“Accept Fully This Gift from the Lord”: A Conversation with the Relief Society General Presidency

Relief Society General Presidency

Left to Right, Sister Janath R. Cannon, Sister Barbara B. Smith, Sister Marian R. Boyer.

Ensign: All of you have been traveling a great deal recently. What have you learned about the Relief Society on these visits?

Sister Barbara B. Smith (president): One of the things I’ve had impressed upon me as never before is that if we really want the Spirit, we must prepare for it. In ward after ward and stake after stake, I saw sisters who were prepared.

Sister Marian R. Boyer (second counselor): That was my feeling too. I saw high levels of excellence in stake after stake. And the personal preparation of the sisters there was so great that the Spirit could not be restrained.

Sister Smith: I think we all saw women in a variety of circumstances—at visiting teaching conventions, welfare services meetings, special women’s conferences, singles firesides, as sister missionaries, and at meetings in conjunction with stake conferences. I was in Oregon and California on some of my more recent trips; in Portland arrangements had been planned in such detail that even the menus were prepared to avoid duplication. It was just heart-warming to see the dimension of preparation that the sisters of the Church are making.

I had an experience that taught me the importance of preparation. We were at a special meeting with President Kimball. President Tanner, who was there also, suggested that we call President Kimball and ask him if he and his wife would like to come down from their rooms and visit. So I called. Sister Kimball answered and said, “I’ll come as soon as I’m through helping Spencer.”

When he came down later I said, “President Kimball, what were you doing? Were you getting your talk ready?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Oh, I should have been doing that too, but I’ve never been here before and I wanted to capture every minute of it.”

And he said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could wait until you stood before an audience and then have the Spirit of the Lord come through you to that audience so you could say just exactly what they needed. But that isn’t the way it happens. If you want the Spirit of the Lord to accompany you, you have to prepare.”

That was early in my call in the presidency and I have thought about that ever since. For a while I thought it meant that all the preparations had to be mine, but as I have attended various meetings, special seminars, visiting teaching conventions, and so forth, I have found that it isn’t just my preparation that’s important. It’s the preparation of the leadership there, the preparation of the sisters, of the custodian—each person has to do his part.

As I have thought about it, I have realized that this same spirit of preparation has to take part in the life of each sister if she wants the Spirit of the Lord to accompany her as she tries to solve her problems. For example, we wives have to prepare to work with our husbands if we want to find out what our long and short-range goals are—and then how we can achieve them together. And it starts with the right kind of preparation.

Sister Janath Cannon (first counselor): On a related matter, occasionally a sister will say to me, “Why don’t the Brethren speak to the women of the Church when they speak at conference?” Well, it’s clear that as the Lord speaks to women and men—to all his children—through the scriptures, so do the Brethren speak to all our Father’s children at conference. But if we prepare ourselves personally, then we can receive that personal revelation the Lord desires each of us to have and we will know which messages should be implemented by us, which ones will have an effect on our life-style and outlook.

Sister Smith: Another thing that has impressed me markedly in our travels is the spiritual influence of the homes. One home I will never forget in Oregon welcomed me despite its sorrow. Their missionary son had died in Florida. The mother could not speak of him without deep emotion, yet the spirit in that home was one of love and understanding.

Sister Boyer: I’ve found the same spirit in homes I’ve visited. In San Jose I met a woman who had recently joined the Church. Her line of work had involved contacting women at home during the day, and she began investigating the Church because she noticed such striking differences in three neighborhood homes. She said, “The children were up, dressed, and fed; the women were alert and organized. Even the way the air smelled when I stepped inside was different. Then I found out what the difference was.”

Sister Smith: But one of the other things we learned is that some women feel that their knees are buckling. One woman, obviously upset, came up to me after I’d spoken, and said, “Oh, Sister Smith, you’ve discouraged me. You’ve given me hundreds of good examples in your talk. How can I possibly match them?” Well, she made me think, so at the next stake conference I attended, I kept count of what the speakers before me said; and before I got to speak, the Saints in that audience had already been given a list of ninety-three things to do.

That made me realize again that we need to assure our women that perfection is a goal, and that the most important thing they can do is to set priorities—do the most important thing first and then go on to the next.

Sister Cannon: Sister Smith says our ideals should be stars to steer by, not sticks to beat ourselves with. I’ve also seen near perfection in some of the presentations I’ve attended—but we also know that these kinds of achievements are the culmination of a lot of special work. They’re not a life-style.

