Becoming a Better Home Teacher or Visiting Teacher
previous next

“Becoming a Better Home Teacher or Visiting Teacher,” Liahona, Sept. 1998, 34

Becoming a Better Home Teacher or Visiting Teacher

Flexibility, creativity, and commitment help us fulfill our callings as home teachers and visiting teachers.

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 do this just 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, strong ex-football player, an outgoing, caring, and helpful elder. Don was a wonderful complement—an example 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 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 had 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

Home teachers and visiting teachers can change lives. Many members treasure memories of strong shoulders, tender hearts, and caring hands offered through these inspired programs. Yet as powerful an impact as home teachers and visiting teachers can have in the lives of others, the actual process of fulfilling our responsibility to “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8) can be challenging.

Sometimes it is difficult for companions to find a time to get together and visit their assigned families. Yet it is important for this service to be accomplished in pairs, after the pattern established by revelation for the priesthood to go two by two (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, time, or cost it takes to reach homes is daunting. And sometimes the challenge for home teachers and visiting teachers is to obtain the Spirit in resolving the unique problems they face. These stumbling blocks and others can deter members from actually doing the Lord’s work of blessing lives.

Home teachers and visiting teachers may find some value, therefore, in the following suggestions and solutions that others have found helpful. These ideas 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 shared here can help home teachers and visiting teachers no matter where they serve throughout the world.

Establishing a Set Appointment

One of the challenges of home teaching and visiting teaching can be scheduling appointments. “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 the appointment is the afternoon of the first Sunday or the evening of the second 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 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 teachers and visiting teachers say it is important to express to those you visit a sincere desire to be a help and resource in their lives. This desire might in part be accomplished by setting a standing appointment or by asking for two or three possibilities of convenient times (noting the days that are not available) both for you and for 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 teaching and visiting teaching.

Flexibility to Meet Special Needs

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 are only three active priesthood holders, 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. This practice of couples visiting members where a special need exists in a family and when implemented with a bishop’s or branch president’s approval can be reported as both a home teaching visit 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 boundaries cover about 115 kilometers, but we understand the opportunity and responsibility of home teaching.”

As is demonstrated in the Fort Payne Branch, the need for husbands and wives to visit together as both home teachers and visiting teachers is unusual. Priesthood leaders in some areas have taken a different approach.

For example, the Carey Idaho Stake does not have enough active members to visit everyone. In trying to resolve the problem, priesthood leaders have had their greatest success in seeking the Spirit for guidance on who most needs to be visited. Michael Chandler, first counselor in the stake presidency, explains: “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.”

Similarly, home teachers and visiting teachers report that when it is not possible to visit all their families, 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 they are assigned to visit.

In areas with a high ratio of less-active members to active members and where approval has been given by priesthood leaders, full-time missionaries sometimes act as companions for Melchizedek Priesthood brethren assigned to visit less-active members.

Presenting the Message

For some home teachers and visiting teachers, presenting a formal message in what sometimes is an informal situation can be an awkward experience. Even when all involved are fully active in the Church, moving the conversation from casual talk to the sharing of a spiritual message can be challenging. It can also be a challenge to present a message that appeals to adults, teenagers, and children alike. When home teachers 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.

But there are several nonthreatening ways to present a spiritual message. 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 for them to read on their own. Another possibility is to invite these members to a specific party, fireside, activity, program, or meeting and discuss what the theme or subject will be and why it is important for them to attend.

“Listening to the Spirit becomes essential as you go home teaching 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.”

Receiving the Message

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 has 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 70s, 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 had 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 of her visiting teachers.

Geographical Distance

While some Church units in areas heavily populated with Latter-day Saints cover only a few square kilometers, many Church units measure their area in hundreds of square kilometers. The North Slope Branch in the Fairbanks Alaska Stake covers more than 20,000 square kilometers. In addition, a night sky blankets the area 24 hours a day for several months of the year, and temperatures can dip to 46 degrees below zero (Celsius). “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 with a commercial 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 call as well. Sometimes these families get several calls a month. We also send them conference materials and updates on Church policy and information.”

But whether the visits are made in person or by phone, members are contacted. “It’s extremely important; we all know that,” says President Fuller of the 10 companionships who shoulder the home teaching assignments in his branch.

Although not as large as the North Slope Branch, the Duluth Minnesota Stake also 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 family financial resources.

“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 meeting and upcoming ward activities, and the sisters always invite the recipient to attend these events. One sister just received a thank-you from a woman she had been writing to for years. It made the effort worth every minute.”

Training Teenagers

Home teaching carries with it unique challenges when Melchizedek Priesthood brothers are given as companions 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. It is crucial to train them properly and involve them as equals.

“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 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 your companion before you leave to go home teaching. It invites the Spirit and helps you both have a positive experience.”

Watching the Children

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 baby-sit children while the mothers go visiting teaching. It’s their monthly visiting teaching responsibility.

“We also have an evening district in which both the visiting teachers and the individual being taught have requested evening appointments. This district 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 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.

Regular Interviews Help Significantly

Overwhelmingly, local leaders agree that successful home teaching and visiting teaching require leaders, home teachers, and visiting teachers alike to understand 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 teachers and visiting teachers understand the sacredness of their calling is through regular interviews (see Melchizedek Priesthood Leadership Handbook [1990], 9–10; Relief Society Handbook [1988], 4, 15). “There must be a method of accountability, preferably through leader interviews, that demonstrates to the teachers that what they are doing is important,” says R. Spence Ellsworth, president of the Carey Idaho Stake. “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, and help him understand the importance of his calling as a home teacher. And we 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 that a family 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 several 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 Sister Willis. “However, it may be that many answers are really found in helping our home teachers 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. We need to report and share with others our experiences and what we’ve learned. But ultimately, the reason we do home teaching and visiting teaching is because we love the Lord and his children.”

