Help Available Here: A Conversation with Elder Robert L. Simpson about LDS Social Services

Robert L. Simpson


Four years ago, the First Presidency created a department to help administer the Indian student placement program, to provide help for delinquent youth, and to oversee the Church adoption program in Utah and Arizona. Now, members of the Church throughout the United States and Canada can receive a full range of services administered by what is now called LDS Social Services.

Through priesthood channels that reach into the wards and branches, LDS Social Services offers assistance and counseling to alcoholics, drug abusers, and homosexuals and oversees the prisoner’s aid program. It also administers agencies for adoption, foster child care, and unwed mothers; day camps for children with special problems; and the program for Indian student placement. In addition, the department, under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, advises the First Presidency on social problems encountered by deaf and blind members of the Church.

As an integral part of Church Welfare Services, LDS Social Services closely coordinates its activities with the Welfare Department and the Health Services Corporation of the Church. Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown is chairman of the Welfare Services executive committee, while his counselors, Bishop H. Burke Peterson and Bishop Vaughn J. Featherstone, serve as vice-chairmen. Adviser to Welfare Services is Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Council of the Twelve.

The Ensign recently discussed the scope of LDS Social Services with Elder Robert L. Simpson, an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and managing director of the department.

Elder Robert L. Simpson

The LDS Social Services annual report lists the following examples of treatment:

A young convict was paroled and now attends college.

An unwed mother, recently married in the temple after several years of humble rebuilding, is now a volunteer worker with unwed mothers.

A former heroin addict now serves as a Sunday School teacher, has been ordained an elder, and is preparing for a temple marriage.

A nine-year-old girl who attended Social Services day camps for disturbed children now receives all As and Bs in school.

An active Latter-day Saint couple see their formerly promiscuous daughter doing very well in college after some specialized help.

A ward welfare services committee gave emotional support and provided Church assignments to ease a sister’s depressions and prevent her suicide attempts.

ENSIGN: Are the Social Services programs aligned with the gospel?

ELDER SIMPSON: This is the very essence of our function. As we read the New Testament, we are impressed by the Savior’s compassion. Most often he was reaching out, lifting up, and helping the unfortunate and downtrodden and those who had lost their way. To those church members in his time who questioned his concern for the troubled, he replied that those who are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. I think it very significant that the Church spends much time and effort in following the Savior’s example. Social Service programs should be a part of his church and a very important part.

Now it might be suggested that the services we offer can be found within existing community agencies. However, our teachings and counsel surrounding these services are different, because they are gospel-oriented and based on eternal principles. To have a counselor who is a good Church member and one who holds a temple recommend, as our professional counselors do, enhances the counselor/counselee relationship and gives strength to the guidance provided.

ENSIGN: You referred to professional counselors; how many do you have, and how are the programs administered?

ELDER SIMPSON: Our professional staff consists of approximately 135 people, supported by another 65 secretarial and nonprofessional people. We make ourselves available to the priesthood leaders by holding seminars to let them know how we can serve them and also to help them develop counseling techniques. We try to teach them how to identify with people with profound problems, how to become listeners, and how to recognize the person who will need many hours of special counseling.

We are also urging bishops and stake presidents to form resource teams composed of specially qualified ward and stake members. This utilizes the services of people who have professional backgrounds in many fields, such as medicine, law, nursing, accounting, banking, finance, and insurance. We would hope that these volunteers would be the first line of help for the bishop, while our department people stand by to assist with deeper problems that might require additional specialized training.

In the administration of our adoption agencies, foster care programs, and day camps, the law requires that we use professional personnel legally licensed by local authorities. Volunteers are also called to assist.

ENSIGN: Traditionally, a member of the Church with a problem has gone to his bishop; are we looking at the possibilities of a change in that relationship?

ELDER SIMPSON: No. What we are trying to do is to support the local priesthood leaders by providing them with additional resource material to handle the problems that may come their way. Besides offering specially trained expertise, we also are preparing a number of packets as aids for local priesthood leaders. For instance, our first packet deals with the Church’s view on homosexuality, and it includes two booklets, one to aid the bishop or branch president, and another to be given to the person seeking help. In addition, we have prepared a problem-resource wheel that lists the potential resource people within a ward or stake who might best provide guidance for members with specific problems.

Our goal is to place into the hands of bishops and branch presidents materials such as filmstrips, video tapes, and our packets that can be used just as any other resource file can be used to help solve problems of our society. Some general educational-type materials also will be made available for meetinghouse libraries.

We have been gratified by the favorable responses that we have received from priesthood leaders who read the materials already available. They realize that we are putting tools into their hands that will enable them to better fulfill their callings.

ENSIGN: The Social Services programs have been put into effect in Utah and the western United States; will they be extended throughout the Church?

ELDER SIMPSON: We have been challenged by the First Presidency to see that every Church member in the world as far as possible has access to the services we have here. We are now working in the eastern United States and in Canada and we hope our influence will be left in every overseas stake and mission within the next two or three years. I’m not saying that we will have professional people everywhere—it will depend on what the licensing requirements and the needs are—but by using the packets, by calling on resource people in the community, or by providing help from here when needed, we hope to make our services available to every member of the Church.

ENSIGN: Does this mean that a member of the Church with a problem still goes to his bishop or branch president for help rather than contacting the Social Services Department?

