Women counseling women! Hallelujah!

From Deseret News October 5th: “Relief Society presidents and Elders Quorum presidents may take a greater role in counseling adult members. Young Women presidents may take a greater role in counseling young women. A bishop maintains his role as a “common judge” on ecclesiastical
matters and the organization leaders work under his direction.”

General Conference ushered in many changes; the most significant, in my opinion, was the enhanced role of Relief Society and Young Women Presidents in counseling members. This may come as a welcome opportunity to many or a stressful turn of events.  Not all presidents are prepared to offer counsel, although in reality many have been doing this informally. 

How can RS and YW leaders prepare themselves for this new role as counselor?   Topics for counsel include depression, mental health concerns, abusive relationships, economics, employment, housing, transportation, education, health challenges, sex, contraception,  LGBTQI, temple, garments and other topics. I offer suggestions on a few of these topics and hope readers of this blog will offer further suggestions in the comments section.  

The most important aspect of offering counsel is learning to listen.  A few good books on this topic are: The ZEN of Listening: Mindful Communication in the The Age of Distraction by Rebecca Shafir and The Compassionate Communication: The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening, by David Rakel.  An internet search on “how to be a better listener,”  “improving your listening skills” or “bad listening habits everyone should break” will bring up blogs, university communication departments, books, articles  and coaches. 

RS and YW presidents need to recognize the confidential nature of counseling relationships.  Ground rules should be reviewed at the onset. What will and will not be shared with the Bishop? If abuse is divulged, RS and YW presidents need to  know the legal obligations in the geographic areas where they live? Resources are available on the church’s website. This topic is deserving of a separate blog post.

Many RS and WM presidents may be unfamiliar with the emotional toll a faith crisis has on members and their families.   Bridges, by David Ostler is good for this topic.   Ostler’s website www.bridgeslds.com has many resources to aid in understanding the complexity of a faith crisis with links to books, podcasts, support groups and research to help us. 

Grief is a universal experience. We are good at providing help in the immediate time following the death of a loved one.  Many people would benefit from more comprehensive grief support. Stephen Ministry at https://www.stephenministries.org is a resource I find helpful. It provides training to provide one on one ministering to people who are hurting.  They have resources to share at specific time points in the year following the death. There are in-person support groups available through most local hospice organizations and on-line support groups for many unique grief situations such as widows, suicide, murder, pregnancy and neonatal loss. I will share more grief resources in a future blog.

Our church is worldwide.  The counsel common in one area of the world will differ from that needed in other parts of the world.  Coincidentally I’ve been reading Melinda Gates’s book, The Moment of Lift, How Empowering Women Changes the World.  Gates offers excellent counsel for women, young women, and those in a position to help them. She discusses issues relevant to today’s worldwide church including: maternal and newborn health, family planning, education, child marriage, women in the workplace and other topics.  It’s a fascinating call for gender equality. Ms Gates is passionate about helping women.   

When I served as a RS president years ago, I became familiar with the local agencies in my community. I created a notebook with resources readily available to help me in my calling.  I learned that the church is not responsible for meeting all the needs or solving all the problems of its members. I also learned that the church is often the first place many turn when facing troubling times. It’s important to have resources and to understand the role of the individual, the family/friends, and  the church in assisting members as they navigate life’s rough waters. Moving the counseling FOR women and young women TO women is a great step in empowering women to help each other. I applaud this move.

Discussion:

What resources would you recommend to RS and YW leaders to help them in their expanded roles?

What are your thoughts about seeking counsel for a RS or YW President rather than a Bishop?

Do you see this as a positive change?

Allemande Left

Allemande Left lives in the eastern US with her guitar-strumming husband. Allemande Left refers to the beginning steps in a square dance. Dancers turn to their corner partner, clasp left hands as they glide past each other, then clasp right hands with the next person as they weave through the square of dancers--half going clockwise and half counterclockwise. It is a way to loosen up and meet the other dancers. As the caller sings, "Allemande Left and Away We Go."