Sister Boyer: Many of our sisters get discouraged very rapidly in the area of motherhood. I think they’re comparing themselves with the wrong standard instead of with their own peer group. But one young mother I know has a healthy attitude. She lives on a hill where she overlooks a good part of her city and she told me, “The other morning while I was hunting for a lost shoe, I stopped and looked out the window at all those houses and wondered how many of them had a lost shoe at that very moment. It cheered me right up.”

Ensign: Many of today’s sisters are concerned with conditions of not enough time as they seek to fulfill their stewardships and financial resources. What counsel and encouragement do you give when these matters are raised?

Sister Smith: I do all I can to help sisters know that this is the most exciting time in all history for a woman to be alive. She has so many options available to her as she seeks to do the right thing, so many opportunities for service and growth and the means to accomplish her assignments in the home and Church and in her personal life. Once this truth is realized, I think we sisters can accept our responsibilities, and with the inspiration of the Lord we can learn what and when and how to do what we need to do in order to accomplish what is pleasing to the Lord. I’ve also seen how important it is once we accept responsibilities that we do not give these responsibilities to others—to our husbands, to children, to friends, to the bishop, and so forth. The responsibilities given us as wives and mothers are the Lord’s means for us to grow and make the most of them so that we can become what we need to become if we are to progress in the manner of the Lord.

Sister Boyer: I don’t think there has ever been a time when there have been so many educational opportunities for women. Classes are offered at community schools; tapes are available to listen to and to study as we do our ironing; books and all manner of educational materials are available in rich abundance on matters of importance to wives and mothers. We can even travel to nearby centers and cities to learn. These things were not really available for my mother and grandmother like they are now. So I agree—it is a great day, and if we make the right kind of preparations, both spiritual and temporal, we can grow and learn and have experiences women have never had or enjoyed. And our homes can be rich in the culture of the Lord and rich in the best that mankind has to offer.

Sister Cannon: I find it important to take time to be with our husbands. We do emphasize the family a lot in the Church, and rightfully so, but the family unit is headquartered in the husband and wife. There are times when husbands and wives need to be together. I’ve met mothers who feel guilty if they take a trip with their husband, or if they spend one evening weekly together, or leave the children with a grandmother or a good friend. Husbands and wives need to continually refresh their growth and progress and ideals and love. We must always keep our eye on building the husband and wife relationship.

Ensign: What, in your observation, has been the effect of the women’s movement on women in the Church?

Sister Smith: The women’s movement unfortunately has many extreme elements in it, and it’s not fair to judge the whole movement by those extremes, although some do. If women use the movement to become more self-centered and selfish, concerned only with their own needs—that’s too bad. But to the extent that the women’s movement has made women aware of their great worth, their talents and abilities, it can harmonize beautifully with the gospel. One of the dangers I’m most aware of is that the women’s movement all too often is characterized by very vocal and articulate women who have only a worldly perspective. Without an eternal perspective, there unfortunately will be misunderstandings and abuses of that power.

The Church has always provided a channel whereby women can advance and contribute. In Uruguay and Paraguay the contrast was shocking between women we saw begging for food on the streets and the clean, beautifully spiritual women we saw in the chapels. The gospel has upgraded their lives.

Sister Boyer: My, yes! It’s helped women read, study, get involved in the community and schools, and contribute. We were encouraged by the report of some LDS women in Los Altos, California, who got involved and closed all of the massage parlors in town except for one that was legitimate. Those places had also been centers of drug activity, and the women felt very good about removing them from their community.

Ensign: That brings up the related question, what is appropriate community involvement?

Sister Smith: I’m glad you asked that, because it’s such a problem. We want women to become knowledgeable about issues, to learn proper procedures for public meetings, to learn how to exert an influence in an effective way. But the Relief Society is not a forum for political discussions, and it should not be used for fund-raising activities. Some women were so involved in the United States’ International Women’s Year Conference last year that they raised money in their ward Relief Society to send a delegate to a conference protesting the Houston meeting. This was completely and totally inappropriate.

Ensign: What counsel do you give sisters about groups they should affiliate with?

Sister Smith: Just the general guidelines that they should not join groups that have activities in conflict with Church policies or that espouse points of view that violate Church standards—such as proabortion organizations. But we do not discourage our sisters from joining groups of personal interest with differing points of view—if they are not views antithetical to the gospel.

Ensign: What’s your appraisal of how visiting teaching and compassionate service are going?

