Sheri Dew wrote biographies of Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley during their lifetimes. She served as a counselor in the general Relief Society presidency from 1997 until 2002. She is now CEO of Deseret Book. Her book Women and the Priesthood was published this month.
You’ve had a remarkable career. You’re not only the first female CEO of Deseret Book but also probably the youngest. Did you plan to spend the majority of your adult life in publishing?
What I imagined when I was younger and what I hoped for my whole life was that I’d get married and have a family. Not one bit of me ever wanted to have a career. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d have a career. I had zero interest in that.
When I graduated from BYU and wasn’t married, I thought, “Now what do I do?” I fell into publishing. I had just finished all the course requirements for my master’s degree in history, and I was still working on my thesis. I found a job as a receptionist at Bookcraft Publishers. Within three or four months, they moved me into the back as a beginning editor. I trained as an assistant editor under George Bickerstaff, who was a wonderful editor. One thing led to another, and time passed, and I didn’t get married, and more time passed, and I still didn’t get married, and I just kept working.
Every year, I thought, “This is the year I’ll get married. This is the year that blessing will finally be realized.” I turned sixty years old yesterday and I’m still not married.
Nothing has turned out like I’ve hoped. Nothing has turned out like I’ve prayed for and pleaded for. It’s not gone that way. But that’s not to say it’s been bad! I didn’t set out to have a career in publishing. I didn’t give two hoots about that. But I have found creating content all these years and helping others create content to be satisfying. I’m grateful to have been involved in something that’s meaningful.
How do you deal with those moments of disappointment?
They are really hard, deeply painful, and deeply disappointing. If I had not come to understand a little more about the Atonement and the healing power of the Atonement, I don’t know what would have happened. Those disappointments have led me to struggle for my own personal understanding of the Atonement. But they’re hard. There’s nothing easy about it.
I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Write a book for the singles!” You will never see me do that. Ever. I would never pretend to give counsel to anyone about how to cope with being unmarried, because I think everyone’s situation is different, but I do think everybody feels pain and experiences disappointment, and for each of us the answer is to look to the Lord.
In your new book you say that you have seen examples of priesthood power since you were a little girl. What were some of the times that you remember recognizing priesthood power?
When we look at things in retrospect, we impose our adult eyes on what we were learning and experiencing as children. But there are some things that I experienced growing up that I know affected me then. I could feel something. Anytime my father would give me a blessing, I would feel something. Whether it was a blessing of healing or a school blessing or a father’s blessing, or whatever it was, he would always say, “I give this blessing not through power of my own but through the power of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood.” Always, when he would say those words, I would feel a surge go through me. When I was little, I didn’t know what it was. I just could feel something. And I liked how that felt!
The most obvious and most clear experience I had as a little girl was when my father confirmed me and gave me the gift of the Holy Ghost. From the minute that he said, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” I started to cry. As a little eight year old, I was embarrassed about it. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried through the blessing. I cried walking back to the row where my family was sitting. It was powerful. It was more than I could handle. I just knew that it was real.
So, beginning with my father, I had experiences that led me to feel and believe, as my testimony was growing, that priesthood power was real. My innate respect for priesthood power started when I was little, with my father.
Was there a particular time that you remember coming to a more detailed understanding?
Understanding was more gradual. I could never point at a specific time. But for decades, I have been intrigued about priesthood power. I wanted to understand it better, so I’ve studied a lot. I read certain scriptures a billion times, asking “What does that really mean?” Once I was endowed and started going to the temple, I spent a lot of time thinking about it.
Through the years and through the decades, I’ve had what seems to be an innate and an unusual interest in understanding priesthood. I think that has been accentuated by some of the experiences I’ve had in my life. I’ve had a lot of leadership experiences where I’ve worked directly with priesthood leaders: bishops, stake presidents, and general authorities. Those experiences have tended to make me want to understand, How does priesthood work? How should I feel about it as a female? What impact should it have on me as a female? I’ve been intrigued about it.
Did your association with Pres. Benson or Pres. Hinckley, as you worked on their biographies, change or refine your understanding of priesthood?
I spent a lot of time with each of those presidents of the Church, the men who held all the priesthood keys. It was an amazing experience to be able to ask them anything that I wanted to ask! When you’re trying to write about someone who has become a prophet, you’re digging deeply. I was trying to figure out, What would the Lord have me write about him? What is a true characterization? What really shows the development of his life? So of course that association pushed along my understanding. It couldn’t help but do that!
I’ve probably met with members of the First Presidency and the Twelve thousands of times. I’m very well-acquainted with some of them. I can tell you that I’ve never been in the presence of one of them, not one time ever, that I don’t have a little surge of the Spirit telling me I’m with a prophet, seer, and revelator. I’ve felt that witness so many times that I know it has shaped me. I’m certain that those Brethren have all the keys! I just don’t have any question about that.
That knowledge makes me ask, “What does it mean that they have all the keys? What does it mean to me? How is that different from other men who’ve been ordained?”
When I was in the general Relief Society presidency, I started to give some talks where I broached issues about priesthood. In those cases, I would have opportunities where I could sit with some of our senior leaders and say, “I’ve been studying in the scriptures, and I had this impression. Can I talk to you about what this might mean?” So I have had some unusual experiences of being mentored and taught along the way.
But I’ve never had a meeting with a priesthood leader where he’s said, “Let me just spell it out for you. Here’s how it works.” So, yes, my experiences have propelled me forward in my own study, but I’ve had to dig for this understanding myself.
You speak eloquently in your book about what you call the doctrine of motherhood, pointing out that it is not limited to physical maternity. Can you talk about how you have used the doctrine of motherhood in your life?
One of the painful things about not marrying at a traditional age is not having children. I had an experience, related to being single and not a mother, with one of the senior Brethren that was hard to take. The encounter made me feel badly and it bothered me. I agonized over it.
But as I struggled over that experience, I started thinking about motherhood, and that is what led me to start studying the doctrine of motherhood differently than I ever had. When I did that, the Lord parted a curtain and taught me some things about what motherhood really means that I had never understood and that we don’t typically hear talked about in Church. It started with a painful experience that made me feel really badly, but it was in the wrestling with that experience that the Lord taught me, so I feel pretty grateful for that miserable experience. It led me to learn some things I don’t think I would have learned any other way.
I was led to think really deeply about the whole issue of motherhood. It became really clear to me that motherhood is more than bearing children. Of course, giving birth is the most dramatic evidence of it, but it’s more than that.
Understanding that the doctrine of motherhood is about more than the bearing of children has helped me crystallize for my own self that I can still, even without having borne children, mother others. They might be teenagers, they might be young adults, they might be sisters in the gospel. There are so many opportunities to shepherd others along the path.
I do think that we as women have been uniquely gifted with spiritual gifts that enable us to help shepherd others along the path. I’m very conscious of that. It drives, for me, a whole lot of what I do. It drives wanting to help a young adult who’s struggling with her testimony. It drives my going to teach institute where I can have a mothering influence on young adults who are finding their way. It’s a driving force in my life’s mission. I have just had to find different ways to mother because the normal way hasn’t come to me naturally.
You’ve written and spoken often about your nieces and nephews. What role does being an aunt play in your life?
My sisters and brothers have been generous to share their children with me and allow me to be a part of their lives. I love my nieces and nephews dearly. I would do anything for those kids. I’m very close to those kids and work really hard at trying to develop a relationship with them so that when they need help they’ll talk to me about the issues they may be dealing with.
I do believe that there is a lot of power in an extended family, in grandmothers and grandfathers, in aunts and uncles, in cousins. An extended family can create such a safe haven. I don’t want to paint it as though we have some nirvana family, because that would not be true. Our family’s not perfect. We have plenty of problems, but I’m a believer in the power of an extended family to wrap our arms around whoever is struggling and pull them along. I’m grateful for the chance to be a part of that. It’s meant a lot to me.
You say in your book you were reluctant to publish this manuscript. What made you reluctant and what made you change your mind?
More than a decade ago, when I was in the Relief Society general presidency, I gave a talk in general conference and one at the BYU Women’s Conference where I touched on some elements about priesthood, but I didn’t go very deep. I was laying track, although I didn’t know that I was.
In 2012, I published a little book with Virginia Pearce where we each wrote an essay about some of the sermons the prophet Joseph gave to the women in Nauvoo in 1842. I wrote a little more about priesthood then.
About a year and a half ago, I started a new book, but it wasn’t on women and the priesthood. It was a different topic entirely. I spent several months on it. One day early this year, I spent all day working on it and realized it was going nowhere. I was so frustrated at the end of that Saturday. I thought of all the time I’d wasted time over a period of months and I decided, “You know what? I’m bagging this. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but it’s just not working. I’m not going to focus on it anymore.”
A dear friend of mine emailed me that very night, asking, “How’s it going?”
I said, “It’s just not working. I’m calling it quits.”
The next day I happened to see her in a meeting and she slipped me a note. The note said, “This is what your book should be: Women and the Priesthood.”
I felt a spiritual reaction to her suggestion, but after that meeting, I said, “What are you thinking? I don’t think I want to do that book.”
She said, “Look, I’ve known you long enough and I’ve listened to you long enough and I’ve watched you long enough that I know that’s what you really care about. That’s what you’ve studied about. That’s what you’ve been thinking about. That’s what you always talk about. I think the problem is you’ve been writing the wrong book.”
So, the next chance I got, I went to my home office and within about an hour I had the outline. I knew what it was supposed to be. I started to look at all these pieces I’d been writing that weren’t fitting into my other book, and I discovered that I could extract a lot of them and put in place in this new outline. I thought, “Maybe this is the book.”
I started praying about it and thinking about it, but I was still reluctant. I thought, “Everyone will think I’m writing this as an answer to all the people who think women should get the priesthood, and that’s just not the case.” But I honestly could not leave it alone. I’d try to set it on the shelf and I’d say, “Forget that,” and I would feel compelled to pick it up and work on it again. I tried and tried to talk myself out of it.
I did not want it to appear that I am speaking for the Church, because I am not speaking for the Church! It also made me nervous because I knew the minute that thing was published, I would have new insights and new things that I would wish I had said, but it would already be set in stone. “You’re not going to be able to write Women and the Priesthood, Volume 2!” I thought. “I probably ought to wait a while,” but then I thought, “When will that be? When I’m sixty-five, I still won’t know everything yet.”
Despite all my hesitations, I felt compelled. I can’t deny that. So I finally just went with it. I had to give myself a little talk: “Do it and quit whining. Offer up your witness of what you believe is true.”
One of my favorite things about the book is that you include empty pages at the back that you invite the reader to fill. It’s as if you’re asking each reader to collaborate with you!
To me, that may be the most important thing about the book! In order to really understand anything deeply about the gospel, we have to have it taught to us by the Holy Ghost. When the Holy Ghost testifies of it, you start to learn it inside, not when you just read it in a book.
So my biggest hope is that someone would read this book and say, “Hmm. That’s given me something to think about. I want to understand the topic of priesthood better. I’m going to study for myself.” The very best outcome, from my point of view is that someone starts to dig into the scriptures, and spend more time in the temple, and ask the Lord to answer questions, to gain her own testimony.
So when we were working on the book, I said to the publishing team, “Part of my reluctance is that I don’t want to seem like the authority on this. I’m just learning like everyone else. I really hope that other people will work to learn it, too.”
They came back to me and said, “Let’s send that signal in a really clear way.” So that’s how the blank pages came to be there.
You acknowledge the absence of answers to some questions. How would you counsel church members to deal with those questions?
It’s not just about priesthood that we don’t have answers! There are other things we don’t have every answer about, whether it’s a doctrinal question or a question about our own lives. Why am I sixty and I’ve never been able to get married? Why has the Lord not let it happen? I don’t understand that.
The Lord has chosen to explain a lot of things, but He doesn’t explain everything. There are a lot of topics we don’t know everything about. I think it is a fundamental requirement of men and women of faith to be willing, on some issues, to exercise that faith.
The only way I know to deal with unanswered questions, of which I have plenty of my own, is to talk to the Lord about it. This probably sounds really simplistic to some people, but I have relied on some counsel that Sister Camilla Kimball gave years ago. She said that when she had unanswered questions, she would put the question in a box and put the box on a shelf. For a while. Later, she’d pull the box off the shelf and sometimes the question had been answered and sometimes it hadn’t. But she was willing to give the Lord the benefit of the doubt, to trust that as soon as He was ready to answer her questions, He’d answer them.
In my own life, that has proven to be true many times. There are times I’ve allowed myself to get all churned up about something, and then I’ll think, “I’ll set it aside for a while.” Often I’ll go back a month later, a year later, five years later, and that question will no longer be a question for me. The Lord will have talked to me about it, and I will feel clear about it.
But there are still things that I don’t know, and I think I’ll die with things that the Lord has not chosen to explain yet. I think that’s part of a religious life! I don’t think there’s any religion, including our faith, which I believe is the Lord’s faith, that answers every question. So I’m okay with questions that aren’t answered. I’m curious about them, but I’m not troubled by them.
On the other hand, there are some things the Lord has taught me personally about priesthood that I did not put in the book because I don’t think we have doctrine to support it. I feel like the Lord has told me some things, but I don’t think they’re things I can talk about because I can’t corroborate them with doctrine.
But the point is that I think the Lord will talk to us. When we want to learn things, He’ll talk to us and teach us things. We can’t always talk about what He teaches us or He’ll quit teaching us.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Eliza R. Snow said that Latter-day Saint women have greater and higher privileges than any female on the face of the earth. I absolutely know that is true. We could talk about the issues of trying to work with priesthood leaders. I’m like everyone else: I’ve had glorious experiences working with priesthood leaders, and I’ve had terrible experiences working with priesthood leaders. I get that whole picture.
But I also believe that when you look at the spiritual privileges we have, it’s just astonishing. The saddest imaginable thing is if we don’t realize what God has given us. And if we don’t realize it, we are in no position to learn how to draw upon the power of God and how to draw that power into our lives to bless us. Imagine how sad to get to the end of your life and find out that you had it all along, but didn’t access that power.
I hope this book encourages women to find out for themselves so that they know how to draw more power into their lives.
At A Glance
Marital status: Single
Occupation: CEO, Deseret Book
Schools Attended: BYU
On The Web: www.deseretbook.com
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photo used with permission.
At A Glance