A Conversation with the Relief Society General Presidency

Relief Society General Presidency

Left to right: Marian R. Boyer, first counselor; Barbara B. Smith, president; Shirley W. Thomas, second counselor. (Photography By Eldon K. Linschoten.)

Ensign: What is new in Relief Society today?

Sister Barbara B. Smith, general Relief Society president: For us, March 17 marks the organization of the Relief Society one hundred and forty years ago, in 1842. This is a new era for women—a time of greater opportunities, of more choices for personal development and service, of more possibilities for expanding the reaches of the mind and the heart.

There is a new look—and a new sound—in Relief Society, with sisters today from many nations speaking multiple languages. In fact, bilingual Relief Society is not uncommon in 1982. The universal principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ are bringing the world very close together.

In every large city of the world we see a great diversity of cultures. I think the Lord has been preparing us for this time. He has urged us to gain a knowledge of “things which are at home, things which are abroad … and a knowledge also of countries and kingdoms.” (D&C 88:79.) There is a new urgency for each sister to commit herself to a lifetime of learning. Relief Society can serve to motivate and help in that learning.

Ensign: How many women belong to the Relief Society today; and how rapidly has the increase in membership come about?

Sister Mayola R. Miltenberger, general secretary-treasurer: The growth pattern is interesting. Relief Society began, as you may know, with the recorded 18 members attending the organizational meeting. One hundred years later, in 1942, the sisters pointed with a great deal of pride to the fact that they had a membership of 115,000. Of course, not all sisters in the Church belonged to Relief Society in that era; even so, in the ensuing years we have added close to a million and a half members, presently numbering 1,600,000. That represents a 1,300 percent increase.

In 1942, about 91 percent of our membership lived in the United States and Canada. Today, about 30 percent live in other parts of the world, most of them in Spanish-speaking areas.

Ensign: What is the Relief Society’s function in relation to the priesthood?

Sister Smith: The Relief Society assists the priesthood in doing the work of the Church. The priesthood leader who has overall responsibility for Church programs in his ward or stake delegates to a Relief Society president the work of the Relief Society. She meets regularly with him to submit plans and recommendations, report progress or problems, and to receive counsel and direction.

She serves on the coordinating council and in the welfare services committee, submitting agenda items relating to Relief Society, helping to assess needs and find solutions, especially those solutions that involve the resources of Relief Society.

Relief Society’s function is to help see that the needs of women are met and their service goes forward in a supporting, cooperative relationship with the priesthood.

Ensign: We are now entering the third year of the consolidated Sunday meeting schedule. How does this plan seem to affect Relief Society attendance?

Sister Smith: Statistics indicate that our attendance is continuing to improve; we have gone from an average of 27 percent to an average of 33.2 percent. Tonga, Samoa, Korea, and college campus stakes report over 70 percent, which is what we are currently hoping for every Relief Society unit, because we know that Relief Society can be a great benefit to all sisters who come wanting to learn.

Ensign: In recent years, some of the sisters have felt left out because they were involved in the Young Women and Primary. Have you noticed any attitude change here?

Sister Smith: Yes, but there is still some concern. We know that those assignments are very important and that there are ways Primary and Young Women workers can participate in Relief Society even when they cannot attend Sunday classes.

Sister Marian R. Boyer, first counselor in the general presidency: For example, all of the sisters can still attend weekday activities and participate in projects, workshops, and seminars.

Our ward Relief Society president counseled with the Young Women and Primary presidents in her ward. They found that some of their needs centered around the areas of communication, correlation, and appreciation. The Primary and Young Women teachers felt that they needed to know more of what was happening in Relief Society. Relief Society leaders often needed information regarding members’ needs that Primary and Young Women leaders could supply. They found that, through correlation of effort, compassionate service for Primary teachers could be done by the Primary presidency or other officers, thereby filling their desire to serve their Primary workers and to participate in Relief Society as well. They found that with the understanding that was generated through talking and working together, there was much more appreciation, both felt and expressed, for the important contribution all were making, and that when sisters did come together in homemaking meetings and other activities there was joy in being together once more.

Ensign: How do you find the young women are adjusting as they go from the Young Women into Relief Society?

