Establishing the Relief Society, Establishing the Church


In 1995 Leah and Kharine were baptized in Moscow, Russia. Leah was from the Republic of Georgia and Kharine was from rural Armenia. Each sister returned home to her native country soon after her baptism. Leah was the first and only Georgian member; Kharine, the first in her region. Leah and Kharine’s stories aren’t that unusual to other stories from around the globe. Because I am most familiar with Russia and Eurasia, for the sake of this discussion my examples will continue to be from that region of the world.

Though the church did have a presence in Armenia, Kharine did not read the dialect of Armenian excerpts of the Book of Mormon had been translated into, and could not easily maintain contact with members in Yerevan because of distance once she returned home. The church did not (and still does not to my knowledge) have an established presence in Georgia.

As membership grow in different regions of the globe, Area Presidencies formally organize the members into a Group—kind of the pre-cursor to a Branch. It is my understanding that this entails the presence of men as priesthood holders so there can be a designated ‘Group Leader’. However new converts are most often women. Sisters living far from the organized church are isolated, and often feel lonely and less important in the church. They may not be sure of their place in the church.

President Julie Beck recently quoted the Prophet Joseph Smith in saying, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”[i]

For many reasons it is difficult, and even a very bad idea, to formally organize the Church as a religious entity in various parts of the world. But why not formally organize a group of member sisters into a Relief Society group? With a very small group of sisters, a Relief Society President could be called to organize them, assess their personal, family and even community needs. For example, sisters in Central Asia could be organized under the direction of the Area Presidency, or the under the direction of the nearest mission president (maybe Samara, Moscow or Rostov). I see several benefits.

  • The Relief Society could be registered in some countries as a charitable organization.
  •  Relief Society sisters could serve in the community, fostering relationships of trust with others within communities and governments, assess the needs of families and communities in their respective countries, and display a spirit of good will.
  •  Sisters would know better than anyone the needs of families in their communities. They could work with LDS Philanthropies as they plan and carry out much needed projects in their respective countries.
  •  Relief Society sisters would feel more enabled to share their personal experiences studying and living the gospel, without violating laws in the countries they live. If anywhere in the world, sisters isolated from branches and wards need the safety net of Relief Society. Organizing the Relief Society for these sisters makes President Beck’s words more meaningful.

 I have asked sometimes, “Why do we have a Relief Society president on the general level and the local level?” And the reason we have a president is so we can have an organization, and we have an organization because we have a purpose; and when we have a purpose there is an expected work and outcome. Relief Society isn’t just a feel-good, get-together, let’s enjoy each other, do anything, anytime, anyplace for any reason—this is part of the Lord’s work. It has a president at every level and a purpose that was delineated by the Lord and His holy prophets. This work needs a specific outcome. In a worldwide organization, it can grow exponentially, country by country, and provides a system of watchcare and sisterhood and discipleship and education that is growing every day.[ii]

  • Sisters could be appointed as Regional Relief Society authorities, much like regional priesthood Area Authorities, to travel and support the needs of sisters in Relief Society groups. For instance, a sister in Russia could serve in this capacity to reach sisters in Central Asia; a sister in Germany could be appointed to assess the needs and support more isolated sisters and groups of sisters in the Balkans.
  •  Formally organized sisters would feel a sense of purpose.

Comments

  1. I like this, I really, really like this!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Fantastic idea. Your familiarity with the actual situation on the ground in Russia et al. gives this suggestion substantial credibility, in my view.

  3. The church was brought to Brazil by a sister hoping to organize a Primary for her children–a German emigrant with a non-member husband. She wrote church headquarters asking if there were materials she could use in teaching her children.

    And that is another advantage of focussing on the sisters: it is setting things up for full organization in the next generation. In my part of the US there were “petticoat branches” in the mid-1900s where male missionaries had to come in to bless the sacrament, perform baptisms, etc. For a dozen or so years, until the first batch of convert kids grew up and could run things themselves.

  4. Chris Gordon says:

    Love it. Love that since one of the Church’s strategies is to begin with humanitarian-type missionary work, how much better would it be with a RS-style structure to help implement that. I’ve never heard this mentioned and I think it’d be great.

  5. Marintha, I think that you should write to President Beck with this suggestion. It is, I think one of the most significant ideas about Church organization that I have heard since the announcement of the PEF. Extraordinary.

  6. Wow. I second J. Stapley’s observation and suggestion.

  7. What? She doesn’t read BCC?

  8. I like this post very much. As a former stake and ward Relief Society president, I found that I was much more effective and useful when the priesthood leadership allowed the sisters to receive inspiration and act on it. When we were micro-managed, we were more like robots and were less able to perform the the good works and compassionate service that we knew we could do.