Instruments of the Lord

Through the years, Presidents of the Church and general presidents of the Relief Society have emphasized the purpose and importance of home teachers and visiting teachers.

President Gordon B. Hinckley

President Gordon B. Hinckley
President of the Church, 1995–present

“‘The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them’ (D&C 20:53). This is the mandate of the Lord. I hope that home teachers and visiting teachers will experience two things: first, the challenge of the responsibility that is in their great calling, and second, the sweetness of results from their work, particularly with those among us who are less active. I hope that these teachers will get on their knees and pray for direction, and then go to work to bring these wandering prodigals back into the fold of the Church. If home and visiting teachers respond to this challenge, I honestly believe that they will taste the sweet and wonderful feeling which comes of being an instrument in the hands of the Lord in leading someone back into activity in His Church and kingdom.

“I am making a plea for us to reach out to our brethren and sisters who have known the beauty and the wonder of this restored gospel for a brief season and then for some reason have left it.

“May all home teachers recognize that they have an inescapable responsibility to go into the homes of the people and teach them to live the gospel principles more faithfully, to see that there is no iniquity or backbiting or evil speaking, to build faith, to see that the families are getting along temporally. That is a very serious responsibility; it really is. But it is not a heavy burden—it just takes a little more faith. It is worthy of our very best effort” (Ensign, March 1997, 27).

President Ezra Taft Benson

President Ezra Taft Benson
President of the Church, 1985–1994

“Home teaching and visiting teaching are inspired programs. They are designed to reach each member of the Church each month, both the active and the less active. Please give home teaching and visiting teaching an increased emphasis” (Ensign, September 1987, 4).

“I feel impressed to speak to you about a priesthood program that has been inspired from its inception—a program that touches hearts, that changes lives, and that saves souls; a program that has the stamp of approval of our Father in Heaven; a program so vital that, if faithfully followed, it will help to spiritually renew the Church and exalt its individual members and families.

“I am speaking about priesthood home teaching. …

“… It is the priesthood way of watching over the Saints and accomplishing the mission of the Church. Home teaching is not just an assignment. It is a sacred calling” (Ensign, May 1987, 48).

“Remember, both quality and quantity home teaching are essential in being an effective home teacher. You should have quality visits, but you should also make contact with each of your families each month. As shepherds to all of your families, both active and less active, you should not be content with only reaching the ninety and nine. Your goal should be 100 percent home teaching every month” (Ensign, May 1987, 51).

Elaine L. Jack

Elaine L. Jack
Relief Society general president, 1990–1997

“Through visiting teaching we act as mothers, sisters, helpers, companions and friends, one to the other” (Church News, 4 September 1993, 6).

“In visiting teaching we reach out to each other. Hands often speak as voices can’t. A warm embrace conveys volumes. A laugh together unites us. A moment of sharing refreshes our souls. We cannot always lift the burden of one who is troubled, but we can lift her so she can bear it well” (Church News, 7 March 1992, 5).

“We should never underestimate the value of a one-on-one visit. Just as women walked around Nauvoo gathering information about the conditions of individuals and families in that early era of the Church, so do sisters in Perth, Australia, and Papeete, Tahiti, walk to homes of their neighbors to visit and care for one another. I think it’s exciting to be a part of a worldwide association of sisters who exercise this watchful care over each other. Sometimes when I’ve gone out visiting teaching I’ve thought about that, and wondered if maybe women in Manitoba, Canada, or in Mexico or in France or even in [Russia] were out doing their visiting teaching at the same time I was. It’s quite a concept, to be part of something that is so much bigger than ourselves” (Eye to Eye, Heart to Heart [1992], 142–43).

Barbara W. Winder

Barbara W. Winder
Relief Society general president, 1984–1990

“Visiting teaching gives us an opportunity to learn how to follow the Savior. As we extend love and unselfish service, we become instruments of the Lord, helping in times of physical, emotional, and spiritual need to touch hearts and change lives. Visiting teaching is the very essence of the gospel and gives us the opportunity to practice the principles found in Mosiah 18:8–9: ‘willing to bear one another’s burdens, … willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times … , that [we] may have eternal life’” (Ensign, March 1997, 33).

President Spencer W. Kimball

President Spencer W. Kimball
President of the Church, 1973–1985

“Whenever I think of visiting teachers, I think of [home] teachers also, and think that certainly your duties in many ways must be much like those of the [home] teachers, which briefly are ‘to watch over the church always’—not twenty minutes a month but always—‘and be with and strengthen them’—not a knock at the door, but to be with them, and lift them, and strengthen them, and empower them, and fortify them—‘and see that there is no iniquity … , neither hardness … , backbiting, nor evil speaking.’ (D&C 20:53–54.) …

“To be successful, it seems to me that a visiting teacher would wish to have high purpose and remember it all the time, would want to have great vision, a terrific enthusiasm that cannot be worn down, a positive attitude, of course, and a great love” (Ensign, June 1978, 24–25).

“Blessed will be the day when all home teachers, those working on the missionary, genealogical, and the welfare and all programs, become home teachers in every sense of the word, looking after every facet of the lives of their families—spiritual, temporal, financial, moral, marital. That will be the happy day!” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball [1982], 524).

Barbara B. Smith

Barbara B. Smith
Relief Society general president, 1974–1984

“We must seek out those among us with need and, using our God-given talents for charity and our means for relieving others, coordinate the two. This has been the charge from the beginning. It is the charge today. We should go personally into each other’s homes, and we should tune our souls to the point that we may find those in need and offer friendship, help as needed, and courage to meet each day’s challenges” (Ensign, March 1997, 37).

Photographs by Michael Van Dorn

Photographs by Steve Bunderson

Photograph by Welden Andersen