Keeping it Real in Relief Society

A few weeks ago, a teacher in Relief Society asked me to prepare a few remarks on my experience with conversion and testimony for her lesson on that topic. I asked her if she was ok with an unconventional conversion story, and she said she was. So I got up and said the following. I was worried that I would make some people uncomfortable, and no doubt I did, but it felt good to be honest about (some of) my struggles.

“I have a very unconventional conversion story for you. Despite having been raised and married in the church, I would say that my most profound conversion experience happened about 5 years ago in 2008. It was time for me when everything church-wise was falling apart for me. This was the time of Prop 8, and I was really struggling with it. As someone who supports gay marriage, I was upset, and I was angry. I look back at that time, and I recognize now that I was close to giving up on Mormonism. My husband was scared that I was about to leave.

I say this not to make any of you who were supporters of Prop 8 feel uncomfortable. I say this because I want to be honest about my journey.

Instead what happened is this. I decided to take a break from church while there was so much election drama going on. And I started attending another Christian church that was an open and affirming congregation, i.e. welcoming to LGBT people.  And it was during those months when I was on the cusp of chucking religion out the window, when I was attending this other church, that I was able to rebuild my faith, to rebuild a Christian discipleship that really worked for me.  In learning how to embrace a Jesus who was constantly reaching out to the most marginalized, the most despised in society, I was able after a few months to return back here, strengthened by the insights I gleaned at this other church.

Looking back at that time now, I feel like God led me to that other church as a place for me to heal, to rebuild and to experience a more profound conversion to Jesus than I had ever experienced before. But I also feel like God led me back to this one. I feel pretty strongly that this is where God wants me. While I love the insights of the various churches I visit and the various faiths I study, my worldview is unshakably Mormon in a lot of ways.  I treasure Mormon insights about eternal progression, about personal revelation, about agency and about Heavenly Mother.

Some people have iron rod spiritual journeys–they cling and move forward no matter what. That’s not my journey.  My path in this church is destined to not be straightforward.  I find so much inspiration in alternate paths and systems of thought that I am quite sure I’ll be spending the rest of my life reading stuff from Dalai Lama, or Buddhist monks, or Catholic nuns. But even as I explore other worlds, I love knowing that this faith community is my home. It’s my foundation. It’s my history. It’s my community, and I love and appreciate its unique insights.”

I think Relief Society is at its best when we are willing to be vulnerable, when we open ourselves up to rejection for being different, for being weak, or for not following the typical Mormon script. This moment a couple of weeks ago when I was honest about one of my struggles was my attempt to help create a space where other women could likewise take risks and be vulnerable. That said, I recognize that while my story had unconventional elements, I also consciously tied it up with a somewhat pretty bow in the end–I had my faith crisis, and now it’s resolved. Reality, of course, is that much of my pain (particularly about the status of women in the church) is not resolved. Reality is much messier than my little story might indicate. But nevertheless, I hope it was a step in the right direction.

What are the dynamics in your Relief Society? Do you feel safe enough to be vulnerable and admit to issues, doubts, or weaknesses? What’s the bravest thing you’ve said or heard there?


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

You may also like...

30 Responses

  1. Clean Cut says:

    Love this. A ward with more of this would indeed be refreshing.

  2. Miss Rissa says:

    I love this so much. Thank you for sharing.

    I am a Relief Society teacher, which was a calling I was terrified to take for this exact reason. I was growing so tired of the fake in RS. I hated hearing, week after blasted week, people who just seemed to be putting their best foot forward. “Oh life is hard, la de da” “Oh motherhood, no one appreciates us, am I right, LOL!” And then following up their cliche sayings with “just have faith” or “just keep praying” or “we’ll be blessed” with a knowing nod.

    No one seems to acknowledge any real emotions or be willing to be vulnerable. I have tried so hard with this new calling to create a space where people can share stories and ask questions that may not necessarily be tied up with a pretty bow. I’ve tried to be the example by sharing myself in vulnerable ways. I’ve tried SO hard to create a safe space. I don’t think we’re there yet but at least it’s a step in the right direction!

    Oh, and now I have an appt. with the bishop on Sunday and I’m worried I’m getting a new calling- which would feel like I was getting “fired”! I know it may make some uncomfortable (my RS pres) but I hope that it made RS a more positive experience for at least ONE of the ladies!

    Good for you for speaking your story- had I been there I would have wept for joy in knowing I was not alone and your willingness to be real!

    • Caroline says:

      Miss Rissa, I admire you for getting up in front of your RS and modeling honesty and vulnerability. That will be key for allowing others to be authentic and vulnerable too, though it might take some time. I hope your bishop doesn’t release you!

  3. Em says:

    Thanks I love your honesty. I wish we were all more honest about our feelings and struggles, even if it puts us on opposite ends of opinion, I think the vulnerability is unifying. I haven’t been to RS in months since I’m in YW, but I do miss it. I used to be an RS teacher and it is a wonderful calling.

  4. KT says:

    LOVE this article! I’ve been teaching Relief Society for a few months now and I, too, am trying to encourage more honesty and candid conversation. I think we can make big improvements if we can break the molds of the same old verbage and stereotypical comments. In one of my first lessons on faith, I encouraged the class to break away from saying “I KNOW (blank) is true…” and to instead use words like “I believe…” “I have faith in…” and “I hope for…” While I know things won’t change instantly, I do feel like it’s the little things that will eventually make for a more honest, inclusive, and candid LDS culture.

    • Caroline says:

      I’m glad you brought up those other ways to articulate belief. I know I myself always steer away from “I know” language and instead opt for “I am compelled by” or “This resonates with me” or “I hope for.” I find that kind of language more open and inviting than stark “I know” language.

  5. charlene says:

    I love this a lot. I’m very lucky in that my RS is very inclusive, and I would not feel at all out of place in saying something like this there. It probably helps quite a lot that I married a nonmember, which is kind of a signal that my theology may be somewhat unorthodox, so no one would be too shocked by it. In my ward as well, I can think of several sisters who were divorced, one who was a drug addict before she was converted — and who are willing to open themselves up to talk about their struggles in RS — so my RS has had practice listening to unorthodox stories 🙂

    Interestingly, I feel much less comfortable opening up in the non-RS space, e.g. fast and testimony meeting. Something about the women’s group is a great deal more welcoming and nonjudgmental to me than the mixed group. (I am not meaning to say that the ward as a whole is not welcoming and nonjudgmental, more that RS is more of a “safe space,” and I am pretty sure I’m not the only woman to treat it as such. We get testimonies on first Sundays that never get spoken from the pulpit.)

    • Caroline says:

      Charlene, it sounds like you have a wonderful, open RS. I love that you have people in there willing to talk about drug addictions and difficult marriages. I too would be less likely to be vulnerable in non-RS settings. I teach gospel doctrine, and while I let certain unconventional ideas come out, I don’t speak as personally there.

  6. Heather says:

    God bless you for standing up and sharing your unconventional journey. While I’m sure some women were freaked out by your honesty (Buddhist and nuns and gays oh my!), I also know every RS has closet feminists who are strengthened and emboldened by such honesty. I’d bet money that at least 2 women thanked you for your canor and expressed their like mindedness. You rock Caroline!

    • Caroline says:

      Hi Heather, Thanks! Yes, I think a few women appreciated it. Some of those women who talked to me afterwards didn’t necessarily agree with my stance on gay marriage, I think, but they appreciated vulnerability and thanked me for it.

  7. SPE says:

    You can come sit next to me anytime and we will make everyone uncomfortable together with our honesty. 🙂

  8. Lorie says:

    Like Caroline, I think it’s important to create, as she says, a space in Relief Society where women can “take risks and be vulnerable.” The last time I taught Relief Society, I decided I was tired of the predominance of male voices in Relief Society manuals and the conference talks selected for most lessons. I wanted to ensure that authentic women’s voices would also be included. The week before I was scheduled to teach, I called several women and asked them to join me in sharing an experience or insight that altered their lives in a fundamental way. It was a question designed to tap their experience and open up the space about which Caroline writes. And it did.

    • Caroline says:

      Lorie, that would be a terrific lesson topic. The life-changing moment. Almost everyone can point to profound moments like that in their lives, and it would be thrilling to hear women be honest in that way.

  9. Two of Three says:

    Did someone say “a breath of fresh air” already? I love this because there is so little that is genuine in RS. Folks say what has always been said, what is appropriate, what is accepted and what will not offend. It turns the meeting into a dance we have danced a thousand times. Before I was called to nursery, I spoke up about how I really felt. I became the woman about which was said “Here she goes again” (insert eyeroll). Interestingly enough, I have found the other women in nursery to be outspoken liberals with whom I can relate. Coincidence?? That is a story for another day!

