“Becoming a Better Home Teacher or Visiting Teacher,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 24–33
My mother was ill most of my growing-up years, but when I was about 15, her health deteriorated and she almost never left the house. During this time many ward members dropped by, but no one came more often than her visiting teachers. Each Sunday Colleen Goodwin took notes at every Church meeting. Later, she’d visit my mother and tell her about every talk and every lesson while Marian Eubanks massaged Mom’s sore and swollen legs and feet.
Now, these sisters didn’t just do this once or twice. They did it for years! They both worked and had families of their own. But we knew if we ever needed anything, we could call on Mom’s visiting teachers. They went more than the extra mile—they became Mom’s friends. And they taught her young daughter about true charity.—Tracy Wright, Prairie Fifth Ward, West Jordan Utah Prairie Stake
Wain was a big, strapping ex-football player, an outgoing, caring, and demonstrative elder. Don was a wonderful complement—the epitome of quiet spiritual strength.
The first time they visited us as home teachers, we knew they cared. They stated it forthrightly and sincerely. As a less-active member, I had previously been skeptical of anything to do with the Church and frequently questioned the motives of ward members, but I knew that these two were here for the right reason. I knew they weren’t visiting just to satisfy statistics. I knew they weren’t here just to check on us because the bishop asked them to. I knew they came because they believed in modern-day prophets and they valued their home teaching call as an opportunity to magnify their calling in the priesthood.—Dennis Peacock, Kearns 34th Ward, Kearns Utah South Stake
Obviously, home and visiting teachers can change lives. Many members treasure memories of warm shoulders, tender hearts, and caring hands offered as a result of these inspired programs. Yet, with all the powerful impact that home and visiting teachers can make in the lives of others, the actual process of going out in order to be able to “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8) can be challenging.
Sometimes it is difficult for companions to find the time when they are able to get together and visit their assigned families. Yet it is important for this service to be accomplished in pairs, a pattern for home teaching having been established by revelation for the priesthood to go by twos (see D&C 20:47, 53; D&C 42:6). It is often a greater challenge to merge those two schedules with the available schedules of persons to be visited. Sometimes the number of families to be visited seems to outweigh the workload that home and visiting teachers are able to carry; sometimes the distance or time and cost it takes to reach persons is daunting. And, sometimes the challenge is in motivating home and visiting teachers to seek the Spirit in resolving the unique circumstances they are facing. Consequently, these stumbling blocks and others can deter members from actually doing the Lord’s work of changing lives.
However, sharing ideas, suggestions, and solutions that others have found to be helpful can inspire flexibility, creativity, and commitment—key ingredients as members strive to “teach … and watch over the church” and “visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties” (D&C 20:42, 47). The principles discussed below may well be applicable in areas throughout the worldwide Church.
One of the most challenging parts of home and visiting teaching can be scheduling appointments. It’s difficult enough to find a time when two companions are free, but when a third party is introduced, the task becomes even more difficult.
“Some people work this out by setting up a regular time every month for the visit,” reports Bertram C. Willis, president of the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake. “The families and individuals know that the appointment is the afternoon of the first Sunday or the evening of the third Wednesday.”
Kathleen Berger, a visiting teacher in the Palm Bay First Ward, Cocoa Florida Stake, agrees. “We have several sisters we visit, and they all know that we always come on the first Tuesday morning of every month,” she says. “We all live far apart and sometimes feel cut off, so these visits are important, and the sisters enjoy them. These Tuesday morning visits are something they can count on.”
Home and visiting teachers say that it is important to express to those you visit a sincere desire to be a help and resource in their lives. This might best be accomplished by setting a standing appointment or by asking for two or three possibilities of times that would be convenient (noting the days that are not) both for you and those you visit. As possibilities are discussed, express love and concern for the family. Flexibility and compromise might be necessary, but the security of having an established appointment removes a surprising amount of pressure regarding home and visiting teaching.
Many wards encourage home and visiting teachers to complete their assignments by mid-month. “At that point, Relief Society and elders quorum leaders make their phone calls,” reports Walter Fife, first counselor in the Eureka California Stake. “If a companion has been ill or out of town, or if scheduling really is an issue, there are designated sisters and elders who are asked to visit them.”
As far as home teaching reporting goes, these back-up visits by priesthood leaders or others count on the records as home teaching completed only if in each instance they are done in conjunction with one of the home teachers assigned to the missed family. This is in accordance with general Church policy. Thus, in some stakes if a family is not being home taught and it is not possible for a priesthood leader to visit that family along with one of the assigned home teachers, the priesthood leader and another priesthood holder try to visit them. Although such visits do not count as home teaching and the records do not reflect that effort, a greater goal reflective of stake leaders’ genuine love and concern is met: keeping all members in regular contact with their wards or branches.
