Sustaining—and Being Sustained by—the Priesthood


How thankful I am for the restoration of the gospel! Because of the Restoration, the priesthood—the power and authority of God—is once more on the earth. That power sustains me in every need and mood of my life. It also offers me the ordinances, the blessings, and the teachings of truth that give meaning to all I care about now and to all I hope for in the future.

When I think of how completely this power of the priesthood sustains me, I wonder how my sustaining of that same power can possibly matter very much. Then I realize that my support of the priesthood is intended primarily to qualify me for all our Father wants to give me.

I have always had tender feelings for the “priesthood men” who have symbolized the Lord’s love for me. I remember the kind and elderly patriarch under whose hands I was given the blessing that gave focus and personal meaning to my life. I think of my gentle father, whose profound reverence for the responsibilities and blessings of the priesthood made it easy for me to envision God as both the source of law and the source of love.

I think of the blessings given me by my husband as I have faced pregnancy, childbirth, surgery, and stressful uncertainty. My children and I think of the priesthood he holds as our priesthood—as it is expressed through his hands and his voice—and we try together to be worthy of its influence in our home. I pray that our four sons will know that the priesthood they hold makes them servants, not masters.

These poignant feelings were stirred again recently when I read the words of a friend who described a dark night in her life, when the power of the priesthood both rescued and reassured her. Donna is a faithful single woman in her fifties whose body has been racked with the pain and stress of serious illness most of her adult life.

Looking back on her life, Donna remembers the pleasant days of her childhood when she played quietly under the quilting frame in the little Relief Society hall in her home town, listening to the warm conversations of her mother and the other sisters about children and canning and charity. Donna assumed those would one day be the central subjects of her experience. But it was not to be, at least not as it had been for her mother and the other sisters. Through no choice of Donna’s, there has been no marriage and hence no children of her own. But hers has still been a lifetime of charity, as she has become a professional counselor to especially needy children.

Once, after lying in the hospital for several days, she began to fear that she might not ever again leave her bed. She called an elder she knew, and he came with a companion after fasting and prayer. She recalled: “I had not slept all night, and as the sun was coming up, I realized as I never had before that I wanted to live, that I couldn’t give up life, that I wanted to have many more experiences. I wanted to spend more time with those I loved. I wanted to return to places that had meaning for me. I cherished life, held it to my heart, and desperately wanted to go on living under any circumstance.

“As the humble men came, and their tears dropped on my shoulders as they blessed me, I felt that God in his heaven was aware of our little circle.”

Since that experience, Donna has continued serving and giving. She sustains the priesthood by the way she lives and the way she feels. She knows that even though a priesthood bearer does not live in her home, the priesthood is the sustaining power in her life.

In the midst of such tender feelings, I find it difficult to put into words what it means to sustain the priesthood. I do know that doing so is central to the mission of the Relief Society and central in the lives of all members of the Church. I also know that the concept has several important shades of meaning.

Our most common use of “sustaining the priesthood” is illustrated by a ward Relief Society president who sustains her husband, a worthy priesthood holder, by working in close partnership with him and following his righteous counsel. She sustains the priesthood in her ward by following the guidance of her bishop, correlating Relief Society activities with the work of the priesthood quorums and other organizations.

But what about my unmarried friend Donna? What does “sustaining the priesthood” mean to a single woman or a woman married to a man who does not hold or honor the priesthood?

My friend Carolyn is a 48-year-old single woman who lives alone. She is a visiting teacher and is a counselor in the Primary presidency. All of her adult life she has longed for the blessing of having the priesthood in her home. One night Carolyn prayed with an earnest desire to understand how she might partake of at least some of the blessings of the priesthood, knowing that her dream of a temple marriage might not be realized in this life. As she prayed, the thought came to her that the Lord to whom she felt so close was himself the author and source of the priesthood. It was his power and influence that she sought. Because she had been baptized and confirmed by those having proper authority, she was entitled, as promised in the sacrament prayer, to “always have his Spirit to be with [her]” (D&C 20:77), subject only to her faithfulness.

With this assurance filling her heart, Carolyn promised the Lord that she would never allow anything to take place in her home or in her life that would make his spirit unwelcome. From that day, “sustaining the priesthood” to Carolyn has meant being worthy of her personal covenants with him whose power the priesthood is.

Carolyn still looks forward to the blessings of an eternal marriage to one who honors his priesthood, if not in this life then at a later time. In the meantime, the influence of the priesthood is still hers.

Carolyn’s situation is shared by other women I know. Lola’s husband has Alzheimer’s disease and functions in many ways at the level of an infant. Caring for him is now her life’s work. As his condition began to worsen and her frustrations increased, she cried to the Lord for understanding. I heard her testify that the Holy Ghost gradually began to teach her how to care for him, leading her almost as she was leading her husband. Lola sustains the priesthood in her home by literally sustaining her husband, hour by hour. As she has done so, she has been blessed with a miraculous kind of serenity and courage.

Gaye is divorced and has three children, the oldest a 13-year-old boy. Because he holds the priesthood, Gaye wonders if her son is the presiding authority in her home. Of course he is not. She is the head of that Church unit—her family—and she has every right to pray for and receive spiritual guidance for her children. When they need formal blessings and ordinances, she will call upon their grandfather or perhaps her home teachers. But she is the organizational and spiritual leader of her family unit.

Laura was called as ward Young Women’s president. She was unsure whether she and her counselors and secretary could function as a presidency unless a priesthood holder came to their meetings. Because she wanted so much to sustain the priesthood, she felt unable to make decisions affecting her teachers and her girls. When, in great frustration, she sought counsel from her bishop, she was taught that she had been called and set apart by proper priesthood authority. Of course she should take counsel regularly from her priesthood leaders, but she was to take the initiative with her organization, to do “many things of [her] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” (D&C 58:27.) She was the priesthood-appointed leader of that ward’s Young Women. Part of sustaining the priesthood for Laura was to accept her calling from the priesthood wholeheartedly, to learn the program, to seek divine inspiration, and to love and encourage each girl in her ward.

