August 2011 Visiting Teaching Message: A Society of Holy Women

Okay. Confession time. I don’t like Relief Society. There. I’ve said it.

I wish I did like it. I love what I imagine it could be: automatic friendship, belonging, respect… yet, I feel utterly isolated at nearly every Relief Society lesson or activity I attend. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the society; When I was a YSA, I chose to attend church for edification, rather than the oft-implied purpose of just to find a date/future mate, so attended a family ward rather than a singles ward. I tired of the Relief Society president sweetly yet coolly asking me to attend the local singles ward, so stopped attending Relief Society then. Since then, I have moved well over a dozen times as an adult, so I am often the new gal.  Even though I am now married, I don’t have children, therefore no like-aged children as ice-breakers. My personal life is so ridiculously complicated that in my experience, many Mormons are so shocked that they no longer speak to me when I tell them about it. As a result, I am fiercely private, guarded and untrusting. Relief Society and Spunky is about as apples and oranges as you can get. So I am not going to tell you to go gung-ho-Relief Society-mad because that would be lying, and lying does not invoke the spirit.

But, sisterhood. Now that is a different story.

Sisterhood is an association of women, from Mother Eve to the present, who are connected through their commitment to the Lord. They have been strengthened and guided by the light of Christ. Sisterhood is the accumulation of personal power that comes with the presence of Christ in our lives. Beyond testimony, it enables women to reach out to each other to give and to be strong. It is the personal power that comes from the sure knowledge of who we are and why we are here. That identity is central to our lives. Sisterhood is a principle of unity and direction. It connects all women together in unconditional love and trust. It nourishes, it builds up, and it facilitates growth.      – Grethe Balli Peterson, Blueprints for Living, Vol. 2, BYU Press, 1980, p. 55.

The phrases and terms here work for me: “personal power”, “unity and direction”, “beyond testimony”, etc. True sisterhood must be formula wherewith a society of holy women progresses and completes Christlike work. I can do this. I can do sisterhood.

So why is this lacking in my Relief Society Experience? Well, with all due respect to Silvia Alvarez, the author of this month’s message, I can’t help but feel the typical and judgmental “should” and “should not” admonitions in the message. Even in the “From the Scriptures” section where qualities of obedience, clean hands, virtue and even physical beauty are admonished. So, to be honest, I suggest skipping the scripture section. I do not suggest that the scriptures do not have value or are wrong, but within the context of visiting teaching, I think it unhelpful and difficult to remind even the strongest of sisters that they “should” exhibit the qualities of perfection in order to be considered faithful members of the Relief Society.  To do so can result in the feeling of a call to righteousness, which does not invoke sisterhood and could very well alienate you from the sisters who you are called to serve.

I prefer the idea of seeking common personal, spiritual and social interests as a method of developing sisterhood with the sisters you teach. In the wise words of Julia Mavimbela:

I give thanks to God that He has made me a woman. I give thanks to my creator that He has made me black; he has fashioned me as I am, with hands, head and heart to serve my people. It can, it should be a glorious thing to be a woman. It is important for women to be aware of their common lot. It is important for women to stand together and rise together to meet our common enemies- illiteracy, poverty, crime, disease and unjust laws that have made women feel so helpless as to be hopeless.     – Julia Mavimbela, Women of Wisdom and Knowledge: Talks Selected from the BYU Women’s Conference, Deseret Book, 1990, p. 63.

 

In the spirit of embracing our “common lot”, the message:

Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, taught: “Paul the Apostle anciently spoke of holy women. It is the duty of each one of us to be a holy woman. We shall have elevated aims, if we are holy women. We shall feel that we are called to perform important duties. No one is exempt from them. There is no sister so isolated, and her sphere so narrow but what she can do a great deal towards establishing the Kingdom of God upon the earth.”1

Sisters, we are not isolated nor is our sphere narrow. By accepting the gift of activity in Relief Society, we become part of what the Prophet Joseph described as a society “separate from all the evils of the world—choice, virtuous, and holy.”

