I’m a four year (almost) convert. I have just heard that I am required to attend Relief Society. Is that true? I heard a person a couple of years ago mention “I don’t do Relief Society”. My attendance and involvement with Relief Society is not full fledged at present, hence my question. Thanks!
I’m sure many members wonder about the necessity or importance of attending various church meetings, so you’re not alone in this. Much of my response to your question will come from Handbook 2: Administering the Church, which is available to all via LDS.org and the Gospel Library app. I encourage you to study this handbook, especially the first 6 chapters which really provide a deeper understanding for what the various programs of the Church are meant to accomplish, and how. (Those chapters make, in my opinion, an excellent source for spiritual and scripture study – really, they are like very good Sunday School lessons.) Chapter 9 provides details and guidance for the Relief Society specifically.
First, let’s get the easy part out of the way: non-Sunday meetings. The “Additional Relief Society Meetings” (see Handbook 2, section 9.4.2) held on days other than Sunday have historically or colloquially been called Homemaking Meeting, Enrichment Meeting, Relief Society Activity, and probably many other things. Regardless of what you call these meetings, the current policy makes it clear that these meetings are to help sisters “learn and accomplish the charitable and practical responsibilities of the Relief Society”. But they are an opportunity, not a requirement: “Sisters should not be made to feel that attendance at these meetings is mandatory.” One sister I know told me she was relieved when she read these words. She no longer felt guilty for not attending, or pressured into going even when not interested in the announced topics. Rather, she felt free to go when interested and available, and free to decline when she wished.
That leaves us with the Sunday Relief Society meeting. The short answer is that yes, you are expected to attend. I say “expected” because “required” is a difficult word to work with in cases such as this. No one is going to excommunicate you just because you don’t attend your Relief Society meetings, so in that sense, one could say they aren’t “required”. But you are expected to do your best to attend. In fact, one of the temple recommend questions specifically asks if we strive to attend our priesthood meetings. Now you may be thinking, it’s Relief Society, not priesthood, but please see this quote from Elder Oaks in the April 2014 General Conference:
… Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood.
We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.
Relief Society is conducted by priesthood authority. It is indeed a priesthood meeting. (Some disagree with me on this, but the bishops and stake presidents I have asked agree.) As further evidence, Handbook 2 states, “The bishop and his counselors provide priesthood leadership for the Relief Society.” And: “The Relief Society is an auxiliary to the priesthood.” (Note that the same things can be said of Sunday School, Primary, and Young Women – so yes, you’re expected to attend Sunday School, too.)
So, now that we’ve established the importance of Relief Society, we should perhaps address why individual sisters should attend Relief Society. Continuing to quote from Handbook 2, section 9, we read:
All auxiliary organizations exist to help Church members grow in their testimonies of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the restored gospel. Through the work of the auxiliaries, members receive instruction, encouragement, and support as they strive to live according to gospel principles.
If all auxiliaries have the same purpose, why do we need so many? Why separate out for various Sunday School classes? Why separate children from youth from adults? Why separate the men and women for priesthood and Relief Society and Young Women meetings? Why isn’t our Sacrament meeting good enough? One answer to all these questions is that each group is different and each auxiliary is designed to address the specific needs of its members or attendees. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”, we learn that men and women have differing primary responsibilities which have been divinely appointed. We also instinctively know that women and men learn in different ways. By allowing for one of our meetings to be separate, we allow the flexibility for teachers to focus specifically on the responsibilities, experiences, and learning methods unique to men and women.
Now at this point, more than one woman may say that she does not fit the ideal model of a Mormon woman. Perhaps she is not a mother (and never will be in mortality). Perhaps she is not a wife (and prospects seem unlikely in mortality for that to change). I have two friends, middle-aged women with no children and who have never been sealed to a husband, who are both Relief Society presidents in “family” wards in suburban Utah. Both of these sisters will tell you that it’s not your grandmother’s Relief Society any more. The lessons are not limited to being a wife, mother, and homemaker. Rather, the lessons are spiritual.
According to Handbook 2, this is the purpose of Relief Society:
Relief Society helps prepare women for the blessings of eternal life as they increase faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and His Atonement; strengthen individuals, families, and homes through ordinances and covenants; and work in unity to help those in need. Relief Society accomplishes these purposes through Sunday gospel instruction, other Relief Society meetings, visiting teaching, and welfare and compassionate service.
I cannot find anything in that statement (nor can my RS president friends) which applies only to sisters who are currently wives and/or mothers. These purposes apply equally to all sisters. Sunday lessons focus on gospel principles which can be applied in almost any circumstance. Membership in the Church has gotten so diverse, as far as life experiences go, that more and more, our lessons are geared to teaching true doctrine and principles so that members can find their own way to apply those principles to their unique circumstances.
Now in a follow-up email, you stated that the Sunday Relief Society meetings you have attended lacked substance. Can you see that failure of the sisters to attend the meeting actually contributes to this problem? Without broad participation, the blessings of hearing from those whose experience and understanding differs from one another is lost. The benefits of those who would bring the Spirit with them is lost. We need all our sisters to come and share their experiences, understanding, and perspectives. We need them to strengthen each other and teach each other. The world would tear you away from the gospel of Jesus Christ; Relief Society is one of the anchors to keep us safe from the world and strong disciples of the Savior.
So, I challenge you to “be the change you want to see”. If your meetings don’t have enough substance, bring it! Study the lessons beforehand. Ponder the questions. Raise your hand and share your thoughts and questions with your sisters. Pray sincerely and often for your ward leaders and teachers. Name your Relief Society presidency and teachers by name as you pray for them (if you’re not sure of their names, get the LDS Tools app). Consider what you can do to bring the Spirit more strongly to those meetings. Volunteer to offer the opening or closing prayer, and invoke the blessings of God and presence of the Spirit in that meeting. I promise that as you do this with a sincere heart, even if nothing changes for anyone else, the Spirit will change you and teach you personally as you sit in those meetings, and you will be blessed for your faithfulness. In time, I pray that others in your ward Relief Society will also be influenced by you, and all will be blessed.