In this light, home teaching reports in the Carey Idaho Stake are turned in by the 20th day of the month. “The names of families and individuals not visited at that time are put on a list for a priesthood leader or others to visit as needed,” explains R. Spence Ellsworth, stake president. “The home teacher understands that the priesthood leader is not doing his home teaching for him but is only fulfilling the Church’s responsibility to each member—to regularly contact them. The home teacher is still encouraged to do his home teaching and to report it to his leader.
“After the 25th of the month, a list of members not visited is given to the bishopric, and they may become involved in visiting some of the families. We have seen amazing results from this approach. Home teachers see that visiting these members is a priority, and they begin to take the responsibility very seriously. The bishopric has not had to make very many visits,” President Ellsworth concludes.
In many areas, there are more individuals and families to visit than there are active members who can reasonably handle that responsibility. In the Fort Payne Branch, Chattanooga Tennessee Stake, there have been only three active priesthood brethren, including branch president Roman Lilly. Yet, the three men are responsible for home teaching 48 families—and they usually visit at least 45 of them.
“We spend two Saturdays a month home teaching, and we each go with our wives—they do the visiting teaching at the same time,” President Lilly explains, referring to a practice of visiting members that, where a special need exists in a family and when implemented with a bishop’s or branch president’s approval, can be reported in each instance as both a home teaching and a visiting teaching visit (see Melchizedek Priesthood Leadership Handbook, 1990, 5). “We leave in the morning and usually return by afternoon. Sometimes we’ll set an evening aside to visit the families we aren’t able to see on Saturdays, and on rare occasions we’ll visit with someone after or before church. Our ward covers 70 miles, but we understand the opportunity and responsibility home teaching is.”
As is demonstrated in the Fort Payne Branch, the need for husbands and wives to visit in a combined capacity as both home and visiting teachers is not the usual circumstance.
In the Carey Idaho Stake, “we don’t have enough active members to visit everyone, but our home teachers have had great success when they let the Spirit guide their thinking on who needs a visit,” explains Michael Chandler, first counselor in the stake presidency. “Each year we ask ward leaders to reevaluate the assignments, praying for inspiration about which families need assigned home teachers. Over the course of time, all members get visited.”
Home and visiting teachers report that when visiting all their families is not possible, the Spirit helps direct them to the families most in need of visits. In visiting teaching only, telephone calls and notes can substitute for personal visits on occasions when it is not possible for visiting teachers to meet with those whom they are assigned to visit.
In some cases when there is a high ratio of less-active members to active members, and where priesthood approval has been given by leaders, full-time missionaries serving in the area may act as companions for Melchizedek Priesthood brethren.
For some home and visiting teachers, presenting a formal message in an informal environment sometimes can be an awkward experience. Even when all involved are fully active in the Church, questions arise about how to move from casual conversation to the sharing of a spiritual message and about how to appeal to adults, teenagers, and Primary-age youngsters alike. When home or visiting teachers are visiting individuals who are reluctant to talk about the gospel or who have even requested no gospel discussions, the awkwardness can increase dramatically.
However, there are many nonthreatening ways to present a spiritual message to members who are less active. If individuals are uncomfortable talking about the gospel, Larry W. Watkins, president of the Cape Girardeau Missouri Stake, suggests leaving pamphlets or copies of articles with them to read on their own. Another possibility would be to invite these members to a specific party, fireside, activity, program, or meeting and perhaps discuss what the theme or subject will be and why it might be important for them to attend.
“Listening to the Spirit becomes essential as you go home or visiting teaching,” says Jack Cook, a high councilor in the College Station Texas Stake. “We have a high priests group leader and his companion who were visiting a single mother and her daughter. The family was active but talked of feeling spiritually ‘empty.’ There was just not a lot of spiritual movement.
“While visiting one day, this man felt prompted to suggest that this sister might consider attending the temple. Her eyes lit up. She’d never considered the possibility.
“With attending the temple in mind, she set goals, made progress, and grew tremendously,” Brother Cook says. “The day she attended the temple she was ecstatic. Her home teacher had listened to the Spirit and made a difference in her life.”
Patience on the part of families and individuals being visited can also bring the Spirit into a home. “I have always done my visiting teaching, and I have always let my visiting teachers come visit me,” shares Lynda Stout, a member of the Lehi Third Ward, Lehi Utah West Stake. “But it wasn’t until Alene Hardee and Wanda Johnson became my visiting teachers that I learned why the Lord had inspired this program to watch over, bless, and teach his daughters.
“Sure, Sister Hardee and Sister Johnson brought treats for my children on the holidays and remembered my birthday, but the thing that impressed me the most was the way they read the visiting teaching message to me every month. These sweet sisters were in their seventies, and sometimes it was hard for them to see the words, or sometimes they stumbled when they tried to pronounce a word. But I could tell by the diligent way in which they read each message that they took their responsibility in delivering the message as a very important assignment from the Lord.”
While some members may have been bothered to have the monthly message simply read aloud, Sister Stout recognized the importance of accepting the gospel message in whatever form it came. Her humble acceptance of that message allowed her to feel the Spirit and the love her visiting teachers felt for her.
While some Church units in areas heavily populated with Latter-day Saints cover only a few blocks or square miles, many Church units measure their area in hundreds of square miles. The North Slope Branch in the Fairbanks Alaska Stake covers more than 8,000 square miles. In addition, a night sky blankets the area 24 hours a day for several months of the year, and temperatures can dip to 50 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). “During the winter months we have problems with polar bears as well,” wryly observes Gaylin Fuller, who served as branch president for about five years.
“We may have the largest branch geographically in the Church,” he continues. “We have members near the Canadian border and others living near the Russian border. The only way to get to some of those areas is a $500 airplane ticket.
“Needless to say, we do our visiting over the phone to those areas,” he says. “But we make sure we call our families monthly. If there are youth in the family, the Young Men and Young Women presidents will call as well. Sometimes these families will get several calls a month. We also send them conference materials and updates on Church policy and information.”
But whether contact is made in person or by phone, members are contacted. “It’s extremely important; we all know that,” says President Fuller of the 10 pairs of priesthood holders who shoulder the home teaching assignments.
Although not as large as the North Slope Branch, the Duluth Minnesota Stake covers a substantial area. “Our area is going through an economically depressed time right now, and many of our members are living on tight budgets,” explains Gabriele Pihlaja, stake Relief Society president. “Gas money is tight, and visiting teaching can make huge dents in that figure.
“Our sisters know that a monthly visit is best,” she continues, “but the bottom line is whatever you do, please don’t do nothing. If circumstances make it impossible to visit everyone once a month, we encourage the sisters to visit at least one or two of the people on their list. The other sisters need at least a phone call or a letter. And then the next month the companionship visits one or two different sisters. That way at least everyone gets a quarterly visit.”
Several older sisters who can no longer drive are also involved in home visiting—through the mail. “We ask these sisters to write monthly to various members, including some of the less-active sisters,” Sister Pihlaja says. “The letters include information about Relief Society homemaking night and upcoming ward activities, and the sisters always invite the recipient to attend these events. One sister just received a grateful thank-you from a woman she’d been writing to for years. It made the effort worth every minute.”
Home teaching carries with it a unique challenge when Melchizedek Priesthood brothers are assigned Aaronic Priesthood brothers who are busy with school activities, jobs, and friends. Sometimes they haven’t yet experienced enough of home teaching to understand the impact or importance of the assignment. Training them properly and involving them as equals are crucial.
“One day my companion, Jared Barrott, is going to be the one in charge,” observes Rick Youngblood, a member of the Hixson Ward, Chattanooga Tennessee Stake. “He was just ordained a teacher, but he already understands that as a home teacher, his calling is to look out for the members of our ward.”
Brother Youngblood and Jared take turns presenting the monthly message. In addition, the two have compiled a list of all the birthdays and anniversaries celebrated by the six families they home teach. “We get together every month and we write a note for special occasions,” Brother Youngblood says. “Then Jared mails them. And I always ask him for ideas on how we can better meet the needs of our families and help the families feel the Spirit.”
President Watkins encourages the bishops in his stake to discuss the importance of home teaching with the Aaronic Priesthood brethren, as well as their parents. “Parents can offer guidance and encourage the young man to fulfill his calling,” he explains.
He also counsels Melchizedek Priesthood brothers to get to know their companions. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to show interest,” he says. “And when you find out about your companion’s life and activities, you find out what his schedule is like. You are both more likely to try to find a time that works for both of you.”
Taking the Aaronic Priesthood brother out for ice cream after a visit is one suggestion offered by Myron Arthur Peterson, president of the Cardston Alberta Stake. “And always pray with them before you leave to go home teaching. It invites the Spirit and helps you both have a positive experience.”
Visiting teaching also has its unique aspects. “Sometimes visiting teachers don’t like to take their young children with them on a visit, yet finding baby-sitters can be expensive and frustrating,” says Karrie Hoopes, Relief Society president in the Duchesne Second Ward, Duchesne Utah Stake. “In our ward, we have some sisters who actually baby-sit children while the mothers go visiting teaching. It’s their monthly visiting teaching responsibility.
“We also have an evening district, where both the visiting teachers and the individual being taught have requested evening appointments. This accommodates visiting teachers whose husbands watch their children after work, and it also accommodates the working sisters who cannot teach or be taught during the day.”
Flexibility is a must, adds Sister Hoopes. “We have one sister who requested visits at 7:00 A.M.; that’s simply the time that worked best for her. Two sisters agreed to that assignment. We have other sisters who do their visiting on lunch hours during work or at other times to meet the needs of various sisters.”
Christine Willis, former Relief Society president in the Moorestown Ward, Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake, reports that many sisters in her ward take turns baby-sitting. “They’ll say, ‘You tend my children while I go visiting, and then I’ll tend yours.’ That way everyone benefits, and the visiting teaching gets done,” she explains.
Overwhelmingly, local leaders also agree that another solution to successful home and visiting teaching is an understanding by leaders and home and visiting teachers alike that the calling is from the Lord.
As early as New Testament times, prophets were exhorting members to diligently help and serve one another. “Feed the flock of God which is among you,” taught Peter in 1 Peter 5:2–4 [1 Pet. 5:2–4], “taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.
“Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.
“And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
In early Church history, priesthood brethren were told to “visit the house of each member, exhorting them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties” and “to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them” (D&C 20:51, 53).
One of the best ways to help home and visiting teachers grasp the sanctity of their calling is regular interviews (see Melchizedek Priesthood Leadership Handbook, 1990, 9–10 and Relief Society Handbook, 1988, 4, 15.) “There must be a method of accountability, preferably through leader interviews, which demonstrate to the teachers that what they are doing is important,” says President Ellsworth. “They need to know that the information they are providing about their families is getting back to the people and is being used to bless lives.”
While serving as elders quorum president, Dan MacClain of the Manchester Ward, Concord New Hampshire Stake, and his counselors interviewed an average of 30 home teachers a month. “The interviews didn’t last long,” he says. “We’d schedule time before or after church and sometimes during the week.
“First, we asked the priesthood holder how he was doing, how he felt about home teaching. We tried to use this time to show appreciation, motivate him, help him understand the importance of his calling as a home teacher, and tried to resolve any concerns he had related to home teaching, companion challenges, scheduling conflicts, things like that.
“Then we’d review together every family on his list to evaluate the needs of the family. The key was that the communication didn’t stop there. If we found a family that was having difficulty with a daughter who was struggling in school, through the proper channels, we’d involve the Young Women president. If a family was experiencing financial difficulties and needed some assistance, the bishop and Relief Society president were informed. We took the information we got in our home teaching interviews somewhere where it became effective.
“As home teachers see the program begin to work, they realize they really do make a difference,” Brother MacClain concludes.
For the past two years, every month home teachers in the Chattanooga Tennessee Stake have visited about 90 percent of the members assigned to them. “The key is accountability through home teaching interviews and phone calls to some home teachers,” says James L. Barrott, first counselor in the stake presidency.
“However, while we’re pleased with this success, we’re not satisfied,” notes stake president Dallas Rhyne, “because we believe that quantity precedes quality. It is tough to have quality home teaching if visits are not being made. Once priesthood holders are in the home, then quality begins.”
Time, distance, personalities, attitudes—the list of challenges goes on. “These are all real issues,” acknowledges President Willis. “However it may be that many answers are really found in helping our home and visiting teachers accept and live the covenants they’ve made at baptism and in the temple.
“When we reach that point, we are fulfilling these callings because we’ve covenanted to do so and not because of numbers and reports. Yet, even at that, we need to report and share with others our experiences and what we’ve learned. But ultimately, the reason we do home and visiting teaching is because we love the Lord and his children.”
This article may furnish material for a family home evening discussion or for personal consideration. You might consider questions such as:
Why is home and visiting teaching so important?
Have we had an inspiring, exemplary home or visiting teacher in our lives? If so, what made him or her so outstanding?
What challenges do we find in our lives as we try to complete our home and visiting teaching assignments? How could we effectively handle those challenges?