Service Makes the Difference: A Conversation with the Relief Society General Presidency


Ensign: It seems that our world today encourages us to focus largely on our own needs—how we feel and what we want. How can Relief Society help Latter-day Saint women to look beyond that, to our responsibilities to serve others?

Sister Smith: First, Relief Society helps us develop talents in all areas of our lives. And as we develop these talents, our capacity to serve automatically increases. Second, Relief Society teaches us how to serve. As our new handbook points out, one of our main goals is “caring for the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate; ministering at the time of death.” (Relief Society Handbook, p. 3.) Relief Society provides the greater vision that some in the world lack—that, as we use our talents to serve others, we begin to feel joy and peace ourselves.

Ensign: How do we focus on other people’s needs and still fulfill our own needs?

Sister Smith: Actually, one of our most important personal needs is to serve. You know, when we serve, we begin to do away with greed, selfishness, hate, and envy—all those things that can destroy us. And we begin to feel the selflessness, love, and dedication that the Savior’s life exemplifies. A person cannot fulfill the truly important needs of life without those Christlike attributes.

Ensign: What is our responsibility to look beyond our own circles of family and friends in our efforts to serve?

Sister Smith: I think we can begin with those closest to us, but we must also be careful not to make the family our boundary for our ministrations. Outside the family, whether we begin with little or much is not as important as that we make the effort. Every small effort is important. I heard a legend about Michelangelo that has some bearing on this. It seems that some friends once went to watch the great artist at work on a piece of sculpture. A month later they returned to find him still working on the same piece. “What have you been doing?” they asked. “Oh, I’ve been taking a piece off the arm, and changing the face just a little bit,” he said. “But those are only trifles,” they said. “Yes,” he replied, “they’re only trifles. But trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”

Women can begin in their own spheres—with their little children at home, among adult friends, in their extended families, and in their professions. But the important thing is to reach out in love to serve someone every day. Sometimes we may feel our loving efforts are wasted. But love is really never wasted—whether it is extended to a little child or a lonely sister, or whomever. The power of love to refine our souls does not depend on whether the one we love reciprocates or appreciates our affection. When we love, we grow.

Ensign: How does Relief Society help women serve?

Sister Reese: Several aspects of the Relief Society program encourage and help women to serve. The curriculum is one good example. Many of our lessons remind us that service is a basic tenet of our faith and is a Christlike activity.

Sister Smith: The Relief Society’s concern with compassionate service is another basic element of our program—as viable today as it was in our founding days. All women are encouraged to serve freely. And we have given compassionate service added emphasis by calling a compassionate service board member on both the ward and stake boards. Her role is to help us recognize and meet the needs for compassionate service in a ward.

Sister Boyer: The homemaking program comes to mind, also. Our homemaking meetings teach skills that improve our homes for ourselves, our families, and others. These skills help women think how they can make their homes a haven, a pleasant place—an orderly place for their families. These homemaking skills also enable women to serve neighbors and others.

Ensign: How does Relief Society help women meet the challenges of today?

Sister Smith: The Relief Society organization is dedicated to strengthening women and their homes and families, to helping women become better educated, to encouraging them to give charitable service in their communities, and to helping them learn to live peacefully and joyfully in today’s world.

Sister Reese: The education program in Relief Society is designed to help women meet the real spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social challenges of today. Our lessons are all based on gospel principles that every woman can relate to—no matter what her culture or level of understanding. Lessons stress application of principles and concepts, so they also help a woman teach the gospel by example.

Sister Boyer: In the homemaking meetings, we teach the skills that can make each home a house of order and learning. Then we pass these skills on to our daughters and granddaughters.

We suggest two homemaking meetings per month—one in the daytime and one in the evening to accommodate all women, including those who work outside the home.

Ensign: Sister Boyer, you have talked about how the homemaking meetings can help the sisters have more refined, orderly homes and teach their children more effectively. What about those who, for one reason or another, don’t enjoy the situation we consider ideal—being in the home with children? How do you see them fitting into the Relief Society plan?

Sister Boyer: Everyone has a home, whether there is one person there, or ten. And we would like every home to be a gracious, orderly place of learning, where you bring friends and let them feel love and warmth. We don’t have to always be alone, even though ours may be a one-member family. That home can be a blessing to many who may come within its influence.

Sister Smith: I think one of our problems today is that many people feel the only place one can find personal satisfaction is outside the home. The solution is to find fulfillment within ourselves, whatever the situation may be. We know that the greatest work we ever will do is within our own homes. There is a time in many women’s lives when teaching and training children is the most important thing that they can do. Watching that spiritual and intellectual development should be a source of great satisfaction. I hope every mother would realize that that time of togetherness will never come again. There are only a very few years when a mother has the opportunity to spend that kind of time with her children.

Sister Boyer: All women, whatever their situations, can perform service in their homes. For example, our general secretary has not had children of her own. But she loves and serves the children of others. In fact, today she’s taking care of a niece and her brand new baby and three-year-old son. As long as we are thinking “What can I do for someone else?” we are on the right track. And the woman living alone can realize the great blessings she does have.

