LDS Relief Society presidency nears the expected end of a remarkable, even radical, run

Five years, three women, one powerful presidency — why the trio of Jean Bingham, Sharon Eubank and Reyna Aburto stands out.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) General Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham, center, with her counselors, Sharon Eubank and Reyna Aburto, at the women's session of General Conference in 2017. The three are expected to be released from their positions at the upcoming conference.

Sharon Eubank was not the first single woman to serve in the general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female Relief Society. Reyna Aburto was not the first Latina nor the first convert in that celebrated calling. And Jean B. Bingham was not the first president to be reared outside of Utah.

Still, there was such a modern sense of synergy in this diverse trio that the presidency felt unexpectedly remarkable — like a springtime splash of perennial tulips — even while building on tradition.

The thrill of newness wasn’t just that the three represented many more Latter-day Saint women than previous leaders had, it was that they addressed real issues rather than focusing on idealized identities.

The Bingham/Eubank/Aburto presidency “offered LDS women a new image that they could identify with,” says Deidre Green, a Provo-based Latter-day Saint religion scholar specializing in women’s issues, “that it’s OK to be a professional, to be single and to be a person of color and occupy the Relief Society leadership.”

They provided experiences and examples that lots of Latter-day Saint women “could relate to,” Green says. “They spoke women’s language, and didn’t use the ‘Primary’ voice. It was a huge step forward. They showed us what global Mormonism could look like.”

In that way, Green says, this presidency “has been quite radical.”

The women have addressed the United Nations and the G20 Interfaith Forum. They have ministered to the marginalized in many countries. They have spoken candidly about death and loss, suicide and divorce, the agony of infertility and the exhaustion of parenting, along with the sense of judgment felt by LGBTQ members. Their speeches have been practical yet soaring, theological yet earthbound.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sharon Eubank of the Relief Society general presidency speaks in Finnish at a national women's conference in Tampere, Finland, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

They filmed a video, describing themselves and the women on the Relief Society board as “Just Like You.” They noted that six have experienced financial problems, four have had infertility, six have family members who identify as LGBTQ, nine have family with addictions, two are battling chronic illness, two have experienced divorce, one is a stepmom, seven have had incarcerated loved ones, one has faced the death of a spouse, eight lived internationally, four are stay-at-home moms, nine are community leaders, four hold graduate degrees, nine work outside the home, and all have been affected by depression or anxiety.

“These women have delivered messages that have celebrated women’s contributions to all kinds of relevant issues of global impact,” says Andrea Radke-Moss, a historian who specializes in women’s and Latter-day Saint history, “humanitarian service, refugee assistance and immigration.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, November 9, 2017.

Now, after five years of leading what is one of the world’s oldest and largest women’s organizations, the threesome will likely be “released” from these positions at the faith’s General Conference in April.

Why this Relief Society presidency is being ‘applauded’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank, far right, speaks at Camp Sharya in Iraq with Karzan Noori, head of programs for Barzani Charity Foundation, as Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham, far left, looks on.

The “most striking thing about the approach this presidency has taken is that they have almost always spoken to women as individual disciples of Christ, rather than as fillers of roles in families or in the church,” says writer and editor Kristine Haglund, author of “Eugene England: A Mormon Liberal.”

Indeed, almost every time they spoke, “each of them acknowledged the reality of pain and grief in everyone’s life and in their own lives and families,” Haglund says, “in ways that felt authentic and empathetic.”

Plus, they had to minister during a global pandemic, which limited their travel and ability for hands-on interactions.

“Particularly in these last few years, where many people have been isolated from extended families and networks of friends,” Haglund says, “their focus on women’s individual relationships with Jesus Christ, rather than on the many networks in which women serve as connectors, seems inspired.”

Bountiful resident Emily Jensen, web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, shared a car ride with Eubank a few months before she joined the presidency.

Jensen talked to Eubank about her concerns about the church’s “damaging modesty rhetoric and lack of opportunities for women’s leadership,” she says. “Sharon listened intently.”

While Jensen doesn’t know if their conversation prompted any changes in the church, she is pleased to see “that within their purview as given by the male leadership, this presidency has promoted greater visibility for minority women, LGBTQ+ women, women as agents of change — and discarded some of the problematic teachings regarding women in the temple and curriculum.”

Much needs to be done about gender equity, Jensen says, “but much of what happened during this presidency is to be applauded.”

About Jean Bingham

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, studies Gospel Literacy program materials with a group of women in Sierra Leone, June 2019.

The third of nine children, Bingham spent her childhood and youth in Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey. When her two daughters — and several foster children — were teens, Bingham returned to college, earning degrees in education. She then taught English as a second language at a private school and to other immigrants. She also worked as a nurse’s aide and served in multiple positions for the Utah-based faith.

Given her wide-ranging background, it is hardly surprising that she and her two counselors chose the title, “The Place of Belonging,” for their keynote session at the 2021 Brigham Young University Women’s Conference.”

“The promise of Relief Society is that we can become a Zion society,” Bingham said on that occasion. “When we look at one another from an eternal perspective, we can see each one as an eternal sister.”

But there is a need for “improvement,” Bingham said. “Studies have shown that the number one reason people leave religion is that they feel judged or unwelcome. That is cited more often than doctrinal disagreement or lack of belief.”

The good news, she said, “is that that situation can practically be eliminated if we really open our arms and hearts to everyone.”

This all sounds familiar to the president’s daughter, Zannah Bingham Buck.

“One of the things I’ve loved most about my mom’s calling is seeing how the things she’s always done have been available to so many more,” Buck says. “She’s always been focused on the individual, but the first time after her call that I saw her meet people after a fireside was different. She genuinely lit up as she met each person, and it was evident to me that she was relating to each person in an eternal way.”

Bingham does this, her daughter says, without judgment.

“I have a full-time career and graduate degrees instead of children, but my sister is a stay-at-home mom of 5,” Buck says. “My mom has encouraged us both in what we’re doing, being a perfect cheerleader for the ways that we are finding to fill the measure of our creations. I know my mom feels the same way about the women (and everyone) in the church.”

(Susan Walsh | AP Photo) President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Narayanachar Digalakote, Priest at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Md., left, during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 3, 2018. Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, looks on from center.

There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all answer to what should occupy our time, for example, and my mom wants each of us to strive to be better at what the Lord wants us to do,” Buck says. “She’s helped my foster sisters, cousins, young women, seminary students, and so many others to see what they could be and to grow toward it.”

About Sharon Eubank

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sharon Eubank, center, head of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the church’s Relief Society general presidency, at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sept. 27, 2018.

Also from a large family, Eubank served a full-time mission for the church in Finland, then earned a bachelor’s degree from BYU in English. In Japan, she, too, taught English as a second language, then worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and owned a store in Provo. In April 2017, she became the head of Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s global humanitarian arm.

“Sharon is the best aunt in the world — to her own nieces and nephews, but also to dozens of other children and now young adults whom she has taken under her wing,” says Kristiina Sorensen, a longtime Finnish friend. “She loves them all like family.”

Eubank owned a toy store for many years, Sorensen says, “and it’s very hard to top an aunt who knows all the very best toys.”

More than that, though, “Sharon’s been a steady presence in their lives,” she says. “So many evenings and weekends, when she might have preferred to put her feet up and rest, she’s instead gone out of her way to spend time with these young people. She bakes with them; she plays card games with them; she makes up stories with them.”

At least four families designated Eubank “in their wills as the guardian who would have raised their children,” Sorensen says, “if something had happened to them.”

One of the things that has made Sharon so effective as a leader is “her profound humanity,” the friend says, “and her willingness to grapple with true grief and suffering.”

Five years ago, Sorensen’s youngest sister was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

“She was just 38 and had two little girls, ages 4 and 7,” she says. “It was gut-wrenching to watch as the cancer spread, and her pain got worse and worse.”

Eubank drove to California several times to see the dying mother and help how she could — playing with the girls, making food, telling stories, Sorensen says. “She didn’t offer any platitudes about how everything would be OK in the end. She was just there, offering love and trips to the grocery store.”

After the woman died, Eubank wrote an essay about it, asking,

“Why does a nonsmoking, 38-year-old mother of little girls have lung cancer? I don’t know. Nothing about it can be right. I rabidly stare down anyone who starts talking to me about meaning in the trial. There isn’t one.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Screenshot shows Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general Relief Society presidency, chatting with Natasha Redhair on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. This video was played in a Face to Face broadcast for single Latter-day Saints on June 13, 2021.

