The Relief Society President as an Agent for Change

rsp

My friend Ellen posted this on her Facebook feed yesterday, along with the comment, “I’ve had this job 4 years today.” I love that she’s smiling in it, and that she’s used a style that’s best associated with the word “change.”

Maybe it isn’t what you’d expect from most ward Relief Society presidents. For me, the office conjures up a mental image of a conservative married woman in her sixties, someone who wears sensible shoes and insists on referring to everyone in the room as “Sister” in a syrupy voice.

Ellen isn’t any of those things (for one thing, she has excellent taste in shoes!), and I know the women in her ward see her as a leader and a compatriot.

So I have a few questions for you all: How can a Relief Society president be an agent for positive change within a ward? What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen a Relief Society president do?

Libby

On prolonged sabbatical from her career in arts administration, Libby is a seamstress, editor, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. She has a husband and three children.

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14 Responses

  1. Suzette Smith says:

    My sister, Christanne, was the best Relief Society I’ve ever known. Not only did she have LOTS of love for the sisters in her ward and work hard … but she did two things which I’ve always admired:
    1. She was a true partner with the Bishop. She treated the Bishop as her equal and he did the same with her. They worked together and the ward saw and respected this partnership.
    2. She went to bat for her sisters if they were in need or if instructions from the Stake put un-needed stress on them. I’ve known her to stand up to Stake RS Presidents and say “this is too much” for the sisters in my ward. I’ve seen her stand up to High Council members if a sister in her ward needed something.
    She’s bold, courageous, and extremely kind. She prays and is guided. And I think that’s the best kind of RS President.

    • Libby says:

      Love this! I agree that one of the things a Relief Society president should do is protect her sisters from unnecessary stress.

  2. Caroline says:

    Great questions, Libby. I would love to hear more people comment on this. I actually don’t know if RS presidents can easily be great agents for change, since the structure limits their autonomy. RS presidents don’t have access to controlling and raising their own funds, so embarking on major projects might be difficult. Though it seems within the realm of possibility for a RS president to see a need in the community, like perhaps tutoring for inner city youth to help them get into college, arrange for weekly tutoring through volunteers, and keep with the program for a number of years. That would be a remarkable contribution, but my sense is that most RS presidents don’t tend to focus on wider community needs. Which is understandable — I’m sure they often feel overwhelmed just trying to help the sisters in the ward.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    My current Relief Society president has been such a leader in terms of the administration of the ward. She’s cleaned up our records by visiting individuals that haven’t been seen for years, using the tools of the internet to track people down, respectfully marking Do Not Contacts, and using the missionaries to help with these visits. It’s been so nice to see these cleaned up records…to know that most of the people on the list do want something to do with the Church rather than many of us getting unknown HT and VT assignments and hoping for the best.

    • Libby says:

      Emily, that’s great!

    • spunky says:

      That’s interesting, EmilyCC! I was assigned a few years ago to visit all of the rural/less active women and a few inactive women in the main town where the branch met. I was annoyed by the assignment- it was given to me because I lived out of town, so they seemed to think I wanted to drive for hours to visit people twice as far from me as they were from them. After I confirmed one of the women was no longer in the area, I was told that contacting the remote members was a “priesthood function” so I should not do it anymore. So I wonder if this is something your RS president did covertly?

      • Andrea R. says:

        I’m the VT coordinator in our ward and I work closely with the RS president. In response to visiting inactive/remote sisters, the priesthood has put that squarely on our shoulders and have even told us we have to try three methods of finding them: 1) personal visit, 2) letter, 3) phone call. If none of those pan out and/or if we get a letter with a forwarding address, we can start the process of moving their records.

  4. spunky says:

    This is excellent, Libby! I hope there are more comments as well, so there is some inspiration about how to create and enact change through the Relief Society 🙂

    My current RS president is driven to serve, but she seems to refuse to challenge the bishop. I do not mean that the bishop is a poor bishop, he is an excellent bishop- but I see nothing wrong with pushing him a bit when he says “no” to an activity that she feels good about. The current dynamic is that she presents and idea- and if he says no, she won’t re-vamp it, or ask why- she just accepts the no and drops the idea.

    The best Relief Society president I had was a police officer. She often even worked shifts so she wasn’t even at church on Sundays (which worked out well for me one Sunday when I ended up hospitalized with a freakish virus– if the police visit you in hospital, I swear, you get better care!) But- with her training in “talking people down” (as in down from being confrontational)– she enacted change for activities that our otherwise power-hungry PF leaders shot down. So- they would shoot the idea down, but she could patiently counter it, and could work– sometimes over weeks– until an idea/activity/change was approved. I swear, she worked miracles– schooled me on true service and– because of her valour/integrity/intelligence and everything else, is a BELOVED friend today. After watching her go to bat so often for us, I would NEVER resfuse to help her even today. She was a serious example of Christ-like integrity, and I admire her for it.

    • Libby says:

      Wow! She sounds incredible. I always hope more women can trust their own revelation enough to push back when they encounter obstacles to something they’re really supposed to do.

