A Conversation with Sister Barbara B. Smith, Relief Society General President

Barbara B. Smith


A Conversation with Sister
Barbara B. Smith
, Relief Society General President

Ensign: This March marks the 134th year since the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society. How do you assess the needs of women today, particularly as they relate to Relief Society?

Sister Smith: In last October’s final Relief Society conference, Elder Mark E. Petersen said some remarkable things, one of which was that “when the Prophet Joseph Smith organized and established the Church, he included in that organization the women’s Relief Society.” He pointed out that Relief Society was made a part of the Restored Church by action of the great restorer, the Prophet Joseph Smith!

That is a very important concept—that women have been recognized in the Lord’s scheme of things and that in periods of eternity when the gospel flourishes, the women were and are organized for righteous purposes. This great Relief Society movement is a part of the restoration of all things promised by the prophets of old. It is a remarkable thing that once more the Church should lead out. When the Relief Society was organized on March 17, 1842, it was one of the first organizations of women in the latter days, so far as we know.

So if the work of the restoration was not complete until the women were organized, it is quite clear that, as far as the Lord is concerned, Relief Society is a part of the full gospel program.

Ensign: As you think about the sisters of a century ago and the sisters of today, do you see the same kinds of need among them?

Sister Smith: I have thought a great deal about that, and have concluded that women have the same basic needs—no matter in what era they live. We have the same needs of food, clothing, warmth, protection. We have the same emotional and psychological needs of wanting to love and be loved, to give understanding, to be accepted, to find self-fulfillment, to express ourselves, As women we have the same spiritual needs—the hunger to know our God, to orient ourselves to his ways, to know that we have his approbation. I believe that the fundamental needs of man—male or female—are forever the same. I don’t see how they could be otherwise.

However, different conditions around us do affect our life-styles differently throughout the ages. In that regard, the sisters of today do have some different concerns than the sisters of a century ago. For example, today we have many more options than they had. Patterns of communication today make a great difference in our way of living. We now have a great reservoir of information and knowledge available to women that was not available to women, say, of my grandmother’s era. In part, this great amount of information gives some women, and I’m sure some men also, a sense of incompetency when they think about trying to keep up-to-date on all the knowledge that is available to them. Associated with this, we must consider the enormous impact television is having upon our lives. Many social scientists are placing TV as the number one influence in the shaping of values. At the same time they point with alarm to the values pictured repeatedly on the TV screen. To us who believe in God-given eternal values this is a frightening new threat that did not face those who preceded us 100 years ago. We need all the help the Church organization can give us to preserve our value systems and to establish strong values in the lives of our children.

Ensign: In your mind, then, Relief Society is as relevant today as ever?

Sister Smith: Indeed, it is relevant! I must say unequivocally that Relief Society is pertinent in women’s lives today. The underlying purposes of this organization are twofold: First, to provide opportunity and stimulation for more and more effective compassionate service to be given by the sisters. Second, to provide opportunity for a varied program of ongoing education.

In a world where constant and major social changes are taking place, it is impossible for women to be educated, to be aware, and to be able to make choices compatible with gospel teachings without direction. For this reason, our education includes instruction in gospel principles. One of the growing urgencies of our time is the breakdown of the traditional family unit and the weakening of communication between the generations. For this reason, we study social relations skills, communication skills, and family problems. Another of the facts of our day is the shrinking size of the world, which results from technological advances in transportation and communication. We need to know about our sisters around the world and, for this reason, we have begun an introductory study to selected foreign lands. Eventually, we will cover all the countries where there is an organized Relief Society. As the world grows more crowded and the forces of depersonalization continue to exert greater influence in our lives, we need to remember the Christian principle that in order to find our lives, we must serve and give of ourselves. For this reason, we need the continuing encouragement and organization of Relief Society to help us involve ourselves in caring for and serving one another. There simply is no end to the ways in which Relief Society can help us meet our needs in today’s complex world. Yes, I think Relief Society is relevant today and further, I think that the more we use it as a tool for meeting needs, the more relevant it will become in our individual lives.

Ensign: Is the Relief Society, then, a great sisterhood?

Sister Smith: We look upon ourselves as being part of the family of the Lord, and so our sisterhood is one that has a deep understanding of this relationship. We are not a sisterhood seeking power as are some women of our time. Our sisterhood is that which is unique to the family of the Lord—a sisterhood that cares for one another.

