Guest Post: Open Letter About the New Relief Society Curriculum

Mary Magdalene in Meditation (Madeleine en meditation) by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

by Mamie

I was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor and physically and emotionally abused by my LDS parents. Multiple siblings in my family sustained this same abuse until one sibling died, so I cling to my relationship with the Savior like a survivor on a life raft. The gospel brings me the healing I need to cope, recover, and function. Partaking of the emblems each Sabbath day is a very sacred and empowering time for me, but my mental health suffers as a result of my childhood scars. I struggle with trusting and interacting with people. As a result, I prefer to be left alone in my corner of the chapel each week and I don’t like to be touched, so I am very grateful for the recent Exponent article that gave voice to the struggle with men who insist on making women shake hands each week (temple worship is another article-length topic I’ll save for another day).

For the most part, by staying quiet and standoffish, I’ve managed to send the message that I’m not social and prefer to be left alone during my sacrament meeting and Sunday School worship (note to the rest of the church: not all of us Latter-day Saints need to be “ministered to” to feel close to God!). But in January of 2018, the church made changes to the curriculum that have made it extremely difficult for me to attend Relief Society, the one meeting that used to be my safest space in all of the three-hour block.

Relief Society used to be my favorite meeting because, by the time the third hour rolls around, the crowd has whittled down to its smallest size. As an added bonus, the men have been filtered out and it is just we women, so I used to feel especially safe in our little Relief Society space. I used to relish the chance to really focus on that third-hour lesson, whereas first and second hour my focus was more on finding a spot to sit in that wasn’t too crowded and where I felt most at ease, trying to carve out my own worship space where nobody would bother me. (Why is it that Mormons feel so entitled to bother others during our worship services? When did we begin to equate spirituality with socializing? Why am I not allowed to just sit and ponder/meditate during church, especially during prelude music or before and after class so I can prepare to feel the spirit or ponder on what I’ve just learned? Why do people feel the pressing need to intrude on somebody sitting in solitude and interrupt their meditations with jabber? Can we please just set aside the foyers for jabbering and carve out the chapel and our classrooms as sacred spaces for worship and learning?)

In January 2018, when the church curriculum changed to allow for monthly council meetings in Relief Society, my branch decided to have our sisters sit in a circle not just on council weeks, but Every. Single. Week. There is literally no longer a safe space for me even in Relief Society anymore.

I can’t tell you how painful the change from rows to circle-sitting has been for a woman like me, who desperately needs private space for worship, study, and pondering. I willingly acknowledge that everybody has different learning styles and that on the whole, most Latter-day Saints are extroverted, sociable people, so I don’t expect major changes just to accommodate me. But for those of us who are not as sociable—and especially for those of us whose introversion is the result of emotional baggage, disability, or mental illness—this 2018 Relief Society curriculum change is spiritually and emotionally crippling.

I carefully studied the materials relating to the curriculum change as posted at LDS.org, then I went to my Relief Society presidency and politely pointed out that I didn’t see any hard fast rules about sitting in a circle each week. I saw images of sisters sitting in a circle and some mention of it in regards to the council meeting on the first week of the month, but I couldn’t find an actual rule saying that we needed to sit in a circle the remaining weeks of the month. “This is the Lord’s will for the Relief Society,” came the curt answer from the presidency member who responded to me.

I tried keeping my chair outside the circle each week, but the sisters in the room wouldn’t have it. I realize that they were trying to be nice—that they couldn’t stand the thought of somebody being “left out,” so I kept explaining that, “oh no, I’m fine. I much prefer the ‘back row,’ thanks!” But each time I tried to make my own private space outside the circle, the sisters in the room opened up and expanded their circle of chairs to engulf my chair. I had intentionally placed that chair outside the circle for my very private reasons. I was getting louder each week in trying to hold my ground without revealing my very private painful past, but nobody listened and my chair was weekly swallowed up by the larger circle. Whenever this happened, it made me feel panicky and entrapped. If for any reason I needed to leave, I was now locked inside this circle. Leaving would require asking people to move furniture—I couldn’t just quietly slip out anymore. I was literally locked into the room! Sure, I could have just started skipping Relief Society, but that would have put my temple recommend in jeopardy (attending all three hours of church meetings is required to maintain it), which makes me feel equally panicky, unworthy, etc because I’ve worked so hard to obtain and keep that recommend.

