Ordination is the Answer to Correlation

In 1906, Joseph F. Smith initiated the first churchwide correlation effort, with the goal that there would “not be so much necessity for work that is now being done by the auxiliary organizations  because it will be done by the regular quorum of the Priesthood.” At the time, the church auxiliary for women, the Relief Society, had “a wide and extensive sphere of action,”  that included activities in the areas of welfare services,  agriculture, merchandise, medicine,  politics, publishing, education, real estate,  and supervising the Young Ladies Retrenchment Association and Primary programs.

In 1909, “the physical housing of the Relief Society and Church auxiliaries with the Presiding Bishopric was one manifestation of emerging efforts to correlate a larger and more complex Church…and they began meeting together more regularly to discuss common concerns.”

A particularly poignant example of how this new arrangement worked occurred during World War I in 1918, when the government of the United States of America requested to purchase grain belonging to the Relief Society grain storage program to address worldwide grain shortages.  Without consulting the Relief Society, the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric sold the Relief Society’s entire grain supply. When the Presiding Bishop was called to task by the Relief Society General President for selling Relief Society assets without permission of the Relief Society, he apologized and implemented a simple policy change that would prevent the Presiding Bishopric from overstepping its bounds in the future: going forward, the Presiding Bishopric would have authority over all final decisions about the Relief Society’s grain program and moneys resulting from grain sales.  Problem solved.

Another push for correlation began in 1962, when Harold B. Lee announced his intentions “to place the priesthood of God where the Lord said it was to be—as the center and core of the church and kingdom of God.” Reference T 

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains how this effort affected the Relief Society:

Under the comprehensive Church correlation program, the reporting and financing systems, magazine and lesson materials, and Social Services once managed by the Relief Society became the responsibility of priesthood leaders and professional departments, such as the new LDS Social Services Department.

In 1998, Boyd K. Packer observed that “the Brethren know they belong to a quorum of the priesthood. Too many sisters, however, think that Relief Society is merely a class to attend.”

And indeed, a class to attend is about all that is left of Relief Society today. Local Relief Societies in branches and wards may or may not continue to administer small-scale local relief projects, but church policy requires that any such activity maintain close male supervision. The current power structure gives a local bishop more authority over Relief Society sisters than the General Relief Society President.

Since 1997, the curriculum offered in this “class to attend” for women has been almost all about men. Two Sundays of the month are spent exclusively discussing quotes by former presidents of the church, all of whom are male.  One Sunday is spent discussing an address given at General Conference. There is a 94% chance that this talk was given by a male speaker, given the ratio of male to female conference speakers. When there is a fifth Sunday, the lesson is by the male bishop.  Only one Sunday of the month is reserved for a lesson by women. A female perspective is only auxiliary to the male/priesthood perspective, right?

In 2011, Pullitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich described these modern changes to the Relief Society in this way: “From 1969 to the present was a history of the disappearance of Relief Society.”

Today, there is not “so much necessity for work that [was once] done by the [women] because it [is now] done by the [men].”  Men find themselves “as the center and core of the church.”

Where does that leave women?

While the priesthood is offered exclusively to men, sometimes even viewed as synonymous with men,  any effort to correlate the church under priesthood authority pushes women aside.

Yet, there are advantages to the correlated power structure, even for women.  Before correlation, fundraising was a constant concern for women of the Relief Society.  Women had to pay dues to participate in the auxiliary.  The visiting teaching program began as an effort to go house-to-house seeking donations. Today, the Relief Society is funded through tithing. Since women have never been exempted from paying tithing, it is appropriate that women and men alike benefit from tithing dollars. However, correlated resource sharing has been characterized by a certain preoccupation with ensuring that only men wield the knife that slices the pie.  Most recently, a new rule  added to the Church Handbook of Instruction in 2010 forbids women from serving as stake auditors.   This newest change may have eliminated the last position of financial authority that has been open to women since the Relief Society gave up financial autonomy in 1978.

The elimination of gender-specific curriculum that has resulted from correlation could benefit both sexes by facilitating opportunities for men and women to discuss topics that may have been taught to only one gender in the past, such as nurturing children or honest business practices.  Neil A. Maxwell observed that “for too long in the Church, the men have been the theologians while the women have been the Christians.” If we wish to have a church of sister scriptorians,  women need access to the same theological education offered to men. However, since the correlated curriculum almost exclusively quotes men, the implicit message that men are the theologians is maintained.

Julie B. Beck praised the correlated power structure, in which local Relief Society presidents report to local bishops instead of to Relief Society leaders at the Stake or General level, because it allows local responsiveness and flexibility, needful because “every ward has its own unique characteristics, which no other ward shares.”  The obvious disadvantage to women in such a system is that local Relief Society presidents are placed at the bottom of a long chain of all-male leadership hierarchy while Stake and General Relief Society “leaders” serve as mere consultants, lacking any supervisory authority. However, involving women in the holistic work of the church is a welcome improvement to only allowing women authority over other women and children. Under correlation, the church began involving women in councils of the church in 1979. Just this year, the church established new mission councils that involve women. Unfortunately, only certain councils may include women and when women are included, men are mandated by church policy to outnumber and outrank women. This kind of  token involvement is a placebo, not a remedy.

Is there a way that the church could reap the benefits of correlation under priesthood authority without so many unfortunate side effects for women? Yes. The church could end the priesthood ban against women,  ordain women and fully integrate them into the power structure of the church.  Then, the visions of Joseph F. Smith and Harold B. Lee for a church correlated under priesthood authority could be realized without sacrificing female perspectives or eliminating service, leadership and financial oversight opportunities for female members of the church. If women were ordained, there would “not be so much necessity for [a woman’s auxiliary] because [women would be included in] the regular quorum of the Priesthood.” “The priesthood of God, [held by men and women alike, would be at] the center and core of the church.”

From "A Wide and Extensive Sphere of Action" to "Guardians of the Hearth" in 129 years. What does the future hold?

April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at


  1. Brilliant, April, as always.

    Last week in Relief Society, two women were asked to go and bear their testimony in Priesthood about the Relief Society. One of the women was sitting next to me. She was gobsmacked they had asked her– and by all appearances, she looks very devout Mormon. But she let me in on the same secret that a dozen other women in that same relief society have shared with me: She hated Relief Society. It isn’t a women’s organization and it isn’t run by women. It is a group that does what activities are approved by the bishop and what things are approved by the bishop and other men to be taught. It isn’t a women’s organization at all. Ordination would make it a women’s organization because women would be in position to create their own women’s program. It would help women, and families.

    Ordination is necessary. That is clear.

    • There’s no question that many women feel disenfranchised and powerless in the Church. If correlation was really inspired, the logical next step has to be women’s ordination.

  2. Bravo! Beautiful outline and summary of the growth we need for the future. I would also like to add Chieko Okasaki’s bit in here. Remember when Gregory Prince interviewed her in Dialogue? She shared,

    “We wanted to change the manual so that it brought up modern-day problems that women have to face and focus on how to implement some of the gospel doctrines and principles in dealing with the problem.
    “I had written a general outline, and the Relief Society presidency approved it. So I talked about it to a man on the Curriculum Committee. He went to his boss, and the boss said, “We don’t need a new manual for the Relief Society.” “Why don’t we need a new manual?” “We already are writing a manual for them.””

    • Can you imagine if we were using a manual put together by Chieko Okazaki? I mean, whenever I teach anything, I always use her books as a resource anyway, but seriously, Relief Society would be amazing.

    • That Okazaki interview is fascinating reading. The part where she discusses her experiences in the RS presidency says so much about the relative powerlessness of even the highest ranking women in the church. Everyone should read it.

    • So enjoyed reading the Dialogue article by C. Okasaki. I think as a church we have along way to go before women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. Sadly it won’t be in my lifetime. When the “old guards” die off, then perhaps change will come. We also need to see people of colour in the hierarchy of the church.

    • I really liked reading that interview too. I was glad to see that she didn’t like women being left out of decision making in regards to many things. I especially liked that she thought the women would have made changes to the proclamation!

  3. As usual, you do an amazing job of synthesizing truths into a clear outline. The downside of this is that I am now feeling more depressed about the church than I was before, and it has been a blue month for being a mormon for me. I guess it makes me feel better about always missing RS because I am in YW. While the same problems plague the YW in terms of not really being autonomous, I do feel that I have a much freer hand in making lessons and activities about womanhood. We don’t clear our activities with the bishopric. In lessons I rely primarily on scripture or quotations, largely by women, of my choosing. We don’t have the “presidents of the church” manuals for which I am grateful.

    I am glad I don’t have to solicit donations. But I would also feel more invested if my money went to my ward and we controlled what we did entirely. If I thought we ever did anything that mattered as a Relief Society I might feel like I was part of it. But we don’t. We have no meaningful service projects. As a participant in an auxiliary I feel totally isolated and irrelevant to my ward’s RS. Our activities usually involve highly orchestrated “social” time (you WILL sit at this table not with your friends or people you want to meet) followed by long devotionals that tend to be one-sided lectures. I used to love the Relief Society. I loved feeling like I was part of a group of women who were united in sisterhood and devotion to God. Now I don’t feel like I’m part of it and I also don’t really see what good we are doing collectively. As individuals serving, yes. As an organization? I’m not so sure.

  4. Wow! Thanks for a excellent article. Fascinating history of the boys taking it away from the girls. Loved this conclusion; Is there a way that the church could reap the benefits of correlation under priesthood authority without so many unfortunate side effects for women? Yes. The church could end the priesthood ban against women… Well done!

    • I love this post so much, and I want to buy the t-shirt that says “Ordination is the Answer to Correlation.”

      Thank you, April!

  5. April, this is brilliant and I think it should be published in The Exponent II magazine as a way of getting it down for posterity.

    Like Em, I am depressed by the history of the Relief Society. But I also see benefits to correlation, like not having to fundraise and being well integrated with the rest of the church. Maybe correlation was a necessary step in the growth of the church, but it is not the final answer. Maybe ordaining women will complete the picture.

  6. It seems to me that, since this is the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, when ALL things are to be restored, the ordination of women to the Priesthood is inevitable. Even though this post takes an indirect route to get there, it does lead to one more justification of ordaining women, a clever use of Occam’s Razor to get to the point. This was a fun and a thought-provoking read.

  7. Personally, though I had never thought of it before, reading this article made me think that perhaps the changes in the Relief Society were made because Relief Society is a vehicle the Lord uses to train his daughters and set them apart from the world. So, in the early days of the church, at a time when women were considered property, and didn’t have a vote, couldn’t own things, etc, he showed them how wide and extensive their sphere of action and influence could be. He encouraged them to take on new roles and value themselves fully. Now, women have power in many, many ways. In fact, they have so much power in the world and they focus so much on how extensive their sphere of action can be that they sometimes forget the importance of home and family and leave it behind in pursuit of bigger and better things. And so, the Lord is pointing them back to what is first and most important: to be guardians of the hearth–again, that they may know their worth and value themselves fully. April clearly believes this focus on being guardian of the hearth is depreciative. I don’t–especially as social values roll like waves on the sea, and wash further and further from doctrine, women’s strength is needed at home! But whether the Lord is asking women to step outside their comfort zone and the expectations of society by expanding their roles or centering/concentrating them, it is going to be uncomfortable for somebody. But discomfort does not mean something is “wrong.”

    That said, I know that is validating for women to know there are other women who don’t understand current policies and feel marginalized because of it. It is helpful for women to know we are not alone; it can be nurturing to faith to know there are others who don’t understand and still have faith. This article does not nurture faith, though. It’s purpose seems to be to set up a construct of men vs. women, us vs. them, self vs. other. That is not the way of unity, and will not create a Zion people. We work with our brothers, not against them. The Lord gives us power when our hearts are soft.

  8. “And indeed, a class to attend is about all that is left of Relief Society today.” Um, isn’t that a bit insulting to the RS leaders who are working their asses off in ministering to the ward? The RS plays a huge role in compassionate services to people of both genders.

    Yes, it is supervised by priesthood. Where I live, this means that the bishop signs a bunch of blank food orders and turns them over to the RS president to work with families that he has interviewed. They visit with him for a few minutes, and then someone in RS spends hours working with them on budgeting, coming up with a menu, learning to cook some meals, etc. This stewardship includes single dads, so I would either bring my husband or delegate to a quorum leader. The male priesthood leaders I worked with never had issues reporting back to me, respecting my stewardship in this area, so I don’t think that is a concern should women be ordained. But working with four bishops, I never had one micromanage what I was doing.

    RS also has a responsibility for burial clothing, which they have had since the beginning when they were sewn by hand. Of course this is nothing in an area with a distribution center at a strip mall. For me, it meant driving 45 minutes to get clothes from the stake RS president who had also driven 45 minutes to meet me halfway. And no, our ward families were not particularly unprepared; a lot of conditions that cause death also cause the body to swell up so that the clothes no longer fit.

    I think there are lots of great points in this essay, but minimizing the contributions that RS makes is not persuasive.

  9. I read this post because of April’s resurrection of it. It is interesting, and well written. However, it, as so many post here do, does not represent how the Church has operated in my experience.

    Our ward RSP works with the Bishop. And, yes, like all things she correlates with him, through ward council. Likewise at stake.

    Out stake RSPy hold a few activities through the year. The request a date, and they give a budget request. Both are given as asked, no questions.

    But the details of the activities are not discussed, only a general idea of what is hoped to be achieved. She and her counsellors, and those she asks to present, assist, etc. decide everything and make it happen.

    The money is a small pot being called on mostly by YM & YW. But RS have never asked for an amount and not received it.

    The date has to fixed into a wealth of activities and our stake is geographically large – so we try to minimise travel.

    And this: “The church could end the priesthood ban against women”

    I was not aware of a priesthood ban. I am aware that women are not required to hold the priesthood in order to progress; receive temple ordinances (wherein is found the fullness of the priesthood) and be exalted.

    You see God, in His infinite wisdom determined that men had to hold the priesthood to progress, and women didn’t. Now you want the Church to change that. Is God no longer leading His Church?

    • Andrew, I gather that you’re the Bishop of your ward?

      I had a temple recommend interview with my Bishop last week, and mentioned that in my Patriarchal Blessing I am told I have the gift of discernment. He joked that I should sit on the other side of the bench, which of course led to tears of pain and frustration because of the opportunities that are denied me because of being born a woman.

      I do not have a lesser capacity for spirituality, leadership or judgement than men, but the paths that are open to me – on an eternal level – are auxiliary.

      After much soul searching, I do not believe that this is what God wants, though we are often slow to ask the questions and offer the obedience that would allow God to give us the blessings in store for us.

  10. Olea, no, I am not the Bishop in my ward. Nor have I ever been bishop, and I do not expect to be bishop.

    It is wonderful that your Patriarchal Blessing gives you the blessing of such a great Spiritual Gift. And, of course, we may all be blessed with the Gifts of the Spirit as we seek to have them for righteous purposes. Having them is not contingent on any particular calling, priesthood office or gender. And using them likewise.

    I find it sad that you believe you can not be as much a part of the Kingdom as a man who holds the priesthood. I do so because I do not feel that way about my wife and six daughters.

    I currently serve as the stake clerk and the stake Sunday School president. As such, by current church policy, I am required for the first to be a Melchizedek priesthood holder and for the second it is preferred that I hold the Melchizedek priesthood, but a Priest in the Aaronic priesthood would suffice. And yet I have been a High Priest for nearly twice as long as I was an Elder. What a waste. My extra duties and authorities are not used. And the reality is a may never hold a calling again for which being a High Priest is required.

    I have no assistant stake clerks and I have no counsellors. I have also been acting as stake executive secretary for 15 months (though one is being called this week). I would welcome being able to have female counsellors, or even president. So too with assistant clerks. In reality I don’t believe that the priesthood is required in order to be a clerk or a Sunday School president. I do not use my priesthood in these callings. I believe having the priesthood is part of the preparation for these callings, but not a requirement. A sister with the similar experience in church, maybe endowed, but essential, could be equally ready.

    I act in both these callings by virtue of the setting apart I received – just as the female stake Auxilliary presidents do, and the stake Young Men president. It is by the delegation of the authority of the priesthood keys given to the stake president that I serve. Only the Bishops and Elders Quorum presidents he sets apart does he give priesthood keys to.

    Maybe a day will come when these callings are given to sisters too. I do not know.

    None of this however diminishes in my mind the place of women in the eternities – as it appears to do for yourself.

    My wife becoming a Queen and Priestess unto me, as her husband, does not mean to me that she will be my lesser. That she will serve me. It means that she will complete me, and I her. In order for me to be a King and a Priest unto the Most High God I need her with me. We are one. We come as a package. The Power and Authority of God, and the Power of Endless lives is in the Sealing of Husband and Wife. It is bestowed upon them together, jointly. In this ordinance, and faithful keeping of the covenant, is the Fullness of the Priesthood – together.

    • I agree that men and women complete each other and are equals. If your wife is a queen and priestess unto you, then you are a king and priest unto her. And both of you are king and queen unto God. Since husbands and wives are equal partners, I’m sure that’s how it is.

    • I’m not 100% sure how you can be so certain that the Relief Society has never had push back if you weren’t in the place to make those decisions, so I’d invite you to question your assumptions there, but assuming you’re correct:

      It’s not that I believe I cannot be a Bishop that stops me from being a Bishop. Yes, this is a calling that comes from outside the individual who will hold that position, but a woman may never do so. That’s different than being told you have the capacity but not the role.

      And, I apologise if I did not make it clear in my earlier comment. I don’t think God sees me as eternally lesser. I think the structure of the church does not meet God’s view of, as you put it, the place of women in the eternities.

      I think you can see a little of how this structure even diminishes the church, with your examples of callings that disallow women but don’t seem to truly require holding priesthood office.

      Please step into the shoes of someone who feels a great eternal capacity, but whose paths are necessarily limited by a mortal organisation. We have the atonement, it covers all pain and injustice, and all will be well – but there is a disconnect between how God sees me and the church does, and I pray that gap will close over time.

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