Rethinking How We Approach Home Teaching

home teachingFor many of the men in the Church no topic is as dreaded as a lesson on home teaching. Think of it like yet another lecture by your in-laws on how you aren’t measuring up in how well you support their daughter. You know all the arguments and accusations by heart, and the whole subject seems like one of those unwinnable situations where you are doomed no matter what you try to do.

Solving the problems surrounding low home teaching stats each month is like trying to solve the problems in the Middle East. Everything would be peachy if everyone would just decide to play nice with each other. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over our home teaching assignments. They are just that, assignments. It’s not like we can pick and choose the families we would like to visit. And beyond the assignment aspect of home teaching, we still have many perception problems with the whole process that makes it a losing proposition no matter what we try.

Note: Before you launch into this piece I need to make a disclaimer. I am not a great home teacher. I try to be consistent, but I am still trying to figure out how to do this right, just like you are. This article presents some of the problems with home teaching in the Church as I see them, and then suggests some ways to change our thinking and perspective to help us become better home teachers. Hopefully a few of these suggestions will take a little of the sting out of this monthly assignment and make it more of something we can look forward to.

Part I

We may not be able to control every aspect of home teaching in our ward, or even in our own quorum, but there are things we can do to improve our experience, both with our assigned families, and with our own home teachers.

I will talk about five problem areas with home teaching then follow that with our duties as described in the scriptures and how those duties can help us look at our home teaching responsibilities in a different way. First let’s look at how the kingdom is set up by the Lord.

By assignment

The Lord doesn’t work on a volunteer basis. Once we have made covenants with Him we have accepted the responsibility to do whatever we are asked or told we need to do. Our covenants include listening to our priesthood leaders with the same obedient heart that we would listen to the words of the Savior himself.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a church of assignments. The underlying assumption is that we are all willing to work together to do whatever it takes to save one another. When the Bishop or quorum president calls us in and asks us to accept a calling, we are under covenant to accept that assignment and fulfill it to the best of our ability.

Turning down a calling is not something we have the privilege of doing out of a sense of it being inconvenient or uncomfortable for us. If, for any reason we don’t feel we can fulfill an assignment it is our responsibility to counsel with our priesthood leader in all honesty then let them decide whether they should withdraw the calling. That is their call, not ours. (If you can reference any conference talk to the contrary, I would love to see the reference.)

This is why we are assigned families to home teach. The quorum president or group leader uses their inspiration to assign families to home teachers to the best of their ability. There is much we as home teachers can do to help them in this process. Unfortunately, we don’t usually do it. I’ll talk about that in the reporting section.

Problem 1 – Lack of familiarity

The first problem we need to address is that we are assigned to visit families we often don’t know, and sometimes have nothing in common with, and (heaven forbid) don’t even like. That is the first obstacle to good home teaching.

Problem 2 – Assigned companion

One of the responsibilities of those in higher offices of the priesthood is to teach those in the Aaronic priesthood or who may be new to the Melchizedek priesthood how to perform the responsibilities of the priesthood through home teaching.

First of all, many of us still don’t know how to do effective home teaching. Many of us have never had a good home teacher, so it has never been modeled for us. This makes it doubly difficult to demonstrate and model good home teaching to the person with whom we have been assigned to serve.

Problem 3 – Family resistance

Many families have had so many poor home teachers that they suffer the visits of home teachers like we put up with trips to the dentist. They are necessary, but definitely not a pleasant experience.

I’ve had people tell me to my face that they would prefer that I not come and just say that I have (because they are “fine”), and have had home teachers who think that greeting me in the hall at church counts as a visit. Then there are those who see that I am at church and consider that sufficient contact to say they have done their home teaching. And this without even speaking to me.

Some families will politely let you into their homes, but you know you are on a timer. They want you out within 20 minutes because that is about the limit of their patience with having you there. Then there are those families who are kind, and considerate, but dismiss your efforts to serve them like they shut the door on the carpet cleaning salesman. “We’re fine. We don’t need anything. We’ll let you know when we do.” In other words, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

Problem 4 – Hung up on reporting

One of the biggest problems with most men’s home teaching efforts is the perception that it is an activity with the end goal of reporting that it was accomplished, like being able to tell the wife that you accomplished taking out the trash before the dump truck arrived to pick up the street’s garbage. It is a task with a deadline, and nothing more.

This perception affects everything we do in our home teaching efforts. It flavors our conversations and colors our interactions with the families we visit.

Problem 5 – Isolation from the wife

Okay, so this is not something I have ever heard anyone else say before, but I think it can really make a difference in how we do our home teaching. We home teach as priesthood holders. We treat our home teaching like our wives treat their visiting teaching. We know zero about what happens between our wife and her visiting teaching women. Just so, we often don’t tell our spouse what we are doing with our home teaching families.

So why is this a problem? It causes problems because it is our responsibility to care for the whole family. Her responsibility is to watch over the needs of just the woman she visit teaches. We have to watch over the whole family.

This only really becomes a problem when we start to work with a family and our wife begins to feel neglected or shuffled into a secondary role. And it doesn’t help that we can’t always work with a man in the family. Sometimes we are helping single mothers or widows, which means we are dealing with other women – always a sensitive operation.

My wife was a single professor at BYU-Hawaii for many years before I met and married her. Her experience was that in all professional areas she was treated well by her male fellow faculty members. But when a gathering was held where the spouses were invited, she noticed that when she walked into the room every wife would either take a step closer to her husband or would take him by the arm as soon as they saw her. There was an unconscious possessiveness on the part of the wives.

The question then is how do we perform our priesthood responsibilities with other families and still keep peace at home? What can we do to help our spouse feel not just comfortable, but part of our interactions with these other families?

Part II

Identifying the pieces

Home teaching, at its root, is the expression of the most basic duty of every priesthood holder. Every office in the priesthood is additive, meaning that the responsibilities and abilities of a lower office are still the responsibility of the person who holds a higher office in the priesthood. Just because I am a high priest it doesn’t mean I can’t pass the sacrament or that I am no longer able to fulfill the duties of a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. Higher offices in the priesthood mean additional responsibilities, not just a change of responsibilities.

In Doctrine and Covenants 20 we find the following verses describing some of the duties of the priest and teacher. Think about how these duties apply to our home teaching efforts.

46 The priest’s duty is to preach, teach, expound, exhort, and baptize, and administer the sacrament,

47 And visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.

53 The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;

54 And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;

55 And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty.

These duties of the teachers and priests are at the core of what it means to hold the priesthood. The additional responsibilities added with the higher offices of the priesthood are largely administrative, like conducting and presiding in meetings, as well as performing the higher ordinances of salvation. But at the heart of all priesthood responsibilities, is the call to minister to the members of the Church.

The difference between administering and ministering is pretty stark. A Bishop administers when he conducts a meeting or calls someone to serve. The bishop ministers when he counsels someone who is seeking repentance, or when he interviews for worthiness.

The duties of priests and teachers are all duties of ministration or service. This is the point of us holding the priesthood. We each need to learn how to minister to others as Christ did to those around him. When we minister we are seeking to promote the physical or spiritual welfare and salvation of the person we are with.

Change in perspective

“The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strength them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking.” What is the difference between this statement of how we are to minister to a family that is not our own, and how we are supposed to minister to our own family? Isn’t the responsibility identical to what a parent is supposed to do in their own home?

Parents are to see to it that there is no backbiting, no iniquity, nor evil speaking in their home. Their responsibility is to watch over the needs of their family members and strengthen them in any way they can and help them fulfill all their duties in the Church.

This poses an interesting challenge for home teachers. How do I go into someone else’s home and support the head of the household’s mission to see that these things are done without getting in the way of the head of the household or trying to take over their role as a parent?

This tells me that I have to have the perspective as a parent that my home teachers need to work closely with me to accomplish this very important responsibility. The Lord has sent them into my home to help me promote peace and spirituality among my family members. And as a home teacher I need to learn to honor and respect the head of the home and learn what that family is doing to promote obedience to the gospel and the commandments.

When I ask if they are holding Family Home Evening, family prayer, family scripture reading, as well as personal prayers and scripture study, am I coming across as one who is genuinely concerned for the welfare of the person and the family or am I coming across as judgmental and condemning?

There are some questions I cannot ask with impunity unless I have established a relationship with the family that will allow me to ask those sensitive questions without offense. What have I done to create that kind of trusting relationship?

To answer Problem 4 – Hung up on reporting, if all I am telling my priesthood leader is that I did my home teaching, I have cheated my family. We are sent to these homes as emissaries of the Bishop. We are his eyes and ears. Our responsibility is to watch over and care for our assigned families and make sure that they receive the help they need in order to be safe and cared for in the Lord’s kingdom.

If we see a problem in the home we need to report that back to our priesthood leader then continue to work with the head of the home, providing whatever help and encouragement we can to assist them in their daily struggles to keep the commandments. Once we have made the Bishop aware of their needs our job is not done. We continue to do all we can for them until we are given further directions from the Bishop or our priesthood leader. We should be doing the same thing if all is going well in the home. The Bishop should know that they are fulfilling all their duties and if they have the spirit of peace in their home.

We communicate what we see happening in the home not because we are spying or trying to control what happens there. We are caring for this family and helping the head of the family fulfill their responsibilities for the welfare of their spouse and children. The effectiveness of our efforts are all based in the attitudes we have behind our efforts.

Answering Problem 1 – Lack of familiarity is one of the largest hurdles to overcome. Even learning to love the people we home teach doesn’t really solve this problem. One brother said to me recently that he wasn’t sure how he could come to trust that the person who home teaches him really loves his family. Are they remembering my children’s birthdays out of duty? Do they come over and “care” about us only because they are assigned to us? If they appear to love us, but then get assigned to home teach someone else, I can almost guarantee they will probably never darken our door again. If that is the case then did they ever really love us in the first place?

These are difficult questions, and they deserve good answers that I can’t really give. But I can say this much. We have to remember that there are physical limitations on how much time we can each spend away from our home and our own family. We make the time to go out and serve the three or four families we have been assigned to home teach, but when our assignment changes, we have to move our small allotment of time and energy to the new families we have been assigned to help.

Does this mean we no longer love our former home teaching families? I don’t think so. But it does mean that we cannot devote the same kind of energy to visiting them that we were required to do as the Lord’s priesthood ministers when we were assigned to them as their home teachers. At some point we will have to start learning to trust that not all expressions of love in this life are a lie. Sometimes a kindly deed is just what it appears to be. We should learn to accept it at face value and not question its value or validity just because we won’t be able to hold it up to a lifelong scrutiny.

Solving Problem 1 – Lack of familiarity can be done in a couple of ways. We can be a little assertive with our care and concern for the home teaching family. It may take some time to find something we can do for them that they haven’t asked for help with, but we still have to find a way to provide the help without offending the head of the household. Some people are fiercely independent and haven’t yet learned how to accept help from others.

Some people are in a comfortable place in life and really don’t need anything. For these people just being a friend and consistently available for them is all we can really do for them. The key is in the consistency of our presence and promises. If we toot our horn about how we want to help, but then when they finally ask for it we let them down, we may be hard pressed to expect that they will ask us for help again anytime soon.

The key here is being watchful. We are guardians of the families we have been assigned to. There are ways to help and protect them without getting in their way. But whatever we do it must be with the cooperation and consent of the head of the household. Communication is important in how we serve our families. Remember that if it is important to our home teaching family it should become important to us.

The answer to Problem 2 – Assigned companion has to do with the relationship we develop with each companion. Some companionships are co-equals. Some are senior and junior companion. When we have a young man as our companion, especially when it is our own son, think about the tremendous responsibility that rests on our shoulders to demonstrate and model Christlike ministering to them. As holders of the higher priesthood we are assigned to show them how to watch over a family in the way that Jesus would be pleased with. What would He want us to do for our particular families to show them that the Savior loves them and that our Father in Heaven cares about what happens in their home?

What can we do about how we serve our families that will demonstrate to our Aaronic Priesthood companion that there is little difference between caring for physical needs and caring for spiritual needs? Learning that the physical affects the spiritual and vice versa is an important lesson. Is there really anything we can do for someone else that is beneath our dignity or our duty? All service is sacred, or can be made to be so.

Answering problem 4 – Family resistance takes time. Many people become resistant to having home teachers in their homes over time. It is generally the result of bad experiences with previous home teachers. Trust is required to change their perspective of your visits. That may take a while.

Think about your own attitude toward your home teachers. Do you trust that your home teachers are there each month because they want to be? Do you believe they are there to watch over your family and help you be a good parent or spouse? Do your home teachers know your children and care about them on a personal level? Would you trust your children to be alone with your home teachers?

If you answer no to any of the preceding questions how do you think your home teaching families would answer those questions about you? What do you do in your visits to include all the children in the lesson or the conversation? We all know that some of the conversation has to be between the grownups in the room, but that doesn’t mean the whole visit needs to be just between the grownups.

What do you do to show respect for the time, interest, or needs of the head(s) of the family you home teach? How do you present your lesson so that even the little children feel included? Do you ever go to any of their family events? Do you acknowledge all the members of the family, by name, when you see them in public places? Do they believe you are actually happy to see them and talk to them?

Ministering is a personal thing. We cannot minister to our families without becoming familiar with all their wants and needs, at least in a general sense. If you ask anyone who has had a great home teacher in the past what made that person stand out as a home teacher, I can almost guarantee there will be aspects of personal attention that caused the members of the family to be happy to have their home teachers come to their home each month.

A big part of Problem 1 – Lack of familiarity, Problem 3 – Family resistance, and Problem 4 – Hung up on reporting is that single, solitary visit made each month, generally at the end of the month. Visiting at the last minute of the month screams to the family that they are unimportant to you. It tells them that you are just a statistic to be achieved. It also demeans you and your priesthood by communicating to the family that you don’t really love or care about them, that you are just there to fulfill an obligation and you need them in order to do it.

What do you think would happen between you and your home teaching families if you made your official visit early in the month then followed up your visit with one or two phone calls to see how they were doing as the month progressed? What would your relationship be like if you dropped by with a birthday card for each member of their family on the day of someone’s birthday? How do you think they would feel about you if you knew and acknowledged when their anniversary was or some other special occasion that was unique to that family?

These things show true caring and concern for the family. It doesn’t have to be fancy or take a lot of time. Our connection with the family can be brief, yet meaningful when we put some thought into the things we do for them and with them. How would it change your relationship with your home teaching family if you actually did things together as families?

The point

Are you noticing the trend in all my comments? Everything we do takes time. Everything we do to home teach takes thought and commitment about someone else’s life. We do this with our own family, though we don’t usually think of doing these things in terms of an assignment. But there isn’t anything we do as a home teacher that we aren’t obligated to do for our own family.

This brings us to answering Problem 5 – Isolation from the wife. There are some things we need to keep confidential as priesthood holders. That is a given. But most of what happens between us and our home teaching families should not be secretive. In fact, we would probably prosper greatly if we relied on our eternal companion to help us with suggestions and in the execution of our efforts to demonstrate our care and concern for our home teaching families.

If there is one thing most women naturally excel at it is charity, and the demonstration of charity. We could learn a lot about how to serve our home teaching families by including our wife in the service we desire to perform. This communication will help us with winning her trust as well. After all, if we are going to be spending more time with other families, some of whom may not have priesthood in their homes, the support of our wife is vital to our success.

It is not her responsibility to do the home teaching, but that doesn’t mean she wants nothing to do with it. When it comes to her husband spending time helping another family, I believe most women would like to be in the loop with what is going on. That will make life much easier at home, as well as help with performing our ministering to our assigned families.

Final Thoughts

The act of home teaching is the act of Christlike ministering. We can stumble through it and be clueless year after year or we can begin to look at home teaching as an opportunity for us to learn how to treat others as Christ would treat us if He were our neighbor.

Good home teaching has to become like everything else in the gospel of Christ, it must become based on love for someone else. There are skills to becoming a good home teacher, just like there are skills to becoming a good conversationalist or a good teacher. We need to stop going through the motions of home teaching blindly, and begin seeking for ways to make personal connections and to bring the Spirit into what we do with and for our families.

I sincerely believe that making sure our eternal companion feels like part of our ministry, though it is our responsibility and not hers, will help keep family life happier, and make home teaching easier.

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