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LDS women train priesthood leaders as they run international church organizations

TUCSON, Arizona — The room was too small, so the men, members of LDS stake presidencies and bishoprics in Lubbock, Texas, ceded the room to the women, members of Relief Society presidencies.

Chivalry wasn't the right solution for the woman conducting the training in that small room. Instead, Sister Carole M. Stephens, the first counselor in the LDS Church's General Relief Society presidency, called for a larger room.

"We're always so grateful the priesthood leaders are there because if we train the Relief Society leaders without them, then when they go into their councils together, they're not on the same page," Sister Stephens said. "When someone said, 'Brothers, let's hold back and let the women in,' I said, 'No, we need the priesthood leaders to be in here with us. We need them to have the same vision.'

"Then when the sisters go in and try to explain what they heard, it's easier to implement because the priesthood leaders heard it, too."

Sister Stephens and the other two women in the General Relief Society Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints oversee an organization of about 6.7 million women in some 190 nations. Part of their job is to travel the globe and train local Relief Society leaders — and the local priesthood leaders, all of them men.

The Deseret News spent two days with Sister Stephens in Arizona on the next leg of the training trip that began in Lubbock in August. She was traveling with two other LDS women leaders, Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, the General Young Women's president, and Sister Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the General Primary Presidency.

In Tucson and Safford, Arizona, the three women visited the homes of local Mormons, conducted focus groups with women and teenage girls, spoke at morningsides for women and girls and held broad training meetings and breakout training sessions for stake presidencies, bishoprics and Relief Society, Young Women and Primary leaders.

Training leaders

On a hot, beautiful August Saturday night, the Safford, Arizona, stake center fills with stake presidents, bishops, Relief Society presidents and their counselors from the Safford, Pima and Thatcher stakes. The curtain in the back of the chapel is open to allow overflow seating in the gym.

The General Auxiliary Leadership Training Meeting begins and the talks by Sister Stephens, Sister Stevens and Sister Oscarson — "I'm the only one here who isn't a Stevens," she cracks — are broadcast to two equally full meetinghouses nearby.

When the meeting ends, the global leaders split up for breakout sessions. Sister Stevens is whisked to one of the other two buildings where Primary leaders are gathered. Sister Oscarson moves to the third meetinghouse, which is packed with Young Women leaders.

Sister Stephens remains with the priesthood and Relief Society leaders. She leads a discussion and trains for an hour, using scriptures, the church handbook for leaders, the book "Daughters in My Kingdom" and a clip from the church's 2014 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting.

She takes some time talking about leadership principles, then talks about women's roles in "watch care" and ministering through visiting teaching, a program coordinated by the Relief Society in which two women are assigned to each woman in the church.

"Every bishop and branch president has a Relief Society president he can rely on," Sister Stephens said. "She has visiting teachers who help her."

She then shares the story of Moses being counseled by his father-in-law Jethro to delegate and talks about other scriptural patterns of one-on-one ministry and delegation.

"Do the women understand visiting teaching is an opportunity to minister as the Savior would?" she said. "We need to give them that vision, don't we?"

Welcome messages

Afterward, Safford Stake President Corey Sanders is grateful for the message, and refers to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, who Latter-day Saints consider to be a living prophet.

"Assignments for visiting teaching are inspired," he said. "The women are participating in the rescue. President Monson doesn't say, men have a part in the rescue and not women."

Sanders, the presiding juvenile court judge in Graham County, is also grateful for the rare visit of general auxiliary women leaders.

"They're a different mouthpiece for the prophet," Sanders said. "I treat their training for me as if it came directly from general conference. As a priesthood leader, I appreciate all the guidance I can get from women's leaders. I can be a better priesthood leader as I relate with our Relief Society leaders. They bring such a strength and unity of purpose. I have always thought they have a complete place at the table with our brethren."

Bishop Mike Brown of the Pima 4th Ward enjoyed the training, too.

"It helps us understand how to work with the Relief Society and the importance of it," said Brown, who owns and operates a granite and marble shop in Safford. "They do everything better than we do. They're just more committed. They're not less busy."

Safford Stake Relief Society President Sherri O'Neal is a police officer when she's not worrying about and working with the more than 1,000 women for whom she's responsible. She surprised Sister Stephens by ferrying her from her hotel to the training session in her squad car.

"It's very humbling to have her here," said O'Neal, who has coordinated all the meals for the three general auxiliary leaders during their stay in Safford. "I can't even begin to tell you what an experience it is for me, and for the Young Women president and Primary president as well.

"The focus groups were the greatest thing to me because they sat down with actual Primary teachers, young single adults, women, Young Women advisers, and had roundtables about what is good and what can be better. As a leader, that is what I wanted to hear, so I can be better.

"Sister Stephens took two pages of notes and said those two pages will go back to the church council meetings and inform what happens there. It made me feel like I make a difference. Sister Stephens said exactly what these women needed to hear. She listened to them and gave them answers and gave them feedback. She made every woman in there feel needed and heard."

Women and identity

Sitting in the Phoenix airport waiting for the plane back to Salt Lake City, Sister Stephens said Latter-day Saint women in general are worried about attacks on the family and family disintegration.

"For sisters individually," she added, "the world is bombarding women with the identity question. What does it mean to be a successful woman? The world's view is different, and it's a lot different in a lot of ways. So I feel it's important to help them know who they are and be comfortable and confident about that.

"They don't need to feel bad if they want to be a stay-at-home mom. If we can all just accept each other for the choices we make. If I choose to work, that's great. If you choose to stay at home, we'll accept each other."

During a Saturday morningside in Tucson, Sister Stephens drives the point home to young women and their leaders.

"Your divine nature is as daughters of Heavenly Parents who know you and love you, and you have a Savior who loves you," she said.

During the same morningside, Sister Oscarson picks up the theme.

"The young women in your classes are his precious daughters. He knows their names and the hurts in their lives. We are put in place to be role models and examples to lead them back through the temple."

The night before, Sister Oscarson talked about the authority with which LDS women and young women work in their church callings.

"One other thing I worry about is helping (the young women) understand how they are involved in the work of salvation, and how important their contribution is," she said. "We need to teach our young women they are not just standing on the sideline cheering on the young men in their priesthood. We need to teach them how essential they are in councils, in the work of salvation, in working with the power of the priesthood through the direction of priesthood keys.

She quoted Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk in the church's general conference in April, when he said women have the authority of the priesthood in their church callings.

"Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys," Elder Oaks said, "exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties."

"This," Sister Oscarson said, "is language we haven't heard before, and we need to teach it to our young women. We spend a whole month of Sundays each year now on lessons about the priesthood. They need to be not just 'how do you sustain men in the priesthood?' We need to teach them that when they go out as a class presidency to visit a young woman, they are acting with priesthood authority."

During the larger training meeting in Tucson, Sister Stephens added a broader message on the subject.

"I'd like to remind the sisters in the room of the work of the Relief Society," she said. "Joseph Smith taught us that our work is not only to relieve (suffering), but to save souls."

The personal set of scriptures she uses in the meetings are notable for the number of purple sticky notes that protrude from the top and sides. During a focus group of 15 young single adult women ages 18 to 30 she revealed that she is marking her scriptures with those purple sticky notes wherever she finds women involved in the work of salvation.

Taking it home

Sister Stephens joined the General Relief Society Presidency in April 2012. In 2½ years she has been around the world, visiting Russia, Central America, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, Spokane, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona.

She is still scheduled to visit Kentucky, Brazil and Canada again this year.

"I love it," she said. "I would go more because I feel like when I have the opportunity to be arm in arm and eye to eye with ward and stake leaders, I learn what they need. Then I can go back to my office in Salt Lake and do my job because I've been with the people. When we're planning something I can say, 'I've been there with these sisters in Central America and it will be too much for them because they have this ….'

"You get so connected with the sisters. It's an incredible experience. It is fun. It's very rewarding. It just fills me up so I can go back and go to the office and feel like what I'm doing there is helping them."

Sister Oscarson doesn't consider the 16-hour days that regularly come with church travel to be exhausting.

"I really don't get tired," she said. "I sleep really well at night. It's exhilarating."

Like Sister Stephens, she takes notes and writes impressions in her journal. The most important information she brings home come from focus groups and home visits.

The General Young Women's Presidency meets on Tuesday mornings for two to three hours. "We always report to each other what we saw and heard on our trips," Sister Oscarson said. "We also fill out a field report for the Priesthood Department."

The women all serve on senior church leadership committees, too.

"The brethren ask us for our observations and recommendations for the area we've visited," she said.

For example, the Relief Society presidency serves on the church's Welfare Council. The presidency regularly meets with the Presiding Bishopric and the director of welfare services. They also are part of the executive meeting, which includes the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, the seven presidents of the Seventy and the Presiding Bishopric.

"I'm constantly thinking about people I've met, the homes I've been in and their needs and concerns," Sister Stephens said. "Going out and being with the sisters affects all of my work. They're the ones I think of as I sit in these councils."

Helping the one

"We have all the input that we need," Sister Stephens said of women leaders' influence on church councils. "We have the opportunity to give input every single day in the councils we're in. The brethren come to us and ask for input. They come to us and ask us to prepare information. They're eager to hear what we know and listen to what we say. They know we are in touch with the women of the church.

"We influence getting things moving and getting things done. We sit on councils where new programs and products are being created. Women leaders have influence on all of the things going on in the church.

They also have influence on the girls and women they meet in their travels.

The morningside messages in Tucson repeatedly brought tears to the eyes of Julia Don, 17, a Laurel in the Picture Rocks Ward of the Tucson West Stake.

"This is the strongest I've felt the Spirit," she said. "To have the general auxiliary presidencies represented here is what brought the spirit so strongly. The spirit was testifying to me that this gospel is true, that I'm in the right place and doing what I should be doing.

"I'm grateful for their example. We all have the capability to be as strong as they are. I could hear and feel their strength as they spoke to us."

A missionary in the Arizona Tucson Mission, Sister Emily Hammond, of Hilliard, Ohio, said Sister Stevens, Sister Oscarson and Sister Stephens are examples to her.

"They understand their roles as leaders. They fulfill those roles so well. You can look up to them because of the way they have developed themselves. Because they are leaders, I feel I can lead others as well."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com