Poll: Tenure of the Relief Society President

President Linda K. Burton

President Linda K. Burton, called as General Relief Society President in March 2012

In the early days of the church, the calling of General Relief Society President lasted until death, just like the calling of apostle.  Emmeline B. Wells was the first Relief Society president to be released from this calling and she was hurt by the apparent snub. a

President Wells served 11 years.  Since that time, there has been a lot of variation in term lengths for General Relief Society Presidents, with President Belle Smith Spafford serving the longest term at 29 years.  The three most recently released General Relief Society Presidents all served for five years. b

I see pros and cons to both lifetime and limited terms of office.  On one hand, the modern system of shorter tenures gives more women the opportunity to serve, which is important in a church with so few leadership callings open to women.  Also, frequent changes expose church members to a wider variety of female views.  Again, I see this as important because there are so few female leadership positions.  With 15 apostles and up to 560 seventies, we already have exposure to a wide variety of male views.

On the other hand, this shorter tenure may serve to further limit female authority in the Church.  The Relief Society President is always relatively new and inexperienced compared with the majority of male apostles.  Even more disturbing to me, she can be released from her position at any time if she displeases the men in authority over her, unlike an apostle, who can only lose his position through serious transgression.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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11 Responses

  1. HokieKate says:

    I’m not sure which term is best, but I’m ashamed that I didn’t even know we had a new RS presidency.

    • Rachel says:

      No need to be ashamed. It happened very recently (I believe in April’s General Conference). Sister Beck spoke, for her last time, and we have yet to hear from any of the new sisters. I looked them up immediately, but could gather very little information about them at that time.

      • Laura says:

        We had a regional conference right after the April General Conference, and Sister Burton spoke. I don’t recall now what she said, but I do remember I enjoyed listening to her 🙂

  2. Rachel says:

    I just learned about this Relief Society tenure thing earlier this year from our own Caroline. The Relief Society President initially paralleled the Prophet in many ways, including in tenure and authority. To take full tenure away seems to take away a lot of the authority as well, to the point that they no longer seem closely matched. The story about Sister Wells was heartbreaking, because Joseph Smith had said that sisters called to that position would serve therein until death, and that they would only be released upon apostasy. As she was released before death, she thought they had found some grievous offense, and was understandably distraught. She had a stroke very soon after, and died soon after that. It is possible that she might have had the stroke at that time anyway, but many believe that she wouldn’t, that it was her body’s very visceral and physical reaction to what to her most have been horrifying news. While she was older, she had still been actively attending and participating in her meetings. We have had several prophets that have served even while very sick, and we would never think to release them because of illness, frailty, or old age, so I do not think it was appropriate to do so to a woman.

    While it would be nice to let more women serve in that capacity to have that experience and let their voices be heard, I think more is lost by not having the calling of the Relief Society Presidency paralel that of the President of the Church.

  3. el oso says:

    Lifetime appointment in this day and age would be strange. Even limiting the age of the apostles has been discussed by the 1st presidency because of the disability that some older apostles (and church presidents) have had. A senile older president would be less effective. Notice that this was the case with several past church presidents, but they have always had at least one younger counselor even when healthy.

  4. Hopeful says:

    I remember the moment when I first realized that they released GRS presidents. It is still something that bothers me. As far as their health, couldn’t they also have a younger councilor in case something were to happen?

  5. Mhana says:

    I think that they should have a lifetime appointment so they could speak their minds and act with authority without looking over their shoulders, and so there would never be any question about why they were being released. After all, we’re always talking about how this organization was set upon this earth by divine design and ratified by Joseph Smith. We don’t tinker with the number of apostles or the councillors etc. so why are we changing something so fundamental?

    One option I think would be to give her more than two councillors, maybe five or six. These councillors could have special assignments, perhaps regional (a Spanish-speaking lady over Latin America? Who was more in touch with their needs?) Or could be more thematic — in addition to education and enrichment we could have councillors dedicated to things like caring for the poor, family history/redeeming the dead/ continuing education etc. These councillors could serve specific terms, to allow for the rotation, but not random releasing.

    I also think it would be good to call a Presdient from the ranks of the emerita of my imaginary group above described. Then they would have real understanding of how the church hierarchy functions, how to present themselves as polished speakers etc. etc.

    It might even be nice to have general RS leaders dedicated to the YW and the Primary, specifically to meeting the needs of the women called to those organizations — how to be a better leader, but also how to make sure you feel spiritually fed in a calling that demands more feeding than being fed.

    Those are some of my thoughts.

    • Laura says:

      I really like the idea of having leadership in the RS specifically assigned to connect with YW and Primary sisters. I think a lot of women get lost there – while I love my current calling in Primary, I do feel separated from my sisters an awful lot.

  6. Amelia says:

    I’d say all general leadership at the top level (including “auxiliary” presidencies, quorum of the twelve, and prophet) should serve until a set age and then be released. There’s no reason why this system would impugn the authority of the people serving, since the change would be as natural and understood in terms of mechanics as the current system for apostles and first presidency serving until death. It would add the benefits of not having people in positions of authority who are not mentally and physically fit to be in them and of bringing in new, younger leaders on a more regular basis.

    I’d love to see the RS regain its former position of parallel authority and autonomy to the first presidency, but I doubt that will happen. Certainly not in the current patriarchal structure of the church.

  7. DefyGravity says:

    I voted for lifelong terms, just because if the first presidency and twelve are lifelong so should the RS pres. Frankly, I’d be in favor of all church leaders having a retirement age; it would give them time to spend with their families and prevent the problem of poor health incapacitating leaders. It just seems kinder all around.

  8. An older sister says:

    Having recently read Edward Kimball’s biography of his father, Spencer Kimball and his term as president of the church, I must say that I think that any good person who is called to a highly visible and intensive calling would be content if that particular calling was not lifelong.

    Am I the only one who remembers when 70s were first allowed to be released to “emeritus” status at a certain age? Before then they were also life-long callings. At the time of that change there was quite a bit of concern voiced that that change reduced the status or power of that calling, but my experience was that just about every family of every one of those 70s were delighted to have that man released and given more time with his family. And I remember S. Dilworth Young giving a talk in General Conference as that was announced and he was realeased, about the wisdom of that decision and his gratitude and support for it. Such releases are a boon. And now 1st and 2nd quorum 70s are released by the time they are 70 and other 70s serve for 3-5 years.

    Calling an RS president to be a life-long president just so that she is in that office equally long-term as an apostle does not seem to me to be a very good idea. We may wish that RS presidents had more status or visible equality but I am convinced that giving them life-time callings would not be the thing that would do that (equal terms do not lead to equal status by any means) nor that is it something that I believe many of them would relish.

    I believe that it’s compassionate to give anyone a release before they are dealing with some of the major challenges of age and that it is foolish to insist that their tenure be just like someone elses, just because things should be the same.

    I will miss Sister Beck. I enjoyed hearing her unfolding growth and insight from her wobbly beginnings to her more insightful later years. But I would not wish a lifetime general president calling for her. I wouldn’t wish it for any of my sisters. A good rest is good. And new blood is too.

    (If RS presidents were called life long, then Barbara B. Smith would have been the president up until two years ago. Interesting to consider.)

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