How To Teach About The Priesthood In Relief Society

Relief Society Priesthood
For years I've loved teaching Relief Society, but dreaded lessons on the priesthood. Here's how that changed.

I love teaching Relief Society. In fact, I campaign for this calling as soon as I move into a ward. I appreciate the opportunity it allows for me to add my perspective to the Relief Society conversation. However, a few times a year there is a lesson I just don’t know how to teach. I’ve had this calling in this ward for over a year and there are 3 lessons that were particularly challenging: Joseph Smith (my first lesson in a new ward), a lesson on Eternal Marriage, and a lesson I taught today, on the priesthood.

My goals as a teacher are as follows:

  • Add new light, perspective, and/or insight to a familiar topic. Most lessons (if not all) are repeats that we’ve heard for as long as we’ve been members of the Church. It gets boring unless we can see something like “faith” or “obedience” with some sort of new or interesting take.
  • Engage my audience. I live in a ward with very diverse ages and various life stages. There are younger women, single moms, older women, widows, middle-aged converts and everything in between. My biggest challenge is feeling like I am talking to EVERYONE – but I hope that at least everyone will walk away with something helpful.
  • And lastly, focus on a faith-promoting conclusion, rather than gripe about complaints… because it’s really easy to do that.

The lesson today was from the President Hinckley manual, #15: The Holy Priesthood. The funny thing is I remember teaching a lesson on the priesthood in a singles ward probably five or six years ago, and I remember it going really well. I focused a lot on priesthood blessings and seeing the love of the Lord through the priesthood. People seemed to be very receptive. When I thought about including some of those same ideas into my outline for today’s lesson in August 2017 it just felt so dated. The conversation/attitude/understanding (or maybe it is just ME?) regarding priesthood has changed so much in the last few years that all that stuff seemed kind of irrelevant. I wanted to address some sensitive subjects, but at the same time, I don’t have answers to hard questions that deal with the priesthood, so it felt difficult to know how to prepare an effective lesson.

So I took to the Internet, and to Twitter, and guess what… it really helped me.

The lesson in the manual was pretty basic, nothing earth shattering, nothing new about the priesthood. There are definitions of the priesthood, how it blesses us, how a person holding it shouldn’t abuse it, and how it is relevant to women even though they don’t hold priesthood office. I needed something more. I needed a way to talk about it with my all-women audience in mind. So if you’re in the same boat, here are some articles that helped me. Maybe you have to give this lesson in Relief Society some day, or to a group of Young Women, or maybe the topic just comes up in conversation and it’s a hard to talk about, so here you go.

Teaching to Young Women

“Teaching Lessons on the Priesthood to Young Feminists,” over at By Common Consent didn’t have a lot of answers (which was intentional), but it asked an important question: how do I talk about the priesthood with my teenage daughter who already has issues with gender roles in the Church? The responses at the end are so helpful and I found lots of helpful links from there too. I especially like this woman’s response, going by “ecb,” that basically said we don’t have the answers, but we can hope for a lot:

“I think avoiding false doctrine about the priesthood is the biggest hurtle [sic]. I was writing letters to church leaders asking for women to have the priesthood when I was still in Primary, so maybe my perspective as a 27-year-old woman has been accelerated by the fact that I really have had a couple decades to come to terms with the issue. Because today I’m mostly fine with not being ordained… yet.

“So here’s what would have been helpful for someone to teach me about the priesthood when I was younger:

  1. Holding the priesthood is a responsibility to serve others. Not a personal power. To receive an ordinance or a blessing, a man who holds the priesthood still has to go to someone else who holds the priesthood, just like those of us who aren’t ordained.
  2. The priesthood is the power of God. It should not be conflated with those who hold it. It is a perfect power, but those who hold it are imperfect people who sometimes make lousy mistakes.
  3. We have every reason to believe that all worthy women will hold the priesthood at some point, if not in this life. Women even perform priesthood ordinances in some limited instances in the temple. I think a lot more members should know this fact, because there is nothing secret about it. Maybe we refrain from sharing this information because we think we can’t talk about the temple ever, but I think that’s a misconception. We don’t need to share sacred details in order to convey this basic and essential fact. A lot of men don’t even know that fact, and think how differently those men would view women and the priesthood if they knew?
  4. I think we need to admit that we simple don’t know all the answers. We don’t know why women don’t hold the priesthood, but we do know how revelation works: inspired leaders make decisions based on their knowledge and pray to the Lord for confirmation. Sometimes Heavenly Father approves one policy/decision even though several other potential policies/decisions could have been just as effective. It doesn’t mean future leaders won’t present a different decision to the Lord and receive a different answer. In the meantime, it’s really truly okay to shelve a question after sorting through it for awhile [sic].”

Linked from some of the other comments in that article, I found an article in the Exponent about teaching the priesthood in Young Women, and how to have a healthy conversation about it. I especially love the list of what NOT to say to a Young Woman who has questions about the priesthood:

How can you be sensitive to young women who struggle with their exclusion from the priesthood?

  • Foster an open forum for discussion. Don’t chastise young women for expressing concerns.
  • Express empathy. Validate their concerns. Simple statements like, “yes, that is hard,” go a long way.
  • Do not use folk doctrine to explain gender disparities. Explanations like, “Women have motherhood instead of priesthood,” or “Women access the priesthood through their husbands,” are even more unsatisfying when directed toward young women, who do not have children or husbands. Another common folk doctrine is that women don’t need the priesthood because they are more spiritual than men; this idea stereotypes men as spiritually weak.
  • Avoid statements like, “I’m glad women don’t have the priesthood. I wouldn’t want the responsibility.” First of all, eschewing responsibility is antithetical to the Young Women values and theme. Secondly, the priesthood is a sacred gift, not a burden. Finally, it is untrue that women of the Church lack responsibility. Many callings held by women in the church as as time-consuming as male callings. More importantly, women are as responsible as men before God.
  • If young women ask your opinion, you may share it briefly, but do not attempt to sway theirs. Clarify that you are expressing an opinion, not doctrine. Encourage young women to seek their own answers by “study and also by faith” (D&C 109:7).

Women and the Priesthood

Then I tweeted out my need for help with my lesson, and the responses were wonderfully constructive. Two people referred me to a General Conference address from Dallin H. Oaks from April 2014 called, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” calling attention to section 4. In this quote, Elder Oaks cites President Joseph Fielding Smith:

“While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. …A person may have authority given to him, or a sisters to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.”


A Twitter stranger saw my query and told me she had taught this lesson a few weeks ago and offered to send me her outline. Holy smokes, the fact that we were even connected felt like a miracle, and her outline helped me A TON. I especially loved the way she prefaced her lesson: knowing the priesthood can be a sensitive topic, she started out by offering some guidelines to help steer the direction of the discussion. I used #1, 3 and 4 in my lesson. (There’s a lot more to this document – contact Joni if you’re interested.)

  1. “Motherhood is not the companion to priesthood. Fatherhood is. Motherhood and fatherhood can come to both the righteous and unrighteous, and may not come to the righteous or unrighteous. (See “Feminism in Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” by B. Kent Harrison and Mary S. Richard, published in BYU Studies.)
  2. “Elder Faust and Elder Oaks (among others) have both suggested that it is inaccurate to refer to the men in the Church as “the priesthood.” Elder Faust suggested that it would be more accurate to refer to men as the “holders of the priesthood,” since both men and women have access to and use of the priesthood.
    1. Elder Oaks, April, 2014: “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.”
  3. “It is not appropriate or doctrinally accurate to suggest that men need the priesthood authority because they are “lesser spiritual beings” than women and it’s what keeps them in the Church. This unfairly “pedestalizes” women and lumps men into an unkind grouping. The reason men have the authority of the keys of the priesthood is because that is the order that God has currently dictated.
  4. “There are further keys of the priesthood that have not yet been restored (like creation and resurrection), so our experience with the priesthood will grow and change in the future. There are also questions that we don’t yet have full answers to. Even so, President Hinckley suggests that speculating on what could come in the future is profitless because it is for God to decide and delegate, not us. What we think may or may not happen as regards priesthood power is not the focus of our discussion today.”

In the end, my thoughts were scattered, but I felt like I had some good material. I wanted to acknowledge the difficulties of teaching a lesson that could potentially be very personal for some sisters, and also didn’t want to ask questions that were too provocative to isolate anyone. I spoke aloud on these hesitations and I felt my audience understood where I was coming from. We discussed blessings of the priesthood, the hope of so many promises for women, and the authority that we feel as women in the church in various roles and callings.

Hope this helps!

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