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15 Responses

  1. DT says:

    I am ambivalent at the moment about this being a positive change unless there is more legitimate training and not just from the church. Looking back I am shocked by what I shared with bishops when I was younger because of a misplaced belief in their wisdom and insight. I am also shocked that they didn’t refer me to outside help. There needs to be more education around what should happen to disclosures because in my experience they either get shared too much when it is unwarranted or too little when it is.

    There is so much validated training that other churches require that I am perplexed that we don’t require for any calling.

    From Canada, I would recommend
    -Mental Health First Aid training, which teaches how to assist with a mental health incident and what it is like to have a mental illness: https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/resources/mental-health-first-aid
    -ASIST Training, which is available internationally, for suicidal ideation and safety planning: https://lmspc.ca/how-can-i-help/asist-by-livingworks/

  2. Allemande Left says:

    DT,
    Agree with you that training is necessary. Agree it is important to know when to refer to a professional counselor.
    Also agree about past experiences sharing concerns when I was at a younger age.
    Thank you for sharing resources. This is what I hoped for. Let begin the conversation.

  3. cloves says:

    Honestly, I’m as inclined to counsel with the RS Pres as I am with the Bishop. Not at all. I have never in my life considered the church to be the place to look for help. That may make me an outlier, but, it’s never made sense to me. My husband and I have either consulted professional outside assistance or dealt with it privately between ourselves. Church members have rarely entered the equation. We have experienced health crises that have included surgeries and hospitalizations without saying boo to anyone in our wards.

    • Allemande Left says:

      Cloves,
      You are probably not an outlier. We don’t know how many people do not turn to church for help. It seemed to me when I was RSP that many people were looking for help.
      It’s my naivety to think that most people turn to church when perhaps they don’t. I know my plate was full during those years.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Rachel says:

    Overall, I see this as a positive change. Is it a perfect solution? No, but it’s a step in the right direction. i think many women would feel more comfortable talking about personal or sensitive issues with another woman.

    I think we need some clearly defined roles and expectations. What kind of counsel are women allowed to give vs the bishop? Will women be conducting temple recommend interviews? Will women be on disciplinary courts?

    The law of chastity needs a major overhaul. Most of the damaging lessons I learned were in YW from female teachers and leaders. Maybe men are writing the lessons but it’s mostly women who are internalizing it and teaching it to girls. So until we see a huge doctrinal and cultural shift in our views on chastity, I don’t think women counseling women will make any big difference

    I think all members need to know that they don’t have to answer any intrusive questions that make them feel uncomfortable, regardless of the interviewer’s gender. A parent/third party should always be required when interviewing/counseling children.

    One essential point made in the OP is that the church isn’t responsible for meeting all the needs of members yet it is often the first place members turn to during difficult times. The church can be a wonderful source of support but leaders need to know their limits and members need to know that it’s okay to seek other sources of aid. There are organizations that provide training to churches on how to recognize and respond to abuse and mental health issues. The church could easily sponsor some training seminars for leadership callings. Even just some simple reading through the following sites could make a big difference.

    https://www.netgrace.org/safeguarding-certification

    https://afsp.org/

    https://www.rainn.org/

    https://www.childwelfare.gov/organizations/?CWIGFunctionsaction=rols:main.dspList&rolType=Custom&RS_ID=5

  5. anon says:

    I’m not sure this is really a change, but perhaps more of a clarification or reminder. Historically the bishop was seen as the judge in Israel and that unfortunately morphed into a counselor and therapist for whatever trouble ails you. This was never right. Bishops were never trained for that and it was never part of the ecclesiastical role. EQ presidents, RS presidents, YW presidents, YM presidents have always been able to, and frequently did, have personal conversations with members were guidance and advice was given. The trouble, as others have mentioned, is that none of these callings come with any professional training and we need to clearly and strongly distinguish between counselling, which should be reserved for the professionals, and a loving friend who listens, a shoulder to cry on.

  6. Andrew R. says:

    I think that part of the problem is the use of the word counselling, which has very specific meaning to many. ie under the counsel of a professional for some personal needs. This is a very US-centric view. In the UK people do not have the same level of dependence on professional counselling as there is in the US. And I suspect there is even less in the rest of the world.