Feeling locked inside a council isn’t the only reason that sitting in a circle robbed me of a safe space in Relief Society. I also dread circle-style Relief Society because, when I was young, my abusive (LDS) parents conducted numerous “family councils” which were nothing more than my mother’s manipulative mind-rapes or gaslighting sessions designed to prevent us kids from reporting the physical abuse of my father, who did things like throwing us against the wall or hit us hard enough to make us bleed. Circle-style sitting, to me, is a painful throwback to those days, which I’d rather not revisit it in what used to be a safe space for learning and worshipping with my sisters in Christ.

I shouldn’t have to reveal the painful memories of my past to church leaders in order to feel safe at church again. My branch struggles with gossip, so my troubled childhood stories would spread. (I once confided something in confidence to my branch president, and a few days later his clerk very casually referenced it to me in front of several members as if it were no big deal. I also worked with the wife of a branch presidency member who told me she knew about something I had told her husband in confidence during a private interview. I had to go back to both these brethren—sweet, loving men, but recent converts who don’t quite “get” the whole confidentiality thing—and explain to then that EVERYTHING I say about personal matters needs to stay strictly confidential. They are still learning, bless their hearts.)

And so I am penning this piece to my sisters at The Exponent blog because I know that my confidentiality is 100% safe here. I know I can start a churchwide conversation here, too. Sisters, I honor and respect those of you who are social and chatty, and I am willing to concede that on the first of the month you need to sit in a circle for council meetings. Would you, in exchange, be willing to make similar concessions by allowing sisters like me to either sit outside the circle, or create a faux second row? Or can we skip the circle altogether on the weeks that we aren’t holding council meetings?

Love, your sister in Christ,
Mamie

You may also like...

34 Responses

  1. Nancy Baca says:

    I too am a child of an abusive father. However, I relish the opportunity to discuss my past as of late. I relish discussing how the church has helped me to see families that are safe, to see parents raising healthy children and to discuss how my past has cause me pain as well as to help others through their silent shame. You have no reason to feel afraid to tell others. If they judge you, then they are just afraid and don’t understand what you experienced. By telling your story again and again, it will hurt you less and others will understand how their actions affect their children, or perhaps another child or adult will have the courage to tell their story and find peace. As for the seating arrangement, you could simply state that you must sit outside because you need to leave quietly for personal reasons. If they persist you could simply explain you have physical and emotional needs requiring you to be outside. Don’t let them boss you around.

  2. M says:

    Bless you for sharing this. I cannot bear the insistence on circle sitting, for reasons nowhere near as valid as yours, but have stopped attending RS as a result of this. When I expressed how exposed and uncomfortable I felt about being forced into a circle, and that I was happy to sit outside the circle, I was shouted down and told that this is inspired revelation and it’s the only way we should sit.

  3. Wondering Why says:

    The circle is really only one idea, especially useful for the council Sunday, that can be used. Using it every week is not ”

    Using it every week is not “living those you teach” or “inviting diligent learning” or “teaching by the Spirit”, if class members are not being served and feeling uncomfortable.

    I am EQP and do not force the teacher how he has the class set up, nor where quorum members sit. Doing so is not “Teaching in the Saviour’s way”

    Raise your concerns with RS leaders and teachers. If nothing changes, all the Sunday School president to discuss the issue in a Teacher Council meeting .

  4. cruelestmonth411 says:

    CoJCoLDS is not an easy space to be an introvert. The disrespect for those who value consent is also challenging to survivors and anyone who wishes to treat others with kindness and respect. Maybe remain silent and write a more detailed explanation on paper to hand to someone when they try to make you move? Then stay in your back row chair. Do not move. If they try to forcibly move you, leave. The little girl part of you that remembers abuse in detail needs the adult part of you to provide safety in order to be healed.
    Thank you for your brave and kind words bringing light and creating space for so many of us.

