June 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Visiting Teaching—a Sacred Assignment
There is conflict in this month’s message. It is subtle, but I think it important to address. The message starts with a quote from former Relief Society General President Julie Beck in regard to the needs of a bishop to have visiting teachers to help him to communicate the needs of members. (The quote is taken from this talk). It then bleeds into a directional issue:
Inspiration begins as members of the Relief Society presidency prayerfully discuss the needs of individuals and families. Then, with the bishop’s approval, the Relief Society presidency gives the assignment in a way that helps sisters understand that visiting teaching is an important spiritual responsibility. (the included resource is the CHI2 9.5 and 9.5.2).
So where is the conflict? In this phrase “with the bishop’s approval”. The reference for this paragraph is where the conflict is discovered. It is from Handbook 2: Administering the Church, Relief Society Visiting Teaching Sections 9.5 and 9.5.2. The actual references clarify that “Through visiting teaching, the Relief Society president helps the bishop identify and resolve short-term and long-term needs of sisters and their families. Members of the Relief Society presidency instruct visiting teachers on ways to care for, watch over, remember, and strengthen one another.”
It is a subtle switch, to go from “helping the bishop” (the verbiage in the Church handbook) to “with the bishop’s approval” (the verbiage in this month’s visiting teaching message), but it is clearly a downgrade from a type of partnership (“helping”) to a clear subservient position without a voice (“with approval”). To be clear, I am okay with working in conjunction with a bishop because visiting teachers are not meant to be the primary financial, personal and spiritual resource for the women they visit. But the difference in being an active resource (“help”), rather than a neutered servant who must gain “approval” is powerful (To be clear, I am not a huge fan of the term “help”, I would prefer “partner” or “equal”, but still- to me, “help” is better than “get approval”.)
What’s more is that this month’s message is in direct conflict with the church prescribed administrative organization of visiting teaching. In CHI2, 9.5.2, it is stated that “The structure of visiting teaching in the ward is determined by the bishop and Relief Society presidency after prayerful consideration of local needs and circumstances.” And “In organizing visiting teaching, members of the Relief Society presidency prayerfully discuss the needs of individuals and families.”
It seems to me that according to the CHI2 in this case, the onus of spiritual direction and organization is shared with, rather than approved by a bishop. Further, and specific to this message, the visiting teaching assignment as per the handbook, is organized through the Relief Society only. There is no mention of bishop’s approval.
What a fine mess this mess age is! So—what do we do when there is conflict in the organizational structure of what should be a vehicle for reliable service?
Well. A few years ago, I was assigned with a companion to visit teach a very special woman. She was one of the most interesting women I have ever met. She was from a rural pacific island, her husband was not LDS and he was from the Middle East. I enjoyed visiting her, if only to see the exotic and varied artwork in her home. But her situation was also uncomfortable. Small things made me concerned for her, which my companion and I discussed regularly with the Relief Society president. Then I had a call from her. Her husband had beaten her. She was calling me to warn me to stay away- for my own safety. She feared he might turn his anger on any woman who stopped in to check on her.
Immediately, I called my companion and told her of the situation. I then called the Relief Society president. (I called my companion first, because although I doubted she would ever just pop by to visit, I wanted to ensure she was safe and aware.) The Relief Society President’s response shocked me. “Oh,” she said. “That is their culture. I just wouldn’t even tell the bishop about it.” I was floored. A woman was being beaten by her husband and I was being told to… shut up? I broke the confidence of the situation and told my husband. He said he supported me in what I wanted to do, but also said that if I felt like I needed to visit or remove her and the children from the situation, he would go with me.
I am deeply ashamed to say that I did nothing. I was shocked by the situation, and even more shocked by the response of the Relief Society president. In a few months, my companion moved and the Relief Society presidency changed, situating me in a new assignment. But I told the new Relief Society president about my experience because I was still in shock over the whole thing. She said, “Leave it with me.” Within a few weeks, the woman I had done nothing for moved with her children into a new accommodation. It has been years since then and I am in a different ward now, but I am still in touch with her. We never speak of that phone call.
This is probably why the conflict in direction from this message concerned me so very much. When there is an issue, who is in charge, especially when there is conflict in the administrational organization? What if the person assigned to take charge says they don’t care to do anything? What if the person you report an issue to cites conflicting administrative direction and therefore doesn’t bother to do anything? This conflict has bothered me as I pondered this message, not only as a woman, but as a servant of Christ. How do I help when the church lets me down?
That goodness for Eliza R. Snow. The history section of the message reminds:
As we go forth in faith as the early Relief Society sisters did, we will have the Holy Ghost with us and be inspired to know how to help each sister we visit. “Let [us] seek for wisdom instead of power,” said Sister Snow, “and [we] will have all the power [we] have wisdom to exercise.”
Wisdom. Wisdom! That is what I was lacking in my earlier experience- I just did not know what to do when church admin lines failed. So I did nothing. I have time and again wished I had done something—anything– for that sister at that time. So I am doing something now because I want to serve my sisters in a Christ-like manner that isn’t halted by administrative shortcomings and conflict in church direction.
To do this, I made a list of resources that could help me to help others, especially in cases when other church officers or church admin lines are too conflicted to help in a crisis.
- Local Crisis Hotline
- Local Women’s Shelter
- Number to Poison Hotline
- Local Police
- (if the sister is willing to share this with me) Who is the preferred doctor/dentist for the women and the children of the women I visit teach? What are the medications she takes? Does she have any allergies?
- Is there a preferred food for her or her family (The idea is to make and freeze a dish so that if she needs a meal, I already have one in my freezer ready to go- particularly in winter months).
- Am I and is the sister I visit teach comfortable in having me be on the emergency pick-up-from-school list in case she is unable to get her children? If not, who can I contact (father/grandparents/ect.) if she is unable to pick up her children?
This might not solve the issue that is clearly exemplified in this month’s message, but at least with these resources, I feel like I can really serve someone, even when the church and church admin lines fail.
What are other things you might include on a list of “how I can really help”?
What are conflicts within the church that halt real Christ-like service?