Ensign: You have been General Relief Society president for nearly a year and a half, and during that time you have traveled around the world visiting Relief Societies. What is the major impression this experience has given you?

Sister Smith: The incredible resource for good that the sisters of the Church represent! We have a great resource to help people—whether it is for individuals who need help, for family units, for Church or community. The gifts, abilities, and talents of the sisters throughout the Church are awesome. They are simply awesome! And through the program restored by the Lord, these sisters are exerting a remarkable influence. I have witnessed and know of their great strength.

Ensign: What percentage of the sisters of the Church take advantage of the Lord’s program restored for them?

Sister Smith: This is where our work is cut out for us. Only about 28 percent. Can you imagine that—less than one third of the sisters, or a little over one quarter, are taking advantage of the Lord’s program for the sisters!

Ensign: What do sisters say about not involving themselves in Relief Society?

Sister Smith: The other night I heard a bishop tell of a sister who said to him, “I can’t go to Relief Society. I just don’t like it. I’m different from the others there. I don’t want to go talk about someone else’s family.” I received a letter last week from a girl who said, “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that I don’t like Relief Society. You’re not talking about the technological advancements; you’re not talking about the political issues; you’re not talking about the things that I think are significant.” I wish that I could talk to these sisters—and others like them. The Relief Society curriculum now provides options in lesson and options in sessions. There is no need for either of these sisters to leave our meetings unsatisfied if she will make her needs known to the local Relief Society presidency. Each will be able to find the class and the subject matter that meet her needs.

Ensign: Are there common objections that sisters give for not participating in Relief Society?

Sister Smith: Time is one. Some sisters say they don’t have time because they are working, and if they work, they say they don’t have time to attend the evening session because they are tired or they need the time to take care of their household responsibilities or to be with their husbands.

Ensign: How do you respond to that issue?

Sister Smith: There are several responses—one for the individual and one for the Relief Society. First, the individual: we all find time for those things that we most want to do. Somehow, I would hope that the sisters who are not attending Relief Society would look at what Relief Society could do for them—so that they could in turn help others. All of us, I think, need to honestly evaluate our lives—ask ourselves where we are going, ask ourselves if we like what we are becoming. We need to analyze our priorities and see if they square with the guidelines set by the Lord for our happiness.

Second, the Church’s duty is to make the program available to the sisters. That is what is so exciting about the announcement of last October permitting numerous optional special sessions of Relief Society within a ward. There can be special sessions in the evening, sessions in nursing homes, Sunday sessions, etc. Relief Society is being made available to all the sisters.

Ensign: Are there other common problems or objections to Relief Society participation?

Sister Smith: Transportation in some countries is a problem. We counsel the sisters to group together, to make plans for holding their meetings as best fits their circumstances.

Sometimes some sisters feel that there is too much perfection expected in Relief Society. My response is that we should recognize that ideals are stars to steer by; they are not a stick to beat ourselves with. Certainly, there should be a good balance between a quest for excellence—is there anyone who doesn’t want to do his best in an assignment?—and a good casualness or informality that permits the sociability that will promote love, affection, and growth.

I’m told that some sisters feel they will be judged wrongly if they comment openly. Some sisters, as well as all Saints, male and female, need to learn that our role is not that of the common judges in Israel. All members on occasion need to remember some of the basic qualities of a follower of Christ: to judge not, to forgive quickly.

Back to objections to participating in Relief Society: I guess the point is that anyone can find a reason for not doing anything. It’s the same with brethren who are inactive in the priesthood. The job of the Church—those involved in the Church—is to entreat, explain, show, arrange, and do all that we can to teach our beloved brothers and sisters what the Lord has for them.

Ensign: Are there valid reasons for not attending Relief Society?

Sister Smith: Of course, there are valid reasons why some sisters can’t come to Relief Society some of the time: if a mother has sick children, she should be with them; if she is sick herself, or if there are other serious problems, she should take care of those problems. But the Relief Society has provided a most significant resource in making the special sessions of Relief Society available. Through this change, we hope that there will be a new awakening to the many opportunities that are available for the sisters. There can be a Young Adult Session, a Young Special Interest Session, a home Relief Society session, a nursing home session, an evening session—whatever best fits their circumstances.

Ensign: Is there flexibility of content in the discussion or educational material for these special sessions?

Sister Smith: In many things, yes. There are optional lessons, from personal and home finance to cultural refinement, etc. In fact, we want the sisters of the Church to know that if there are subjects or topics on which they would desire some optional lessons, they should inform their ward presidency, who should inform the stake Relief Society presidency, who could relay those feelings to the general board for consideration.

Ensign: What kind of feedback have you received concerning the optional lessons created last year?

Sister Smith: Many wonderful reports. There is no question but that some of the younger sisters had a prejudice about what they thought Relief Society is. They almost didn’t want to give it a try because they weren’t married or didn’t have families. But when they saw the optional lessons and could see that Relief Society was prepared to address their needs, to be flexible to meet their needs today, a new spirit developed. We’ve had a great flood of positive response.

Ensign: Are optional programs available in every area of study?

Sister Smith: No. The optional program is not applied across the board. For example, we believe that the spiritual living lessons can apply to any person, of whatever age or condition, and should be taught. The presentation of the materials, however, can be varied according to the group.

Ensign: What is the goal of the Relief Society curriculum?

Sister Smith: The vision of Relief Society is much bigger than simply serving ourselves. First we develop ourselves, then we develop and bless others. We hold to that vision because it is the vision of Christ for all of us—to lose ourselves in the service of others. In the process we find ourselves. We unashamedly follow that goal of our Savior.

Ensign: So that the membership of the Church will clearly understand, what is the basic organizational structure of these special sessions?

Sister Smith: It’s very simple: there is only one Relief Society presidency in a ward, just as there is only one bishopric. But under this Relief Society presidency there may be as many special sessions of Relief Society as needed. Directing these special sessions would be two special session leaders for each session, a homemaking/recreation leader, reporting to the homemaking counselor, and an education leader reporting to the education counselor. These two special session leaders have equal responsibility. They plan together and take turns conducting the session. They work together and in harmony with the two counselors in the ward presidency, and then these special session leaders meet with the entire ward Relief Society presidency to report their stewardship and to receive guidance. If the entire Relief Society presidency or one member of the presidency were to attend a special session, they would preside but not conduct. In as far as possible, the teachers would come from within the group, unless the group membership were physically or otherwise unable.

One caution: even though certain groups may be designated as young adults or young special interest, we hope they will be identified more as interest groups than age groups. Age should not be a primary basis for establishing groups. Sisters of all ages can work together and enjoy each other. I have seen a younger and an older sister work together in producing a life story. The younger sister would help the older sister write her story. The older sister might say, “Well, nothing ever happened to me. There’s nothing to write.” But the younger sister, with some good questions, was able to pull her story out of her and put it down on tape. I’ve seen great love and sisterhood develop between sisters separated by fifty and sixty years.

Ensign: You also announced other significant changes at the October conference. Would you explain why some of these changes came about?

Sister Smith: One major change affected visiting teaching. Now, in order for a visiting teacher to have 100 percent, every enrolled woman in her district has to receive a personal visit. To facilitate this, we have made it possible for the sisters to contact sisters outside their home, if that is necessary. Sometimes long distances, expensive transportation, night visiting, etc., were too much of a problem. In order to meet worldwide needs, we felt that we had to provide some options. For example, if it is difficult for the visiting teachers to reach a sister at home, a visit at another place might be arranged. Where the Relief Society president and bishop feel it is advisable, we even suggest visits at the ward meetinghouse, but the visit must be a “meaningful visit,” prearranged and in a private place.

A major change involved recreation. We have never really had recreation as part of the Relief Society program. We have had socials, perhaps concerts, fairs, or exhibits.

Ensign: What kind of recreation do you envision for the sisters of the Church?

Sister Smith: We see recreation in the broad context from participation in active sports to story or song writing—that’s why we have poem and music contests. One of our major concerns involves physical fitness. We think we should teach physical fitness principles in the Relief Society, and then let the sisters practice them in their homes. However, as a general rule, we are not supporting group sports for married women. We feel that married women have enough pressure on them, and we don’t wish to add another, or to encourage them to leave their homes, children, and husbands for team participation. That just puts additional pressure in the wrong place. Our movement into recreation is to provide guidance for the sisters so that they can find creative as well as physically renewing activities appropriate to their own lives. But in doing so, we want no pressure on anyone.

Ensign: It must be a great experience for any sister to be called to be a ward or stake Relief Society president. As you have traveled around the world, what kinds of qualities do you find bring the greatest success in these offices?