Sister Smith: They’re so successful that we really feel good about them. And yet we’re learning that there’s so much more we can do than we are doing. That’s what’s so exciting about the gospel—it gives us so many opportunities beyond our own vision. I’ve seen that the day is nearly over of putting a note under the door or in the mailbox. There is a great concern building among our people for each other. We’re beginning to live aspects of that principle to love our neighbor as ourselves. I believe our sisters are beginning to feel the importance of assisting where it is possible and appropriate in the homes to which they are assigned.

Sister Cannon: Visiting teaching is not just a routine assignment, but it encompasses that marvelous feeling of helping and caring for each other in the way the Lord desires. We hear a lot of beautiful stories about visiting teachers having special concern for someone—not just once a month, but for as long as the spiritual, physical, or emotional need exists.

Sister Smith: I recently was told of one of our sisters who had not progressed very far in caring for herself and taking care of her home, who had not made much social progress. She was quite limited in all these areas. I was told she had never had a Church assignment. Well, the president of the ward Relief Society felt strongly that this sister should be called to be a visiting teacher. The bishop concurred and a call was made, but it was decided that she would need a special kind of companion and would be assigned to visit the ward Relief Society presidency until she progressed to a certain point. A wonderful young girl was chosen to be her companion and after several visits, this woman soon began to fix up her hair and acquired other habits of grooming. With her increased self-image, she began to improve her home and care for it as she observed and discussed with her companion the homes of the Relief Society presidency. She attended preparation meetings and began to take part and fulfill assignments. She is now well advanced beyond what she was in personal maturity and confidence. She is caring for her home and marriage with much greater competence. It is a real success story about compassionate service through visiting teaching.

Of course, even a successful program will have a few rough spots in it. And I guess it’s no coincidence that one of the problems we’re concerned about in both visiting teaching and compassionate service is the same: statistics.

Sister Cannon: It’s a perennial problem with visiting teaching—that attitude of “when we’ve got 100 percent, we’re done for the month.” Visiting teaching is a relationship, not just an assignment; it’s a search for new ways of strengthening and developing a friendship.

Sister Boyer: It’s ironic to hear Relief Society presidents say that they have so many sisters they can’t all be visited. Every one of those sisters should ideally be a visiting teacher, even if it’s only to one other sister.

Sister Smith: Visiting teachers have a much broader scope than most of them realize. They’re involved in member activation, in missionary work, and in welfare service as they identify problems and report them. I hope every sister reads every word of President Kimball’s address on visiting teaching (this issue). What a magnificent vision it is!

Ensign: What seems to be the statistical problem with compassionate service?

Sister Cannon: The problem of reporting it. As soon as there’s any kind of report, there seems to be some kind of competition among the leaders of wards in a stake. Assigned compassionate service is reported because it’s a way for the Relief Society president to share a particular burden among many sisters. But the unassigned or neighborly compassionate service is the kind we should be doing all the time—for love, not for a report.

Ensign: What do you hear about the concerns of our aged?

Sister Smith: There is good progress in this area, I believe. But there are still many problems of our elderly being neglected—by their children, by others who could broaden their vision of neighborly love. But I have also seen problems of some of our elderly not having a vision of what they could do for themselves as well as for others and for their own children. Our elderly need to be involved in something meaningful—instead of just waiting and expecting a telephone call. I know an elderly woman who was permanently ill and could not get out of her house. So, she started calling someone every day to talk with them. She soon found that her life became enriched as she enriched the lives of others. I am concerned about both sides of the needs of the elderly—our need to be caring and loving, and the need of the elderly to enrich their own lives and the lives of others through their caring. Isn’t the gospel wonderful—it’s one eternal round of mutual love and warmth.

Ensign: Do you have other perennial causes of concern?

Sister Smith: Having social relations and mother education lessons on the same day. Naturally the sisters want to hear both lessons; but we feel that social relations deals with a sister’s interaction with people, and for young mothers, some of the most important people they’re interacting with are their children. For this season in their lives, we feel they need those lessons. We feel that when they interact better with their children, they interact better with their peers.

Sister Boyer: Of course, there’s a great deal to be learned from more experienced mothers, but we feel that there is a somewhat different set of problems to be approached today.

Sister Cannon: And it’s been my experience that women tend to idealize their experiences as mothers once their children have left home. In some cases, the younger mothers actually feel like failures after listening to the older mothers.

Ensign: We hear that the new nursery program has some very exciting ideas in it.

Sister Cannon: We are delighted with it. It will be a ward nursery program, drawing on a training filmstrip, a guidebook, and a Relief Society nursery manual. The Sunday School, the Primary, and the Relief Society will use it as deemed necessary, for children from walking stage to age five.

