Relief Society Lesson Plan: God wants all of His children to be watched over and cared for
Begin with the opening quote from President Nelson in the lesson prompt: “A hallmark of the Lord’s true and living Church will always be an organized, directed effort to minister to the individual children of God and their families.” Read the scripture in Matthew 25:40, which is at the core of our ministering efforts: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren [and sisters], ye have done it unto me.”
Note that neither President Nelson nor Christ in the scriptures make any exceptions to their statement. We aren’t commanded to just serve those in our families, or those who go to church with us, or even those we like and get along with. We are asked to minister to all of God’s children. Chieko Okazaki wrote that Matthew 25:40 reminds us that each person can be Jesus in disguise. She writes,
Some of these disguises are the delightful disguises of our own children’s beautiful faces, or the loving, gentle faces of our own parents and spouses. Sometimes they are the distressing and painful disguises of the homeless, the healthless, the hopeless. But when we see the Savior in such a disguise, then we are truly seeing the glory of the Lord, for our work is the same as his – ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life’ of all human beings (Cat’s Cradle, p. 130-131).
It can be an incredible thing to see the face of Christ in all whom we serve. Remind the sisters in your ward that the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness, and there was no poor among them (Moses 7:18). However, this doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to be the same or do the same thing! Sister Okazaki was a particular champion of the strength found in diversity. She wrote,
We need our differences. Diversity is important to us as individuals and as a church. Yet we often feel that our diversity is a problem – that we are wrong to be different, that we have nothing in common with a sister who has a different story, and that the gospel exists to make us all the same. . . .
You know, you can’t have harmony in music if everybody is singing in unison. Think of singing a hymn where there was only soprano – no alto, tenor, or bass. We need all the parts. Think of trying to sing a round without diversity! A round is fun because it’s based on the complicated harmonies of singing the same tune at a different time than everyone else. We’re all singing the same song – not just making random sounds – and singing the same message, but the music is a lot more beautiful and powerful when we don’t all sing the same note. (Lighten Up!, p. 4, 21-22)
To put it succinctly, “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir!” We need to recognize that as we minister, we aren’t trying to “fix” people or force them into some sort of behavioral/spiritual mold. What’s right for one person may not necessarily be the right path for another. We need to make sure that we are ministering with love, not smothering with ideology. President Uchtdorf said,
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.
President Linda K. Burton talked about this in her October 2012 General Conference address. She said,
Sometimes we are tempted to serve in a way that we want to serve and not necessarily in the way that is needed at the moment. When Elder Robert D. Hales taught the principle of provident living, he shared the example of buying a gift for his wife. She asked, ‘Are you buying this for me or for you?’ If we adapt that question to ourselves as we serve and ask, ‘Am I doing this for the Savior, or am I doing this for me?’ our service will more likely resemble the ministry of the Savior.
We need to be careful not to make assumptions about a woman’s family situation, marital status, education level, fertility, political beliefs, and any other aspect that we might jump to conclusions about. Part of our duty in ministering to one another is to get to know one another, and making assumptions about a person or what that person needs can often cause more harm than good.
It can be easy to minister to people you already like. I have no problem dropping what I’m doing and helping out a friend in need. But how can we minister to people we don’t like? How do we minister to people with overwhelming needs, to people who are abrasive, or to people we have nothing in common with? Sister Lucy Mack Smith once said the following to the Relief Society sisters in Nauvoo:
We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.
How do I learn to cherish my sisters when it doesn’t come naturally or easily? Sister Okazaki wrote, “I’m afraid that when we find someone annoying us, we don’t instinctively find ways to cherish them. Instead, we find reasons why we are justified in taking offense.” She recommends praying to develop that love, stating that “prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself,” and that “squeezes most of the contempt and criticism out of my heart” (What A Friend We Have in Jesus, p. 49).
Sister Okazaki also wrote that the underlying assumption should be the question, “What do you, as an individual, need right now?” (What A Friend We Have in Jesus, p. 43) I love this question, because it sees women as whole people, and not simply as a function of their relationship to other people. It’s not, “What do you, as a mother of young kids, need right now?” or “What do you, as the bishop’s wife, need right now?” While those questions are certainly relevant, they omit a large part of the sister’s identity, and can often miss the needs they have most. A mother of young kids may need babysitting, but she might also need book recommendations or help filling out job applications! The bishop’s wife might need company on the many lonely evenings as her husband is away, but she might also need help painting her fence! We need to be careful to not assume the needs of any person based on their relationship to other people. What do they, as an individual and daughter of God, need right now?
Part of ministering is establishing and maintaining boundaries. This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re supposed to be helping others, but it’s critical that we not overextend ourselves, especially in situations when a person’s needs are extensive. Don’t be afraid to say, “This is how I can help you, and here are ways that I can’t help you.” To quote Brené Brown in the video below, “Generosity cannot exist without boundaries.” It is kind and respectful to tell a person up front, and also to ask for help from others. We don’t have to be everything to one person! We can ask our Relief Society leaders, sisters, and other people in the ward and community for help if a sister’s needs exceed our ability to meet them. If we’re going to maintain our ministry, we have to make sure that the service we’re offering is sustainable, and as Sister Brown says, “nothing is sustainable without boundaries.”
The lesson prompt reminds us that the Church helps us care for individuals in “organized, directed ways.” The church provides a fantastic scaffolding that can help organize the ministry of its members one to another, and President Nelson reminds us that we are using priesthood power, delegated to us in our calling as ministering sisters, in our ministering service. However, while the administration of the program is important, especially for the Relief Society and Elders Quorum presidents, we must be careful that our ministering doesn’t devolve into administering.
As a member of the General Relief Society presidency, Sister Okazaki wrote abundantly on the minister vs. administer dilemma. She writes,
Programs and handbooks are easy because they spell out the rules. But there isn’t a rule book or a handbook for ministering sensitively. Efficient administration is a job for a manager. Ministering sensitively is a job for a loving Christian. As a minister of the gospel, your real job is not to run programs but to love the people you serve. Usually the two jobs will not conflict. But what do you do if they do? What should take precedence? The people, every single time. (Disciples, p. 64, emphasis added)
Ministering leaders are flexible. They share, negotiate, and decide together based on the demands of the task. They work like a family, not like the army. There’s a partnership, a sharing, a mutuality (Disciples, p. 65).
How can we work in partnership with those to whom we minister? How can we be flexible in meeting their needs? How can we best love the people we serve as partners?
In Moroni 6:4-6, we learn of the common bond we have in being baptized members of the Lord’s church, and our commandment to meet together, watch over one another, and to rely upon Christ. Similarly, in Mosiah 18:21-22, we read that we are commanded to have no contention with one another, but to look forward with our hearts knit together in unity and love towards one another. We have been placed together in our wards, tied together only by geography and a baptismal covenant in our church, to learn and grow with each other. Sometimes, our ward members are the hardest people to love! Eugene England wrote about how having geographically-based wards helps us to be more Christlike:
In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve—or possibly even associate with—and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally. There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be “active”: to have a calling” and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other peoples ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures; to attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people’s sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response; to have leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion; and then to be made a leader and find that you, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be— and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be.
How can ministering to those in our ward help us to become more Christlike? Do you agree with Dr. England that worshiping and working with people with whom you wouldn’t regularly associate makes you a better person? It could be beneficial to prayerfully ask a sister in your ward to share an experience where she has had an assignment within the church that she wasn’t looking forward to (either in visiting teaching, a calling, or some other capacity) but that ultimately expanded her ability to love in a Christlike way.
Close with your testimony of the importance of ministering to all of God’s children. It’s an enormous task, but one that we have been asked to take on. Remind the sisters in your ward of the importance of praying for guidance in ministering, of establishing appropriate boundaries, and of making sure that we are ministering to people as opposed to administering them.