I can’t, he said

I have on my desk a primitive pen holder in ceramic, about four inches high. The figurine, crudely shaped, shiny in its warm terra cotta coat, represents a little man holding a tiny bucket in which a few pens and pencils can be stacked. Many years ago, an eleven-year-old girl kneaded and baked the clay in the children’s activity room of a hospital, during her long convalescence. She made the figurine for me.

I was the young branch president of this Mormon congregation. We had worked hard to build up the Church in our Belgian outpost of the vineyard. Two priceless families with children had joined the group — a major breakthrough in missionary work. They gracefully complemented our stock of older sisters — single, widowed or only-member in their family. We even reached the new record of thirty people in attendance at sacrament meeting.

One late night, I got an anguished call from the father of one those two families. He begged me to come to the hospital at once, where his daughter lay in coma, and to bring anointing oil.

The emergency room, softly lit. The girl, unconscious, scarcely visible under a respirator mask. Tubes, wires, control devices. Standing in a corner, the father.
– Doctors aren’t sure yet, he whispered, answering my handshake and questioning eyes. It doesn’t look good.
– How is your wife?
– She went home with the youngest now. She’s been up here all day.

I took the phial with oil from my pocket.
– Will you do the anointing? I asked. Or would you rather confirm?

I will never forget. His face turned into a rictus, a convulsion of sorts. Only later, when I fully understood the case, did I realize I had witnessed the most hideous torment of guilt in the face of life and death.
– I can’t, he uttered almost voiceless.

I made a clumsy attempt to change his mind. To no avail. He begged me to proceed, in a panic, convinced the girl was about to die. I performed both parts of the ordinance. When I had finished, the father sat collapsed on a chair, a little heap of misery.

The following days the girl recovered very slowly from a type of metabolic paralysis. During her weeks of convalescence in the hospital, when she was finally able to move her fingers, she kneaded the raw figurine which is now on my desk.

Confession by the father: adultery. For months with the wife of the family he was assigned to home teach. Adultery within our two priceless families. Church court and two excommunications. For the betrayed partners their world collapsed. The families fell apart. All, children included, turned inactive.

What did I learn from the experience? First, the obvious: I vowed that I would never allow myself to sink in a position where I would feel unworthy to bless a family member. But second, there may be something knotty in our home teaching system, which is based on American society and originally pioneer needs. In other cultures, where traditions of privacy and of access to homes are different, home teaching may have to be monitored with special care and adapted guidelines to help avoid the kind of tragedy I witnessed.

The details of the case revealed the process. Home teachers are taught to become friends of the family they visit and look after its needs. In the mission field, this is often stressed with the fervency of its original pioneer intent. But what if the culture has a very selective and protective concept of “friends” allowed to enter the home? Home teaching assignments often force relative strangers into one’s domicile, with inexperienced converts on one or even both sides. What if one of the home teachers, out of misplaced zeal or sheer gaucherie, shoves himself into the intimacy of the family? What if a wife, confronted with whatever personal problem, calls one of the assigned home teachers to discuss matters, unbeknown to her husband? What if the home teacher starts calling the wife to give private counsel? Affairs do not only start in physical attraction, but frequently through gradual emotional engagement.

I would not have told this story if it had been a single occurrence in the many years of my Church experience in Europe. Though still a rare event, several marriage dramas I have witnessed or heard about in relation to home teaching warrant concerns. I think those concerns connect to cultural differences, but the matter is complex as it also relates, in any part of our correlated Mormon world, to the idiosyncrasy of our extended lay-organization. A difficult topic, for which I do not invite more tragic anecdotes nor a cheap critique of home teaching, but your thoughtful comments and counsel.

Meanwhile a ceramic figurine on my desk reminds me daily of the importance of marital fidelity.

48 comments for “I can’t, he said

  1. Mark IV
    January 21, 2006 at 10:23 am

    I Iike the ceramic figurine. I, also, welcome occasional reminders of my fallen nature.