Why are we sometimes unsure about the meaning of a phrase as basic as “sustaining the priesthood”? Perhaps it is because this term, like many others, is used in more than one way.

First, we sometimes casually refer to an entire group of men as “the priesthood,” as if the items men and priesthood mean the same thing—which they obviously do not. For instance, if a few men attend a ward Relief Society meeting, perhaps to participate in the program, the sister conducting the meeting might say, “We welcome the priesthood here today.” This may be an appropriate recognition of these men, but it does not mean they stand in a position of authority to the ward Relief Society or its members. “Sustaining the priesthood” does not mean that a woman or anyone else in the Church is obliged to defer to direction of men who are not their priesthood-appointed leaders.

Some people incorrectly believe that Mormon theology teaches that only men can receive divine revelation or hold positions of authority in the Church. I know of a young woman who nearly married a young man simply because he told her God had answered his prayers about their marriage. Then she realized God could answer her own prayers about her marriage. Moreover, a woman can be a priesthood appointed leader, as in the case of a Relief Society or Young Women president.

Second, the most specific sense of “sustaining the priesthood” describes the relationship of support and loyalty we Church members feel toward our appointed priesthood leaders, especially those in the main line of ecclesiastical authority, such as the bishop, stake president, or President of the Church.

The Relief Society’s sustaining of the priesthood in this sense is especially important because it suggests how fully that organization’s activities are correlated with and subject to the direction of local and general Church leadership. A ward Relief Society president looks to her bishop as her priesthood-appointed leader, while she views her stake Relief Society president as a training adviser. And when the members of her ward Relief Society loyally support her leadership, they are sustaining the priesthood authority by which she was called.

This same support and loyalty applies to a married woman sustaining her husband as the priesthood leader of their family because the family is regarded as an official—even an eternal—organizational unit of the Lord’s kingdom.

All other Church activities and organizations for men and women, from Sunday School to missionary work, follow this same pattern, functioning under the harmonious and unified leadership of duly appointed priesthood leaders.

There is a third sense in which we use the term priesthood: as the power and authority of God; the source of all our spiritual and temporal blessings. Through the restoration of the gospel, the Church is built upon this same power. Because of the priesthood keys given to Joseph Smith and his divinely appointed successors, every worthy member of the Church has access to the blessings of the priesthood.

Under the hands of authorized priesthood representatives, each member may receive such glorious blessings as baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, healings, patriarchal blessings, marriage, and the holy endowment of the temple. Through the ordinances of the priesthood, the very “power of godliness is manifest” to us. (D&C 84:20.) Because of this divine power, we may be healed, inspired, forgiven, and sanctified.

When we sustain the priesthood as it is defined in this sense, we are doing more than respecting the Lord’s servants who administer the ordinances, important as that is. We are also honoring our sacred priesthood covenants and feeling profound gratitude for our priesthood blessings.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie spoke in the October 1977 general conference about ten blessings of the priesthood. Women, both single and married, can partake of almost all of them by virtue of their Church membership, which is built upon the foundation of priesthood authority.

Among the list Elder McConkie discussed are these stirring possibilities:

—receiving the fulness of the everlasting gospel;

—enjoying the gifts of the Spirit;

—becoming sanctified, exalted, and given the gift of eternal life in the presence of God;

—representing Jesus Christ in administering salvation to mankind;

—having the opportunity of eternal marriage and exaltation in the celestial kingdom. (See Ensign, Nov. 1977, pp. 33–35.)

Most of these blessings are the personal, spiritual kind, relating to the process of individual perfection in a close relationship with God. They include the right to behold visions and receive revelation, for the Lord “imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also.” (Alma 32:23.) Also included are spiritual gifts such as faith, the testimony of Christ, wisdom, tongues, prophecy, and personal revelation. Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained, “These gifts come by the power of the Holy Ghost and … are available to every member of the Church, male and female.” (Ensign, Sept. 1986, p. 72.)

Among the greatest of the priesthood blessings is the temple ordinance of eternal marriage. Unless we enter into this priesthood ordinance in this life or in the hereafter, we cannot receive exaltation. This privilege, though the ultimate blessing of the priesthood, is not available to a worthy holder of the priesthood unless he is sealed in eternal marriage to a woman who is as worthy as he is. How significant it is for our understanding of the interdependence and equality of men and women in the eyes of God to know that neither can achieve exaltation alone!

Both of the partners in an eternal marriage “sustain the priesthood” that sealed them by striving always to be faithful to each other and to the Lord.

All my experience teaches me that as I seek to sustain the priesthood, whether through loyalty to my husband, to my appointed leaders, or to my Savior, the priesthood sustains me, for the priesthood is the power of Him who will not forsake me.

Just as my friend Donna learned of the priesthood’s sustaining power during her dark hours, the Prophet Joseph Smith also learned something about the priesthood in the adverse conditions of Liberty Jail: “Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; … Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” (D&C 122:9; italics added.) Whether we are married or single, male or female, leaders or followers, if we sustain the priesthood by “holding on our way” as followers of Christ, “the priesthood will remain” with us. I am thankful to be living at a time when, through the Restoration, all of that is possible.

[illustration] Illustrated by Bill Swensen

Marie K. Hafen, an English teacher at BYU, serves on the Relief Society curriculum writing committee. She is a member of the Orem (Utah) Twenty-third Ward.