Ensign: Could you describe a typical nursery experience?

Sister Cannon: The ratio of nursery leaders to children should be about one-to-eight—and, incidentally, we’re suggesting that these women wear pantsuits so that they can participate more comfortably with the children! As each child comes, a leader greets him, puts a name tag on him, and gives him a book or puzzle—something he can do quietly while the children are assembling.

After the “gathering” time, one of the leaders, tells a simple gospel story from the scriptures, the Friend, or the resource manual. We’re also encouraging them to teach a single concept from the Relief Society lesson of that day and draw an objective from it, then pin a tag naming the concept on the child’s clothing so the mother and child can discuss it at home.

Ensign: There’s an activity period too, isn’t there?

Sister Cannon: Yes. Carefully selected simple toys will be arranged on trays or shelves—not dumped in the center of the room to fight over. Each child will take one of the toys to a table and play with it by himself. He can ask the nursery leader for help, but no child is allowed to disturb another child.

Ensign: It sounds as if the children won’t be playing together then?

Sister Cannon: Right. That’s why the toys need to be selected carefully—we want to reduce the cause of friction. We saw some examples of good toys at a nursery we visited. One little boy had a sponge and a dog-food dish that was divided into two sections, with water in one section. He was absorbed for much longer than I thought possible with squeezing the water from the sponge into one compartment, then the other.

And another child with a comb and a wig on a wig-stand was combing through the hair. Again, he was completely absorbed for a long time.

Sister Boyer: One of the nurseries I visited had a little cassette tape recorder with a Bible story on it. The child could put on the headphones, play the story, and not disturb anyone.

Ensign: How are these facilities maintained?

Sister Smith: Funds will come from the ward budget, and an assistant librarian could be called to take care of the toys.

Sister Cannon: We’ve heard reports from New York, California, and Arizona of wards that have individually worked out very successful programs.

Ensign: Do you want evaluations from the field on the lesson manual?

Sister Smith: Oh, yes! That’s very useful in helping us plan our curriculum. We’ve included an evaluation form in the back of the 1978–79 manual that we’d certainly appreciate getting back. But we’re also planning a professional in-depth evaluation of the lessons through the Church Evaluation Department that should provide a lot of very useful information.

Ensign: Could you possibly tell us some of the new ideas and projects you’re most pleased with now?

Sister Smith: What we’re most excited about right now, of course, is the dedication of the Nauvoo Monument to Women this month. The response of the sisters has been magnificent, and we feel so warmed by their dedication. We feel that the monument is the spiritual legacy of all women in the Church everywhere, whether they had ancestors in Nauvoo or not. It’s the same idea that Sister Carolyn Depp of Honolulu expressed so eloquently in the poem that won first prize in the Eliza R. Snow Poetry Contest for women this year. (See Ensign, March 1977, p. 9.)

Sister Cannon: We’re delighted too that we’ve been able to make available bronze and porcelain replicas of most of the statues—not all, because of casting difficulties. But those we have are beautiful.

Sister Boyer: Another change we want to mention is the move and expansion of the Mormon Handicraft Shop to 6 North State Street, under the east span of Eagle Gate. The enlarged facilities make it possible to offer a wider selection of items and homemaking supplies than ever before.

Sister Smith: And there are a couple of little things, too. We’re proposing redesigning the labels on welfare food commodities to include recipes. And ever since January 1 we’ve had a telephone number, 801-531-3156, with a prerecorded message on a widespread problem so that women all over the United States can call when the rates are lowest for them. We’ve tried to shape these messages so that they answer the most frequently asked questions we receive. For instance, some of the topics already dealt with have been goal setting, compassion, reverence, simplicity, excellence, work, and serenity.

Ensign: If you had only one message you could give to the sisters of the Church, what would it be?

Sister Cannon: I wish there were some way I could tell sisters—and make them feel it as I do—“Be happy. The Lord loves you.”

Sister Boyer: I feel such urgency to let women know that unless there are strong homes in the Church, the work cannot go forth, and that mothers are the fulcrum of the home.

Sister Smith: I think I’d add to these messages my testimony of how Relief Society needs these sisters and how they need Relief Society. I’d tell them, “Accept fully this gift of the Lord. It is part of the foundation to give you happiness and joy.”

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten

[photo] Sister Barbara Smith

[photo] Sister Janath Cannon

[photo] Sister Marian Boyer