What does it mean to minister?

homteachingHome Teaching

Home teaching was a significant part of my Mormon life. My parents were relentless, never missing a month, like clockwork. I remember when I turned 14, old enough to be my dad’s companion, I dreaded these visits. They would last an hour typically, and it was mostly my dad talking endlessly to the adult members of the family we were visiting, with me sitting there next to him, bored out of my mind. In my Mormon church experience, boredom was my most common emotional experience, home teaching included.

Some of you might be asking, home teaching, eh? Home teaching is a church program where men are divided into companionships, and then assigned three to four families to visit monthly, giving a gospel message, and offering whatever assistance might be needed in that home. Visiting teaching is basically the same program for the women.

There is a lot of theoretical potential with home teaching. In reality, it is often difficult, requiring the coordination of three different schedules (both companions and the family) to visit a single family every single month. Then multiply this by three or four depending on the number of families assigned, the logistical coordination problem is the biggest challenge. Most of the time, it’s done out of obligation. Leadership give constant reminders, determine who were actually visited and then report the results up the hierarchy.  What typically happens, is that most people are busy trying to squeeze all of their visits in at the end of each month. Ward families often understand the obligation and try to make room for these visits even though often times it can be inconvenient on what often is already a really busy Sunday to have to fit in yet another spiritual message on a day already filled with them. More typically, though, the visits aren’t made at all as percentages are often below 50%, month to month.

Sometimes, though, it can really work. I’ve had times when I’ve developed really deep relationships with the families I was assigned. And even when something is done out of obligation, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a waste of time. Even a short visit can be meaningful. The effectiveness of the program is really all over the map.

But in my experience, the magical home teaching moments where deeply meaningful relationships result are fairly rare. Admittedly, this is potentially more about me than the program. Who knows?  I’m speaking mostly from my own experience.


About six months ago, this program, a program as deeply entrenched into Mormon culture as any we have, was replaced with something that was supposed to go beyond checklists, obligatory monthly visits and weekly nagging, a program called ministry. When I heard this, I jumped for joy. I’ve been feeling pretty frustrated with home teaching and was trying to figure out ways to make it more meaningful and effective.

My interpretation of the program is that it prioritizes relationships over simply visits. And how do you develop a relationship? Well, I’m not sure. It’s difficult. It takes time and it requires people on both sides to make a willing effort. It’s bi-directional, requiring a give and take in both directions. There has to be time, a willing to sacrifice, a listening ear. Phone calls, shared meals, conversations, activities. Teaching is not often a part of friendships, at least not intentional teaching. Relationships work best when both sides view the other as their equal. Most of my friends have come at work or at school. Hours together, working on a project, or struggling to learn a complicated topic. Hours together at work lead to hours together outside of work, simply enjoying each other’s company.

Why the Church is As True as the Gospel

Eugene England wrote a famous and beautiful essay that gets into what makes Mormonism so uniquely beautiful at its core. That the gospel of Jesus Christ can be found in the messy work of trying to make it work in a congregation.  Mormon congregations are organized around lay ministry with borders drawn up geographically. Where I live determines what congregation I attend. When I attend, I am asked to serve along with others who live nearby. In other words, the church divides up its membership into congregations and then utilize the resources in the congregation to fulfil the purposes of the church.

There are certainly challenges in this arrangement. There’s no shopping around for just the right congregation, so if things get difficult, we’re mostly stuck. Not completely, there are exceptions, but exceptions are purposely difficult to get. The reason for this is because these congregations are designed to act like families, Mormons view the work of salvation to be both an individual and a collective endeavor. And congregations are organized to help individuals and families help each other find salvation. We’re in this together.

I bring this up because ministry is at the heart of what Eugene England describes here. Ministry, at its core, is the most important part of being a member of this church.


Some of the concerns I’ve heard about the new program is that it’s highly likely to end up just like “Home Teaching” with a different name, so how is that really all that revelatory significant? Leaders are going to struggle giving up the control they had with home teaching – the assignments, the reporting, the nagging. The only reports required for ministry is whether or not the leaders are doing the quarterly interviews. In other words, are leaders helping the congregation minister to each other? That is the important question, more important it turns out, than what people are actually doing. Rather than pushing people into doing something specific like home teaching visits, can they just encourage relationships to bloom?

Another concern is the forced/assigned nature of the program. There have been plenty of people I really wanted to be friends with in my life. Many of those friendships have not worked out. They take both sides wanting them enough to sacrifice the kind of time required to make friendships work. Sometimes I want the friendship more than the other person.

My Suggestions

I’d like to think ministry is a fundamentally different program than home teaching. If the program is an attempt to make sure no one in the ward family is friendless and if in time of need, there is at least one person nearby with enough built-up authentic concern for that person to be there in a meaningful way, providing love and support built up through years of effort.

If that’s the framing of this program, we need to think of this program completely different. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Make the assignments bi-directional: The families I’ve been assigned to minister should also be assigned to minister to me. This may change, in certain cases the nature of the relationship. I’m trying to minister someone trying to minister to me. That sounds exactly like the precondition of a deep relationship. Why not make that the intention from the beginning.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel: Allow friendships developed organically to continue. Relish in the ministry that’s already happening in the congregation. That counts, to use Elder Holland’s words.
  3. Priorities the Friendless: Some people make friends easily, many do not. Make sure those disconnected from the ward have the same opportunities others do. Assign the most energetic, charismatic member to those who are living on the margins.
  4. Give the people a say in who they minister:  Inspiration can come from anywhere, but mostly from where it matters most, on the ground. If someone feels called to minister to someone specifically, let them do it.
  5. De-prioritize the companionship (or better yet eliminate them):  Assigning families to companionships makes the entire thing less authentic, and increases the difficulty building deep relationships. Rather than companionships, connect families where possible.


If we want ministry to work, I think it requires a deep re-thinking of what ministry is. If I’m right and if it’s more about establishing relationships, we need to think about how relationships begin and flourish and provide the right kind of environment to make sure that they do.

We should set up the environment and hope for the best. That’s as much as we can really do.


On Sam Young’s Upcoming Disciplinary Action


Jordan Peterson on Hierarchies

Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about the differences between liberals and conservatives especially in relation to their response to hierarchies.

Hierarchies are inevitable and required to structure and organize our societies against and within a complex world that would otherwise destroy us. He talks a lot about avoiding the dual forces on both sides of the extremes  – the repressive forces of totalitarianism that come from too much order inherent in oppressive hierarchies and the chaos and nihilism of moral relativism when hierarchies fall apart.

To get us into the right balance, we need both sides in this sort of cooperative tension, in constant conversation, pulling and pushing each other into the right balance somewhere in the middle. Like most everything, it’s a complicated balancing act that requires constant vigilance (I can’t resist a very old video I made to fundraise for a cure for diabetes several years ago – trying to keep a diabetics blood sugar in perfect balance, with just the right amount of insulin, proper diet, and regular exercise is an interesting metaphor to life generally):

Conservatives tend to value and support these hierarchies while liberals worry about those who can and are oppressed by them. Both sides play an important role. We need to support hierarchies, but hierarchies need to be occasionally refreshed and updated and they need enough constraints to protect society from the consequences of their corruption, because all hierarchies are corrupt to one extent or another, and left unchecked trend toward deeper corruption.

What’s Happening With Sam Young

With that as a backdrop, consider the upcoming disciplinary action against Sam Young here: https://invisiblescubit.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/excommunication-notice/

For those not following, he is the founder of a movement named “Protect LDS Children”, the focus of this group is to push the LDS church to stop doing 1 on 1 worthiness interviews with children. From the website:

For decades, it has been common place for Mormon Bishops and other local leaders to pose questions of a sexual nature to children. There are reports of this happening to children as young as age 8. These questions are being asked by an older man, all alone with the child, behind closed doors and often without the knowledge or permission of the parents. Almost universally, these men have no comprehensive training.It is time for this practice to be eliminated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


We call on the LDS Church to immediately cease the practice of subjecting children to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature. This applies to all children up to and including age 17. There should be no one-on-one interviews with children. A parent or other trusted adult of the child’s choosing is to be present.

We call on the LDS Church to publicly disavow this practice.

We call on the LDS Church to ensure that all congregational leaders, as well the general membership, are informed that this practice is prohibited.

In what appears to be in response to a planned protest, the church did recently update its policies on interviews here: https://www.lds.org/church/news/first-presidency-releases-new-guidelines-for-interviewing-youth?lang=eng.

In particular this:

  • If a youth desires, he or she may invite a parent or another adult to be present when meeting with the bishop or one of his counselors.

For clarity, bishops have been asked to perform regular interviews for youth 12 to 18. There is a baptismal interview with a child at 8 and then not another until they are almost 12  in preparation for the transition into the young women/young men program. The church’s primary worthiness concerns are rightly targeted toward youth making their way through the pot-holes of puberty.

Nonetheless, for Sam Young, the policy updates  did not go far enough. For Young, in no circumstances should these interviews be performed without another trusted adult, and that decision should not be left to the youth. Sam Young continued with his public protests and then later followed it up with a highly-publicized prolonged hunger strike.