    This sort of story is common in the U.S., too, Wilfried, so I question to what extent this phenomenon is the result of transposing American pioneer values onto European culture, although that might well be true with this specific tragedy. But there is something about the way the gospel teaches us to serve one another that can bring about a very real intimacy. You have served as a branch president, so you know how easy it would be to want to put a comforting arm around the shoulder of a sister who is suffering or who needs a shoulder to cry on. Perhaps, in a better world, that will be possible, but for now it’s best to exercise caution and observe the “Don’t be alone” rule.

    out of misplaced zeal or sheer gaucherie… Yikes. I shudder to recall the things I have done for those reasons.

  2. Julie M. Smith
    January 21, 2006 at 11:11 am

    The only time I am ever alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex to whom I am not related is at Church–that’s ironic. I wonder if this is behind the comment that Pres. Hinckley made a few years back (that surprised many people) about women seeking counsel from their RS President.

    And, as usual, powerful post, Wilfried. When I read this, it made me resolve anew to be the kind of mother who is always worthy to attend the temple to seek inspiration for my family.

  3. January 21, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    I’ll never forget that moment in the emergency room with my sweet three year old son in a coma. My only son. As I frantically reviewed my life and my character and my covenants, I will forever remember my immense relief and exhilaration in realizing that I had been sufficiently true and faithful — that my confidence did wax strong in the presence of God. In that moment of great extremity, I was able to say “I can”.

    I can’t imagine any sweeter feeling…

  4. Kevin Barney
    January 21, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Touching post, as usual, Wilfried. I do have a cheap critique of home teaching, which per your request I will spare you. But, as one who spent about a decade of his life supervising home teaching in an elders quorum, I do think there are very significant problems inherent in the home teaching model, even in U.S. culture.

  5. jthurman
    January 21, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    Unfortunately, this can’t be a critique of home teaching, because this brother was not following the Lord’s pattern for home teaching. This may not be his fault – in many parts of the world, priesthood leaders fail to establish home teaching as commanded by the Lord, and the brothers who do it never know they’re doing it wrong.

    Where was his companion?

    Just as missionaries are never to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, so should home teachers always have a companion when they go about their work. There is a reason the Lord has commanded that it be done this way, and this story, I believe, is a significant part of that reason.

  6. January 21, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    I have always thought hometeaching was a little weird. Why would I even consider telling personal concerns to a literal stranger? Why do I need to invite them to my home and disrupt my life so they can have a 100% record? My husband refuses to hometeach because he feels it puts him in a too awkward position. I tend to agree. I am not suprised at your post, Wilfried, though it makes me sick to read my worst fears come to fruition. As a fully functioning adult, I think should a serious problem arise where I felt religious counsel necessay, I would first consult the bishop of my ward with another person. Thank you for another thought provoking comment–jp

  7. January 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    Sorry for the cheap critique-I just think hometeaching is a very outdated policy.

  8. Wilfried
    January 21, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    The expression of concern is certainly not “cheap critique”, and I appreciate your reactions, Kevin and jp. I just did not want the thread to quickly degenerate into a wild litany of complaints about home teaching! It’s obvious many of us have a lot to say about that aspect of our Church life. We need to nuance, for sure: I’ve seen many cases where home teaching works well, and others where it is weak, very weak. What makes it worthwhile, what makes it a failure? Thoughtful comments are welcome.

    Mark IV and Julie, thank you for your comments which reinforce the basic message of the post. Fidelity and worthiness are the core elements at stake here. At the same time it is good to remember how vulnerable we are and how much we need to be on guard.

    Geoff J, that was a very touching testimony from your personal experience, illustrating so well the message of this post. Thank you very much.

  9. Lisa F.
    January 21, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    I have never felt comfortable telling my visiting teachers anything about the things that have been my real griefs in life. However, I clearly remember a time last year after one of their regular visits. These two “grandmas” made their usual brief visit, gave a nice short message, and left. As I shut the door, a feeling of the Lord’s tenderness toward me in watching over me through these sisters enveloped me, and I wept. It was strong and sure. They come every month. I still don’t tell them much that is personal, but I enjoy their caring.

