Relief Society Lesson: Women and Gospel Learning in the Home by President Henry B. Eyring
President Eyring’s Women And Gospel Learning In the Home talk, from October’s General Conference, has been a popular pick for RS lessons over the past few months, at least judging my social media activity. Up until recently, I was a Relief Society teacher, and I chose this talk for my lesson in November. I’m sharing my lesson outline below, with some commentary in case it helps anyone prepare to teach or participate in a class based on this talk.
Introduction: I try to keep this limited to just a few minutes because staring at someone talking isn’t all that interesting.
I usually try to keep my lessons discussion-based, and I usually don’t get very personal, but I’m going to open up and be a little more vulnerable today. We’re going to focus on the positive, but there’s lots in this talk that I found difficult and I want this discussion to be safe for all opinions.
I struggle with the Church’s approach to gender. I always have. I could talk about it for hours, but I don’t identify with the “ideal” LDS woman’s role. My spiritual gifts are in scholarship and administration; I didn’t become a mother until recently; and personality-wise, my own mother sometimes jokes that I’m my dad’s first son rather than first daughter. I often find General Conference talks that touch on gender to be irrelevant at best and pedestalizing at worst.
And I’m just going to put it out there that there was lots in this talk that I didn’t like: the tacit assumption that nurturing is innate to all women, for example, or how women’s responsibilities for nurturing are restricted to “in the family.”
That said, I was surprised by how much I liked in this talk, and, moreover, I think there’s a revolutionary shift in the scope and legitimacy of women’s responsibilities to be found here, if we’re looking for it. So let’s dig in together and discuss.
Discussion time: As a teacher, I have a direction I want this to go, but I like to guide the class there instead of lecturing. That’s hard to convey in written form for the lesson, so I’ll give both my question prompts and the answers that I’ll affirm and elaborate on, when I get them. Question: What were your important takeaways from this talk? Did you notice anything new or noteworthy? I got a wide variety of answers to this, and as a class we engaged at least a little bit with all of them. Several women mentioned that they were feeling overwhelmed with these responsibilities–I asked them if we could come back to that instead of discussing it in detail here.
Meanwhile, I had three answers I was looking for, as the three things that struck me as noteworthy (and feminist!) out of this talk; I got some of these from the class, in some form, but also volunteered parts myself:
1. Although Eyring asserts that nurturing is innate to women (he refers to “the nurturing gifts of women,” and says they have an “inherent feeling of charity”), he also acknowledges that we can improve at it with effort (“When you pray with and for family members, you will feel your and the Savior’s love for them. That will become more and more your spiritual gift as you seek it” and “serious study of the scriptures will be part of your growing power to nurture”). If not brand new, I welcome that explicit acknowledgement of women’s emotional labor to develop their nurturing gifts. That framing resonates more for a woman like me, who doesn’t feel like a natural nurturer, but who admires those with the skill (like, say, Jesus Christ) and wants to develop it.
2. Eyring also expands the connotations of nurturing. Too often in our cultural discourse we associate “nurturing” with stereotypically feminine tasks–cooking, cleaning, giving hugs, wiping tears. Eyring’s use here, though, encompasses the “nurture of gospel truth and knowledge.” If nurturing includes teaching gospel truth and knowledge, and women are natural (or practiced) nurturers, women must also be natural (or practiced) gospel scholars and teachers. I wish I had had this interpretation at my fingertips back in BYU religion classes, when arrogant men assumed they knew the scriptures better than me because they had been on a mission, or had the priesthood, or had a fancy calling, or what-have-you. I could have stood my ground more firmly with this explicit “nurturing” mandate.
3. Eyring’s frequent caveats about women’s responsibilities “in the family” can be read as a restriction on this scope, and a reason for single and childless women to tune out. That’s unfortunate, and I wish those caveats weren’t there. I do think there’s an expansionist way to read this, though: after acknowledging varied life circumstances, Eyring says that we’re all part of the family of God and states that, “Your trust from God is to nurture as many of His and your family members as you can with your love and your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” What’s more, the scripture he uses to bolster this statement is from a D&C chapter (84) aimed at men serving missions, so applying it here to women’s responsibilities is also inherently expansionist.
So while there’s plenty of standard material here, I think, with a careful read, there’s several distinct shifts in how we talk and think about women’s roles.
Question: why is it important for women to hear about these responsibilities now? Is the timing meaningful for you?
This generated some discussion and got some answers about women who found the timing to be a personal blessing, for example because they were worried about a child’s gospel knowledge or faith. Overall the answers I encouraged most were those that focused on the timing with respect to other church changes: fundamentally, the 2-hour church change de-emphasizes the power and influence of formal Church structures (the domains of men’s primary responsibilities) and emphasizes the power and influence of informal home study (the domains of women’s primary responsibilities).
Question: There’s more responsibility here for us if we’re willing to step up to that. I’m excited about that: as I seek to become like Christ, I’m eager for more opportunities to grow, not fewer, and often that growth comes through increased agency and increased responsibility. As individuals, how can we become better gospel learners and teachers? And how can we identify who to teach? (Remember: we are all nurturers in the family of God, not just in our own families.)
I wasn’t looking for any specific answers here; this is open discussion of people’s personal techniques for scripture study and learning, as well as missionary work and teaching. Mostly I tried to note and validate diversity–there’s no one approach that will work perfectly for everyone. I also made sure to call on some single women who I knew would share techniques and approaches that weren’t solely tailored for children.
Question: Near the beginning of the lesson, some people mentioned that they found this new responsibility overwhelming. What can we do to combat this? As a Relief Society, how can we support each other in our growth without burning out? This was also open discussion without me fishing for something specific, but if I didn’t hear it from the class, I was going to point out that this talk is not at all prescriptive about *how* we need to build and strengthen our nurturing in gospel learning, and that the home study curriculum is also quite flexible. (Luckily, I did hear that from the class.)
Conclusion: This certainly doesn’t solve all my struggles with women’s roles in the Church, but there are some shifts in rhetoric here that I see as positive, and I see it as empowering to be given more direct scope and agency in my responsibilities, especially with the concomitant lessened emphasis on men’s responsibilities, what with 2 hour church.
What I see as the most empowering, though, is the focus on the Savior: Eyring teaches that “the Savior is your perfect example of how you will play a major part in His move to place greater emphasis on gospel learning in the home and family.” All in all, becoming like Him is the ultimate objective, no matter what our other circumstances or abilities are. [Close with some additional testimony of Christ.]