In response, the church is now moving toward excommunication proceedings.

My Thoughts

The Trained Professional

We’ve taken children to counseling and there were times we’ve left our child alone with the therapist to help her work out issues without the presence of a parent. It feels like these sort of interactions were useful. An observing guardian fundamentally alters the interaction. The child might be safer with a parent there, but it might also prevent the child from being as open with the therapist, something that might be required for real discovery and growth.

Conversation is like that. A conversation will change when its observed, that’s been my experience.

The Bishop

Within Mormonism, ecclesiastical leadership is volunteer. Leaders are called by other leaders into service. People are free to turn the call down, but no one asks to serve. Bishops and other leaders have their own professional lives often completely unrelated to church service. Bishops might be doctors, lawyers, dentists, or janitors. The one constant is that they are dedicated, faithful members of the church, often with years of prior church service.

When the bishop is called into service, Mormons believe they receive a mantel that elevates them beyond their own capacities. When congregants listen to a bishop’s counsel, they treat what they hear as revelatory insights inspired by God’s holy spirit. They believe that the mantel gives bishops special capacity to help shepherd an individual through a difficult world, avoiding life-limiting temptations.

To be honest, with my own experience with teen-agers, I see how much more dependent I am on othes to help guide them as they prepare for the looming, painful separation out into the world. Teenagers naturally start questioning their parents and start looking for other influences and direction. Church culture can provide necessary and important tools to help them launch out with greater confidence and less damage.


But they aren’t professionals and they aren’t trained. And sexual and worthiness conversations are land mines that can be stepped on even by those who are trained. There are plenty of stories of exploding landmines in bishop’s offices and  Sam Young has compiled plenty.

One Interpretation: Tyranny or Chaos?

Sam Young appears to be injecting a bit of chaos into the Mormon structure. If anyone can organize a protest, pushing back against churches doctrines or policies, questioning prophetic decisions and insights, explicitly encouraging the public to not consider joining the church, implicitly encouraging others to leave, these actions can legitimately feel destabilizing to the church.

However, if the church’s policies have the feel of being consistently imposed from the top down. If the church feels like it never takes into consideration the experiences of its members, day to day. If church leaders at the top appear to not really be listening to the average membership’s concerns. If church leaders only appear to be talking to but never really carefully listening to its members, or more expansively, if they always shut down debate, rather than consider critical complaints, the culture can start to appear oppressive and tyrannical.

Does Sam Young Deserve a Conversation with Church Leadership

First of all, it appears that Sam Young has been in conversation with local leadership. I’m not sure they have changed their practices at a local level to adhere to Young’s suggestions. I think there is plenty of room for bishops at the local level to do that without contradicting church policy. Bishops should consult with parents before inviting children into an interview. They easily could encourage them to be a part of that interview.

However, local leadership have no power to change church policy. Sam Young’s criticism is directed toward Salt Lake City and changes to the policies he objects have to come from the very top. I understand that for the prophet to take time to directly address every critic in individual conversations would be unsustainable and could distract from their core duties to lead the church.

But certainly, some amount of engagement here could be extremely useful. The secular world may have a few things to say about the efficacy of private one-on-one interviews between an adult and a teenager and the kinds of dangers and land-mines that might occur when someone untrained is navigating sensitive topics like sexuality with one still trying to understand and control hormones raging as they navigate puberty.

Thoughtful conversations can be revelatory experiences. However, I understand much of the secular world does not give sufficient space for revelation, a deep component of the driving force for Mormonism. How do you confront a data-driven argument with a God-inspired response? Sometimes God is in the data but not always.

These kinds of conversations can be landmines in-and-of themselves. Church leaders might look foolish to the best scientists in the secular world and still be correct, well, if you believe at all in the efficacy of revelation and a prophet’s ability to receive such.

Current Thoughts

I hate when someone is excommunicated for nearly any reason with the exception of predatory behavior. Apostasy is the one I have the most trouble with because someone who is otherwise faithful in every respect could be considered an apostate for having a disagreement over a single issue and that seems to be the case here.

In this case, I’d rather see the church in better communication with Sam Young, attempting to either convince him while also showing a good faith willingness to be convinced.

Jordan Peterson is fond of comparing God to the word, Logos. God is fundamentally in our thoughtful conversations. It’s in conversation we move toward wisdom. It’s through conversation we can achieve balance. I wish there were more conversation between the church and its critics. I think to achieve the balance between oppressive order and disruptive chaos, we need thoughtful conversation. It’s the most potent solution to the problems of hierarchies, but the church for understandable reasons more often than not seems to avoid them.