February 2013 Visiting Teaching Message: Converted unto the Lord

Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Relief Society, Relief Society Lessons, self worth, sisterhood, visiting teaching, women | 17 comments

Years ago, when I was dealing with depression that resulted from a move and the associated massive changes in my life, I sought out an LDS counsellor. I had gone to some counselling sessions at LDS Family Services, but the counsellors there were all men, and I felt the absence of female empathy and direction. I wanted an LDS counsellor because much of my angst was church related. In hindsight, I understand that I sought spiritual advice from a woman, but given the patriarchal structure of the church, only could comprehend female, Mormon, inspired, advice could come from a woman who was a professional counsellor. I do not believe this now. Anyway.

 

Prior to this move, I found it easy to meet and make friends, sometimes LDS, sometimes not, so had not shied away from moving to new places and trying new things. But this move was different. I chose to move where my husband was going to school and had family, far from my friends, and very different to any other place I had chosen to live previously. The place, the people, and the situation were different and foreign. In this, I suddenly found myself an outsider in a close-knit community. I sought the companionship of female friends, but found it very difficult to meet people. A deep loneliness set in, resulting in depression. Although previously disinterested in Relief Society and its structured friendships, I chose to embrace Relief Society with the expectation of making new friends, even if they were assigned.

 

It didn’t go well.

 

When my newness faded and I became a regular, the polite welcomeness once fluffed at me quickly greyed into oblivion. I became an ignored waif, and questioned myself, my value, my place. Every Sunday, I attended church hopeful of developing a friendship. EChairvery Sunday, the women in that Relief Society turned their backs when I walked in– literally. If I tried to sit by them, they reminded me that the seats by them were already taken, but I could set a chair for myself “over there…” I would find a chair in a stack, remove it and place it in a solitary position and sit alone for the meeting. I tried different things, sharing books and recipes, often not having the books returned or the recipe-giving reciprocated. In a last-ditch attempt for any kind of companionship, I started to bring crayons, paper and even toys to church because the crawlers and toddlers  sitting near me would come and interact with me. I wanted to become a friend to their mothers, so thought this small service would be appreciated. It was; they thanked me and smiled. Then they left me, standing alone, no other words uttered.

 

I relayed my overt and pristine sense of loneliness to my female LDS counsellor. She was shocked, and distrusted me. “No, really…” she said, “who do you sit by in Relief Society?” “No one,” I responded. This astonished her, she fell silent and had no advice to offer. Her reaction depressed me even more. I stopped going to see her shortly thereafter. Somehow, as a Mormon, I thought that “the world” was somehow allowed to not be friendly to me at its choosing, but that Mormons—when I sought friendship would reciprocate. I was wrong. Sometimes offerings of friendship are not welcome, reciprocated or even recognised… even by Mormons.

 

The counselor’s surprised reaction had a lasting effect. It increased my sense of being unwanted and brought me to a new, and dangerous low. I stopped going to Relief Society. And Sunday School. I was falling into a deep depression. By then, my beloved husband stepped. Sundays became our “date day.” After, or sometimes in place of Sacrament Meeting, we did as we pleased. I found joy and a new degree of liberation in not allowing myself to be socially diminished by the Mormons. The depression lifted, and independent, even angry, but empowered solitude developed in my personality.  Eventually, I made friends. None were LDS. I even lied when they asked me if I was Mormon. This still makes me cringe, and I regret it, yet… it wasn’t shame of my testimony, it was because I wanted to protect my new friends from being repulsed or fake-friended by the Mormons I knew. I declared myself Christian instead, and felt peace.

 

In this period, I stll went visiting teaching. I found a strange satisfaction the assigned friendship, because I could always start a conversation by saying, “so have you read this month’s message?” It was an ice-breaker. Nothing more.  But my depression was less because someone responded to my (often absent) query; even in such an unfriendly place, the culture to respond to acts of institutional Mormon-ness usually prevailed.

 

So here’s the thing: To me, second only to the bemoaning of leaders when we don’t visit teach, is the lamentation against assigned friendships. This imitation friendship rates particularly poorly when the visiting teacher only offers the compulsory “lecture” message to the recipient, then drops the facade of friendship as soon as a new assignment is made, proving a distinct falseness in the assigned “friendship.”

