Ensign: Sister Smith, you’ve been the general president of Relief Society for over five years. How have your perceptions of the Relief Society changed?
Sister Smith: I think of two important ways. First, I’ve become more aware of the great purpose of the Relief Society. In the beginning, I thought Relief Society was the Lord’s gift to the women of the Church. Now I know it is the Lord’s gift to his daughters everywhere, and that as women in the Church learn and implement the principles of the gospel, they will be an influence for good in the lives of women all over the world.
I believe that when the Prophet Joseph Smith told those early women he was “turning the key” in their behalf and that knowledge and intelligence would flow down to them, he was preparing women for a time of choices. We have more education than ever before; we have the possibility of economic independence if we need it; we have the right to vote. These advantages give us the responsibility of choice in a way that has never been possible for women before. They increase our opportunities and our challenges. As women take advantage of these blessings, they should give thoughtful and prayerful consideration to the circumstances of their lives and exercise their agency accordingly and then accept responsibility for their decisions.
Second, I see the visiting teaching program as much more comprehensive than I did before. I once saw it simply as a teaching experience, but now I see how it can be used in so many ways to help relieve social problems such as poverty, lack of education, and poor relationships. I see it enhancing and fostering sisterhood; it is also a main source of Relief Society contact with its membership.
Ensign: On that second point—how visiting teaching can help with social problems—what do you have in mind?
Sister Smith: Many things come to my mind. In the beginning of the Relief Society, sisters met the basic survival needs of the Saints who gathered from throughout the world. They shared food, clothing, and shelter. As the Saints moved west the sisters, along with their husbands, helped establish homes, cultivate the desert land, and develop industries and community institutions. As the colonization of the west went forward, needs changed and so did Relief Society response to those needs.
Today there are great social problems among us. I suppose it is inherent in humanity that there always will be needs to be met. I am more aware each day that the program of Relief Society and especially visiting teaching was inspired and now is available to help us meet many different demands.
For instance, one great problem, even in our urbanized society, is loneliness. The visiting teaching program with its focus on each individual sister provides a practical answer. If sisters take their visiting teaching assignments seriously they will make an effort to know those to whom they are assigned and care about them with a Christlike spirit. They will find ways to help alleviate the terrible loneliness that some people feel. Moreover, they will encourage the lonely to begin caring for others. Relief Society files are replete with reports of individuals who found the answer to their own problems by reaching out to help someone else.
Another problem visiting teaching helps with: It was suggested to us that a major cause of poverty is lack of basic education. There are many aspects of the Relief Society program that address this problem, but the person in need is often the one who cannot or does not choose to come to the meetings. However, through the visiting teaching program it is possible to go into homes and give information, share knowledge, and persuade sisters to take advantage of the excellent study program Relief Society offers. Many sisters have received an education otherwise denied them through their Relief Society courses.
In its weekly classes Relief Society can also provide a stimulus for continuing education by sparking the desire for personal improvement. One eighty-year-old woman found sufficient stimulation in the Relief Society cultural arts program to motivate her to return to school for her master’s degree. Another sister in a nursing home responded to the challenge of Relief Society by taking continuing education courses offered on television. A sister in a developing country entered the Church feeling she could do nothing, but through the experience and the encouragement of Relief Society and her visiting teachers she learned to read and write and ultimately was called to preside over a local Relief Society unit.
Ensign: The question of mothers working is another current one. What are your feelings on that?
Sister Smith: The decision of a mother to go to work outside her home is an individual matter. Some widowed and divorced mothers may find they have to work to support themselves and their children. For some women working is a right decision at a certain time; for others it is not. It is not a simple choice. This is an area in which a woman must be most thoughtful and prayerful. She must carefully weigh the economic advantages against the possible adverse effects on the family of her absence from home. She must recognize her vital responsibilities as a wife and mother and ask herself how these will be affected if she leaves the home for outside employment. She must explore all of the options and choose the activities which will permit the greatest good for those for whom she has primary responsibility.
President Kimball has given counsel on this matter in his two talks at the women’s firesides broadcast from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in 1978 and 1979.
Each woman needs to improve her skills in homemaking, provident living, and making the most of what she has. She should learn to be a good homemaker. She needs to evaluate how she can best provide the climate of love and growth for her husband, her children, herself, and such others for whom she has continuing responsibility. She needs to know that there are Church resources—such as the welfare services program—available for her support during the critical infant and young-child, nurturing years. After careful consideration, a woman should be led by the Spirit to make the decision that is right for her situation.
Ensign: What counsel do you have for women who feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the demands of their multiple roles?
Sister Smith: It’s important that women set goals and establish priorities, then learn how to live with them. They must understand that their particular priorities may be different from everyone else’s, or they’ll be frustrated. Women need to work for progression in their own lives; at the same time, they should realize that their method and rate of achievement will not be exactly the same as someone else’s. I talk with women who are trying to measure themselves against another woman, rather than against the standards they set for themselves. I encourage them to prayerfully set their own goals in harmony with true gospel standards and take satisfaction in their own accomplishments and growth.
Ensign: Do you have some specific suggestions for dealing with this frustration?
Sister Smith: I can’t stress too much the importance of good health—get enough sleep, enough exercise, and maintain a proper diet. Even a ten-minute nap for a busy woman may make the difference in how she feels.
Develop good mental health habits. President Kimball’s suggestion is a good one: keep a journal! As one views life on a day-by-day basis, it’s hard to see much change. But a journal gives a different perspective. One can look back over a period of several weeks or months and see real achievement. I think it helps.
And then, we must understand our own limitations. No woman on earth can be everything to everyone. That’s why goals are so important—a woman must understand what she is capable of doing, rather than trying to imitate someone else.
Ensign: What advice do you have for women who genuinely lack that kind of self-knowledge? How can they gain it?
Sister Smith: I wish there were a quick way, but I’m afraid it’s part of the whole plan of growth during mortality—we learn both by doing, by trying once and trying again; we achieve self-assurance by those things that bring spiritual growth, such as study, prayer, and personal revelation. We shouldn’t feel that we’re failing because we have a discouraging day or because we’ve not met some goals that we’ve set for ourselves. My mother-in-law organized each day by writing down what she wanted to accomplish in order of their importance. At the end of the day, she could quickly evaluate what she’d done. She had a tremendous capacity for achievement, but she also had great self-knowledge because she was able to separate what she really did from what she thought she should be doing.
In one of my favorite quotations, Brigham Young taught the people that “we cannot clear ourselves from the power of satan; we must know what it is to be tried and tempted, for no man or woman can be exalted upon any other principle, as was beautifully exhibited in the life of the Savior.
“According to the philosophy of our religion we understand that if he had not descended below all things, he could not have ascended above all things” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:365).
It would be terribly limiting to us as women if we could pass our problems on to our bishop or to our husbands or to our children. We can be grateful for our days of discouragement since they help us recognize days of happiness.
Ensign: What counsel do you give local Relief Societies that are struggling with problems like inactivity, disagreements, and so forth?
Sister Smith: We do receive questions like that, and I reply that answers to the problems will come as local leaders meet and talk about solutions with local sisters. If inactivity is the problem, then seek out the sisters who do not attend and let them give you the reasons they are not coming. Only the inactive people know why they do not come. And once they can be heard—really listened to—and the leaders begin to respond to what they actually say, then a solution is probably very close. Local Relief Societies can make sure that the meeting rooms are attractive, that the lessons are good, that the atmosphere is friendly, and that the spirit of love pervades, especially to those who are being introduced to Relief Society or reactivated.
Ensign: We’ve sometimes received the impression that Relief Society presidents might be hesitant to identify some of their problems and bring them to the attention of their priesthood leaders. Are local priesthood leaders occasionally unaware of Relief Society needs?
Sister Smith: That might be a problem at times. But I think we in the Relief Society more often lack an awareness of the great potential within our Relief Society callings. In them we have a stewardship for which we will be held accountable. To fulfill an assignment we should understand the program and the people. When problems arise, it is very important to think through all possible solutions very carefully. Write them down; rank them according to preference. Do what you can to resolve them. Then if further help is needed, submit your problems and possible solutions to your priesthood leaders for their consideration.
Priesthood councils in which the Relief Society participates are also a way to solve problems and meet needs. When a Relief Society president comes to a council meeting, having prepared well, she can then make a meaningful contribution.
Ensign: Do you feel that women are adequately represented at the decision-making levels?
Sister Smith: Yes, I do. If there is a problem, it’s because as women we need to be more thoughtful in responding to our callings. I know how concerned the Brethren are. They want to make sure that a woman’s perspective is represented.
Ensign: The Church recently announced its new consolidated meeting schedule (see page 74). How do you see this affecting the Relief Society?
Sister Smith: My stake was one of the pilot stakes and I noticed one good effect the first time we met. I sat next to an older sister who turned to me and exclaimed, “Doesn’t it seem marvelous to have all of these young women with us!” Young women have vitality; older women have wisdom. Combined, we see a magnificent blending of energy and perspective. When we had separate Relief Society meetings—we didn’t get that blending as much.
Ensign: Do you anticipate that the consolidation will create any challenges for the Relief Society?
Sister Smith: Yes, one of them is the limited time. Relief Society lessons through 1981 are already written, and they are designed for an hour’s instruction time. Think how anxious a teacher will be trying to fit an hour’s lesson into a half-hour time frame! I think one solution might be to request that each sister study the lesson ahead of time, think carefully about what the lesson concepts mean to her, and then, during the class time, share those ideas. That sharing could result in greater closeness among the members of the class.
Ensign: But with all the sisters meeting together, won’t that make closeness more difficult?
Sister Smith: Not necessarily. The teacher will have to ask thoughtful questions to stimulate good class involvement. Also, at the end of the period the teacher scheduled for the following week might want to ask the sisters to prepare for the upcoming lesson by thinking about two or three specific questions.
Ensign: In the past the sisters with similar interests have sometimes met in small groups, such as the Young Adults. Do you see any difficulties in having the sisters feel mutually responsible for each other when they’re all meeting together?
Sister Smith: Not if the first ten minutes of every Relief Society meeting is devoted to Relief Society business—making members aware of Relief Society activities, of welfare assignments, of ways the sisters might support one another, and, in general, transmitting Relief Society-related information. The work of the Relief Society is caring for one another in a loving sisterhood, and that must go on even when we meet in a larger group.
Ensign: Of course, not all of the sisters will be in Relief Society. Some will be with the Young Women or the Primary or the nursery.
Sister Smith: That’s true. But I think it might be helpful if these assignments were rotated so the sisters could attend Relief Society part of the time.
Ensign: With consolidation concentrating the meetings on Sunday, where would the homemaking meeting come?
Sister Smith: Saturday morning may well be an ideal time. But when to hold homemaking meeting will really be left to the discretion of the local leaders, since they know their individual circumstances best.
Ensign: Would you still see the luncheon as an important part of the homemaking meeting?
Sister Smith: Definitely. Those luncheons are a practical way of teaching budgeting and shopping skills, how to plan nutritious meals, how to prepare meals efficiently, and how to serve them graciously. Of course, it does not necessarily have to be a luncheon. It could be a breakfast or a brunch just as well.
Ensign: What about financing the Relief Society program?
Sister Smith: I know that some women are concerned because Relief Society does not earn its operating money as we once did. I feel, however, it would be very difficult for the General Board to earn enough money to finance the administrative costs of Relief Society. The travel expense alone to assist in training Relief Society leaders in their responsibilities would be prohibitive. We are grateful for the wisdom that brought about this important change. Many local units report this system is a blessing to them also.
Ensign: Occasionally some sisters feel that the Relief Society lesson manual is too rigid, even to the point of hindering class discussion and responses. How do you feel about that?
Sister Smith: The manual is extremely important. Every sister has a right to know that when she goes to Relief Society she is receiving lessons that are Correlation reviewed. The manual is a way for us to meet the Lord’s admonition that we be “one” (D&C 38:27) and to bring sisters to a high level of spiritual knowledge, homemaking skills, cultural refinement, mother education, and social relationships. But I’d like people to see what can happen beyond the lesson presentation when sisters creatively apply the principles in their lives. There are a whole range of options available to individual women for enhancing and enriching their lives as they put into practice lesson suggestions.
Ensign: In summary, what has happened to you personally during these five years?
Sister Smith: One of the things I really hadn’t realized was the kind of support I would need from my family. I can’t say how grateful I am to my husband for his unfailing encouragement and to my children for their willingness to snatch moments with me here and there.
And, oh, how grateful I am for the support I’ve felt from the Lord. In my ward, we recently saw the film The Windows of Heaven. As I saw President Lorenzo Snow pleading with the Lord for an answer to his prayer and then rejoicing gratefully when he received that answer, I wept. I’ve been in those situations myself and I’ve felt the Lord answering my questions. On the day I was sustained in Relief Society conference in October 1974, I was spiritually and emotionally strengthened by the words of a hymn that came to me unbidden: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed” (Hymns, no. 66; see Ensign, July 1975, p. 56). To know that I had that help with problems, to feel that reassurance, as distinctly as a touch or a sound … how can I describe it? And how could I carry on without it?