ELDER SIMPSON: That’s correct. Occasionally, we have a person come into this office to resolve a personal problem. Our first question is “Have you contacted your bishop?” Some may tell us that they can’t talk to their bishop because he is their next-door neighbor, or he is a member of the family, or some other reason. But what must be remembered is that there are four common judges for every member of the Church—his bishop and the three members of the stake presidency. These are the four people in the lives of each Church member with whom they can discuss personal and private affairs. A counselor in a ward bishopric does not serve in this capacity, neither does a high councilor; and it would be inappropriate for a quorum president to usurp the capacity of a common judge.

But anyone who can conduct a temple recommend interview is considered to be a common judge and can handle personal problems and make the decisions that have to be made. So, when people tell us that they can’t talk to their bishop or branch president, then we suggest to them that they meet with their stake president or district president. Generally speaking, only members referred by a stake president should come to Church headquarters with their personal problems.

The First Presidency has said that the members of the Church must have sufficient faith to know that their bishops have been ordained and set apart as the common judges of the people who reside within the boundaries of their wards. They are the ones to whom the Lord will speak and inspire concerning the welfare of those they serve.

ENSIGN: Where do the home teachers and the visiting teachers fit into the overall program of assistance to members?

ELDER SIMPSON: They have a very important responsibility. They can be a prime resource for the bishop because, through them, it is possible for a bishop to recognize a potential problem long before it becomes serious. In fact, we wouldn’t have so many serious problems if the home teachers and the visiting teachers would voice their concern earlier.

For instance, we know of a visiting teacher who was very conscientious in her calling. One sister she visited seemed increasingly nervous with every contact. Finally she wouldn’t let her in her home. Finally the sister being visited broke down and revealed that her husband was drinking heavily and that they were in financial trouble.

This visiting teacher, by alerting the bishop, helped the family as the bishop quickly arranged for appropriate counseling. That broke the spiritual deadlock so that the family was then able to return to full activity. It’s that kind of participation and observation and caring that can pay real dividends in helping our brothers and sisters.

ENSIGN: What other course is open to the members of the Church who want to help rehabilitate those trying to overcome problems?

ELDER SIMPSON: I think our Church teachings always point up the importance of being sensitive to other people’s feelings and the need to demonstrate a true Christian attitude toward those who are finding it difficult to live as they know they should.

A case in point would be the released prisoner. He is taken by his home teachers to a ward where he is introduced to other members. Showing love and expressing confidence in the man’s ability can really accelerate his rehabilitation.

The same attitude of love and fellowship applies to anyone who has gone astray or who has a deep emotional problem and who is trying to come back into full activity and be at one with the community. As members of the Church we are not meant to judge our fellow members, nor are we to deprive them of the blessings that could come into their lives.

ENSIGN: How could the members of a ward or branch become part of the resource team to help others?

ELDER SIMPSON: I think that as a bishop or branch president looks for his resource people, he shouldn’t seek only the professionals. He should also look for those people to be on his resource team who seem to be born with that unique gift of relating well to others.

Then there are many areas in which the young people could be of service. We made up a pamphlet for June conference in which we suggested that members of the Aaronic Priesthood MIA could help the handicapped, care for children, work on welfare projects, be a big brother or big sister to younger children who need guidance, be a volunteer teacher at one of our day camps for problem children, or work on any number of projects.

Some of the most enthusiastic responses that I have heard from young people have been when their leaders have encouraged them to help others. There are so many things that could be done, not only by the youth but by all members of the Church.

For instance, a survey within the Church has shown that some young people were falling away from activity because they were embarrassed to have to read aloud in their class or quorum; they had a reading deficiency. A tutoring program conducted by a priests quorum or a Laurel class could help correct such a problem.

We need foster parents for the Indian placement program. It has been rumored that this program is being phased out, but that is not so. It is phasing out to the extent that we are not finding it necessary to relocate as many Indian children as we used to. Indian parents are more willing to send their children to reservation schools near home where schooling is improving all the time. We are relying more on the local Indian priesthood leaders to determine which children should receive foster home experience. It is crucial that we have foster parents available for this program; it is a unique way in which an entire family can help their brothers and sisters.

The role played by the volunteer in Social Services programs is inestimable. This year we have more than 10,000 members of the Church who volunteer their time and talents to helping others as a part of the organized Social Service program. These volunteers are in addition to the ward or stake resource teams and home teachers and visiting teachers.

ENSIGN: Could you share with us your testimony about Church Social Services?

ELDER SIMPSON: I feel that the First Presidency of the Church has been divinely inspired to organize the Social Services Department of the Church and make its service available to the priesthood leaders throughout the world. I have seen the fruits of the work. I have heard from people who just a few months before were in the depths of despair and who have been brought back by others who have helped them. They now have new hope and have every confidence that they may achieve exaltation and eternal life when they weren’t so sure just a short time before. I have seen priesthood leaders as they catch the vision of the program become more qualified in helping people. In short, I can say that we are doing that which the Savior had in mind when the prophets of old talked about pure religion, and as we reach out for the widowed, fatherless, downtrodden, and those who have lost their way, we are following the admonitions of the Savior as can be found in few other pursuits. I totally and completely believe in the vision of the First Presidency as they have emphasized this program and implemented it as we see it today.

[photos] Counseling unwed mothers; Prisoner rehabilitation; Medical counsel and treatment; Drug abuse counseling; Aid for alcoholics; Counseling; Counseling with bishop; Indian placement program; Tutors; Volunteer workers