 

I am not going to lament or argue against or try to correct or dissuade this feeling of false friendship, because I feel it too. At that time, I still felt unwanted when I went visiting teaching, and I hated it. I longed for people to choose to want to get to know me. This feeling was furthered and reaffirmed because my assigned visiting teachers never visited me. I felt even more judged because we did not stay for Sunday School or Relief Society/Priesthood. In all of this, I was not affirmed as a member of that ward, that relief society, or that group of people. I was rejected. The paper declaring my baptism and endowments was a physical promulgation of my belonging to Mormoness, but my feeling of being affirmed and sustained was wholly absent.

 

I think this is in part, what this month’s message is trying to express, that we need to feel an affirmation of belonging to Relief Society, to the Church. We need someone to be a friend wherein we can seek guidance and spiritual support. We all need a feeling of affirmation, of being welcomed, or being loved for who we are, not just because we are assigned to befriend someone particular. When affirmation is absent, church attendance, Relief Society activities, and visiting teaching becomes an unfeeling, phony, unjustified chore. But in the message, the recipients are limited to “New sisters, Young Women entering Relief Society, sisters returning to activity, and new converts- need the support and friendship of visiting teachers.”

 

Newsflash to the secret agent who writes the VT messages: EVERYONE needs friendship, not just the women included on the above list.     

 

2 Nephi 31:20; Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all (wo)men.

 

 

I personally am not sure that the message’s suggested list of helpful things you can do is actually helpful (Help with living the law of the fast?  Seriously? Let’s ask the Center for Change about the percentage of women with eating disorders before go there….). And I obviously don’t think the limited list of suggested “friending/new people” prototype is reflective of an overall attitude of genuine friendship. So, my thoughts? I think you should sit by someone new. That’s all. If you are comfortable or regularly sit by the women you visit teach, then don’t fret. Just sit by someone else. Someone new. Someone who you think could be a new friend. Someone who- like me, always sits alone because we expect to be rejected, so we choose to sit alone in Relief Society, even after a decade of healing from the initial period of rejection.

 

Invite your visiting teachee, or a new potential confidant to lunch. Or to get ice cream. Its okay if it doesn’t come to fruition. Real friends know life is crazy, limiting. But real friends know that an offer- once stated, is unlimited. Real saints, real friends know the power of a warm body sitting next to them in a cold Relief Society. Be the warm body, the warm heart, the listening ear, the sharing mouth, the balm to loneliness and destitution. Just be you, but invite someone else to know you, and get to know them. That is my goal this month: to ask to sit by someone in Relief Society. She may be new to Relief Society. She may be contemplating returning to activity. She may be like me, attending sporadically, always sitting alone to avoid rejection. And if she rejects me, it was my goal to ask, not to be accepted. And that is okay.

Have you ever felt alone at church? Have you overcome this feeling? If not, what would help?

How have assigned friendships helped or hurt you?

Do church friends affirm your feeling of having a place in the church? Why or why not?

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17 Comments

  1. I haven’t had friends at church in YEARS. I haven’t experienced overt unkindness either … mostly just neutrality and indifference. The wards I’ve been in of late have had really high turnover. People just showed up, did their jobs, and went home. We moved a few weeks ago and I walked in immediately suspicious and steeling myself for inevitable isolation. But they’ve surprised me and I think I’m finally understanding why church might be a pleasant experience for some people — friendships (even if they are just limited to the three hour block) can make ALL the difference. But I struggle so much to know how to reach out to people and initiate this kind of relationship. It’s so individual…what might be healing balm for one sister might drive another way. Sometimes I’m paralyzed into inaction because I’m so afraid of making things worse. For example, one friend was really offended when she was sent a note in the mail … it felt forced and obligatory. But another started coming back to church after someone started sending her “love notes” in the mail. So do I send a note? Or not? I personally hate when people I don’t know ask me to do things because I feel like a project, but I know that might be exactly what another sister needs. I just received a new visiting teaching route and I have no idea where to start. I don’t want to come across as insincere. I don’t want to make an inactive sister on my route feel patronized. But I don’t want to do nothing, either. Paralyzed, I tell you.

