When visitors are invited to Sister Elaine S. Dalton's office, the first thing she shows them is a picture-perfect view from the window at her desk in the LDS Relief Society Building. The Salt Lake Temple stands about 100 yards away, its spires glistening as they soar into the clear blue afternoon sky.
It has become the focus of all her effort during the past six months as the newest general president of the Young Women's organization for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That temple and scores of others worldwide represents the ideals she hopes to help LDS girls achieve as they learn about their relationship to God and prepare to make sacred covenants one day.
Sister Dalton is among several top LDS leaders expected to address millions of Latter-day Saints this weekend during the faith's 178th Semiannual General Conference, to convene Saturday and Sunday in the Conference Center.
"After I was sustained in general conference (last April), I came in here for the first time, sat at my desk, looked out the window and cried for an hour," she said.
They weren't tears of sadness, but of realization.
"It was very clear to me that it's all about the temple. That's the reason for everything we do in Young Women. Every camp, Sunday lesson and Personal Progress experience will hopefully lead them to the Lord."
And while the temple is a short and straight walk for Sister Dalton, she knows it's not that way for many of the hundreds of thousands of girls worldwide who she now leads.
As a marathon runner, Sister Dalton has experienced the physical demands of running so far that every natural impulse except sheer will has tempted her to quit before reaching the finish line. As a result, she has known, in a figurative sense, something of what teenage girls experience when the loudest voices in the world around them are shouting at them to give up on modesty, moral cleanliness and even on their faith.
With that perspective, many see her as uniquely positioned to deal with questions and challenges for young women that were not part of her own teen years growing up in Ogden during what she acknowledges was "a much simpler time."
Visiting young women ages 12 to 18 and training their leaders in far-flung congregations around the world is part of her assignment, and during a recent visit with LDS girls in the Dominican Republic, she asked what their biggest challenge was. The answer came without any hesitation: "sexual purity. I asked how often they were challenged that way. They said it was every day, in one way or another. They are constantly being bombarded and pushed" to give in to others' advances.
Even when the pressures are more subtle, they are real nonetheless, which means many girls who are active in the church's Young Women program in their early teens are being drawn away from its reach by making decisions that don't always keep them connected to their faith.
"We're losing young women much earlier than 18," when they traditionally complete their years in the Young Women program, graduate from high school and move on to adult pursuits. "We're starting to lose them around age 14," she said, and figuring out how to help them maintain ties to the church's programs for youths "is something we're exploring with a gusto. We're aware that we've got to do something to strengthen 14-year-olds."
"They become very vulnerable. We often lose young women because of some sort of sin. They have done something (they feel guilty about) and think they don't fit in. They don't really understand the principle of repentance."
Others are taken with "so much glitz and glamour and it's so appealing to them," as marketers and the Internet target young people in unprecedented ways. "Young women often get distracted, and they forget who they are. ... In our society, we're encouraged to experience everything. We're here to choose for ourselves, and we want to have the young women attune their ears to the still, small voice of the spirit, that inner compass, so they can be guided by Heavenly Father.
"Often they're connected to their iPods, but they're disconnected from being able to hear the spirit" tell them who they are and what they believe. "We'll be reminding them over and over again who they are as daughters of God. That identity thing is huge for young women."
Sister Dalton said she has long been concerned that many girls who do stay with the Young Women program until they graduate from high school then drop off the church's active list when they head to college. Though LDS women 18 and older are considered part of its Relief Society program, a majority of them struggle with the transition even though they retain their faith.
"We've talked about that a lot. I think that's one of the reasons Heavenly Father has called me and Sister (Julie) Beck (the general Relief Society president). We served together in Young Women and know how to work together." Both women were counselors in the former general Young Women's presidency.
While there has been a move to acquaint young women with Relief Society by encouraging them to meet with the adult women in their congregations for a short time one Sunday each month, Sister Dalton said she sees that not as a solution, "but the beginning of thinking about solutions. ... I think maybe we're ignoring a huge developmental stage that we ought to take a look at."
The church has long encouraged young women to marry and have children. In decades past, that was the pattern for most LDS women beginning in their early 20s. But as a recent census report showed, men and women in Utah reflect a growing American trend of marrying at an older age than they have in previous generations.
LDS men are encouraged to serve full-time, two-year proselyting missions for the church at age 19, while their female counterparts are attending school or working. While the church gives women the option of serving an 18-month mission at age 21, fewer of them serve because marriage and family are emphasized as a priority for them.
Sister Dalton supports that emphasis, she said. In addition, she would like to see women prepare themselves for a mission experience after high school, even if they don't actually serve because they become engaged and marry as the church teaches.
During the "transition" time between high school and marriage, "I think it's an ideal place to prepare them for a mission ... because that also prepares them to be future homemakers, leaders, wives and mothers. ... If they don't have that prospect for marriage, I think a mission is a grand way to go. ... Personally, I would like to see more young women go on missions, but not at the expense of marriage."
Whatever their future holds, she said, there has never been a greater need for women to build on the foundation of testimony she hopes they gain in the Young Women program.
"It's critical for us to help them build that foundation," she said, noting the move from Young Women to Relief Society is just the first of many transitions that LDS women make, and doing so successfully can provide experience for future changes, some of which they can't anticipate.
"They will eventually transition from being single to being married; from being healthy to being sick; some from a wonderful life to a divorced or widowed family situation ... from having all these children at home to having an empty nest, and then having them move back home. There are all kinds of transitions we'll face in our lives," and being well-prepared spiritually as well as physically will make the process easier, she said.
When her own father died at 45, her mother made Sister Dalton promise that she would get a college education, and she graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in English. She now encourages young women to "get all the education they can. If I had known what Heavenly Father had in store for me, I would have become fluent in four languages. One thing I regret is I don't have more to give."
Having raised five sons and a daughter, Sister Dalton has experience encouraging young people to reach their highest potential, both educationally and spiritually. That's something she plans to emphasize in the coming years, along with a request that young women commit to do three things each day: pray, read their scriptures and smile.
Some may see those as hard things, she said, but the goals are not only achievable, "they make a difference."25 comments on this story
And it is in small things that Sister Dalton sees the potential for young women to become capable of "changing the world" through their dedication to God. "I think we reach too low. I think we need to be looking a lot higher and demanding more and expecting more of ourselves. We can accomplish so much more than media and popular culture are telling us we can."
That realization came to her as a seventh-grade girl, when a librarian refused to allow her to check out the youthful romance novels that her peers had chosen to read. "You can do better than this," the woman told her. "I have one you need to start with," she said, handing her a copy of "Jane Eyre.""I think the time has come where we really do need to raise our sights, to arise and shine forth that our standards may be a light to the nations," she said, turning a scriptural phrase. "As the world grows darker and darker, what will be attractive to good people will be that light and those standards and that discipline."