January 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Watchcare and Ministering through Visiting Teaching
The formal message this month is great. Really. I see no problems with it, in part probably because I am a fan of Henry B. Eyring, so am wont to err on the side of kindness toward his words. The problem that I see is in the realistic application of watchcare and ministering if tarnished in a vessel of gossip. Last month, there was an interesting post at fMh which rightly and clearly defines visiting teaching as one path of church gossip. To be frank, I had previously read the January visiting teaching message, and felt beseeched to address the issue of gossip in visiting teaching, but was concerned that my own experiences left me with an unfair perspective. After reading of the quandary of NewlyHousewife, I saw that I was not alone in my visiting teaching/gossip wariness, so feel inclined to my original anti-gossip instincts.
To be fair, cultural differences in this worldwide church do us few favours. For example, when I was 18, I moved to Utah like all good Mormon girls do, for school. My father died in the middle of my first year there. It was expected; he had cancer. But I was far from home and naive when struck with the reality of death. I found myself struggling deeply with his death, the distance from home and Utah culture. One winter afternoon, the student ward relief society presidency came to our apartment. I answered the door and they asked to speak to my roommate, so I made myself scarce. After they left, my roommate told me that they had come to offer their condolences to me.
Huh? I was right there, and they asked to speak to my roommate? About me? Now, I know in part this situation was tainted by youth and inexperience, and I also have come to the conclusion that the relief society presidency was trying to be respectful or at least stuck to a (Utah?) pattern that they thought was correct. But I grew up in New York. And in my newly-graduated from high-school mind, I still clung to the idea that when someone talks about you behind your back, you are supposed to beat them up. So you do not talk about people. At all. You talk TO people face to face. But the relief society presidency –as a group—talked to my roommate about me.
Rest assured, I’ve never been in a physical fight (outside of childhood sibling skirmishes, both of which I am positive that I owe to my LDS upbringing), and I would never have gone to the relief society president’s dorm and started swinging punches. But cultural differences made me believe that I was being gossiped about, and left me with a bitter and distrustful introduction to relief society that still haunts me today. So visiting teaching is hard because we are a global church, because we are from different families and because we hope and expect different things communications-wise. With that in mind, I dive into the questions offered at the end of the formal message:
What am I doing to help my sisters feel that I am a friend who loves and cares for them?
How can I become better at watching over and caring for others?
My answer to both of these questions is this: Ask the women you visit teach. It is quite clear in these questions that this message is not for you to dish out at the women you visit teach, but that it is preparatory material for the you, the teacher, to use to prepare in developing friendships with the women you visit teach.
To be fair, this month’s message does remind us that visiting teaching means “contacting each sister, sharing a gospel message, and seeking to know her and her family’s needs.” But rather than reciting the formal monthly visiting teaching message verbatim as the “gospel message”, I see no wrong in seeking inspiration for what is personally best for the individual sisters, then ditch the rest without regret. My favourite part of this month’s message is in the scriptures section:
Mosiah 2:17; And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.
We all have felt at one time or another that life is drudgery. But it is a nice reminder that any kind of service is recognised by God. The car you let in on the freeway, the teen with only 2 items you let in front of you at the store, the smile and sincere thanks you gave to the drive-thru worker, the load of laundry you did for your husband, child, or even yourself (because by not wearing dirty clothes, you are not offending others with a stench), every little bit of service, no matter how small, is recognised and loved by God. Sometimes we only think of service as doing things that demand huge amounts of time and money; but the truth is, wheeling in a random shopping trolley/ grocery cart so it will not cause damage to people or cars is infinitely recognised by God as a pure act of Christlike love.
Done and dusted. But as teachers, lets consider the title of the message, specifically the key terms “watchcare” and “ministering”. When I read the term “watchcare”, I think of watchtowers. You know—the classic fairytale kind—where there is a castle surrounded by a wall with watchtowers. The queen in is the castle, guards are on the watchtowers, and peasants outside the walls. I think there is a tendency to perceive visiting teaching in this manner. The message is declared by the queen (church hierarchy), and that the women in the watchtowers (visiting teachers) are supposed to dole out the message to surrounding peasants (the women you are assigned to visit teach). Those in the watchtower then expose the weaknesses of the peasants to the queen. Bah. Bad stuff. It is evident that this kind of structure would be weak and riddled with gossip, thereby creating a cliquish moat that would alienate even the most devout.
So let’s flip this image around. Sure, the visiting teachers are still on the watchtowers. But inside the castle are the women you visit teach. Your job is to protect them from unfair judgment and miscommunication. Outside the walls, there are hundreds of gospel and church messages growing in ripe and fruitful pastures- you choose the right one and share it. And on occasion, if there is an issue in the castle of the women you visit teach, you have the honour and responsibility of gaining permission from these women to allow select others inside the castle to help. This is your guardianship. True watchcare. True ministering. Gossip, gargoyle and moat-free.
So, yes, this month’s message is simple and easy to offer. But I recommend going a step further. Read the message for yourself, but then make a real effort to become a trusted guardian to the women you visit teach. What is her favourite restaurant? Colour? Tv show? Hobby? Thing to cook? Last book read? Ask her how to describe a friend, then do your best to be it. You don’t need to make constant grand gesticulations and genuflect to every assumed need. Just do the little things. Compliment her when she brings her favourite dish to an activity. Notice when when she is wearing her favourite colour. Watch her favourite movie and talk with her about it. Desire to know her, one step at a time. Just as in the wise words of Chieko Okazaki:
It is the desire in individual hearts that powers not only small, individual acts of service, but also the great acts that become mass movements and even revolutions. You have that power, too. – Chieko Okazaki, Ensign, May 1992, p. 95
How can you improve your relationship with your companion and with the women you visit teach?
How can you strive to understand differences in cultural and upbringing to help the women you visit teach feel comfortable around you, and you around them?