  5. Marivene says:

    Perhaps you could point out bluntly that if they wish to “minister” to you, you need to sit outside the circle. Sitting in a circle is a trigger that makes you feel trapped, not included. You would like to stay, but cannot do so if you have to sit inside a circle.

  6. Rill says:

    Much love sister. You’re not the only one who doesn’t like the circle. I don’t have a past or any particular ‘reason’ other than it’s always made me feel very uncomfortable. I’ve always chalked it up to an introvert thing. When I teach… or lead discussion… or whatever they’re calling it now… I asked specifically that the chairs be left in rows. I’ve gotten some pushback but I held firm and said I’m not comfortable sitting in circles and I know there are others out there that are not as out-spoken as me and I’d rather people come and be comfortable than not come at all. We should have variety of teaching/participating styles so everyone can have something they enjoy at church. If every Sunday is going to be circles, then mine will not be. Luckily they were satisfied with that and let me do my thing.

  7. Kindra says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am sure you are giving voice to concerns of many. Feelings and varying needs for personal space are legitimate and should be respected.

  8. governingmyself says:

    Thank you, thank you for sharing your feelings about how the circle feels. I am a back row sitter. I think a part of it is to have an easy exit and to feel somewhat removed from statements over the pulpit that are not a great fit for me. At the same time, I have pondered the circle a bit because I see some progressive aspects to it. Sitting in the circle is very exposing and vulnerable, sometimes too much so for worshipping. The row set-up allows comments to be made without the commenter having to read the body language of those in front or behind them. This can be a good thing, especially if the person is making a courageous statement and doesn’t need to deal with the scoffs of dominant culture folks. But, often the prominent commenters are of the dominant culture and they are shielded from the impact of their words (similarly to the social media experience) when they are sitting in rows. The circle requires commenters to look each other in the eye when they are making statements that are marginalizing, which I think a certain subset of my relief society might benefit from. If the teacher is also sitting in the circle, then the classroom is more in alignment with the teaching style of Paulo Freire and Popular Education. Popular Education honors the expertise of every person in the room. In the row set up, the teacher really needs to stand to see everyone in each row, which can reinforce hierarchy and the idea that there is only one expert (the leader or teacher). In my ward experiences there has been a fairly nonstop marginalization of therapy, recovery work, and any use of outside professionals for mental health support. And so, sometimes I see the circle as a tiny nod of respect to group work. In group work, there is the concept of storming, norming, conforming. The group storms, then they begin to normalize and validate each group members need, and then the group conforms to the needs of the group members to create an experience that serves each group member. It’s a process. I think we will storm for a long time. I will be on the back row watching because, for me, that is the best fit right now.

  9. Chiaroscuro says:

    I’m so sorry. Once we had a new RS president that insisted loudly that we all squish together. She said I gave her a look of death. I like my personal space too

  10. rowena says:

    In reading this article my heart breaks in pain for the family life you and others go through of whom parents and other adults don’t live the gospel. Having said that I recommend non religious based therapy that can help you in your issues.

  11. I do understand and have been there. I was unable to read the scriptures for around 20 yrs for the same sort of reasons… I can encourage you to find a good practitioner in EMDR. It helped greatly for me to not have the triggers… I do wish you joy…Susan

    • Introvert says:

      I’m not even in RS, but every time I walk past the RS room and see that big circle of chairs, it makes me mad. I’m soon to be released from primary, but I won’t be going to RS. I’d rather sit in the car than sit in that circle. I don’t know why, I guess it just seems way too personal. Apparently, there are more people like me than I realized. So thank you Mamie, and I wish you the best.

  12. Mary says:

    When I saw those circles and how the first meeting was a council meeting, I saw big problems for abuse victims. My situation isn’t like yours, but I don’t want my situation being discussed in a public setting, either. Bless their hearts, they mean well, but they don’t get it. Furthermore, they refuse to get it.