Sister Smith: We find that the eighteen-year-olds are quite mature and as ready for service in the Church as they are in their intellectual, civic, and vocational opportunities and responsibilities. Wherever they’re given the vision of Relief Society, they’re excited. In our ward, we not only let the young women know how welcome they are, we give them an understanding of the Relief Society’s history—that it’s a divine organization given to the women by the Lord. They are given callings as leaders and teachers in the Relief Society and become part of a 140-year-old heritage of women in the Church, beginning in Nauvoo in the days when the fulness of the gospel was restored, and they know they are important to the Society. I have just attended some single adult area conferences and found the sisters to be very enthusiastic about their participation in Relief Society.

In the program for single adults, they join with priesthood members in activities for their age group. In wards where it is appropriate, separate young adult classes are held for one or two lessons per month.

This move into Relief Society is an important transition in a young woman’s life, and we are happy to welcome these sisters into Relief Society to help them find their place in a circle of loyal friends and to realize their potential for creative expression, spiritual and intellectual growth, and service.

Ensign: How can we make homemaking meetings as rewarding for single and working women as for those who are full-time homemakers?

Sister Boyer: We have suggested that each ward Relief Society do a survey and find out what their particular needs are, what they’d like to do, and then respond to those individual needs by planning special miniclasses. For example, counseling on physical fitness, financial management, or developing an ability such as painting can be very helpful to single adult sisters; we can help the working woman streamline her homemaking tasks, like making double batches of food and freezing some for later, so she has more time and energy for her family. Homemaking day can be used to teach provident living and to encourage sisterhood; this gives our women the opportunity to feel a “oneness” with each other as they share their talents.

Ensign: Provident living has become an important theme in the Church today. What is Relief Society doing to promote that?

Sister Smith: For many years Relief Society has devoted a good deal of time and effort to teaching the principles of provident living. Basic principles of provident living are taught in Relief Society lessons regularly, and specific skills to meet specific needs can be taught in the minicourses. The present difficult economic climate around the world has underscored the urgency of mastering these principles, and Relief Society offers all women this schooling continually.

Sister Boyer: Relief Society women worldwide are gathering good ideas and are sharing them in homemaking meetings. For example, one sister, who was trying to start her food storage, would use one item and replace it with two. She put the can or box labels on her kitchen bulletin board to remind her of what product to buy and then, for future planning, kept a record of what she used. It isn’t just having some groceries in storage, but learning how to use storage.

Ensign: What are the plans for future Cultural Refinement lessons?

Sister Shirley W. Thomas, second counselor in the general presidency: In our 1984 Relief Society Courses of Study, we will focus on gospel themes as they are found in art, literature, and nature to help sisters recognize that the gospel really does permeate all aspects of our lives. This series of lessons is designed to reinforce our gospel understanding and also help us learn to control the environment in which we live by making wise choices in our cultural opportunities. We think this will be increasingly important to the women of the Church. They will have to develop the taste and sensitivity needed not only to make discriminating judgments for themselves, but also to teach these things to their families. In a world growing increasingly coarse, women must create homes of refinement where lives may be made ready to return to the presence of the Lord.

Ensign: Sister Smith, in your March 1979 Ensign article, “Makers of Homes” (pp. 22–24), you stated that “beauty is excellence, whether in the cultural arts or in personal character.” What are some ways we can strive for excellence in our own lives, and how can Relief Society help us?

Sister Smith: We achieve excellence in our lives by setting standards for ourselves. Then, using those standards to guide us, we work constantly to improve our performance in whatever we do. Relief Society helps us in this process of becoming excellent in many ways—lessons give us touchstones by discussing excellence achieved by others; homemaking meetings and assignments teach us skills with which to liberate our talents.

The program of Relief Society is designed to give us opportunities. By accepting those opportunities, we improve our talents and do things we never thought possible.

Ensign: What are the most important functions of visiting teaching?

Sister Smith: The most important function of visiting teaching is to help each woman understand that her home is sacred. It is vital that visiting teachers help the sisters gain a vision of their important work in the home. With the great influx of converts, visiting teaching also plays a significant role in helping newly baptized sisters stay close to the Church. And certainly visiting teaching provides a Church service opportunity for many women. Every sister can serve. She can be active, semi-active, or inactive; single, married, or in a part-member family; but as she takes a gospel message to the homes, reaching out to serve another’s needs, she has the opportunity for spiritual growth. And women, with their sensitivity to the home, are often a great support to the bishop because they are able to identify needs that may otherwise go unobserved.

