June 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Visiting Teaching—a Sacred Assignment

Poppies-FlowersThere 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?


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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13 Responses

  1. Teaching puppies not to bite need not be an abusive situation where you smack your puppy in the face when it takes a little bite out of you. This type of behavior on your part is just plain cruel and does not solve the biting problem anyway. It is natural for little puppies to want to nip or bite at things particularly when they are teething.

  2. Naomi says:

    This is good, and I’m glad you wrote about it. It’s very important for VT’s to have resources like this. But I mainly wanted to say that you didn’t not do anything for that woman! You did tell the new RS pres, and she knew that it was a bad situation and was able to go the rest of the way. You didn’t do something because you didn’t know what to do or where to go, and that’s okay. As members of the church we are told that we can get every answer from our leaders. You’ve never been in a situation like this before, it’s understandable that you would be so shocked. You could have never mentioned it to her at all. And you’ve learned from the situation.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, Naomi. 🙂 I did learn from the situation and I am glad that I told the new RS President. Having learned from that situation, I hopefully won’t be ‘stuck’ next time, no matter what kind of crisis it is.

  3. I’d thought the Bishop’s approval is needed not to second guess the inspiration, but to be sure there isn’t anything the Bishop knows about (from his part in the confessional process) that would prevent that person from serving. The wording is problematic, though. It might help that there is nothing saying that the Bishop also needs to get inspiration on this, only the RS Presidency. Still, the wording makes it easily abused.

    I wonder what the Habndbook says on the extent of a Bishops approval for callings made by other presidncies. Does it say to trust those presidencies’ inspiration, and to only mention worthiness concerns if necessary?

  4. Spunky,

    Thank you for this piece. You bring up so many important issues. Pointing out the conflict in official directives about visiting teaching shows the problem of trying to rely on fallible human leaders.

    I, too, have had Church-related experiences that were beyond my ability to provide useful advice. Situations involving abuse and danger call for professional know-how beyond the experience of most Church leaders. Training bishops and RS presidents to handle these situations would be helpful–but members also need to know how to access resources directly without going through visiting or home teachers.

    I love the list of resources you made. Creating a local list of resources to help members in need would be a valuable use of Releif Society time.

  5. LauraLee Slocum says:

    Very thoughtful writings. Appreciate your candor and for sharing it. The less administration, the better. Trust your own heart. Thank you!!!

  6. Pam says:

    Another thing to put on the list; who are her Home teachers. I was called at 2am the sisters’ husband was dying and she was going to the hosptial. I called her hometeachers they went and administered to him. She was so glad they came and latter on her husband joined the church and has been a good member. She was so upset she did not think of that. I love the list and have copied it myself. thank you

  7. April says:

    While our leadership already places so many barriers to female initiative in church structure, I am frustrated to see our own female RS leaders create additional male “approval” requirements beyond the existing Handbook requirements. (I assume that it is our own leaders who write the visiting teaching message.) We already have plenty of rules to keep us ladies in line–we do not need to think up even more ways in which we must defer to the all-male bureaucracy before we act.

  8. Momgaug says:

    I was sad to read of your experience and how your R.S. President didn’t seem to understand her responsibility in all of this. The purpose for Visiting teaching is to provide “Watchcare” for all of the sisters in the ward, to know of their needs and to respond to them through service and love. Sometimes more steps need to be taken and when a Visiting Teacher reports to her supervisor most visits, if there is a situation like the one that you described, that should immediately go to the R.S. President, who in turn would communicate it to the Bishop. That is how the reporting should go, but how sad was it that it didn’t. Ultimately, the R.S. and the Bishop meet and discuss the needs of the sisters, as should be happening with the Home teaching of the ward as well. (Sometimes it is immediate in order to take care of emergency situations like the one that you described)
    The Visiting teachers and the Home teachers are suppose to be the eyes and ears for the Bishop as it is impossible for a Bishop to know everything all the time. He cannot minister if he doesn’t know about the situations that are happening in the homes, thus the watchcare Visiting teachers are suppose to provide is vital and necessary.
    The Bishop and the RS President should be meeting or even communicating all the time about everything. ( even daily or hourly as needed) The Bishops stewardship is over the whole ward, and the first Presidency of the Church has called him to do so.
    Every office in the ward is then under the Bishops guidance and tender care, though they are divided up into organizations with organization heads, but they meet in PEC meetings monthly and other times as needed, to communicate to the bishop the needs of ward members that he ministers over.
    What a blessing it is for Bishops to have faithful Visiting teachers serving, loving and watching over the sisters in the ward.
    Our ward has a way of communicating in the proper order of how it should be, the needs of the sisters. First the VT report their visits and sisters needs and concerns to the VT Supervisor, who in turn reports to the VT coordinator who records the visits in the Church’s system. She works directly with the RS President who works directly with the Bishop. It is a line of communication that gets things done in the ward as it should be. Sisters do not need to be or feel neglected if proper reporting on all counts is done. Once again, the VT are the eyes and ears for the Bishop, but the reporting should go through the proper chanels, unless there is an emergency situation that needs to be reported immediately, in which case the VT should report to the RS President and she will get in touch with the Bishop immediately.
    Nobody should ever be forgotten or lost, abused, or neglected. No one should also feel that reporting any kind of issue would fall on deaf ears. I am very sorry it happened to you and even more sorry it happened to the sister that you Visit Taught. This experience can open everyone eyes and make sure that the needs of the sisters are met on all counts.
    May the Lord bless you in your efforts to provide watchcare and service to the sisters in your ward.

  9. Emily says:

    Doy! The gospel culture (commandment) is to NOT beat one’s spouse; therefore, he was in the wrong for beating her whether it was his/their culture or not!

  10. lis84 says:

    I think you are mistaken…..this is what is writen in the Handbook of Instructions 2010, 9.5.2 “Based on these discussions, they assign visiting
    teachers to each sister in the ward. They obtain the bishop’s approval for each assignment.”
    As you will see “helping the Bishop isn’t written”.

    Overall The Relief Presidency prayfully organises the VT list, but then the Bishop approves it, because he may have details of issues, etc that the Presidency are unaware of.
    Hope this helps. 🙂

  11. Spunky says:

    Interestingly (freakishly?) FMH posted a BYU public service announcement aimed at preventing domestic abuse. Check it out via FMH here.

  12. Lynn says:

    I am confused. Why did you not just tell the Bishop directly?

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