    I have an additional problem with the circle. There was one lesson that was about developing Christlike attributes. There was some survey involved. I had read the survey at home and had decided not to take it in class, because I consider my relationship with the Savior private and personal. I wasn’t expecting the circle seating. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t do the survey, but those of us who didn’t participate were very much on display. Nowhere to hide and I think that’s intentional.

    So, I’m with you. However, I don’t believe and attend pretty much for social purposes. I don’t care about my temple recommend and I’m fine with missing a meeting if I’ll have a problem giving my tacit approval by silently sitting through what’s being said. Having said that, I would have appreciated and felt the Spirit had I been able to sit through a lesson where the seating arrangement didn’t make me feel exposed.

  13. Stella says:

    Amen. I also bristled at the circle. One of the “sisters” in my ward had an emotional affair with my husband and I had to sit in the same circle as her? Not going to happen. Not everyone feels safe at church.

  14. Lorraine Jeffery says:

    Yes, Mamie I can certainly allow your privacy. I’ve visited multiple Relief Society meetings in the last few months and none of them held all their meetings in a circle, except the first week of the month. And even then, if someone wants to sit outside the circle, they certainly can.

  15. Maria Griffin says:

    Thank you for your insiigts and your willingness to share your concerns. As a RS president I have a few sisters who also feel as you do, but we have made a second row that allows them to have their personal space and still be in the group. If staying away from RS would make you feel better, then you should double check with your Bishop about the Temple Recommend requirement. I have several sisters who only attend Sacrament, but do not attend RS and still have recommends. Peace to you..

  16. Lily says:

    Fellow introvert here, so I understand totally. Fortunately, I am in the RS Presidency and I have a big mouth and an assertive personality so, the circle thingy only happens once in a while. I proudly say I have been able to kill it most of the time.

  17. Fellow introvert, and circle-hater … and if I happen to forget to take a certain medication, my bowels can require a hasty exit to the bathroom … let alone a sneeze on a semi-full bladder … can’t believe that I am the only one.

  18. Shannon Smith says:

    Thank you for giving voice to many of my feelings. For some of us the circle creates feeling of being trapped in the room and topic. Even a beautiful and thoughtful lesson can trigger us with PTSD.
    Bless you,
    Shannon A Smith
    Holladay, UT

  19. Jen says:

    I’m so sorry that the change had been negative for you. I hope your sister leaders will be inspired to listen and that you can find a way to communicate your needs in a comfortable way.

    In our ward, for me, circle sitting has been a breath of fresh air because it has forced a behavior change in a couple of sisters who used to sit in the front row and make insensitive, long-winded comments. They now have to come and look others in the eye and it has been a force for equality amongst us. They don’t like the circle, so sometimes they boycott. Our situation serves as an example of the diverse ways that circles versus rows can play out. I’m naturally an introvert and also an abuse survivor. I gravitate toward the edge of every room, but in this one case, I’m glad to sit as an equal amongst my sisters.

    I do hope for you to have comfort and peace.

  20. This is so interesting. I am an extrovert, and I would love a circle seating arrangement in Relief Society, but my local ward only does lecture-style seating, every week, and I have often wished we could change it up. I find it hard to discuss anything in our long, skinny lecture hall of a classroom, that has about a dozen skinny rows so most people are too far away from the teacher to participate well. It is good for me to hear a different perspective. Maybe my local Relief Society presidency are more like you and that is why they prefer lecture-style seating.

    • LaDonna says:

      Your idea to “change it up” is the best way to accommodate sisters with diverse needs. I would love to see circles one week, rows another (but skinny rows never, shudder) and maybe even online relief society from home on other days–let’s innovate. What about smaller Relief Society classes in other rooms, since the primary is all in one room for sharing time at that point, anyway? Aren’t we the largest organization in the church (most active members)? If so, we shouldn’t keep cramming ourselves into the smallest rooms while men seem to always get the chapel or gym. (Granted, this might be because the sisters find value in having a room of their own, decorated etc.)

