‘Only by Persuasion’: Handling Criticism in Home Teaching Situations
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“‘Only by Persuasion’: Handling Criticism in Home Teaching Situations,” Ensign, July 1982, 22

Teaching in the Home and Church

“Only by Persuasion”:

Handling Criticism in Home Teaching Situations

Love is the principle that overshadows all others in responding to criticism.

The home teachers had scarcely sat down and exchanged greetings with the family when their teenage son blurted out, “How can we say we’re the only true church when some of the best kids in school aren’t Mormons and they believe in their church just as much as we do?”

A quick glance at the young man’s father was met with a tired shrug, as much as if to say, “We’ve tried; now see what you can do with him.”

The older of the home teachers paused a moment, then said, “Well Chris, that’s a fair question. It reminds me of something that happened when I was just a couple of years older than you are. When I first went away to college back east, I took certain notions along with me—prejudices, I guess. I thought I would be going from the shelter of simple farm life to a decadent city where my principles would be challenged every minute. But that didn’t really happen. I was surprised to find that most of my classmates were fine people. Some of them belonged to other churches, and some didn’t belong to any church at all. And as I observed their behavior, I sometimes wondered if I would have been as honest as many of them were if I hadn’t been raised in a Latter-day Saint family. Have you ever thought about that?”

Chris nodded, and the home teacher continued:

“So when we say that ours is the only true church, we’re not saying that we’re superior to other people or that we’re the only people on earth who are concerned about doing good, but that this is the one church that the Lord has authorized through priesthood power to preach his gospel and perform the ordinances necessary for salvation. We want all people to have these good things. …”

The discussion continued calmly. After looking up “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) and a few other scriptures, Chris soon had a satisfactory answer to his question.

The response of this home teacher to Chris’s troubled question illustrates a number of principles that can be helpful in dealing with criticism positively and effectively:

1. Don’t be shocked; be prepared. Questions or statements that seem critical of the Church, of gospel principles, or of other members and leaders do confront home teachers from time to time. How they respond to such criticism can have a lasting effect upon the families they are called to assist. But if home teachers are prepared to respond in a reasonable way, and to exercise their influence “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41–42), there will seldom be an occasion for surprise, embarrassment, or a collision of opinions.

Argument and contention have no place in home teaching. By responding with a sure gentleness, this home teacher was careful to leave Chris an easy way to agree with him when he eventually chose to.

2. Focus on the positive. When a troublesome statement is made, a thoughtful home teacher might begin by assuming that the person is trying to express an honest question. Then, dividing the statement into positive and negative elements, he can focus on the positive.

In this instance the home teacher saw that Chris’s statement had two parts: (1) the question of ours being the only true church, and (2) his feeling that there are many admirable people who are nonmembers. Therefore, the home teacher first focused on Chris’s positive feelings about his friends—something that both of them could agree on completely. Then, when everyone was comfortable in the discussion, he went on to deal with the doctrinal question that the young man had raised. Because of his approach, the home teacher was able to avoid an argument; and when there’s no argument to win, agreement is always easier.

3. Don’t be in a hurry to correct the error. It isn’t easy to change the direction of a person’s thinking when he is filled with emotion—and criticism is generally an emotional experience. Give the critic time and opportunity to correct himself.

In the days of the great cattle drives there were sometimes stampedes. A stampede was not only destructive to everything in its path, but it was also very harmful to the cattle themselves. The cowboys learned from experience that it was unwise to try to stop a stampede by meeting it head-on. Instead, they would ride alongside until they could reach the front of the herd and redirect the lead cattle into paths which would avoid harm until they could get the head cow in control, slowed down, and moving toward the desired destination.

Criticism that home teachers encounter often has many parallels with a cattle stampede. It is usually a result of fear, pain, hurt feelings, or misunderstanding. It is destructive not only to the criticized, but even more to the critic. And as with a stampede, it is generally not wise to try to stop criticism by direct confrontation. The most helpful way to begin is often to run alongside until you can redirect runaway emotions into calmer paths, just as Chris’s home teacher did.

Sometimes this requires that the home teacher simply be a listener, for listening often detects criticism that is voiced to cover up other problems. For example, “I just don’t like to go to meetings” may really mean, “I don’t have good hearing” or “I can’t quit smoking.” And the statement, “Relief Society is just a place for gossip” may mean, “My daughter and her husband are separating and I worry about what people will say.” By listening with patience and encouragement, the home teacher allows the person to overcome the hurt or weakness that is keeping him from enjoying the spirit of the gospel.

4. Don’t go along with negatives. Riding alongside the herd while trying to head off a stampede is not the same thing as joining in the stampede. Similarly, working through troublesome statements with someone does not require that you join in the criticism—in fact, just the opposite. No matter how badly you wish to establish rapport with someone, be careful not to give the impression that you agree with the negative elements of critical statements.

The Savior said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him.” (Matt. 5:25.) This does not mean that we should add our voices to the chorus of criticism. We should try to find a common, positive ground and establish a level of confidence before we try to correct or redirect. This was the home teacher’s approach with Chris: agree where you can, and don’t deal with divisive issues until you have created an atmosphere where calm discussion can take place.

5. Bear testimony. In a way that will be encouraging and uplifting, bear testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel and the power of revelation in directing the Church. Be careful not to convey a message of condemnation or antagonism toward the person you are trying to help.

Chris had other disturbing questions that had come up in talks with his friends—questions that were also of concern to his parents. Though inactive, they wanted their son to be positive about the Church but didn’t have all the answers he needed. Therefore, when the home teachers left, it was agreed that they would return once a week for some time to teach the family gospel principles selected from a list of topics they prepared. After each lesson the family members were invited to ask any questions they desired.

This arrangement worked very well. In a later visit, Chris asked another question that was troubling him: “Why does the Church build so many expensive buildings while there are so many people starving in the world?”

The home teachers approached this question much the same as they did the previous one. Analyzing his statement, they saw that it too was composed of two parts: (1) a feeling of concern for the needy people of the earth, and (2) an assertion about the amount of money spent on Church buildings.

Having divided the question into its positive and negative elements, they focused on the positives—for, as long as the focus was on concern for the needy, they could be in complete agreement. One of the home teachers said:

“Chris, when you mention the poor, you’ve hit on one of the most important areas of concern in the Church. I suppose there have been very few times when the Lord was really pleased with the people of the earth and the way they lived. But one good example is Enoch’s city of Zion.” He thumbed through his scriptures and handed the book to Chris. “Read verse 18 there,” he said.

Chris read, “‘And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.’” (Moses 7:18.)

“In Zion there should be no poor,” said the home teacher, “and that’s a problem the Church is trying to do something about.” He mentioned the Church’s personal and family preparedness program, in which families are taught and encouraged to become literate and productive, to improve their employment, to be prepared through storage of necessary commodities, to look after their health, both physical and emotional. Then he added, “You mentioned Church buildings, Chris. Our meetinghouses are the places where we go to worship and to learn these important things.”

“That’s true,” said his companion. “I remember when I lived in the Northwest. It was a little town, and there weren’t many members there when we joined the Church. We were anxious to learn, and I can’t tell you how important it was to us to have a place to meet together and be taught. We built a chapel there. It was a real sacrifice, but we had no doubt that it was a necessary and practical one. All building construction is expensive. We put into our chapel as much excellence and beauty as our limited funds would allow.”

“Where does the money come from?” asked Chris.

“From you and me,” the companion chuckled. “That’s why we watch the dollars carefully. Meetinghouses and temples are all well-built but not extravagant. But I want to say that it’s hard to express the change that comes in the life of a new convert, even people as poor as we were. The Church has improved everything about us, I think—and I guess our standard of living too. That’s why I believe that ultimately the gospel is the solution to poverty and suffering of all kinds, spiritual and physical.”

In this instance again, these home teachers succeeded with Chris because they were able to move in the direction of his thoughts without contributing to the problem. Ignoring for a moment the hint of bitterness in his question, they reinforced his positive inclinations and thus turned a potentially negative experience into a fine teaching moment.

These same steps might well apply even in situations where there is criticism of individual Church leaders or other members. Regardless of what the criticism is, we should begin with whatever might be positive in the communication. It might simply be the implied wish that every leader—every member of the Church, for that matter—could be perfect. The initial discussion should lead away from the specific person to the principle that the objective of the gospel is to lead us to perfection. Above all, the home teacher should avoid giving the impression of joining in the criticism.

The discussion should eventually lead to the idea that leaders in the Church are called through the process of inspiration, and that sustaining means helping a person fulfill his responsibilities no matter what we think his shortcomings may be. It means upholding someone whom God has called. If you have served as a leader, you might tell of the difficulty of making certain decisions you were faced with, and how important that sustaining influence was to you.

Going further, the home teacher might find a gentle way to remind the critic that another person’s imperfections have little to do with his own salvation.

Regardless of the procedure we might use in responding to criticism, there is one principle which overshadows all others. That, of course, is love. Criticism may be one of the greatest obstacles to love, but love is also the greatest tool for overcoming criticism. The message of the gospel is that we should not only have love but that we should create love in the hearts of others. We create love by showing it. In home teaching we show love by recognizing accomplishments, by visiting, by helping, teaching, supporting, and caring. That’s home teaching. It is the process by which we create love for the gospel, and for one another.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Handling Criticism in Home Teaching Situations” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period.

1. This article outlines a method of dealing with criticism in home teaching situations. How can these same principles be applied in your own home or to troubling questions you may have individually?

2. What technique was suggested for finding and focusing on the positive elements of troublesome statements? Can you think of examples where this technique might be applied?

3. Can your family find scriptural passages that offer guidance on how we should respond when people criticize? How the critic should view his critical tendencies? (See Topical Guide in the LDS edition of the King James Bible.)

4. The author suggests that criticism is sometimes voiced to cover up other problems. Can you think of examples where this might be true?

5. What are some of the dangers involved in giving a critic the impression that you are joining him in his criticism?

  • Dan J. Workman, a zone administrator, Church Educational System, and father of nine children, is bishop of the Centerville, Utah, Sixth Ward.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten