Every once in a while I would get the courage to be vulnerable in Relief Society and share something I was struggling with. Nothing major, just little things that feel so big, like sometimes being upset with my children or my husband, or feeling like I’m not good enough. Maybe I’d been feeling depressed or sad, maybe something happened at work that took away my hope, maybe someone I know has been sick, or maybe I was just plain tired.
I use the past tense because I’m not currently in the Relief Society. I go back and forth on being happy about that. Relief Society can be hard. Every ward has its own culture. Some are more inclusive than others. Some are more open than others. Honestly, some are more Christian than others.
This isn’t a problem, it’s just what is. Anytime you have an organization run strictly by volunteers you’re going to have to confront the reality of shifting cultural patterns. It’s okay. That’s part of what makes the way we do things in this church so cool. It provides unique opportunities to learn about our divinity, our innate godly leadership qualities. Not just because we may be called into a position of leadership, but because the very nature of being part of a volunteer organization requires that every participating member have leadership skills.
We have to learn how to work with each other. How to help one another. How to sustain the leaders called to perform certain duties, and how to perform those duties without overriding the revelation and leadership qualities of those we serve. We all may have different job titles, but no one of us is greater than any other. We are all gods working out our own salvation, carving our own covenant path through the forest of affliction. Any specific calling exists only to be a help to the Shepherd. To be something good in the life of the sheep. All of them.
Going back to where I started, sometimes I would open up and be a little vulnerable in Relief Society. More often than not my comment would be responded to with, “I know that when I feel [blank] I can always feel better if I serve others.”
Inner eye roll. Look, that might be true, but it’s practically useless information. It’s true that helping another person produces certain chemicals which help us feel better. It’s true that service can bring light to otherwise dark corners of our lives. But it’s useless to tell other people what they already know. We all already innately know that service can make us happy. It’s literally in our biology, and after many millennia of evolution it’s one of the few things that has not changed about us. We are hard wired for helping each other.
I’m not judging the individual who said it. Their statement of faith and testimony is real. I will not diminish that. What lacks is that in the setting of a classroom the statement falls flat because it is offered as practical advice. And in the setting of Relief Society it usually means make sure you’re doing your assigned ministering, fulfill your assigned calling duties, go to the temple to do work for the dead, knit a hat, sew a blanket, or bring some cookies to someone. All of these are great things. Really, top notch. But it doesn’t land very often for the majority of sisters. Why?
Recently, I was watching a presentation about leadership. One of the most impactful takeaways for me was that it actually left me with a desire to find innovative ways to help the people around me and the feeling like I was capable of authentically doing so. What was the difference? Why did this 45 minute presentation land better for me than years of service-oriented lessons and comments in Relief Society?
First, because it left me to figure out all the details on my own. It didn’t give me ways that I can serve. It didn’t create a checklist that once completed would mean I had meaningfully served someone. It didn’t even use stories of people helping each other to inspire me or give me ideas. The presenter took 45 minutes using science to explain how the quality of helping others is what makes the best leaders, that it is innate in us, and that we are all inherently capable of learning how.
In Saint-speak, he just said that loving others is the most perfect way to be like God, that we are innately divine, and we’ve all been given the spirit of revelation to help us know how to fully express our inherent god-like qualities. This bring me to the second critical reason why this presentation landed for me. Science.
I love it. It’s my first language. My mother tongue. You talk to me in the language of science and I’ll pick up what you’re puttin’ down. The way he talked about these principles I’ve heard for decades made a difference. He doesn’t know me, and didn’t know how powerful his presentation would be to me personally. But he was speaking my language. And then he left me with nothing but my own me-ness. No tips or tricks or suggestions. No place to start. No list of ideas. Just me.
There is a very real temptation to answer people when they ask their “how” questions. We know what worked for us and we want to share. Maybe that would help them. Then they could just do what we did and they’d learn everything we’ve learned and have the same testimony. I think we really think we’re helping people when we do that.
Except, we aren’t supposed to all have the same testimony. Every covenant path looks different. Our promises to God, and his promises back, are unique. Built just for us. One size fits one. We have to discover our own ability to search for truth and walk our own path of discipleship. We really aren’t helping others when we try to give them a map of our own path. All we’re doing is overlaying our map onto theirs and what’s left looks like one of those crossed-path puzzles given to kindergartners to kill time in class. And that’s the last thing they need.
When someone shares their struggles we’d be wise to ask more questions instead of being so willing to give our own answers. Through direct and authentic questions we are really asking those we love to search for truth inside of themselves. We are creating space for the Lord to talk directly to them. When someone asks how to be more forgiving, more loving, more patient, we can ask them what that might look like for them.
Maybe it would be appropriate at times to share our own experiences with a given process, but only when asked to share, and only after we’ve asked enough questions to fully understand their unique perspective and context. When we understand them we will be better prepared to speak their language.
We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth. (Article of Faith 7)
And again, it is given to some to speak with tongues;
And to another is given the interpretation of tongues.
And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God. (Doctrine and Covenants 46:24–26)
Being able to speak each other’s language is a gift from God. And it’s not so we can show off. It’s so we can understand each other, for the benefit of the entire human family. We are all capable of exercising this gift. We can cultivate it by asking questions and truly hearing the answers.
Statements of our own experiences have a place. Our testimonies are important. They are authentic expressions of our faith in our own language. Others are given the gift to interpret. But the best response to someone choosing to go out of their comfort zone and be vulnerable is not to testify in our language. It’s to attempt to learn theirs so we can sit with them on the ground they are sitting on, wrap our arms of understanding around them, and bear their burden with them.
Then, once comforted and feeling awakened to their own discipleship by the spirit of community, which is the entire purpose of the Lord’s church, there will be a stirring to action. They may need to sit with what they are feeling for a good long while, but eventually there will be a new dawn. Their own divinity will shine forth and create a drive for purposeful action.
Good leaders don’t tell people what to do. Good leaders help others learn to find their own answers, to seek revelation. If a new skill is needed, a good leader will point them to a source for learning that skill and will walk beside them only giving aid if asked and when necessary.
When Moses was setting up the organization of the church in his day, he called a quorum of seventy to help him. He brought them to the tabernacle, and the spirit descended upon them and they prophesied to each other. At the same time, there were two other men who had stayed back at the camp. Their names were Eldad and Medad. The spirit of the Lord also came to them and they prophesied in the camp.
Moses’ servant, Joshua, ran to tell him that Eldad and Medad were prophesying without permission, and to tell Moses that he should make them stop.
Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them! (Numbers 11:29)
You may not have a specific calling in the church, but all of us are called to leadership by our innate divine nature. His spirit is upon us. We are all called to be leaders for each other. More specifically, to lead each other to Christ by prophesying of him, and to help one another discover our own covenant path.
So what’s the difference between a conversation that lands and one that doesn’t? Two things. The language we speak and the direction we point. If we aren’t speaking the language of those we are trying to help then we aren’t showing compassion and empathy. We can all tell when pure charity is lacking. Our message will fall flat. And if we aren’t pointing them towards Christ and helping them develop their own personal relationship with the divine then we aren’t helping them on their own covenant path.
We can learn to minister with the gifts of tongues and prophecy. We can trust that Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows his sheep. He calls to all of us, “Come, follow me.” We can learn how to let that be enough. Be patient. With ourselves and others. After all, we’re all just learning line upon line.
Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me;
And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.
And the Father and I are one. I am in the Father and the Father in me; and inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you.
Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall.
And the day cometh that you shall hear my voice and see me, and know that I am.
Watch, therefore, that ye may be ready. Even so. Amen. (Doctrine and Covenants 50:41–46)