The “I Was a Stranger” refugee relief efforts; the current General Women’s Session of semiannual LDS general conference; women joining key, leading councils of the LDS Church; the publication of “At the Pulpit”; portraits of female leaders hanging in the Conference Center; and the updated Relief Society Purposes were among the developments that have occurred since Sisters Linda K. Burton, Carole M. Stephens and Linda S. Reeves were sustained as the Relief Society general presidency in March 2012.
Their love has been manifested through their service to women and families around the world, which has extended beyond members of the LDS Church.
Theirs has been a personal ministry, one that church members will not soon forget.
In their first speaking engagement together as a Relief Society general presidency, Sister Burton and her counselors made it a point to emphasize that, collectively, they have been impacted personally by many of the hardships and difficulties that impact women around the world.
"Those have included unemployment, cancer, drug addiction, miscarriages, infertility, death, twins, divorce, adoptions, disability, financial loss, depression, alcohol addiction and pornography," Sister Stephens said while speaking at BYU Women's Conference in April 2012. "These experiences have strengthened our testimonies and they have created opportunities for us to rely on, and be strengthened through the atoning power of our Savior, Jesus Christ."
Throughout their ministry, they have shared personal experiences about trials.
During her remarks in the First Presidency's Christmas Devotional in 2015, Sister Burton revealed that in 1984, as a wife and mother to four small children, she was diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis came just six weeks before Christmas.
“Realizing perhaps better than ever before how fragile life was, Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness became more personal than ever before. Christmas was different that year,” Sister Burton said. “As much as I love everything about Christmas, the only things that seemed to matter were my eternal marriage, my family, and my faith in and testimony of my Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the plan.”
In her general conference talk in October 2012, Sister Reeves opened up about the health challenges her family has faced. As her husband became progressively more ill with a rare disease, she found herself pulling away from God.
"For days I quit praying; I quit planning; I cried. I finally came to the realization that I could not do this alone," Sister Reeves said. "For the first time in many days, I knelt down and poured out my heart to my Father in heaven, pleading for forgiveness for turning away from him, telling him all of my deepest feelings, and finally crying out that if this was what he really wanted me to do, I would do it. I knew he must have a plan for our lives.
"As I continued on my knees to pour out my heart, the sweetest, most peaceful, loving feeling came over me. It was as if a blanket of love was flowing over me. It was as if I could feel Heavenly Father saying, 'That was all I needed to know.' I determined never to turn away from him again."
Sister Reeves went on to explain that while her husband was healed, years later a similar prayer was offered by the couple as they knelt by the side of their 17-year-old daughter "and pleaded for her life.
"This time the answer was no, but that same feeling of love and peace that our Savior has promised was just as powerful, and we knew that even though Heavenly Father was calling her back home, everything would be alright."
They have taught through their examples and counsel the power in turning to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ amidst these "stretching" experiences, as Sister Stephens said in her April 2015 general conference address.
"That stretching comes in as many forms as there are individuals experiencing it. I’ve never had to live through divorce, the pain and insecurity that comes from abandonment, or the responsibility associated with being a single mother," Sister Stephens said. "I haven’t experienced the death of a child, infertility or same-gender attraction. I haven’t had to endure abuse, chronic illness or addiction. These have not been my stretching opportunities.
"So right now some of you are thinking, 'Well then, Sister Stephens, you just don’t understand!' And I answer that you may be right. I don’t completely understand your challenges. But through my personal tests and trials — the ones that have brought me to my knees — I have become well acquainted with the one who does understand, he who was 'acquainted with grief,' who experienced all and understands all."
In openly sharing these experiences, they have shown an ability to relate to sisters around the world, many of whom they have spoken of in their general conference addresses.
Sister Stephens spoke of visiting with four women in Honduras and how they "inspired" her. In her talk during last week's general women's meeting, Sister Burton spoke of "certain women" who have blessed her life, including a woman named Jenny who served as ward Relief Society president while battling leukemia.
Sister Burton and her counselors have encouraged LDS women to press forward amidst these trials, cleaving to their covenants as they lift one another, trusting in the Lord's promises.
"Sisters, I do not know why we have the many trials that we have," Sister Reeves said in her October 2015 general conference talk. "But it is my personal feeling that the reward is so great, so eternal and everlasting, so joyful and beyond our understanding that in that day of reward, we may feel to say to our merciful, loving Father, 'Was that all that was required?'"
In an interview with the LDS Church News last month, the three sisters reflected on their time in the presidency and their efforts to put a focus on “the Savior’s Atonement, covenants and unity.”
"Oh, sisters, we all have burdens to bear and burdens to share," Sister Burton said in her 2013 general conference talk, "The Power, Joy, and Love of Covenant Keeping." "An invitation to bear one another’s burdens is an invitation to keep our covenants. Lucy Mack Smith’s counsel to the first Relief Society sisters is more relevant today than ever before: 'We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.'"