Sister Smith: The qualities of compassion, understanding, and love are most important. I see a great need for the ability to delegate responsibility. I think it is important to be able to follow the outlined program, to be able to understand and follow approved instructions and then see how they can be made effective in one’s own wards and stakes. A good Relief Society president must be able to evaluate the needs of the sisters she serves and then move to appropriately implement these within the guidelines established. I think it is important to be anxiously engaged in learning the program. Really, there is so much to learn; there is so much depth to what the Lord has given us. I think it is important to be alert to the successful ideas of others, to be willing to learn from others, to be innovative in applying knowledge to the needs of individuals and the organization. It is important to be able to involve others. And it is important to be humble in seeking direction—to have meaningful discussions with other women and priesthood leaders, and to be obedient to instruction from the priesthood and the general board in achieving the purposes of the organization.

Ensign: Sometimes in Church assignments, personality conflicts occur. How do you encourage sisters to resolve differences?

Sister Smith: Through compassion, understanding, and love. The Lord gave the key when he counseled us to use the Golden Rule. It is so sad to hear occasionally of brothers and sisters who have never learned of the basic behavior patterns that the Lord has given us to use in resolving differences. He doesn’t expect all of us to think alike. But he certainly does expect us to see resolution of our differences in harmony with his principles.

Ensign: The great mission of the Church in our time is to more energetically share the gospel with others. How can the Relief Society serve in this great challenge given through President Spencer W. Kimball?

Sister Smith: There are many things the Relief Societies of the Church can do. We can become one of the great friendshipping programs in the Church, friendshipping women even before they become members. Sisters throughout the Church can take a loaf of bread or some cookies to their neighbors and thereby start to build a wonderful association. We think we should energetically and consistently invite nonmember sisters to our meetings. We have many reports of nonmembers enjoying the homemaking activities, the Cultural Refinement lessons, where there is camaraderie and sociability.

There is much that the ward Relief Society organization can do also. I met a Relief Society president in New Jersey who said the sisters had made many of the crafts, quilts, and educational displays that we had at the general Relief Society conference. They decided to make it a missionary effort. So, in cooperation with the priesthood, they invited nonmember friends to a bazaar. They sold all the items and gained 205 referrals from the experience.

I recently learned that in Redondo Beach, California, the sisters were asked to do something on quilting in a county fair in order to help emphasize the American bicentennial. The sisters put on a display, but after the first two days they realized this was such a great missionary effort that they called the stake president, who called the mission president, and two missionaries were sent to assist. Really, there is no end to the good the Relief Societies of the Church could do. And I think we must give this far greater attention than we have given to this point. We haven’t been asked to cross the plains—we’ve been asked to share the gospel. I think we had better do it now!

Ensign: More converts from many lands mean, of course, the need for a great spirit of international brotherhood in the Church. How have the sisters of the Church responded to the lessons on the different countries of the world?

Sister Smith: When I’ve been in some countries and told the women that all the sisters of the Church were studying and learning to love their land, it was almost more than some of them could do to contain themselves. We immediately developed a great sense of love and understanding for each other and especially for a Church that would provide this kind of international love and education. The response has been very thrilling. Relief Society is also encouraging keeping alive the special arts and crafts of each land. We want the Belgian sisters to love and be able to make lace, the German sisters to do needlepoint, etc. We want them to do other things, of course, but we hope they will want to keep and perfect certain arts related to their cultural heritage.

Ensign: We talk a lot in the Church about the sisters supporting the priesthood. How do you teach the sisters to do that?

Sister Smith: I’d like to answer that by reporting on my own experience with the Brethren. When I was called, I was told that I was to direct the Relief Society and that if I had any questions I could go to my advisers at any time. I was told that if I wanted to change policy, they would appreciate it if I would come to them with the desired change for approval by the Council of the Twelve. I was told that we could meet with them monthly, that I was to prepare the agenda, that they would be glad to respond to anything I wanted to discuss, that they would also have items they would like to discuss.

Now to me, this is quite significant. The responsibility is mine and my counselors’. The Brethren have delegated the authority. I don’t have to wonder what to do when questions come up. I think this is a pattern that every stake and ward should follow. I believe it tells us how the sisters should be responding to the priesthood. And incidentally, isn’t it interesting that this same kind of pattern can work in the homes between husband and wife. All that the Brethren have taught me says that we have a companion relationship—not inferior or subordinate, but companion, side-by-side. The priesthood presides, but each of us contributes a vital part to make the whole complete. This isn’t my plan. It’s the Lord’s plan, and leaders who apply it and husbands and wives who abide by it know not only that it works, but also that it gives each party his or her greatest joy. Women need to know and feel the security of the priesthood direction and the joy of working in Relief Society as a companion organization to the priesthood. If woman has the role of a true companion and helpmeet to her husband, both are magnified and challenged.

Ensign: Since the announcement several years ago that the Relief Societies were not to have their own checking accounts, some ward Relief Societies may not have received the monies they feel they need for their program. How do you advise Relief Society presidents to handle this matter?

Sister Smith: This is a problem for many Relief Societies. We not only encourage, we request that each Relief Society president prepare a yearly budget and present it to her bishop or stake president, in the case of a stake Relief Society president. Most bishops want to add this request to the ward budget. There are other possibilities—but that is probably the best method. However, some Relief Society presidencies are pessimistic about submitting their budget, and so they devise other methods, even to taking money from their personal funds or the personal funds of other sisters in the ward. This is not right or equitable. The financial needs should be presented to the priesthood.

Ensign: What do you teach the sisters about their role in community and civic affairs?

Sister Smith: President Kimball is saying that Latter-day Saints must be involved in their communities for the good of the communities. He is saying that the time has come for Latter-day Saints, as individuals, to get more involved. As I hear the Brethren, I do not hear them saying to become excessively involved, but to be involved in helping the neighbors around us who desire to preserve the good qualities of our society. The Brethren are teaching that we must not reduce our Church efforts or limit our efforts in our families, but that we must “lengthen our stride” and do whatever fits our circumstances, our abilities, and our locale.

To assist in this, we have recently announced the desire that each Relief Society member look at the needs and concerns of her community. There might be problems related to economic conditions or major health concerns or political issues that would affect the moral fiber of the community. Each Relief Society member should decide for herself how she, as an individual, could appropriately assist in the work for community betterment. In one community some Relief Society sisters wanted to do something on a political level in one of their elections. They invited candidates to come to individual homes throughout the stake on one day and state their platform. It was absolutely bipartisan. Nonmembers as well as members were invited. It was a successful airing of views.

Many people don’t realize how well our existing program is designed to aid in the community. For example, in California recently, the Church, through the priesthood and Relief Society, made a fantastic contribution to the care of the Vietnamese refugees. We put in thousands of hours of care, took care of the orphans and even taught them rudimentary English—all without making a big fuss about it. The Brethren are saying that we need to be appropriately involved. We are known as a Church that takes care of its own. But President Kimball is now asking that we “lengthen our stride” and make our voice known in the areas where we live. We should also be known as people who do our part in making our communities the type of place in which we wish to live.

Ensign: As a question of interest to members in the United States, will you continue to speak out against the Equal Rights Amendment?

Sister Smith: Definitely. In my considered judgment the Equal Rights Amendment is so broad that it is inadequate, inflexible, and vague; so all-encompassing that it is nondefinitive. The blanket approach of the Equal Rights Amendment is, in my opinion, a confused step backward in time, instead of a clear stride forward into the future. It will create endless litigation in the courts in which legal decisions are made which might create circumstances harmful to the solidarity of the family and the optimum protection of children. And because it does not define some differences between men and women, I think it might be very destructive to families.

I will always support—as I believe the Relief Society and the Church have always done—those pieces of legislation that improve and protect a woman’s right to development of her full potential as a contributing member of society.

I want women to have social, financial, and legal rights; I want each woman to be a valued individual, creative, and with many options as to how she will develop. I want to see a woman become the best woman, the best citizen, responsible and participating, both in her own country and in the kingdom of God, the best homemaker, the greatest individual she is capable of becoming. I want her to be self-confident, trained, a great participator and partner in life, but I want to be sure that the laws enacted will provide for these things to happen. The Equal Rights Amendment is not the way.

Ensign: If you had a chance to visit with every Latter-day Saint sister in the world, what would you say?

Sister Smith: More than anything I would want her to know how very important she is to the kingdom of God, that her talents and abilities and gifts and her greatest joys will flower and be fulfilled to the greatest extent possible in the kingdom of God, and that as part of the restoration of all things, the Lord restored an organization for the sisters of the family of the Lord. This Relief Society can be a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience for all sisters, to help them grow, and then to help them help others grow. The pattern is truly Christlike.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten