April 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Love, Watch Over, and Strengthen

I first read this message last month in order to formulate some ideas on a post that would be workable. I kinda came up with nothing. It just was so basic, i.e. “how to visit teach”, yet a little confusing (one of the scriptural references is in regard to baptism? Um…maybe reminding us that we are all female and members so we have to visit teach? I dunno.) In short, this month’s message felt like a soul-less lesson manual to me.

In further thought, it reminded me of the first formal Relief-Society in-class lessons I can recall that I had in regard to visiting teaching.  As a young university student, I found myself swallowed in a large student ward in Utah far from home. The ritual and routine of the Utah locals was foreign and uncomfortable for me, so I quickly fell into random church attendance, and began to heavily question doctrine.  One Sunday, though I do not recall attending sacrament or Sunday school, I slipped into a Relief Society lesson. I sat in the back, not sure why I had bothered to come to church at all. I was joined by a member of the bishopric in the very back row.

Still new to Relief Society, I found it odd that a member of the bishopric would want to sit in on a lesson. Still, he was nicer than any of the women in the room had been; he asked me my name.  I told him. He asked me if I was in that ward. I said I wasn’t, and that I wasn’t sure about all of the church stuff. He said, “I had a period of questioning the church in my life, too.” I was impressed at his answer, and even more impressed that he didn’t try to persuade me that I was wrong to question. It was a gentle form of empathy that I had not before experienced, and I was glad to have this member of the bishopric sitting beside me in the back of the Relief Society room.  His lack of judgement helped me to feel the spirit, and I felt more interested and less anxious about being at that lesson.

The lesson began. Oh, dear. Not good. The woman teaching described visiting teaching as though it was slave labour. “I know we all hate to do it….” she lamented before detailing a long list of housekeeping chores with heavy emphasis on doing dishes that she seemed to think were a requisite form of Visiting Teaching service. She asked for people to say what they liked about visiting teaching, and everyone offered complaints. I was blown away by this! Visiting Teachers are really a free slave/maid service? This was news to me! What’s more is that I was sure that the spirit wasn’t in that lesson. But it made me think.

I recently had some visiting teachers who diligently tried to catch me, though I often sincerely forgot when they arranged to come to see me. I was entertained in their visits because they were so opposite. The RM was bright, studious and academically driven; the other woman endlessly discussed how she only came to school to find a husband and planned her wedding as she spoke about…. everything.  I came to the conclusion that the RM wanted only to serve the Lord as I could not comprehend that her time with feminist/questioning me, or her time with her younger and eager-to-marry companion was personally rewarding in any way. So the impression of my visiting teachers stayed with me, and in the lesson where I was lectured about the drudgery of visiting teaching because it involved doing dishes, I instantly knew that the teacher was wrong. 

Still… what is visiting teaching? Must it involve believers? Must it involve dishes?

From the message: Like the Savior, visiting teachers minister one by one (see 3 Nephi 11:15). We know we are successful in our ministering as visiting teachers when our sisters can say: (1) my visiting teacher helps me grow spiritually; (2) I know my visiting teacher cares deeply about me and my family; and (3) if I have problems, I know my visiting teacher will take action without waiting to be asked.

Personally, I like the emphasis on “my visiting teacher cares deeply about me and my family”. Because we all have agency, I am not convinced that a visiting teacher can always help others grow spiritually (I have had a few visiting teachers who depleted any remnants of the spirit from me). I am also not convinced that a visiting teacher should always take action without waiting to be asked for fear of doing the wrong thing. So- how do we express care to one another? And how can we balance that with the concept of assigned visiting teaching? I like Chieko Okazaki’s quote of Jill Mulvay Derr here:

“Sisterhood [is] the bonding among women on both personal and public levels, from simple friendships to massive organizations. In this sense Mormon women have a complex and vital heritage of sisterhood.

“Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women have been a crucial part of one another’s lives—spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, socially.” (Jill Mulvay Derr, “Strength in Our Union: The Making of Mormon Sisterhood,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 154-55.) Let us rejoice in the unified sisterhood we share…. Look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.  -Chieko Okasaki, Ensign, November 1991

The formal message includes nine suggestions on how to be a visiting teacher taken from Daughters in my Kingdom. The list reads like a sterile instruction handbook, and well, you can read that on your own.  Suffice to say, when I read it, I was discouraged because it came across as an assignment of emotion—“seek inspiration”, “comfort her”, “stay in frequent contact”, “greet her”, “inspire her” were some of the phases among the suggested list.  At best, it is difficult to express sincerity when we are told to spiritually, emotionally and temporally serve someone whom we might not otherwise choose to befriend. But I like Angela Haight’s take on this concept:

“Visiting Teaching has become a special joy, allowing me to make friends with people I would not have sought out. I’ve discovered spirituality and strength in inactive women, as well as in those who are more visible at Church meetings. I’ve marvelled at the complexities of each and every life and the tenacity that people show in overcoming problems and challenges. I’ve shared good books, good recipes, confidences, and tears as well as happy moments with women I’ve been assigned to visit. I have a sincere conviction that if nothing else, save excellent visiting teaching was done by Relief Society, its purposes would be fulfilled.” – Angela Haight, Exponent II, Vol 17. No. 3, 1993, p. 7.

