolate bar may understandably have a difficult time adjusting to the realities—and recognizing the tremendous rewards—of adult LDS life. Less pampered princess, more spiritual self-reliance, please.
Let me add two caveats here, and then some suggestions. First, I know that creating attractive decorations and delicious treats is truly pleasurable and a lot of fun for many YW leaders. I know that because it's a lot of fun for me, too. There's nothing wrong with making church service fun for women by adding creative elements that are personally enjoyable. The problem only arises, I think, when the treats and decorations begin to stand in for genuine teaching and mentoring, or when they become culturally mandatory and thus an unnecessary burden for those leaders who don't enjoy creating them.