    I don’t believe that the church leaders expect anyone to be counselling members in the mental health issues, marriage issues, or a host of other things. Indeed we have a Family Services set up for that, which – at least in the UK – the bishops use in order to access approved professional assistance.

    No, this is more about helping individuals with their day to day issues. Planning, budget, where to find help, strengthening testimonies, fulfilling church callings and assignments, staying on and moving along the covenant path.

    As EQP I do not see myself as someone who can help those of my quorum members with mental health issues directly – and I have a few of them. But I can help them with their spiritual needs, which in turn better prepares them to seek, and get, the professional help they need.

    I certainly would not be comfortable with my daughter’s YWP giving her “counsel” about a great many things. The daughter is nearly 17. The YWP is 24, a 13 month convert who has just received her endowment. I do, however, believe she is in a good place to help my daughter’s testimony grow because of her recent conversion.

    The problem is that members do not always understand the limitations of leaders, including bishops, even when it pointed out to them.

    • Rachel says:

      I also think counseling is a problematic word. It’s hard for many members, especially members who don’t have access to the handbook, to know their leaders’ limitations. We are taught that our bishop represents Christ and he can receive revelation for us. We are taught to trust in the power of his calling. So I believed that I could talk about anything with my bishop and he would have perfect answers. Are women to believe that their female leaders will have the same divine inspiration?

      I think the roles and responsibilities need to be spelled out and shared with all member, even if some members won’t ever understand. Maybe a conference talk? Maybe ask stake leaders to speak about it in all the wards? Ever member should have access to the handbook.

  7. Thank you for this excellent list of resources!

  8. EmilyB says:

    I have seen Mormon LGBTQ teens go to church leaders to discuss their sexuality and receive incredibly harmful information. I have seen Mormon abuse victims go to church leaders for help/counsel and come away from it even worse off than if they had not made that phone call. I have watched Mormon boys turn to self harm rather than accept their own sexual urges as natural simply because their church leader’s “counsel” was so shaming and punitive in nature instead of helpful or healing. Fact of the matter is, only credentialed, licensed professionals should be consulted for counseling.

  9. Allemande Left says:

    Emily,
    Right on! Thank you for your comments.
    One problem is the use of the terms council, counseling, minister and pastoral care.
    Much harm has occurred and the potential for more is real.
    It is vital to realize our role and limitations of the role. My goal w this post was to recognize the limitations and have resources available to help in the immediate moment and the ongoing relationship.
    RSP, YWP, EQP and Bishops are lay members with no formal training or certification in counseling. Maybe Bishops receive more training???
    We are there to support each other. I have certainly received good and bad council myself.
    I have walked away from meetings thinking “I’m not going to talk to him anymore” and also felt good about council.
    Other churches have formal training in pastoral care and counseling. There are degree programs to credential professionals. We don’t have this. We have LDS family services but they cant see everyone and some people would do better w a therapist who was not LDS.

    I personally was happy to know that some of the role was being shifted to women but if women are not prepared to recognize the appropriateness of professional counseling in certain situations, especially sexuality, then we are no better off.

  10. Miriam says:

    What I see is 1) An unhealthy reliance on other’s opinions/counsel, and 2) A culture that endorses the fallacy that by being called into a leadership position (by osmosis), you all of the sudden are able to speak for God. It seems we would be better served if we taught the value of personal revelation, how to receive it, and endorse a better relationship with diety.

    • Rachel says:

      I think those are great points. I know that I’ve ignored my own instincts and insights because I believed that my priesthood leaders were inspired to receive revelation for me. They obviously knew what was best for me. This is an unhealthy and dangerous mentality.

  11. Anna says:

    The very best priesthood leader that I ever had told me, “My job is not to get revelation for you. My job is to help you get the revelation that you need.” That has been the ONLY priesthood leader that I ever felt I could trust.

    But, something came up once with a friend and I told her that was what I believed and she not only never spoke to me again, she told others that I was completely apostate.

    But, I think if all leaders had that attitude, to help people trust God rather than thinking they speak for God, this church could finally start being a loving and Christlike institution.

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