  10. Fran says:

    About a year ago, I got called as the RS teacher, and I recall my first lesson being all about Joseph Smith being a prophet. I was in the middle of my faith crisis, not even knowing anymore what I really believe. I was crying the whole week that I was thinking about that lesson, and how I felt I couldn’t teach it authentically. So, to make a long story short – I did teach the lesson. And a good chunk of it was about how prophets are imperfect people, who make mistakes. I was pretty explicit, and backed it all up with scriptural examples. Good times. I also was pretty open about not feeling comfortable with the lesson, and feeling unsure about how much I can trust a leader. I still have my calling, and everyone raves about how they love my lessons. Maybe honesty is what many sincerely crave, but don’t dare to put out there…

    • Caroline says:

      Terrific! Emphasizing the humanity and fallibility of leaders is so important. And I’m so glad your RS has embraced you.

  11. Rachel says:

    Caroline, I love this so much. Everything is right about it. And I love the comments it has engendered here as well.

    I just had a discussion with one of the Relief Society teachers in my ward on Sunday about honesty and vulnerability, because she Did share those types of stories (and used inclusive language to boot). It is such a beautiful thing to witness, and definitely helps engender similarly genuine comments.

  12. Deja says:

    I love your story, and I would know you were a kindred soul if you shared this in my RS.

    I was once asked to share a pioneer ancestor story, and I chose to share about my polygamist ancestors. I was already up there telling it when I realized I didn’t have the “pretty bow” to tie it up with. The looks on their faces was priceless. It wasn’t quite the story they were looking for …

    • Caroline says:

      Ha! Yes, polygamy stories will definitely make some people uncomfortable. I’m as uncomfortable with the practice as anyone, but I do love it when people don’t sweep that part of our Mormon past under the carpet. In acknowledging polygamy, we acknowledge thousands of women (and men) who paid very very high prices for their faith.

  13. Caroline says:

    Thank you for all your kind comments! How I wish I could sit next to any/all of you in Relief Society on Sunday.

  14. Elise says:

    Your conversion story was beautifully written Caroline. One of the realizations I’ve had is that I gave too much power when I was younger to members whose attitude was “If you aren’t 100% with us, leave.” Too often what this communicates is not just that one has to believe – without doubt – specific doctrines of the LDS church, but also that there can be no room for questioning and that cultural norms must be accepted in their entirety as well. What your story shows me is an example of a woman who has room for doubt and carefully considers the culture she calls home, but also is confident in her place and calling within her religious community. Your openness about that will give other women permission to do and be the same. I am learning that “just leaving” isn’t what leads to positive change and close relationships. For some it is right to leave, but for some it is right to stay. Both types have courage and have an opportunity to set a good example of how to act out their choice respectfully (both to themselves and others) and honorably.

    • Caroline says:

      Thanks for your awesome comment. That black and white thinking that you have to accept every thing 100% or there’s no place for you drives me nuts. It’s so unproductive and ungenerous. And I totally agree that there is honor in staying, just as there is honor in leaving. Individuals just have to figure out which is the best choice for them.

  15. EmilyCC says:

    This is lovely. Have you had anyone talk to you since you spoke?

    I don’t feel like I can talk about my issues with the Church in my Relief Society. I tried once and it didn’t go well. But, I do think my Relief Society is very compassionate when it comes to life circumstances–illness, death, divorce, infertility. These are all topics that I feel like people open up about in RS, which leads to some of the sweetest and most spiritual experiences I have in there.

    I admire your courage, Caroline. You’re all kinds of awesome.

    • Caroline says:

      One person emailed me a day later thanking me for my honesty and saying that most of her family felt the same. She seemed very sympathetic to my position on gay marriage, which was very nice to know.

      I’m sorry you haven’t had good experiences with sharing issues in RS. But it’s good to know they can be very compassionate in other ways.

  16. Libby says:

    Caroline, I’m so glad you posted this! I would love to hear more of us say what we really mean in church.

  17. Ck says:

    Thank you. I loved this.

  18. Suzanne says:

    I so love this post. Thank you for writing it. Expresses my feelings so much more eloquently than I could ever hope to write. Having taught RS in the past I would attempt to express my “not tied up in a pretty bow” thoughts and was met with both acceptance and disdain. I fervently wish for acceptance in the church members of real life experiences and opinions. Thank you again.

  19. Ziff says:

    I love this, Caroline! Thanks for posting it. And thanks for having the courage to share it in RS in the first place!

  20. Sarah says:

    A couple times now I have had the opportunity to stand up in front of my ward in F&T meeting and share my experiences with having a crises of faith. I don’t share specifics of what has led me to this point, but I do share some of the feelings I have had, both good and bad. It is terrifying to make myself so vulnerable, but fortunately I have received nothing but love, acceptance, and kindess from my ward members. They always tell me how much they appreciate my honesty. If it makes them feel awkward, they have not shown it. That love is a huge part of what keeps me pushing on, just believing that there is still something good and beautiful, and worth fighting for.

Leave a Reply