Last month I was visiting my father’s ward and happened to notice a blurb in the ward bulletin about the upcoming Relief Society birthday. It gave a (very) brief history of Relief Society’s origins followed by an invitation for the ladies in the ward to attend a “Hats Off to Relief Society!” tea in honor of the organization’s anniversary. (By coincidence, my own ward was planning a hat-themed tea party for the Relief Society’s birthday. Or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence. Maybe there’s a church-wide conspiracy to get Mormon women to wear more hats. I had intended to do more research on the subject, but the project has since fallen by the wayside, I’m afraid. Anyway.)
The reason I found this blurb noteworthy was that the heading for it read “Separate But Not Equal.” What was the author trying to say? It’s like they had just enough knowledge of history to know that they didn’t want to compare the formation of Relief Society to Plessy v. Ferguson, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to let go of the segregation theme. (That would have made for an interesting tea party, wouldn’t it? Probably better that they went with the hat thing.)
Anyway, it was a head shaker. Part of me was tempted to imagine the bulletin being written by some subversive person wanting to draw attention to the gender inequality in Mormonism, but I know that it was probably just somebody not really thinking about what they were doing. Now I’m using it as a mildly amusing anecdote to introduce a not-particularly-coherent post about Relief Society.
Some people—and by “people” I mean women—don’t like Relief Society. Everyone’s got their reasons. I happen to love Relief Society. I have my reasons too. Everything I love about Mormonism I learned from Relief Society. (Hey, that would make a great title for a post, if it weren’t so cutesy and derivative.) As a newly-minted, eighteen-year-old Relief Society sister I loved Relief Society just for not being Young Women. Most of the girls in my Laurel class were begging our leaders to let them stay in YW after they graduated from high school. Not moi. I was itching to go to Relief Society, because I was pretty sure that whatever went on there, it wouldn’t be a non-stop lecture about getting married in the temple. (And it wasn’t. Totally called that one!) But I only developed a mature, meaningful love of Relief Society when I had the opportunity to serve in it.
For that opportunity I can thank the young single adult ward I attended after college. Before and during college I had attended family wards where I always served as the Primary pianist. (Best calling in the church, unless you can’t play the piano, in which case I wouldn’t recommend it. But that’s another story.) In my singles ward I initially had a piano-related calling, too, but I was soon called to the Relief Society presidency. It was kind of a shock, because I’d never thought of myself as presidency material, but there I was. At first I didn’t like it. I didn’t like conducting because I didn’t like people looking at me. Or listening to me. (With my verbal skills, being listened to is often worse than being looked at.) I didn’t like doing the visiting teaching reports because…well, mostly because I just kept forgetting to do them. (I hate having to do stuff I have trouble remembering.) Technically I was the secretary, but because the ward was half students, we often had vacant callings (or good-as-vacant callings), which meant that the presidency members had to pick up the slack. And sometimes there were vacancies in the presidency, which meant that the president and I had to pick up the slack. The bottom line was that I learned how to do every job in Relief Society. I immersed myself in Relief Society and thereby gained a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and discovered the true meaning of charity. It was the high point of my church activity and the high point of my personal faith.
I’m not the same woman I was back then. For one thing, I’m a lot more tired. I’m a little more cynical (which is impressive, considering that I was born cynical). My testimony has taken more than a few hits in the intervening years. Which is why I’m pretty sure that without that transformative Relief Society experience, I would not be active in the church today.
As Julie Beck said in General Conference last week, Relief Society is not a church program. “It is an official part of the Lord’s Church that is ‘divinely ordained of God.’” I cut off the quote there to let that sink in. Marinate in it for a while. Are you marinated? Good.
I confess that I have often complained—as recently as…well, last week when Sister Beck was talking—that General Relief Society presidents seem to always be talking about how great Relief Society is and how grateful we all should be to be a part of such a magnificent, glorious organization, but they don’t say much beyond that. I find it terribly frustrating (in addition to boring). I don’t mean this as a criticism of Sister Beck, whom I like very much. I met her once. I don’t mean this in a name-droppy way like we’re besties and oh by the way when I met Sister Beck… No, I just mean that I met her once and she impressed me personally on that occasion, and ever since then I have felt only affection and respect for her. But I also think that if I hear another person tell me how awesome Relief Society is, I might have to stab myself in the ear.
Remember that quote I had you marinating in? Sister Beck went on to say that Relief Society is “to teach, strengthen, and inspire sisters in their purpose regarding faith, family, and relief.” That’s where it gets murky. People are always telling us women that we have a “purpose”–a “divine purpose,” even. But no one ever tells us what it is, exactly. I guess it’s supposed to be self-evident…but I suspect that if it really were self-evident, we wouldn’t have to be reminded of its existence all the time. We’d just go about doing it.
I know that Relief Society is magnificent and glorious. I also know that what makes it magnificent and glorious is not talking about how magnificent and glorious it is. Relief Society has to be experienced to be appreciated. No amount of hearing about how awesome it is will convince women that it’s awesome. I really wish people would stop talking about how awesome Relief Society is and just let Relief Society be awesome. Talk about the gospel and about the gospel in action because that is what Relief Society is.
I can’t abide when people do the priesthood: motherhood analogy. In our church, at this time, women are not ordained to the priesthood. That is what it is, and I don’t know why it is, but I do know that it isn’t because women are mothers. To begin with, not all women are mothers. (No, they’re not.) To end with, motherhood is awesome but it’s not like the priesthood. (No, it’s not.) Better people than I have expounded on the fallacy of this analogy. (Although if I chose to expound on it, I would kick ass. Maybe another time.) My point is not to talk about women not having the priesthood or what our consolation prize is. The point is that men in the church have priesthood duties; the corresponding duties for women are in Relief Society. I’m not saying that Relief Society membership is analogous to holding the priesthood; it isn’t. But I think of Relief Society as the women’s “quorum.” Our charge is to teach the gospel and succor those in need. I’ve always loved the Spanish translation of Relief Society—Sociedad de Socorro. (Sounds classier than “Relief,” which always reminds me a little of Rolaids.) I may not buy that all women are mothers, but perhaps the errand of angels is given to women. I won’t argue that it compensates for a total lack of institutional authority; that’s another subject. I don’t know why women aren’t ordained to the priesthood or if they ever will be, but I know that Relief Society exists for the purpose of women doing God’s work in God’s name.
What does that mean? It’s hard to explain. Maybe that’s why Sister Beck and all the Relief Society presidents before her seem to be giving the same talk over and over again to not much avail. That’s why I wish they’d stop talking about the purpose of Relief Society and just…do the purpose of Relief Society. Don’t tell us what angels we women are; teach us to be better. Comfort and strengthen us with the good word of God. Talk about the gospel and about how to live the gospel because that is what Relief Society is.
Perhaps this post is just as frustrating (and boring) as that talk I keep deriding. I only know how to express my understanding of Relief Society in impressions. A moment in my adult life that I will remember as long as I live was when I was doing one of my mundane Relief Society secretarial tasks. I don’t remember which one it was, just that I was looking over the roll and reading the name of each sister in my ward, noting which ones had been to church how many times that quarter and which ones we never saw and which ones we didn’t have current addresses for—I knew those names like a math geek knows the first 100 digits of pi. (There were about 120 sisters on the roll, so it was kind of like that.) As I was looking over this list of names, I was struck by a feeling of love and concern for these women. It surprised me because I thought I was just doing paperwork and here I was getting all emotional and crap. At that moment I realized that what I felt was a glimpse, just a taste, of what God must feel for me. I understood, for the first time, that God loved me. I understood because I knew I loved those women and the reason I loved them was that God had blessed with the ability to see them as He did. I got that blessing because of Relief Society.
Of course, your mileage may vary. For some women Relief Society is a bunch of gossipy, judgmental biddies and the occasional class on vinyl lettering. If I’m rolling my eyes at yet another talk on the wonderfulness of Relief Society, I can only imagine the strain these women’s eyes are under. My singles ward Relief Society was not the “ideal” Relief Society; my experience there did not prepare me for the specifics of serving in a typical, family-ward Relief Society, which is a different ball game (as anyone who has served in both kinds of wards knows). It didn’t make me an “expert” on Relief Society, just a loyal member—because it made me believe that God had a work for me, an ordinary woman, to do. It made me believe that I was His daughter, and that other people were my brothers and sisters.
It was the last time I was directly involved in the administrative aspect of Relief Society. After I got married and returned to family ward activity, it was back to the Primary for me (no offense to Primary, which I also love), followed by several years of exile in the library. But I have always felt a part of Relief Society because Relief Society is not a church program or a class that I attend on Sunday or a midweek activity involving vinyl lettering; it’s the female half of the Kingdom of God on earth. I’ve been in wards that were friendlier than others. I’ve been in wards where I wasn’t particularly close (or at-all close) to any of the other women. But I’ve always felt a part of Relief Society because Relief Society is God’s organization of women, for women. (For the world!) Whenever I do God’s work, I am serving in Relief Society. That’s how I think about it. That’s how I feel about it.
I understand that we women often fail to live up to our society’s motto, Charity Never Faileth (just as men often fail in their priesthood responsibilities—we’re all just folks.) But charity never faileth! Where charity succeedeth, there is Relief Society. That’s what Relief Society means to me.
I invite you to share your thoughts and feelings about Relief Society. I am most interested in what you think is right with Relief Society (as opposed to what’s wrong with it—we all have horror stories), followed by how you think Relief Society as an organization can (and should) be strengthened.