  9. This is really interesting. Having a regional or area person(s) like this just makes sense.

  10. What a great idea! This gets to the heart of what the Relief Society is about.

  11. Enthusiasm from this quarter, too!

    And it’s not like there isn’t a kind of historical precedent — I don’t know how many wards (although I could come up with many examples) were established in Britain and the eastern U.S. in the 20th century because someone established a home Primary, interested neighborhood children, became acquainted with their parents, introduced parents to the gospel, and there it goes. Cherry Silver had an Ensign article a couple of decades ago about establishing a Relief Society-like organization for the wives of employees at the African (sugar?) plantation where she was living, and the support it was for all the women there (all but Cherry being non-Mormon). Drop the “-like” and make it a real Relief Society and it ought to work even better.

  12. Marintha, I really hope that this idea is a seed which grows into something big, because heaven knows there are hundreds of locations around the world, with scattered thousands of Saints, often women, lacking any kind of organization or a way to spiritually sustain each other, because The Priesthood isn’t there. Given you particular interest in the sisters of Central Asia, are you familiar with Amira, and her experiences in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as she and her family have interacted with tiny groups of native members and expats over the years? If not, you should check out her blog: http://amiralace.blogspot.com/. (That recommendation goes for everyone, by the way.)

  13. Awesome.

  14. I too think this is a fantastic idea. I definitely think Sis. Beck needs to see this, but I think those most likely to make it happen would be the area presidents. An awful lot of little changes are driven by middle management.

  15. Fabulous idea. I agree that you should send this to Pres. Beck.

  16. I like Amira’s blog.

  17. Wonderful idea. I have vague memories of a Group meeting in Tbilisi when I was there back ca. 1999-2000 doing global health work. I seem to remember that there were regular meetings. I love those places and think an organized RS could be a great thing. I suspect there would be some important logistical issues to consider and it would merit some empirical observations, but I think a pilot program would be a wonderful idea.

  18. Sam,
    There very well may be a group there now.

  19. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    What an incredibly splendid idea! Wherever I went in Russia, it was always the Russian women who were the caretakers of the local Orthodox churches. They scraped the candle wax from the floors, brought in and changed the flowers, embroidered or crocheted the altar cloths, and prepared all of the food, especially for the Easter celebrations. Russian LDS sisters organized into groups or branches of the Relief Society, especially if allowed to work with LDS Philathropies, could lay an unshakable foundation for the Church the the smaller cities and large town all across Russia. The services they could perform and the spirit of Christian love they could bring would be a mighty witness of the Restored Gospel of the saviour in these last days. They would do an enormous work to defuse the anti-Mormon stories and rumors that hinder the missionary work in “Holy Mother Russia”. This is an inspired idea of nearly relevatory proportions! Please contact Sister Beck as soon as is convenient for you and share it with her. The Prophet Joseph said that Russia would play an important role in the very last days for the establishment of the Kingdom of God in that area of the world. This just might be how that will begin to be fulfilled.

  20. Marintha, a million times yes. I’ve been thinking about something along these lines too, especially after reading the new RS book. There has to be a better way of supporting isolated sisters than what we are doing now.

    It makes a huge difference to have a sense of purpose and it’s very difficult to have that when you’re just one or two or a few sisters in a country or part of a country with little to no interaction with anyone else in the church. Formal organization helps with that, as would Regional/Area RS authorities. I love that idea, especially since Area Presidencies have far too many responsibilities to be expected to truly know isolated members in their areas. What I wouldn’t give to have the isolated women I know have someone in authority over them who knew their names, or even their needs.

    I have seen personally how having local RS sisters on the ground, even very isolated ones, can assist with humanitarian work. They are an underused resource that has tremendous potential.

    And just a note, there has been a branch in Georgia since 2001 or 2002 (there are at least two now) and the Church was recognized there in 2005. There are a reasonable number of missionaries there too. However, very little Church literature has been translated into Georgian.

  21. Amira, good to see you around again. It’s been too long!

  22. Good to hear! I’m so glad you chimed in.

  23. Great to hear your thoughts, Amira! Your line about “hav[ing] someone in authority over them who knew their names, or even their needs” is both truthful and poignant. And while my relevant experiences are many fewer than yours, I can testify as to the valuable service that local RS sisters have provided in disasters and even “ordinary” humanitarian causes.

  24. Pres. Beck has been serving for about 6 years now, right? If she is released next month, I nominate mmiles to replace her.

  25. Marintha,

    This is such an important post. I hope it reaches the eyes of someone with both the passion and sway to make it happen. Your love for the sisters in Russia and surrounding areas has always touched me. I love that you are working to be a voice for them so that one day we can hear theirs.

  26. Marintha, I can’t want to see this idea implemented, then I can say, “I know the woman who thought of this!”

  27. This is such a brilliant idea, I think. It would be so wonderful to connect members who are isolated in this manner, to other members in the area until there’s a branch. Or, to simply connect them to other members/leaders farther away.

    I have a feeling though that this won’t happen/fly because heaven forbid we have a bunch of women just roughing it out “officially” until some local men are available to lead them. Who knows what they’d come up with on their own – who will make sure that they share correct doctrines with each other as they support each other and talk…

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