What are the elevated aims that you share with the sisters you visit teach?

Do you share a strong bond in regard to educating children? Well, share some educational fun, watermelon style! (who knew it was a vegetable?)  Do you share a desire to help impoverished women? Discuss or invest in Talents of Sisters. Are you closet foodies? Compare pesto recipes. You know you love pesto. Seek something in which you can develop true friendship, which can develop further into the bond shared between holy women. This is sisterhood.

This society helps us strengthen our faith and grow spiritually by giving us leadership, service, and teaching opportunities. In our service a new dimension is added to our lives. We progress spiritually, and our sense of belonging, identity, and self-worth increases. We realize that the whole intent of the gospel plan is to provide an opportunity for us to reach our fullest potential.

Relief Society helps prepare us to receive the blessings of the temple, to honor the covenants we make, and to be engaged in the cause of Zion. Relief Society helps us increase our faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families, and seek out and help those in need.

The work of Relief Society is holy, and doing holy work creates holiness in us.

Humph. If you feel inspired to emphasize any of those points, then do so. I primarily like the end admonition: doing holy work creates holiness in us. What is holy work to you? What work in association with Relief Society helps you to feel the spirit?

In preparing for this, I informally asked what other women thought of Relief Society… about half of the respondents said they loved or liked it, the other half were more lukewarm, one very cleverly stating that she liked the Relief Society in theory. The problem is that I don’t think Relief Society can be all things to all women.  We are too diverse and our needs are so far and wide that it would be impossible to find the perfect answer to all of our needs, service abilities and righteous desires via Relief Society.

But. I think there is potential for aspects of Relief Society to be a benefit to most women. This doesn’t mean we have to love it, that we must swear allegiance to it, or that we are lesser if we feel very uncomfortable sitting in the lessons. I think this is an opportunity to seek out the spirit in different aspects of Relief Society and embrace that. Then don’t worry about the rest.

This means that rather that seeing Relief Society as a noun, (a place, a status/class, a lesson, the “third hour”) we need to see Relief Society as a VERB. It is an action. When we do Relief Society, rather than attend a Relief Society meeting, we embrace sisterhood and become servants of Christ.

One woman I asked said that she loved the lessons because she learned so much from the experiences of the older sisters. Another said that Relief Society encouraged her to become friends with those outside of her circle. One friend said she loved it because the Sunday lessons offered an hour free of child-wrangling. Another said she liked it because she felt more comfortable in commenting and participating in Relief Society lessons than she does in Gospel Doctrine lessons. And yet another friend, who was in the process of having her records removed from the church, said that she missed the fellowship of women from within the Relief Society. For her, Relief Society met a need for sisterhood that was otherwise absent from the church and the only thing of which she had positive thoughts.

Personally, I love the history of the Relief Society. The Relief Society created a demand for women’s literature. In 1872, this growing demand culminated in Louisa Lula Greene accepting a position of editor for the newly created newspaper for LDS women, The Women’s Exponent. For this, and Exponent’s continuing legacy of sisterhood and feminism, I can forgive the Relief Society for its shortcomings.  This does not mean that I am converted in all things Relief Society. I am not. But I am converted to the parts of it that I love and like. I love The Exponent and Exponent II, although neither was ever formally associated with the Relief Society. And here’s a secret: I like being a visiting teacher. I struggle to make friends at church, and in visiting teaching, I feel a confidence in phoning women, visiting them armed with the message as an “ice breaker”, and building a one-on-one friendship outside of the sphere of cliques. This doesn’t mean that I have to go to Sunday Relief Society lessons, because I don’t. And I am okay with that. (Ironically, as a non-attender of Sunday lessons, but an avid visiting teacher who visit taught the Relief Society President, she told me that she felt more support from me than any one else in Relief Society. No joke.)

With this, and in the spirit of opening ourselves to true sisterhood in a manner which suits us:

Each of us will experience over our life-time physical pain, emotional anguish, heartache, grief, even betrayal in one form or another. If we attempt to deny the problem or to cover it with a facade of forced sweetness and light, we imperil both ourselves and each other- ourselves because we deny the healing that can result from the love, strength and insights of true friends, and each other because people then assume we are our facades and feel even more isolated with their problems.     – Mary E. Stovall, As Women of Faith, Deseret Book, 1989, p viii.

 

This message reminded me of the “Individual Worth” “value” given in Young Women. Which means that we all have value, even if Relief Society may not be the fitting glove that others and we assume it should be. But if we seek out the parts of it wherein we can excel and find peace, and embrace who we are as individuals, we can become a sisterhood of holy women that is balanced by the varied strengths and even imperfections of others. Discuss with your sisters where they might find, participate and increase their own joy within the Relief Society organization, and don’t fret or fuss if they do not like Relief Society lessons, Visiting Teaching, craft activities or making meals for others. Focus on the passions and strength of the individual and how she can be comfortably involved in sisterhood and service in a way that is most meaningful to her. Don’t fret about the rest.

What part of Relief Society appeals to you? What part of Relief Society appeals to the sisters you visit teach? How can you encourage participation in this “safe” area, keeping in mind true sisterhood in the spirit of healing? Anyone have any good pesto recipes? (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

 

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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27 Responses

  1. BethSmash says:

    Love your post! I agree with the Sister that I find myself more willing to contribute in RS than in SS. For some reasons it seems a safer place. I have to say – I feel awkward actually doing the visiting teaching, but love being taught. Part of that is probably because I’m in my own home, and part of it is probably because i constantly have my foot in my mouth, because I speak before I think – especially while nervous, which is exasperated when I’m visiting someone I don’t know well.

    There was one particular item in your article that made me rather upset:

    “When I was a YSA, I chose to attend church for edification, rather than the oft-implied purpose of just to find a date/future mate, so attended a family ward rather than a singles ward.”

    Umm… I feel that in this statement you are categorizing those who attend singles wards unfairly. I moved to a single’s ward from a family ward for multiple reasons – none of which was that I was looking for a date. That’s not to say that dating isn’t a reason that SOME people might choose to attend a single’s ward – but to imply that it’s the sole reason, and that those who do so are less worthy (which is what I’m getting from your tone, although to be fair — the tone could be completely in my head, as could the implication of worthiness) I find that upsetting.

    Wow… did that sentence make sense?

    • spunky says:

      Bethsmash,

      Your sentence makes perfect sense!!

      I love your comments, and you are right- that sentence did have attitude, and I apologize. That was not my intent at all! I have attended singles wards for edification as well… at the time, I had moved to an area where I had to drive quite a way to get to the singles ward. I worked in the opposite direction from the singles ward, and didn’t want to drive as far on the weekends as I did during the week. I was exhausted with working full time, going to school nights, and just was tired of being told I didn’t belong in a family ward because I wasn’t married. So the attitude was not aimed at people who attend singles wards, not at all!! My attitude was intended for those who make singles feel like we only belong in singles wards. Church should be welcoming to all, regardless of martial status! I am very sorry that I did not word it better. Thanks for your keen sense of fairness and allowing me to clarify the intent.

      • BethSmash says:

        I have to say I don’t think anyone should EVER tell you (or hint broadly) that you should be attending a specific ward. I had one friend who the week after she turned 18 and had her birthday interview with the Bishop, he INFORMED her that she would be attending a single’s ward, because that’s where singles should go. It was very upsetting for her, she felt like she’d been thrown out of her ward.

        Thank you for clarifying your comment. I’m sorry you had that experience.

    • spunky says:

      You’re loved, BethSmash- please keep coming back 🙂

  2. Kirsten says:

    “When we do Relief Society, rather than attend a Relief Society meeting, we embrace sisterhood and become servants of Christ.”

    I love this idea!! The “doing” is the best part…

  3. Carol says:

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking post. I believe that anytime we love ourselves or others, show compassion to ourselves or others, or serve ourselves or others, we are becoming holy.

    Relief Society emphasizes compassionate service A LOT. That is a wonderful way to become more holy, happy, and whole as long as we are also caring for ourselves. I have served as a ward and stake RS president several times, and although I love the good things RS can do, I realize many sisters do not feel comfortable with RS.

    Right now I struggle with the curriculum. I miss the lessons that were more intellectually stimulating, that discussed great literature and cultures, that were written by women for women. In my current ward, I am saddened when women seem to feel that must appear perfect. We are all struggling, and we are can share our real feelings and thoughts, we can learn so much from one another.

    With that said, I LOVE visiting teaching. I enjoy talking to women that I might never had known otherwise, and some of my more fulfilling experiences in the Church have been in ministering to, listening to, and learning from the amazing women I have had the privilege to visit.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment, Carol. I agree that it would be nice if all of the lessons at church in general were more intellectually stimulating. Ironically, I mostly only attend when I teach Relief Society (which isn’t often) and although it depends on the ward you are in, I find that it is a challenge to be mindful and inclusive of the newer converts whilst including the exhausted mother who can’t bear what might feel like another chiding in regard to what she “should be doing”- and still provide intellectual stimulus for those of us who seek heavier content. It is a juggling act for sure! That is why I chose to focus on building the strengths of each sister and how she can thrive within the organization (almost in spite of the organization), rather than selling the Relief Society as perfect organization for all– because it isn’t.

      I feel a calling as a Relief Society teacher coming your way…. 🙂

    • Vicky says:

      Carol, I was so glad to read your post regarding the curriculum. I struggle too. I feel my introduction to RS as a new member and my convert daughter-in-law’s intro cannot be compared due to the change in curriculum. The old curriculum helped me to grow as a new member. My daughters were jealous when I showed them one of the old manuals. That curriculum seems to me to be geared toward women with many womanly examples. I mourn the change.

  4. Diane says:

    Spunky

    Soul Sister, love the post.

    When I was a member and did visiting teaching, I never gave the message, I sat and visited with my sisters and tried to get to know them on a personal level. Sometimes that all the person really wants, this is how true friendship begin and flourish.

    • spunky says:

      I agree, soul sister Diane 🙂 We are all lonely at some time in our lives, and sometimes the visiting teacher might be the only guest that sister has for months at a time. Visiting with a message is excellent, but listening– just listening– is always, always, always, imperative. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  5. April says:

    I like the emphasis on sisterhood, but I wonder why the Relief Society message about the Relief Society mentions next to nothing about giving relief? The society part (sisterhood) of the name is important too, but what about relief? Service is mentioned so vaguely in a message, and I would think that is supposed to be a very important part of an organization with this title.

  6. April says:

    Just to clarify, the original message in the Ensign lacked information about relief. It is not Spunky’s interpretation that is the problem.

    • spunky says:

      The message doesn’t even formally mention sisterhood, either. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, I struggle with Sister Alvarez. I listen to her talks and I want to like her, but I just feel that she hands me a list of chores, with the direction to just be perfect. That is specifically why I added the quote from Mary E. Stovall, because it reminds us that none of us is perfect, nor should we be, and that our individual strengths and experiences can be a source of relief to those around us.

      I so very much wanted to be excited about including the history sections in the visiting teaching messages, but to date, the history sections have been disappointingly focused on MEN telling the women what to do. For this message in the history section, I love the reminder that when women serve “the angels cannot be restrained from being your associates”… but this is only mentioned after the reminder from Joseph Smith that “Meekness, love, purity—these are the things that should magnify you.” I absolutely understand the intent of this is to invite sisters to serve with humility so we can gain the spirit. But in consideration of the lukewarm active, inactive, or the sister inundated with family, work or otherwise, as well as the desperate, silently struggling sister, I thought this lacked compassion… it lacked a feeling of relief. Hence the edit of this and the scripture sections. *sigh*

  7. Amber says:

    Spunky, when I was fully active in the Church, I hated going to RS. I really, really, hated it. I was so grateful when I was called to various callings that kept me from attending third hour. I felt so many of the lessons were packed with messages that woman should be this and that while minimizing the fact that we are, essentially, powerless in the Church. I know this topic has been hammered many times, so I won’t go into it. I also felt that differing opinions were not allowed; a person had to stick to the book when commenting or the moderator–teacher–would bring the topic back to the book without recognizing the person’s comment or feelings.

    At the same time, I really enjoyed the feeling of sisterhood. That is something I was very active about. Meals? Childcare? Cleaning? Sign me up. I felt serving my fellow friends helped me become friends with them. I also felt I could show them that they meant more to me than just being another sister in the ward. I went out of my way to befriend and visit the sisters I taught often because I actually wanted to get to know them better.

    All that said, I do like your emphasis on sisterhood. If only you could be my visiting teacher. ; )

    • spunky says:

      Amber, you expressed exactly how I feel about Relief Society lessons!! Thank you so much! The longer I am in the church, the more I feel like almost all of us are in the periphery of church culture. 🙂 I want YOU to be my visiting teacher! xx

  8. ceebee says:

    Spunky,

    Thank you for your honesty and thoughts about Relief Society. As I progress through the seasons of my life Relief Society has often been my salvation and at other times just something to endure.

    I recently came across the following quote from Victoria Fielding:
    “There were many dancers, many styles of dances, with innumerable dances being performed simultaneously on the stage of life. And who was to say that one dancer was any better than another? No longer did I think it was just my stage. It was everyone’s stage, and we were all just inexperienced dancers bumping up against each other, and—for the most part—trying to get our steps down, and trying to do our best. That was all. And that was enough.”

    Perhaps Relief Society can be compared to a dance recital. If we all try to do our best maybe it will be just enough to unite women together under the motto of “Charity Never Faileth”.

    • spunky says:

      That is an excellent quote, ceebee! I like that idea– a dance recital- not a rote march of prescribed footwork, but a place where we can each excel in the things we are most confident and passionate about. Thank you!!

  9. Wow, I have also chosen never to attend a singles ward, but I’ve never heard a leader specifically tell me to do so.

    My problem with Relief Society comes with the simplified lessons and visiting teaching. I never use the Ensign VT messages because I usually don’t like them. Besides, I feel like we should act on the spirit the way the missionaries do in order to share what might help sisters the most.

    I completely agree with your idea that Relief Society should be a more active thing. Why do we even call it Relief Society anymore when we seem to have lost our focus on service?

    • spunky says:

      Thanks for commenting, Michelle– I agree with you on using the spirit for the message. I like to think that I do that, but use the message as a base or an ice-breaker– or at least a place to get my head into the spirit by reading the references. (sometimes the messages just make me mad- so its hit and miss for sure!)

      Good question about why its title remains the same… I am of the mind that men should be in the Relief Society and women should have the priesthood, so both have shared authority and service assignments, but still allow for seperate meetings to allow those who feel most comfortable in same-gender meetings to feel confident.

  10. Corktree says:

    Love the thoughts here Spunky. And I LOVE that quote by Julia Mavimbela. After a requested break from formal visiting, I got recently put back in the mix (to my surprise), but I decided to give it a go and even volunteered to teach the lesson because I knew that you’d have some good stuff to help me out 🙂 I don’t like the way RS usually plays out either, but I’ve always liked the idea in theory as well. I do really wish we could get back to the relief aspect of it in supporting our fellow worldwide sisters (and thank you for the mention!) I’m actually looking forward to sharing my own hopes and visions of what it could be (and learning how to hold my tongue and not gripe about all the things I hate about it). Hope it goes well.

    • spunky says:

      Thanks, Corktree! Julia Mavimbela stated our common lot in a way that I felt strengthen, rather than burdened… making it a gift. I think anyone who gets to be visit-taught, or just plain visited by you is very, very lucky. I hope you feel as empowered and strengthened by them, as I feel empowered and strengthened in your words.

  11. Hillary says:

    This is such an interesting discussion. I too have found that Relief Society can be difficult. In fact, due to callings and whatnot I’d never really attended until I was called to be a teacher. The only other occasion on which I’d gone was when I was single and going to a single’s ward. I wasn’t looking for a mate there, but I actually enjoyed it because it was just so quiet! As much as I love children, sometimes it’s hard to pay attention and feel the Spirit with the noise distractions you get in a family ward.

    Now that I’m teaching Relief Society, I actually love it. I love that there’s a place where just women can get together to discuss doctrine, to learn, to lean on each other, and to just be. When I’m teaching, I try to encourage the sisters to think beyond simplistic, traditional responses to questions and get to the roots of what they believe and why. I think there’s a unique spirit there, different from sacrament meeting, which can feel impersonal (and is loud), and SS. Sunday school, in my experience, is unfriendly to female discussion. At least in my ward, everything comes down to a “well I’m a man, and I have the priesthood, so I know better” type situation. Even when women are teaching SS, we have a few men who feel it’s their job to constantly correct the women.

    Finally, I love RS, because it’s one place at church that I don’t feel alone. Because my husband is less active, SS and sacrament meeting are painful reminders that I’m there by myself. But in RS, I’m not supposed to have my spouse there. I am enough–just me (if that makes any sense). It is my time to learn and think and feel the spirit with other women, and I love that.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you so much for commenting, Hillary. I love your perspective in regard to Relief Society. The more I have read and hear of women’s negative experience in Sunday School (specifically in the ways you mention), the more I see the potential of Relief Society.

      For me, I struggle in the company of women mostly because I am married but don’t have children. Just last week, a member of the Relief Society presidency with six children asked me if we had looked into foster care. (I kicked myself after for not asking her if she was interested in foster care.) I can’t count the number of times LDS women (never men) have told me “just to adopt”. Some even send me links to adoption web sights without asking if I even am interested in adopting (and duh- if I wanted to be a foster parent, I would be)…As a teacher, I hear time and time again from children how they wish their parents would talk to them. Time and again, parents at school asked me how to better parent, seek my advice and tearfully offer thanks for help; but at church, many women treat me like I am dumb and “correct” me if I make comments in regard to children … not unlike men in Sunday school who seem to think they must direct female teachers. Its maddening and isolating for me, and I deeply struggle to feel the spirit there.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, I can see more and more how Relief Society can offer to be a safe, spiritual place for many women. I hope that spirit is catching and grows, and I am glad you teach relief society to share this principle. 🙂

      • Hillary says:

        I feel ya! We don’t have kids either, and I’ve had people either assume that I’m single or that I must be selfish and not want kids. While I admire mothers of all types, I don’t think just being a mother qualifies anyone to be the authority on all women’s issues in the church.

        Because we have such a mix in our ward, I try to think of ways to discuss lesson topics in ways that apply to everyone, whether married or single, childless or mothers.

        P.S. Don’t you hate all the dumb things people say to you about kids? I was told that I must not be paying enough tithing, which is why we couldn’t have kids. Um, ok. Didn’t realize the Lord lets you buy kids.

      • spunky says:

        That is twistedly hilarious! Buying children via tithing… UGH!! They must be for sale in some secret aisle at the distribution center, LOL!! I hope you come back here often Hillary!!

  12. EmilyCC says:

    Another inspired VT lesson, Spunky!

    And, I think you need to get on the WAVE Words of Wisdom Committee for 2012 🙂

  13. Annie B. says:

    So I did not know that about the original Exponent. I had wondered where the name for this forum came from, pretty cool.

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