The Relief Society leader didn’t “try to sugarcoat anything. She recognized the horror of it, and she truly mourned,” Sorensen says. “And it’s not just my family — she’s been there with friends who have experienced depression, or lost a child, or never found a spouse, or been driven from their homes by war or poverty.”

The essay ends with Eubank quoting a messianic line from Isaiah that Jesus would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” the Finnish friend says. “Sharon embodies that idea that being a true Christian means sharing the sorrows and grief of others.”

About Reyna Aburto

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Navajo children take a picture with Reyna Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, in Chinle, Ariz., Nov. 9, 2018. The children dressed in regalia to dance for the Latter-day Saint leader.

Two events stand out from Aburto’s childhood: an earthquake in Nicaragua that destroyed her home and killed her older brother and the civil unrest in the country in the late 1970s.

In three videos, Aburto describes the earthquake and her divorce years later.

And, in a 2019 General Conference talk, she mentions her father taking his own life and the importance of recognizing mental health issues.

“It is normal to feel sad or worried once in a while. Sadness and anxiety are natural human emotions,” Aburto told the worldwide Latter-day Saint audience. “However, if we are constantly sad and if our pain blocks our ability to feel the love of our Heavenly Father and his son and the influence of the Holy Ghost, then we may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or another emotional condition. … It can happen to any of us — especially when, as believers in the plan of happiness, we place unnecessary burdens on ourselves by thinking we need to be perfect now.”

For many Latina Latter-day Saints, it was so important to see the Nicaraguan leader in that leadership position.

“Finally,” Julissa, an Ecuadorian, texted to researcher Brittany Romanello, when the presidency was announced. “It was wonderful to see a leader who reflected me, not just a Latina, but someone who shared experiences of what I came from.”

To see a church leader “who came from similar circumstances as my sister, my mom, with our same hair texture and skin tone, to see how Sister Aburto has been trusted to receive revelation that helps our community,” Julissa said, “it makes you feel acknowledged and loved. It makes you feel more at home. Sister Aburto has advocated for us since day one. I have two daughters, for them to have had a leader who looks like we do, it shows Latina girls and youth can see themselves leading in our community and in Christ’s church.”

Romanello, who has been surveying Latina female members, says many of her interviewees mentioned Aburto.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Reyna Aburto, second counselor in the general Relief Society presidency and a member of the steering committee for the Book of Mormon Video Library project, talks with cast members on set near Springville on June 22, 2018.

“Their love of Sister Aburto was about more than just sharing in being Latina,” the researcher says. “Sister Aburto had experienced similar life circumstances, including uncertainty during her immigration process, but her testimony was powerful and inclusive. Seeing an immigrant Latina in higher church leadership helped Latinas in my study feel understood and assured in a way that U.S.-born or exclusively male leadership could not. Their contributions and labor felt more appreciated and validated because of shared intersecting identities.”

It helped “lessen the shame and to give more acceptance for those whose families didn’t look like ‘the ideal’ that is often reproduced in LDS cultural rhetoric,” Romanello says. “Sister Aburto is a phenomenal individual personally, professionally and spiritually. Her presence in higher leadership demonstrates how much underrepresented global communities in the church, like Latinas, value cultural and ethnic representation.”

What’s next? Who’s next?

Given how powerful this Relief Society general presidency has been, some wonder, why not extend the women’s callings for another five years? After all, male apostles serve for life.

“Imagine how wonderful it would be to keep these three dynamic leaders on for a ‘second term,’ even if only for the important global and interfaith connections they’ve made in their work with the United Nations, UNICEF and the G-20,” Radke-Moss says. “Although unprecedented, another tenure would cement their impact and reaffirm to church members their irreplaceable leadership. What a great reminder that women’s humanitarian work — and the leadership of these three women in particular — is worthy of long-term commitment and continuity for the Relief Society and the church.”

And such continuity might signal that the springtime of increasingly strong female church leaders, like those vibrant tulips, lives on.

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(Courtesy of BYU Photo) The Relief Society general presidency speaks at the 2021 BYU Women's Conference on Thursday, April 29. From left are Sharon Eubank, President Jean B. Bingham and Reyna I. Aburto.