Ensign: There is a change in the visiting teaching preparation meeting is there not?

Sister Thomas: Yes. The communication skills formerly taught in preparation meeting are now incorporated in the fifth week compassionate service, lessons so all Relief Society members can learn them. The focus is still on concepts which can help sisters develop a good relationship with those they serve, but they have been expanded to include the broader scope of compassionate service as well as visiting teaching. While all lessons in Relief Society have a strong element of compassion, these will give specific emphasis to ways in which love can be manifest in our service to others—a necessary attribute for servants of the Lord.

Visiting teachers will report their completed visits to a supervisor, who in small wards may be the Visiting Teaching Compassionate Service board member, but in large wards may be a sister called for this purpose. Urgent needs and confidential matters are always reported by the visiting teacher directly to the Relief Society president.

The personal oral interview with each pair of visiting teachers, held at least twice a year by the president or a counselor, becomes even more important than before because it is here that the visiting teacher gives an account of her calling and the president has her greatest opportunity to learn of the well-being of Relief Society members and to influence the quality of visiting teaching in the ward.

Ensign: Sister Miltenberger, in our 1977 interview with the general presidency you stressed the importance of the close relationship between the Relief Society president and her secretary. What is your feeling on that now?

Sister Miltenberger: I see the president and secretary-treasurer in a close working relationship wherein the secretary helps to carry out, under the direction of the president, many details of executive planning. In this she conserves the time of the presidency. Other important ways by which the secretary can help the president include helping her keep track of unfinished business, previous appointments and decisions, and follow-up items. The careful review of an agenda after a meeting, noting which items were completed, who received assignments, and which items were not considered at all, is an important role the secretary plays. The next agenda begins with follow-up items from the last meetings so no matter of business is lost or forgotten. The secretary can assist her president by knowing where to obtain needed data and by researching specific information as requested. She thus increases the effectiveness of the presidency.

Ensign: What has been the impact on wards and stakes of the newly restructured Relief Society stake board?

Sister Thomas: It is helping presidencies implement the full Relief Society program. As important as the curriculum is, Relief Society is much more than the Sunday lessons. The new structure helps us see that. Compassionate service, welfare, missionary work, and the cultural and social concerns of Relief Society are now receiving greater emphasis because board members have been assigned specific responsibilities in these areas. Because board members are prepared in the particular areas designated by the Church for special focus, the new structure gives added strength to Relief Society’s support of the priesthood.

Ensign: What kinds of specific strengths do you see are most needed by Latter-day Saint women?

Sister Smith: One of the most important is the ability to evaluate. A Latter-day Saint woman needs to know where she is spiritually, where she wants to be spiritually and why, and how to get there. She needs serenity, which is the hallmark of spiritual maturity. She needs the same kinds of strengths that women in another day needed, those who were at Haun’s Mill, those who trekked across the plains, those who gathered the wheat at President Brigham Young’s request. She needs fortitude in the face of hardship and a willingness to use her strength for good and noble purposes.

Ensign: Because the Church is so internationally oriented now, how does the Relief Society General Board encourage flexibility in the way different Relief Societies approach their problems?

Sister Smith: I think the Lord has been preparing us for this time, and I think we must all understand the principles of the gospel and, at the same time, respect the individuality of those with different cultural backgrounds. We send them out as few guidelines as we possibly can, but the guidelines we do send are important for them to follow; it is the way we unite Relief Society sisters worldwide.

Ensign: What is your counsel to those women who feel frustrated by the demands of their multiple roles in home, church, community, professional activities, and other endeavors?

Sister Smith: Life can be exciting when one is busily engaged, but certainly it can become frustrating when you are committed. We need to balance our lives in such a way that we remain in control. We should determine what we can do, and what we cannot do, and not necessarily try to do the things that everyone else does. It has to be an individual experience. On the other hand, we hope women in the Church are involved in projects that make life exciting and rewarding. A new project gives you new life, whether it’s a handcrafted object, gourmet cooking, or a new learning experience. I would counsel the women of the Church to determine prayerfully and realistically what they can do, and then do it.