      • Melody says:

        Amen, Libby. I wish I had something to offer by way of example of RS presidents as agents for change. I don’t. But I do like the “don’t take ‘no’ for an answer” model. . . determination+ diplomacy is a powerful formula.

  5. Naismith says:

    I made a lot of changes as RS president, although I am not sure they were obvious to the general membership.

    For one thing, our ward had a lot of practices that seemed to assume that women had unlimited time. The RS presidency was responsible for keeping the paper plates closet filled, and the ward mission leader’s wife was responsible for laundering baptismal clothes. Since there was an activity committee at the time, I suggested that they take care of the paper goods. And the ward mission leader could do any laundry himself. (Obviously, if they want to do it however as a couple, that’s up to them, but she shouldn’t have the task without being called, just because of her genetic makeup).

    I also had issues with the stake RS presidency. She constantly chided me for not meeting enough as a presidency. I thanked her for her input, and continued to listen to the Spirit and my bishop. Our ward has a lot of turnover; at least 10 new names each month, and others moving out. So our presidency met once at the beginning of the month, and then each of them signed up for another night during the month that she and I would go out and do visits, and talk about her stewardship while we were driving. So I felt like we were meeting every week, just not all of us together, and making those visits was much more important. Much.

    Also, I had four other people to work with, because I had a second secretary, or actually I think she was an assistant to the president. I needed someone else to handle the stuff that the stake RS threw at us, and also deal with special projects. For example we had a welcome packet that had a ward directory, map of the area, info about registering to vote, ideas for family outings, etc. Some of it was from the chamber of commerce and some from the ward. Once year in ward council, about August which was just after most move-ins, the EQ pres asked if the ward should be providing something for newcomers. I showed everyone one of our packets (I wouldn’t normally be carrying one, but I felt prompted to grab it as I left that day) and there was kinda a stunned silence. The EQ pres asked if he could have one or two for families without a sister:)

    Oh, the other thing that my assistant was helpful for was that our stake RS had all kinds of ambitious ideas for service projects. And they really were wonderful ideas, but our sisters suffered from compassion fatigue and lack of time. And we had no input on whether we wanted to do these projects, it was just assigned and we were supposed to be enthusiastic. When we had the chance to refurbish a battered women’s refuge, I realize it was a great honor that they trusted us to see the location. We assigned it to some single sisters, who came up with new kitchen curtains, pot holders, decorations, tablecloth, etc. Other units in the stake provided new bedspreads, painted the room, etc.

    Our ward had been providing a monthly meal for cancer patients at a residential facility near the hospital for years. It was just too much, and I talked to the facility about only doing it six times a year. They were fine. It turns out that they are almost empty during July because of the changeover of residents, and in Nov-Dec other groups are looking for a 1-time service opportunity. So that worked well, to continue but not every month.

    Service fatigue was a problem, because our sisters have such busy and committed lives. This is an unintended side effect of the feminist goal for women to pursue a career, etc. I got a call from someone’s relative, who was complaining because when her sister in the ward had a baby, she only got two meals provided. I was thinking, “Go visiting teachers!” and glad she got the two that is our goal. But this woman was complaining that they could really use more help. And the baby was almost a month old. I tried to explain that we only provide two meals for an on-time vaginal birth, since that is an event for which the family can plan. We save the meals for preemies, surgery, deaths, and other unexpected crises. So if there was surgery, PPD, or some other reason that she needed more help, we were glad to know. But when I had my last child, three weeks after childbirth I was asked to cook a meal for a sister who had surgery. And I had to drive it 25 minutes away (first time driving a stick shift car since my delivery).

    I never had a run-in with priesthood leadership about activities. What kind of activities require approval? I did have a few out-there ideas, but they always did what I proposed, so it was never an issue.

    I did occasionally get involved when a sister had a misunderstanding with a priesthood leader. When I brought it up with him, the reaction was along the lines of, “She thought I said THAT?” So I think it was a learning experience for everyone.

  6. Naismith says:

    Just wanted to say that having excellent taste in shoes and actually being able to wear them is two different things. I am doomed to wear custom orthotics the rest of my life since I dislocated my pelvis. I’d rather wear them than be in a wheelchair.

    Footsmart.com is a great resource for anyone looking for shoes that don’t look blatantly “sensible,” including diabetics and those with circulation issues.

  7. scarlet says:

    What if the relieve society leader doesn’t like you because you recognize her heart is not true and she feels threatens by that? Is it possible someone could be a RS leader when she really shouldn’t be?

  8. LuAnn says:

    Being called through inspiration as a Relief Society President doesn’t mean you are totally approved by the Lord as a person. I once had one that was very brusk and offensive. We had a run-in. I tried to talk to her about it, to no avail, and then I went to the Bishop about it. He told me that he didn’t know why, but that the Lord wanted her as president. Because I took those steps and realized I needed to accept her, I finally learned to appreciate the good in her. She didn’t change. I did. It was a wonderful lesson for me.

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