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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.