    • I have 3 sisters who are in active, I struggled also, I went to the internet just looking for {ldsvisitingteachingmessage], that is all I typed… I happened upon lots of sites for previous years. I just look there for an uplifting thought that people have made into 4×6 hand outs. Wonderful. I print then on 4×6 photo paper, inside the card I say some kind . I have beautiful for cheap note cards from Home Goods, JJ Maxx. any of those types of stores/. You can Get 12 cards for about $3, When I have more time and inspiration I make a simple card and send it. Our RS Pres. sends the monthy newsletter/calendar. One sister has become some active, and I send her a card also….

    • Hello dear Paralyzed I tell you,
      I really liked reading your’s and Spunky’s response to the visiting teaching message and your relationship with the members in your ward. It’s funny how it doesn’t take much to get a woman going on something. We’re so emotionally connected to everything we do, which I believe is good. We choose to be passionate about the little things, which are the most important. I wanted to respond to what you said about your dilemma with knowing how to be friendly without being offensive. I think that I would rather have someone at least try than not try at all. The ideal would be for someone to be genuine right away in their efforts to befriend people, but that’s not realistic for most of us. We can’t love people until we want to. We all apparently (at least I assume after reading yours and Spunky’s reply) that we’ve all felt rejected by the people in our ward. I’m extremely (choose to be) sensitive to others’ responses to my attempts at being friendly. I don’t expect others to approach me. I’m not that kind of person that people come running to. I don’t think most of us are. Usually we have to instigate the relationship first. That’s okay by me. According to myself, I have good social skills. I like to be the one in control and the first to reach out. Honestly it’s empowering, and it makes me feel like I’m the bigger person–because I am! Instead of playing victim, in which case I will undoubtedly feel like a martyred outcast, I choose not give the people in my ward that opportunity, because believe me they’ll take it and run. I really like what Spunky said about having a goal to be nicer/kinder/more genuine by doing something simple, and then letting the other person choose how they will use their agency. It isn’t our responsibility to try and guess how people will feel. Our responsibility is to be kind to everyone. I am not kind to everyone. I’ve finally decided to leave the ones who want to be left alone-alone, because I can’t do anything about them. I’ve reached out many times to these types of people and been rejected almost every time or with very little response. So I can say I tried and that’s all you can do. I have many inactive ladies who I visit teach too and the lessons usually don’t apply. I don’t blame the visiting teaching message writer. I just take what applies and usually it’s that Heavenly Father and the Savior love us. However I’m going visiting teaching in an hour and I think I’m going to use Spunky’s message instead. It was very applicable!
      Thanks again ladies,
      Kate

  2. I have autism – what used to be referred to as Asperger’s syndrome – and I also have prosopagnosia, which is more debilitating than you might think. I have the opposite problem, and have always wanted to be in a situation like yours but have never been in a ward where the people would stop awkwardly trying to be my friend (it is nice of them, though, and that is not my problem). I visit teach, although it is clumsy and I’m not sure how much of a service I am providing, but being visit taught is miserable. Unfortunately I am hyper-attuned to other people’s sadness and if someone seems left out it is very distressing to me and I have to try to do something about it. I believe everything you said and it sounds valid, with one emendation – you clearly state that people like me are not real saints or real friends, and are phony. Please don’t think that. There are other odd people like me who don’t act like everyone else and I really believe there is room for everyone, not just people who are the same as you. My pain is certainly not like yours but some people judge me harshly for not wanting visiting teachers and for being weird. I wish they wouldn’t. I’m sorry you were painfully neglected. I sit by everyone who seems like they would like it, and I would have sat by you.

    • Claire, thank you for sharing your story. It is important to open the horizon and see the other side of things and realize that we should not take it personally.

    • Thank you, Claire. No judgement intended in the least. I sincerely appreciate your comment. You are a real saint and a real friend, I was attempting to express my feelings at the time and did not intend to label all relief society women in the same light. In retrospect, many of the people I knew then are now not close, but still real, friends. It just took a decade for warmness, tolerance and friendship to develop, something reported as typical of the culture of the area.

      I look forward to one day sitting with you. <3

  3. I have found that it gets harder to make friends the older I get and the older others get. I find that we kind of get hardened by life, in a way and loose spontaneity. In the group age I am in, everyone has little children. So time is very limited from both sides.

    I am a mix of introversion and extroversion, depending on the day and events. However, I find that if the conversation starts with a joke or something spontaneous, it makes people feel less afraid to talk and open up. I have found out that the conversations should be focusing more on the person then on what they think on issues and such. Once people discover that they like the personality of another person, they are more inclined to listen and understand others’ thoughts and circumstances even when they differ from their own. These are some of my observations.

    I did not use to like my visiting teachers just because they were “assigned”. But this time, I have noticed that some of them are really genuine ones that wish well and try to say ‘hello’ when they see me. And that has been good enough for me these days. I have noticed that I have some bad habits myself and that I should not expect perfection from others. So, now I am more at peace and enjoy RS more even though I do not hang out with any women outside of RS. But at least, the time in RS is pleasant.

    Spunky, your experience sounds a little extreme but I believe it. Each RS group is different and has different dynamics. I have noticed that we as people/humans, once we have a group of friends, stop trying to expand it. We look for stability even when it is not necessary.

    • EFH,

      Yes, the situation I was in was extreme. There are other details regarding the traditional culture of the area that I left out in an action aimed against steryotyping. There are two positives that resulted from the experience, one is that I love- really grew to love visiting teaching. The other is that I still choose to sit alone in RS, if I bother to go at all. I think this perplexes some people, and they don’t know where to place me… does a “less active” woman visit teach? Does an “active” woman not attend Relief Society?

      Recently on the Exponent Blog backlist, Alisa posted this quiz. I found it really intersting. Overall, I scored well, but for isolation, I ranked the highest- meaning my isolation level is the most extreme. It made me wonder if this experience early in my Relief Society heritage was a contributing factor to what has developed into an isolated personality trait? I don’t know. But I am pretty sure it didn’t help.

  4. I had trouble with this for about 12 years staring my senior year of high school. My friends had all graduated and left for BYU/missions (and I never heard from them again). I made some non-member friends, but church was a struggle because I felt very ignored and alone. I had several periods where I’d go for awhile then stop because I was too angry at how alone I felt after church and I didn’t want to wreck my testimony completely by doing that to myself each week.

    Over the next decade I had a few cross state moves and in each place I’d go for awhile, even make sure to get home teachers. But still, I had no friends. I had many times found non-member friends by basically just showing up at the same place time after time and eventually people befriend you, but for some reason this approach rarely works for me at church.

    After about 12 years of yo-yoing I came to question why I wanted to go to church. I decided that, for me, church is not a social outlet. Church is where I go to worship and to exercise my spirituality. By exercise I mean to take an actual action that coincides with my personal spiritual belief that there is legitimate authority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

    Since then I’ve made many friends in some wards, and none in others, but it always helps me to know that I have more important (to me) reasons to be there and that it’s okay to make my friends elsewhere. (After all, how can we have missionary experiences with our “friends” if all our friends are at church already? *said with a li’l tongue in cheek*)

  5. I grew up in an AMAZINGLY open and warm ward in a suburb of Salt Lake City. It truly felt like a ward ‘family’. Then when I was 17, we moved out of state. I had the normal angst of teenage-hood plus the anger of being transplanted 2,000 miles away from my friends and support system. Unfortunately, the ward we moved into was a lot like what you describe Spunky…very insular, unwelcoming, and more than a little cold. (I had multiple people tell me to my face that I wasn’t as strong a member of the church because I was a “Utah mormon” and didn’t have a testimony because, never having been been the minority, my faith had not been tested. But that’s another story.) The contrast between my old ward and this new one made the isolation seem magnified.

