Training PriestesshoodBy: Bonnie
A friend of mine serves in a Stake Relief Society Presidency and recently shared with me her concerns about an upcoming leadership training. One suggestion is a lavish, pampering evening in one of the nicer homes in the stake to nourish the souls of the women who nourish other women’s souls. It’s a suggestion borne of a desire to do kind things for one another, but we both felt that it rather misses the point of Relief Society.
It started a conversation about this organization for 6 million women, designed to engage the souls of half of the church’s membership, now or at some point in their over-18 future. Ward Relief Societies are one-half of the welfare arm of the Church, watching over the spiritual and temporal needs of families the world over. Their work is clear: to increase faith, to strengthen families, and to provide relief. They are the “troops on the ground.”
Startlingly unclear, however, was the function of the Stake Relief Society. Auxiliary to the Stake Presidency, the CHOI specifies that SRSPs “ensure that ward Relief Society presidents understand welfare principles and that they understand their role to help bishops in welfare matters” through the medium of “one or two stake Relief Society meetings each year for all Relief Society sisters in the stake.”
That seems a rather significant job to do in one or two meetings a year, and there is little direction for how they are to do that. As we discussed the work to be accomplished at this stage of the gospel’s growth, we agreed that there is not a parallel structure to the priesthood that provides training for women to adequately perform this leadership function. We were speechless as we considered a Stake President calling a meeting, one of only two they would have in the year, of all the bishoprics in the Stake to meet for a swanky dinner in an upscale home so that they could be pampered. But this is the culture of women’s activities: well-decorated and well-fed, lots of dessert (with a persistent side of encouragement for the chronically overwhelmed) and not much substance.
Either women already understand everything they need to know about leadership and they simply need the encouragement of occasional forays into upscale living to do their job, or we diminish women and teach that leadership is too hard for them and they need instead swanky activities. I don’t think this is the message the general leadership are trying to convey.
For instance, some years ago when Julie Beck was serving on the Young Women general board and I was a ward YWP, she came to our Midwestern stake to provide training. She described a fabulous activity focused on the value color white (for Faith) in which the gym was done up in beautiful white organza and white flowers, the lights were amazing, and the sister in charge had even specially ordered white M&Ms. While the decor was going up, Sis. Beck noticed a dejected girl sitting in the overflow and went to talk to her. She had basement level self-esteem and felt alone and angry, her head bowed over herself resolutely. Sis. Beck spent the rest of the time talking with her until the activity was ready to begin, only to find out that this sad girl was the daughter of the woman in charge of the evening on Faith! She stood and powerfully spoke to us: “We are not here to put on white activities! We are here to build faith in Young Women!”
On the flip side, we have to realize that we have become accustomed as women to stylish activities (and this unfortunately starts in the YW program). This creates chronic stress for leaders forced to meet the expectations of women (I heard someone say recently that “if we don’t entertain, they won’t attend” and I was appalled that it would be said and appalled that it could be true) and chronic back-pedaling when it’s time to roll up our sleeves. My friend said that when she meets with wards she often gets a deer-in-the-headlights look from ward RS leaders who are bracing for something else the Stake wants them to do, when what she most wants to do is provide any support they wish. While some women embrace and even cry out for more opportunities to serve and lead, others are perpetually on near burnout. When Sis. Beck said something about African children walking to church across dusty roads in white, pressed clothing with their hair neatly combed, the backlash was vicious. There was to be no raising the bar. A woman who wanted to improve the nutrition in her home was pelted with pushback from her sisters to the tune of “let them eat fish sticks!” Clearly, a great many women have no interest in more opportunities to serve.
On the one hand, the women of the church are desperately needed to step forward and bear the burdens of leadership, and yet we are hampered by the dual problems of diminishing one another by staging frivolous activities and an incredibly loose structure of leadership training (especially at the Stake level – who trains them?) Assuming that the intent of the general leadership is that we focus on substance rather than style (and that’s the message that Pres. Beck certainly made abundantly clear – “It is time to get out of the entertainment business and into the business of salvation”), what are your thoughts on training women to lead with power?
- How should Stake Relief Society trainings help wards to adequately meet the mission of Relief Society?
- If women are to grow in leadership ability, much as men do through priesthood service, how do we improve the necessary mentoring provided by Stake leaders?
- Bishoprics meet monthly with Stake leaders, and ward RS presidencies serve in tandem with bishoprics. Ward council is the intended medium for collaboration. What role does the Stake RS Presidency play in this relationship?
- What changes in Relief Society culture would improve our pastoral care and refine our mission?