New women join Mormon general boards, bringing a new look, feel, experience to their duties

(Courtesy | LDS Church) Four new members of the Relief Society General Board. From left to right: Susan Porter, Rebecca Mehr, Melinda (Mindy) Booth and Memnet Lopez.

There was something subtle, but notable, in this LDS Church news release announcing the nine women newly named to two general boards of the faith’s worldwide auxiliaries:

Listed first were the appointees’ educational and career achievements, joined in some cases by their countries of origin and Mormon missionary service. At the end the brief bios came mentions of marital and family status.

That’s a bit different from how the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traditionally has described its female leaders. Relationships to spouses have been more pronounced.

These new appointees reflect a modern sensibility — most are married, some are single, one is a widow — in which their identities are based on individual abilities, not marriage status.

Of the four new board members for the all-female adult Relief Society, one has worked in international development and financial compliance and now is a chef in Salt Lake City (Melinda “Mindy” Booth), one was an engineer and marketing executive in the computer industry (Rebecca Mehr), one has a degree in chemistry (Susan Porter), and another holds a bachelor’s degree in biology (Memnet Lopez).

As to geographic representation, Lopez was born in the Philippines and reared in Guam.

The Primary organization, which serves children under age 12 in the nearly 16 million-member church, added five women to its board.

They are Michelle Craig, who holds a degree in elementary education, Jennefer Free who is studying marriage and family science, Lisa Harkness, who earned a degree in political science, Salote Tukuafu, who studied at LDS Business College and owns her own catering business, and Dana Wiest, who has degrees from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University (which should help folks in the football rivalry).

Tukuafu hails from Tonga, but all nine new board members live in the Beehive State.

That is less true of the women already in place on the Young Women general board, serving female Mormons ages 12 to 17.

Starting in 2014, the YW board included several national and international members — one in Peru, one in Brazil, one in Japan and one in Brooklyn — who would meet semimonthly in conference calls.

Dorah Mkhabela of Soweto, South Africa, originally was on the YW board, and in 2014 became the first woman of African descent to give a prayer in a General Conference session. She has since left to serve with her husband overseeing a Mormon mission in Zimbabwe.

Board member Janet Matthews Nelson, who lived in Brooklyn at the time of her call, has since relocated to Germany, church spokeswoman Irene Caso says, and “visits Young Women groups throughout Europe representing the presidency.”

Auxiliary board members “review current and proposed materials and provide feedback to the presidency, assist with speaking and training as assigned,” Caso says, “and represent the presidency on committees as needed.”

The total number of auxiliary board members — fewer than 20 on all three combined — is dramatically lower than when those groups were at their height in the 1950s.

(Photo courtesy of The LDS Church) Belle S. Spafford with Relief Society General Board.

Dynamo Belle Spafford was the Relief Society’s ninth general president, who led the women’s organization from 1945 to 1974. She also served on the National Council of Women for 42 years, from 1968 to 1970 as its president.

In her time, Spafford commanded a Relief Society board of between 30 and 50 members.

They “trained Relief Society units throughout the world, oversaw temple clothing production, published the Relief Society Magazine, and created Relief Society curriculum,” it says in the recent book, “At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women.”

That all changed in the 1960s, when the church launched what is known as the “correlation committee,” says Kate Holbrook, manager of women’s history at the LDS Church History Department.

Correlation was an effort to “figure out how to reduce and simplify” the church’s system, Holbrook explains. “For example, board members were writing a new manual — or several — every year for the Relief Society or the Young Women. There was a lot of unnecessary overlap.”

The correlation movement was assigned to “centralize all of this and eliminate redundancy,” she says. And bring it all under “priesthood [all-male] office.”

Still, an “all-church coordinating committee met from 1961 to 1971,” Holbrook says, “and it had a lot of women on it, who came from the previous boards, helping to shape what correlation would look like.”

Eventually, a single department wrote all the magazines, including the Relief Society publications. The newly created Curriculum Department wrote the educational manuals. And instead of the board providing temple clothing, the Temple Department took care of that.

On top of those duties, auxiliary board members were involved in charities such as the Red Cross.

At some point in the past few decades, the woman were instructed to step down from those activities, Holbrook explains, focusing all their time on building a global Mormon community.

The most essential need for contemporary general boards, she says, is to train female leaders from across the world in ministering to the members in their care.

With modern technology and online resources, she says, even that responsibility has been reduced.