Ensign: What about those who are widowed or divorced—who must combine motherhood and a career? How can Relief Society help them?

Sister Boyer: We must do all we can to help prepare women for any eventuality. We realize that sisters who do not have adequate training face a real financial struggle in raising a family alone. And so many women are raising families on their own. They need to know many more things than we thought necessary just a few years ago. We are suggesting that the homemaking meetings help women learn practical skills such as the wise use of credit, how to budget, how to do simple home repairs, and even car care. And our homemaking booklet gives information on how to write a good resume and how to have an effective job interview.

I recently saw an affluent woman working in a department store. When I asked her why, she said, “I’m bored. I don’t want to stay home.” Many women whose families are grown are in this kind of situation. But what if this woman were to help take care of a couple of children for a single mother who has to work?

Ensign: That seems like a marvelous idea. And the need for this kind of service is so great.

Sister Reese: We are helping in this respect in the education department. Recently, we had a Mother Education lesson on helping the single-parent family. When the teacher wrote “Home Repairs” on the chalkboard, two single mothers sitting near me whispered, “Ahh, yes—that’s just what I need!” Thus, Relief Society is doing much through classroom instruction and homemaking meetings to teach practical skills, and through the visiting teaching network to offer love, support, and compassion for all women, including women alone.

Ensign: You have just mentioned visiting teaching—what is its role in helping sisters serve each other?

Sister Reese: I think visiting teaching is one of the greatest strengths we have as an organization. Every woman in this Church has the right and opportunity to serve as a visiting teacher. As the visiting teacher takes the gospel message to her assigned homes and reaches out to serve another’s needs, she experiences personal growth. Sometimes a woman just needs to talk with another woman. The visiting teaching visit fills that need. Visiting teaching also plays a significant role in welcoming the newly baptized sister into the Church. Women, with their sensitivity to the home, are often able to identify needs that may otherwise go unobserved.

Sister Smith: We would like every woman to pray that she might be assigned to visit the women she can best influence for good. We hope visiting teachers are also praying for the Spirit of the Lord to direct them in meeting their sisters’ needs. I think we have that responsibility and the right to know that the Lord really will work through us to serve each other. We know that wherever visiting teaching is being done well and fully that we have more people attending Relief Society and other Church meetings and enjoying the blessings of the gospel.

Ensign: Have there been any recent changes in the visiting teaching program?

Sister Smith: Yes. Relief Society presidents were once directed to have a specific number of personal verbal reports with the visiting teachers each year. In our new handbook, we have not specified a certain number. The local Relief Society president must determine how the visiting teachers can help her understand and meet the needs of each woman. It is now the president’s individual responsibility to decide the frequency. Of course, when there is a specific problem, that should be immediately reported to the president by the visiting teacher.

We hope by now Relief Society leaders will recognize the value of verbal as well as written reporting in visiting teaching.

Ensign: To change the focus a bit, we’ve heard it said that some women come into the Church because they see a positive difference in the women in the Church. What makes this happy difference?

Sister Smith: Again, it’s the service we give that makes the difference. I recently visited a stake where the women had been having problems until they were asked to work together on a project. As they worked in harmony, a sweet sisterhood developed because of their united efforts. The minute we begin to give of ourselves, we experience happiness, and when we have a spirit of peace and happiness about us, people notice it.

Another key to happiness is to have a sense of purpose and accomplishment. One group of Relief Society sisters I know gave themselves a year to accomplish at least five new goals—one spiritual, one in homemaking, one in studying scriptures, another in attending meetings, and another in some area of personal interest. One woman took flying lessons and became a pilot. Another refinished an old piece of furniture. Another finally cleaned out her garage. One organized and catalogued her books into a library. I have never seen happier women or more contented husbands and children than I saw there because of the achievement of a desired goal.

Ensign: How much control do we really have over our happiness?

Sister Smith: Happiness is a result of Christlike living. You know, we have some magnificent displays in the Relief Society Building—ideas for teaching and for home decorating and beautification. When we first made the assignment to the various stakes, some women said, “We can’t do all these things.” But it wasn’t just one woman who did these displays; it was hundreds, many of whom made just one contribution; and they did it with love and dedication.

These displays show that there’s more than one way to do many things. I think we sometimes limit ourselves by thinking there’s only one particular way to do something. One of our displays shows how many ways inventive women have used the basic skill of quilting. Some women made wall hangings, some chair pads, some table runners, some rugs.

Likewise, the Lord has given us a world of great diversity. He makes all kinds of people and allows us to be in different situations. Each of us has different gifts and a different potential. But the gospel of Jesus Christ should be basic in all our lives. If we women have the creative power to put up such lovely displays, we certainly have the power to reach beyond our present limits in Christlike living.

[photo] Relief Society Presidency (from left): Marion R. Boyer, first counselor; Barbara B. Smith, president; Ann S. Reese, second counselor. (Photography by Mike McConkie.)

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten