Every ward or branch I’ve lived as an adult has struggled with the dilemma of how to increase a sense of unity among the Relief Society sisters. In some places, demographics have dictated a natural split between the transient (a few months to a few years) young college and graduate age students, wives, and mothers and those who live in the ward on a more permanent basis: more established families, families with grown children, and retirees. We’ve also lived in a branch split by language differences in which about half of the members spoke English as a native language, about half spoke some form of Spanish, and a few spoke other languages like Portuguese and Tagalog.
In all cases, there was an obligation felt by the Relief Society presidencies to increase unity among the sisters. We tried planning enrichment meetings that would encourage cross-generational and cross-cultural interaction. Some things, like potluck dinners with recipe exchanges worked pretty well. But we couldn’t ever make it stick; women naturally segregated themselves by common interests or backgrounds, and always a few women were left out. Those lonely women were generally not actively excluded, but because there was no strong sense of inclusion, they often felt rejected and unwanted, or worse, completely anonymous. (There is something to be said for personal responsibility here: if you want to be included, you need to make an effort. But it may be that for some people that effort is too much; they are compelled to rely on others to carry them for a time.)
There is a special concern for young women turning 18 and entering Relief Society. No longer are they the sole focus of dedicated Young Women’s leaders; now they are just one of a crowd of many women with their own cares and worries to attend to.
As I have been thinking about this quest for unity, I realized I’ve never once heard the men in the ward talking about increasing unity within the Elders Quorum or the High Priests Group. In ward councils, we’ve talked about only unity among the sisters, or throughout the ward generally, but never about the men specifically. Why is that?
Is it that men don’t care as much about feeling loved and supported by the members of their organization? Is that the men have already been split apart, so that generally speaking, older men are in the High Priests Group, and younger men are in the Elders Quorum? They don’t have to try to overcome the natural tendency to self-segregate based on age because the segregation is imposed on them by their offices in the priesthood. And the Young Men, already priesthood holders at the age of twelve, have their opening exercises with the other quorums of adult men. Could that make the transition from priest to elder easier?
Or perhaps the time men spend on a mission helps the transition. They leave as fledgling elders and return ready to settle in to their responsibilities in the ward. Women of a comparable age are not given such a clear transition to adulthood within the church other than marriage.
To summarize: in my experience (admittedly limited, as I don’t attend priesthood meetings on a regular basis), men do not focus on increasing unity amongst themselves and within their quorums and groups. Relief Societies do focus on increasing unity among the sisters. While the difference may be explained in part by gender expectations, another component may be structure of the organizations, where men of all ages, including teens, begin their meetings together and then split by priesthood ordination, and women are more strongly separated from the young women who will be joining them in a few years, with no further official divisions between older and younger women (or women who have held certain leadership positions and those who have not, analogous to the High Priests Group).
What has been your experience in your congregations? What does it mean that there is no “High Sisters” or “Matriarch’s Group”? Will there ever be unity among the sisters?