  21. Kimber says:

    The circle is also super annoying with a baby who might need to be taken outside at any moment.

    The idea that God has a uniform standard for seating arrangements in all congregations is so inane.

  22. Meredith says:

    I am in the RS Presidency and we arrange a row behind the circle for ladies who have babies and ladies who don’t want to sit in the circle. It’s always packed. And the row doesn’t alienate the women because they comment frequently and everyone is happy. If I weren’t in the Presidency I would be sitting in that back row myself. Easy fix.

  23. Anna says:

    I am another abuse victim and one who hates, hates, hates men who demand the “friendly handshake”. I find in the rest of society, if I back away from a man’s offer of handshake that no one is offended. They also pick up on body language that says, “don’t touch me” much better. Mormons do not seem to get the concept of boundaries or that some people need more interpersonal space. This is all part of why I am no longer active.

    As far as the new seating arrangement, I also would feel too exposed and trapped in a circle, to say nothing of violating your consent by forcing you into a circle. The idea of consent is big for abuse survivors. If someone shows so little respect for you as a person that they force you against your will into a circle, well, that is abusive.

    If I were currently active, I would discuss with the bishop, or just print out this whole article and take it into your bishop for him to read. No need to say if you are the one who wrote it, just that this is how you feel and that you you will not be attending RS until the attitude of your RS leaders shows more respect for those who are uncomfortable in a circle. Use words like respect, boundaries, consent, abuse to describe how this behavior feels of forcing everyone into the same one size fits all mold. For your mental health, you should not be exposing yourself to more abuse in the name of “worship.” True worship of Christ respects individuals and individual needs and differences.

  24. Elaine says:

    This is eye-opening, thank you! As a RS president in my ward, we are continually talking about how to better serve the needs of our sisters, as well as teaching how to better minister to one another. The golden rule states to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We absolutely should not be following the golden rule. It’s selfish and sympathetic. The better and more empathetic rule to follow is “do unto others as they would want to be done unto them.” It means figuring out what someone actually wants and needs and doing that, which is much more difficult than doing what you want. I have sisters request to sit in a circle every Sunday, because of the unity and closeness they feel. And I have other sisters who want to never be seen. So we have to take those things into consideration and know that all of our sisters want and need different things. We sit in a circle for council meetings, and the other weeks we sit in 3 rows of a large arc, so the sisters who want to look around and see one another can still sit on the ends and see everyone. I hope at some point you will be able to share some of your experiences with sisters in your branch, and in doing so, will find those that become your confidants and your protectors and help others see that there isn’t one right way of doing things, even and especially in the church. That’s the whole point of the new ministering and curriculum.

  25. Special K says:

    I’ve appreciated reading all these experiences. I think a circle is a powerful symbol of unity. My RS was sitting in a circle for a council meeting that devolved into trying to figure out logistics for how to get everyone to the temple more often (because of course that would just be wonderful!). As someone who doesn’t particularly *want* to go to the temple…I felt very isolated and stuck. There was definitely some dissonance between being physically part of the circle and mentally/emotionally separate.

  26. SC says:

    Wow, the responses here say so much. After reading this gut-wrenching post, I admit to kind of bracing myself, because I, too, once faced a circumstance where I needed to ask the church for special accommodations to help me feel more at home in church. However, instead of taking my pleas to the sisters, I took them to the brethren. Let me just say that the response was nowhere near as supportive, kind, nor nurturing as the responses in this section have been. Oh how I love the women of this church! <3

  27. Em says:

    Thanks for sharing! We do our circle on first sunday, but the chairs are in rows for sunday school before. So we make the circle out of what chairs we need, but leave the corners of the room in row form for those who feel more comfortable. We also always leave an opening facing the door so anyone who wants to leave can do so safely. At the very least your RSP should be doing this for fire safety reasons, so make sure you insist on openings! Not that you should have to fight about this at all, but sometimes “safety” is an easier avenue than “my needs” for some reason.

  1. September 2, 2018

    […] Finally this morning, I read the following on a feminist Mormon blog, Exponent II: […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.