Haight’s quote made me think again about those two visiting teachers who first came to visit me. The studious and dedicated RM and the young romantic who were assigned to visit my complicated, questioning soul.   I wish I could recall their names. But, just by visiting—they did inspire me. I didn’t see it at the time, but they did. Their oddly juxtaposed companionship was a testament to me that regardless of our goals, backgrounds, political motivation, tastes, colour, career path or otherwise—we can make an effort to become friends. I remember them and that they tried to be my friends, even though I did not reciprocate because I didn’t think I needed them. I cannot recall a lesson or anything we discussed.  But the funny thing was, in my state of disposition in Utah, what I desperately did need was friends. Even friends who I had nothing in common with. I just needed friends. I was not a good friend to them. I often forgot when they had scheduled to visit me. So, years later—I learned from them. I learned from them because they tried to be my friends. I hope to one day thank them for that.

“I don’t see a sister as a white sister or a back sister. I see her a my sister, and I don’t think it makes any difference what color you are or what background you have, how much money you make, it doesn’t make any difference. You are my sister, and that is all that matters. –Hattie Soil, Ensign, May 1992.

Forget the sterile list—how do you think you could be a visiting teacher?  How do you think you could try to better receive visiting teaching? Have you ever done dishes as a part of visiting teaching (I have not…. yet)?

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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15 Responses

  1. Mhana says:

    I actually have done dishes. My visiting teachee had twins that were maybe six months old, and I dropped by one evening with peach cobbler to share. We ate dessert together and it became apparent to me that her house was deeply frustrating to her and she was feeling overwhelmed by laundry and chores and dishes. So I cleaned her kitchen and dishes — she said I didn’t have to (in a way that suggested she still wanted me to) and I told her I was her visiting teacher, and moments like this is what we are for. It helps that we are genuinely close friends, I would not presume to clean someone’s house that I don’t know well. Then I folded her laundry and picked up her living room. She apologized for not helping. I told her that I couldn’t nurse her children, so she did that while I did the drudgery. It helped her to feel peace and a sense of control to have her house in order for just a day or too. But no, I do not routinely do dishes. I’m just not great at child care and a lot of the forms of service that many women give.

    I’m really grateful for my visiting teachers, two older professional women. It works perfectly, because stopping my work in the middle of the day to meet with women my age was driving me crazy. I loved them, but it felt like I was coming home for their sakes, not because leaving my job in the middle of the day was super convenient for me. They talk to me about all kinds of things, not small children (which I do not have) which helps me to feel like I belong. Also, they always bring a cute little handout which sort of makes me feel loved, even though I am not a hand-out person. I think the key is finding out (often just by asking) what the person’s needs are. Do they hope for a little treat every month? Is the lesson very important? Do they just want someone to listen? Would it be better to come only every three months, or to send more cards? If a person really would like a little bag of chocolates more than anything, I can do that. If a person never wants treats and is desperate for a spiritual conversation, I can do that too. I “visit teach” one sister by watching reality TV with her. She has a TiVo, so we pause to discuss and actually have a meaningful wonderful relationship. It wouldn’t be the same if I plopped on her couch and told her how to be a Mormon. I just don’t think there is a right way.

    • Angie says:

      I visit taught a woman who gave birth to triplets. I am not comfortable with infants, so I regularly took her mountains of laundry to my house to wash, dry, and fold. I also mopped her floors over and over. We became so close, true friends.

  2. Georgia says:

    I have a sister right now who is in her 80’s and very prim and proper. My companion and I (who are both youngish moms) go and watch Dancing with the Stars with her (she calls it “her show”). It is THE MOST FUN EVER! She turns to us every now and then and makes comments like, “I think he’s a little too fresh with his partner, don’t you?” and I think to myself, I never knew how much fun it could be to hang out with a woman so much older than I am, and in such a different situation in life. I realize all match-ups are not as fun or as easy, but I think they all have something to teach us, if we’re willing to learn.

  3. Alisa says:

    Oh wow. That image of the domestic violence over doing the dishes. 🙁 That really happens to some people.

    • spunky says:

      Yeah… I wasn’t sure about using that image, but still– it conveyed the feeling I had in that Relief Society lesson, like we had to do slave work as the primary function of visiting teaching or we were not being obedient. Seemed to me that most of the women were responding to visiting teaching like that, which obviously doesn’t invoke the spirit.

      • Alisa says:

        I defintely wasn’t there, but if it really felt like actual slavery or a physically abusive domestic violence situation, then yes, I don’t see why anyone would require or do visiting teaching. I guess I thought that they were being hyperbolic, and with so much slavery and domestic violence still in existence, it made me cringe to think of it that way (I cringe when people use the Holocaust in that way too).

        I don’t mean to detract from this amazing post. The image just had a profound impact on me outside of my feelings on visiting teaching.

      • spunky says:

        I am with you 100%, Alisa– and that was the feeling at that lesson– like it was slavery, so your comments are well-founded and appreciated, as always <3

    • Anon says:

      Yes, that image hit me hard. It reminded me of something my dad told me recently. He was putting down my mom (you know, 20 years after the divorce). He said, “Your mom hates to do dishes because when I would stand her at the sink and tell her to do them, she would just stand there and shake”.

      It’s kind of pathetic that he still doesn’t get it. No wonder my mom is so much happier and less lonely single than she was married.

  4. Becca says:

    Georgia – I think you may visit teach my great aunt. Are you in NJ? Bless you for your service either way, whether to my great aunt or another lucky woman.

  5. Brem says:

    So most of the examples of how visiting teaching can be done well that I’ve seen are only possibilities if you go without your partner. Any ideas on how to make visiting teaching effective if you go with a partner? It just seems like the whole “go two by two” thing makes it so that visits automatically become more formal and less genuine because “just dropping by” with two is so much harder.

    • spunky says:

      Brilliant question, Brem! To be honest, I am not sure of the answer. However, years ago, I was in another Relief Society lesson where the teacher said she loved visiting teaching because it made her feel like she was back on her mission. So- that made an impression on me, and I guess I tend to think of visiting teaching companionships in terms of “junior” companion and “senior” companion. The thing is not about rank, but about taking responsibility. In one companionship for me, my companion was a new member and knew nothing of visiting teaching, so I made the appointments and picked her up, etc. as if I were a solitary visiting teacher. It was not a long assignment, but it worked for the time, and she moved to a different ward. Another time, my companion was the relief society president. Because she had her hands full with that calling, I –er– assigned myself as “senior companion” and arranged the appointments as a serve to our teachees, as well as the the RS president.

      So- in cases where it is okay for one to take the lead, and the other to be a support, I think that works. But you could also divvy up the months– and just take turns on who is going to make appointments/send the message, and so on. I have lived in areas where if we tried to get together every month, it usually worked out that we in reality- we only met up once a quarter, which worked well. And when I was living outback and not a short distance from the women I used to VT, I made a goal to only go in person once a year. The rest of the time, I sent letters, but did so every month.

      I think the consistency is more important than anything, so if you can make something work with a comp- to support each other in giving each other support if you are less experienced in VTing, or have a heavy calling, or just don’t have time to do something every month it can work well.

      Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

      • dianne says:

        Last month’s Ensign talked about the importance of visiting sisters in their homes, even if it means we have to go alone because our companion can’t go with us.

  6. Annie B. says:

    I declined being a visiting teacher because I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable giving the monthly message and my social anxiety was rearing its ugly head at the time. I was having trouble just getting out of my house and didn’t think I could handle the extra stress. I rationalized that I could try to serve my neighbors who aren’t members and the parents of my daughters friends by letting their girls come over and play (one of my daughter’s friend’s mom has lupus and can’t do much). I’m starting to feel like I might be able to do it though. I view it as an opportunity to serve, and I like doing that and am starting to feel brave enough to do it my own way, or whatever way my visitees need, instead of whatever way is prescribed. I definitely appreciate my visiting teachers…I should probably tell them that. I know it’s probably difficult for them to visit me sometimes.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for addressing this, Annie B. I think you have every need and every right to NOT be a visiting teacher. But I still think it is awesome that you allow yourself to be visit taught, when it feels right to you. We are all different and have different mortal needs, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. I think you are very wise to recognise that this is not suited for you. I love smart women. Keep it up.

  7. Jenny says:

    I started out being a very shy visiting teacher. I kept looking for some guidelines telling me exactly what I should do. I had one companion that would always ask me to pray at the end of the visit and that always felt so awkward to me. Another would have us pray together before, even more weird. I finally decided after I was put with companions who never wanted to go, that I had to take charge and that I would do what felt right to me. Some times the message would never get shared! We had so much fun getting to know each other.

    I was encouraged as I went to a recent fireside by Julie B. Beck, who was just released as the General Relief Society President. She explained that there is no right or wrong way to visit teach. She does not want the supervisors calling and ask if the message was given. She gave numerous examples of how just a phone call or stopping by to say hi can do more good than sharing a message every month. Sister Beck explained that as you get to know your sisters, you will know what works best for them.

    I still feel a little shy, but I also feel that I am better at recognizing needs and ways I can help without asking. Because really, who answers “yes” to the repetitive question, “Is there anything we can do for you?”

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