    The lessons I learned, though, have been so good for me. The Church can cause a lot of pain, but can also be a huge force for good, and foster great communities. It sounds kind of corny, I know, but it taught me that everyone needs a friend. It helped me understand how important Christ-like love is. We as individual ward members can help create a welcoming, compassionate ward culture. My ward now is somewhere between my nice ward and my mean ward. Some weeks it’s really hard to go, but knowing that I can contribute in a positive way to the atmosphere keeps me going. I absolutely love the church when it is functioning as it should, with everyone loving and looking out for each other!

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience. In my own experience, church and the Mormon religion can be an extremely lonely place. I personally struggle in connecting and relating to other Mormon women with whom I attend church. In the last two wards I have attended, I have made significant efforts to attend social events in an effort to make friends and connect with other lds women in my community. I unfortunately feel like I have many superficial conversations with people, but never really CONNECT with anyone. I feel that people assume they know who I am–that I’m in the box with everyone else. None of my female Mormon counterparts really know much about my personal interests at all. Most people simply make snap judgments based on the few things they know about me, which is very frustrating. I sit alone a lot in relief society and for the most part I am okay with that. I have been through periods of depression when this disconnection from others within the lds community seems rather harsh, however, when I am feeling more stable emotionally, I am able to focus on why I go to church, which overall, is not for social reasons.

    I feel that within the LDS church, the structure for a strong sense of community and belonging is in place– we meet together regularly, we have social activities and events together, we visit each other in our homes each month, etc… You would think we would all be so much closer than we are. I know there may be some exceptions to this outside of my own experience, but I feel that there is something really missing within this formula. Furthermore, I have been conditioned to look to my LDS community for social support and connectedness. In our busy lives, meeting and making new friends is difficult, yet socialization and friendship is part of the church structure (I believe it was President Hinckley who said that “every member needs a friend”). So we are supposed to have friends at church, right? Part of the problem, I guess, is that I really have little to nothing in common with people I go to church with outside of the fact that we attend the same church, so it may be a huge leap to assume that I would be great friends with anyone at church.

    This is something I really struggle with and if I was to attend church for social reasons alone, I would have stopped going a long time ago. My one solace is my covenants with God and my commitment to these covenants. The whole purpose of “the church” is to help people keep their covenants with God, but again, I feel there is something missing from the current structural order.

    • Nicole, I so appreciate your thoughts. You have nailed it on the head with exactly how I feel. It has been an ongoing struggle for me the older I get to have a feeling of connectiveness and friendship with the other ladies in the ward. I feel rejected much of the time despite my efforts to sit next to a sister, etc. However, I still try to smile and be as friendly as my personality will allow. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to go to learn and not worry so much about friendships in the ward. At least that way I can deal with things easier. I have my family and for now that is all the socialization I really need in the ward. Some days I feel very lonely going to church, and it is a struggle especially attending Relief Society, but I make the effort anyway. I think what we need to do is just be ourselves and not try too hard at friendship, just be kind, smile, etc., be of service with needed, and don’t be too disappointed if people don’t reciprocate our friendship efforts. I think eventually, in time, natural friendships will result, but it might take some time. It seems to me that if one goes with the idea that he/she is going to make that person their “friend”, we are asking for rejection, because friendship is something that comes as a natural coming together of personalities, not something that is always a conscious endeavor, but in the process of trying to be a friend, continue being kind in every way and don’t expect too much. That’s what I’ve had to do, and it’s okay. I love the Gospel, know it to be true in every way. It’s sad to feel for me that people don’t seem to care or are indifferent to me in the ward, but we can’t change other people; we can only be the best we can be, and that’s all Heavenly Father expects, too.

  7. I love the simple take-away from this message, Spunky. Sit by someone new. It sounds trite, but even when my interaction doesn’t go as well as I hoped, I always feel better having made the effort because I remember the times when I hoped that someone would take a chance and make an effort with me.

    • Emilycc, I so appreciate what you said. Thank you. It makes you feel good inside when you do make the effort, even though many times it may not be reciprocated right away.

  8. It is my experience that being lonely, yet not alone, is much more painful than being alone and lonely. I enjoy solidtude and being alone isn’t lonely to me. Being in a room full of “sisters”, yet being painfully lonely, is unbearable.

    • Amen, Bones. Amen.

    • I agree with that, too, Bones.

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