    Home teaching…my children have rarely seen a home teacher in our home. It would be a novelty. However, one of my great childhood heros was my home teacher, who was also my principal at school! He was stern there, but very kind in our home.

    The tragedy that you write about could happen in many places — church service, community service, work. We have to be so careful.

  10. queuno
    January 21, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    I’d like to see, in a separate thread, the critique of HT. Is it design or execution? I stand ready to be convinced, but I generally find that those who complain about VT/HT being outmoded have issues with the execution that resulted in a personal trial/embarrassment/discomfort, not the design.

    I have been on both sides of it – in the EQ presidency trying to set it up and keep it running, and as a member. I have gone through periods where I haven’t let my HTs visit but I was still attending every meeting — but that was for various reasons that were personal, not because of the program. I have plenty of opinions on how HT/VT could be better executed, but I think the concept is divinely inspired.

    The tragedy of the story itself — the BP discovering the sin in the family — can someone care to enlighten me on how this was a bad thing? The sin had occurred (and was occurring). At some point there must be confession to have repentence — consequences are not a consideration in repentence. It would seem to be (to my very tired mind today) that the whole situation served as a necessary catalyst.

  11. Razorfish
    January 21, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    The experience you cited in this post was tragic. It underscores why we are often asked to perform Church service in companionships whether that is missionary work, hometeaching, visiting teaching, Church finances, etc. We need witnesses to protect ourselves from those who might bear false witness, or in some cases as your example suggests, protect ourselves from ourselves.

    Hometeaching as a program of the Church often seems to generate sporadic examples of great success and terrific failure all at the same time. My personal examples with hometeaching have reflected this reality. I’ve had 3 families, while I was hometeaching them, go through the divorce process. Watching the pain, bitterness, and heartache and seeing these families split apart was devastating. I’ve also seen a new convert who I hometaught lose his wife a few months after they joined the Church. That’s when I learned what it meant in the scriptures to “stand and mourn with those who mourn.” I’ve also knocked on a family’s front door and been met by someone with a cigarette in their mouth ask me who I was…and responded, I’m your hometeacher ! Seeing this entire family come back into activity in the Church was a sweet experience.

    In my hometeaching, I’ve also been chased off a front porch by a man who yelled expletives at me to never come back again (I didn’t….). I’ve also gone through cycles where I’ve had 100% hometeaching and 0% hometeaching in a year.

    From all of these experiences, my opinion is somewhat colored as follows. I don’t see a lot of utility in “re-hashing the Ensign lesson” every month which the other active family has read or re-read 5 times already. I don’t even like the convention of “once a month” because it sets up an artificial and insincere motivation that is easily detected by hometeacher and hometeachee.

    I’d rather sincerely visit a family once a quarter and do some meaningful service that they genuinely appreciate, that re-hash the Ensign message monthly and robotically.

    That to me is the key. Make hometeaching more of a tailored program than a one size fits all approach. I don’t think every family needs hometeachers. I don’t. If I need something I will call on a friend, family member or ecclesiastical leader. Some families such as less actives, new members or others may have sufficient need for some friendly support or concern. But a lot of members don’t. Why not concentrate the limited resources of the Priesthood on those who really need help. Let’s make a difference in the lives of some rather than make virtually no impact on the lives of the entire ward.

    Make hometeaching more flexible and less formulaic. We don’t expect you to visit 5 families each month, but instead make a difference in those 5 families during the year by 1) being a friend, 2) giving service, 3) welcoming inactives back to full fellowship, 4) caring to make a difference in someone else’s life.

    The knee-jerk reaction will be… that is what you are suppossed to be doing anyway in your monthly Ensign visit. But I find the convention of once a month is too artificial and gets in the way of deliverying true Christ like service and concern, and more concerned with “checking the box” and reporting stats back to the EQP. Hometeaching should be renamed rendering Christ like service. I just think a lot of Elders put their heads down in Priesthood excercises when the obligatory comment is made…”Bretheren it’s the last day of the month, let’s get our hometeaching done and reported.” Let’s not let the program get in the way or sabotage the intent, which is to deliver meaningful Christ-like service to our brothers and sisters in the Gospel.

  12. Adam Greenwood
    January 21, 2006 at 5:23 pm

    The wierd intimacy of hometeaching has helped my family more than once, in concerns that we would not have been comfortable airing publicly and with home teachers we most likely would not have taken into our confidence if they hadn’t been assigned to us. I am saddened that church members refuse to do home teaching.

    I take Wilfried Decoo’s story as he meant it, as a warning, not a condemnation. Emotional intimacy is such a beautiful thing that I wish it weren’t also so dangerous. But it is.

  13. queuno
    January 21, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    (Re #10 – OK, I missed the tidbit about the brother being the other sister’s HT. Sorry. I’ve had 10 hours of sleep over 3 nights.)

  14. queuno
    January 21, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Re 11 –

    I think the point is that once a month is an absolute minimum for contact, and if you’ve done nothing else, you can always fall back on the minimum of doing a 1P message if you’re too lazy to make other preparations.

    I think the “goal” is to get to know the family, be involved in their life as much as is appropriate, have regular contact with ALL members of the family (as appropriate), and try to bring spiritual messages that they might not get anywhere else. Some months may require 3 visits, some might not ever require any — but we are to do at least one minimal visit just to check out what’s going on.

    If you’re not in the home, how can you tell that they have heat or a/c? That the roof hasn’t fallen in? That the carpet isn’t flooded? We assume that people will call us if they need help. That rarely happens, because they don’t have a relationship with us (circular dependency warning). We should be proactively verifying that they are OK.

    Yes, the Church is horrible at execution. But it’s a mistake to gauge the merits of the design of any program on the execution or results. Remember, the Plan of Salvation is not results-oriented…

  15. Wilfried
    January 21, 2006 at 6:15 pm

    Valuable comments, all. And much necessary nuancing. Thanks!

    The home teaching aspect of my post was not meant to question home teaching as such, but to draw the attention to sensitivities in the intercultural realm, though the specific problem I mentioned may certainly also occur in an American context, as Mark IV (1) pointed out. Main idea of the HT-part: “to be able to enter a home” and “to get involved with the family” have different connotations according to culture. For example, two male home teachers visiting a single woman, or even addressing the wife in a family, may not be appropriate in certain countries and trigger unwanted reactions.

    Cultural traditions may also perturb the principle of a short visit and message: in some cultures visits must be elaborate to be polite, and the long talks may easily evolve in gossip and criticism about leaders and other members, next leading to the formation of cliques. There is also, in certain cultures where “help” is understood literally and materially, the increased risk of taking advantage of the “friendship” within the Church context, in the form of abusive requests, loans, collateral… And finally what I pointed at in this post: facilitating improper relations. I’ve seen it all, with dire consequences.

    Of course, in many instances home teaching works very well in other cultures and is a source of strength for those involved. But I don’t think we have addressed the potential side effects well enough in “foreign” area’s where the Church is moreover young and converts inexperienced.

  16. January 21, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    That IS an interesting idea. I wonder how cultural differences in, say, Japan, affect home teaching differently than in the U.S. I would think there would be alot, for the reasons Wilfried says, about different cultural norms of privacy, family, personal boundaries, etc.

  17. January 21, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Um, but of course the situation that he relates IS tragic. I didn’t mean to say that the situation was interesting. The idea he postulates is what I was referring to.

  18. January 21, 2006 at 7:05 pm

    In my own ward, the bishop, in consultation with the stake president and the other ward leaders, changed the home teaching program. We have paired Elders with High Priests and each companionship has been assigned about 6 families. (Even here in Utah, there are places with low levels of church participation.) We are expected to make a personal visit to 2 of the families in a given month. We can make any other contact with the other families we think appropriate to see to their welfare.

    The program is too young for me to give you any analysis of how well I think it is working, but I think it shows that local leaders are trying to modify the home teaching program to match local needs. I think this is the same sort of problem solving adaptation Wilfried is hoping to see in other parts of the world.

  19. Andermom
    January 21, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    I don’t think the problem was/is home teaching being too intimate of a relationship. I think it can be traced to what is considered outmoded ettiquette. I have an old book of ettiquette that I read through, sometimes for entertainment value, sometimes for actual content. There is a whole chapter (and more) on proper conduct between members of the opposite sex. The main theme of that chapter is between married people one should limit their social interactions to other people of the same sex. For example if a the Jones are having a party, it would be wholly inappropriate for Mr. Jones to speak with Mrs. Minkle about her and her husband attending the party. If Mr Jones does the inviting, then he should only speak to Mr. Minkle(and vice versa).

    To me this is why there is home teaching *and* visiting teaching. This way both Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones have someone to share their intimate concerns with while maintaining propriety. Maybe I’m old fashioned (at 22 years old) but I try to follow this pattern of behavior.

  20. Kevin Barney
    January 21, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    Bradley (no. 18), three cheers for your bishop. I think he’s on the right track.

  21. January 21, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    Why the dichotomy between design and execution? Couldn’t better design lead to better execution? Blaming hometeaching problems on the individual hometeachers is kind of like blaming car wrecks on the individual drivers. Yeah, the drivers are often (almost always?) at fault, but actually there is also a lot that the highway designers and car designers can do to reduce driver error, and to reduce the injuries that result when there is driver error.

    Hometeaching was a catalyst in a major life change for me.

    When I moved back to within the boundaries of the ward I grew up in, my attitude toward the church could be summed up as: “I’m really enjoying my newfound ‘inactivity,’ and my current plan is never to go back to church except for family occasions, but we’ll see if I start to miss it.”

    I received a call from the executive secretary asking me to come and meet with the bishop. I politely said “no, thank you,” and said that I would appreciate it if no one in the ward would contact me in any official capacity at all, specifically: no hometeachers, no visiting teachers, no requests to visit with the bishop. I said I would contact the bishop myself if/when I wanted to become involved. Of course lifelong friends from the ward would always be lifelong friends, but I would maintain those friendships outside of the church context. The executive secretary said he would pass my request along.

    About four months later, one Saturday morning just after 8, my doorbell rang. Even if I happen to be awake at that hour on a Saturday, I prefer to be in my pajamas, reading. I am not showered, not dressed, not breakfasted, not ready to greet visitors. It was a guy who had moved into the ward shortly before I had moved out. I asked why he had come to see me. He told me he thought I’d want to see his baby boy who had been born while I was away. Adorable infant. I asked him why he was bringing his baby over on a Saturday morning. He looked sheepish and got quiet for a few seconds, but then he grinned and said he was my hometeacher. I asked him whether he had heard that I had asked not to have hometeachers. He said that maybe there had been some miscommunication. I told him politely but firmly that I did not want hometeachers, and would appreciate it if he would not visit me as such.

    About a month later, there was another early Saturday morning visit. He was back, this time with a companion (someone from the ward whom I had not met before–poor guy seemed very uncomfortable), and he was asking to be my “friend,â€? not my “hometeacher.â€? I remained civil but stern as I explained how friends act. Friends call before coming over. Friends don’t disturb their friends’ sleep unless it’s an emergency. And most of all, friends respect their friends’ wishes. I had expressed a wish not to receive official visits from the church. If it happens once a month and there’s a companion, it’s an official visit. And I don’t want it to happen again.

    About a month later, there was another early Saturday morning visit. No companion. I asked him point blank what I had to do to get him to stop coming over. He cheerfully told me that as long as I was a member of the church, I was part of the fold, and there would always be priesthood leaders who would care about me and visit me. There was nothing I could do that would ever lessen their priesthood duty of love and caring and visiting.

    Two weeks later, I sent in my resignation letter.

  22. Wilfried
    January 21, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    Beijing, do I read this correctly? You asked your name to be removed from the Church because you felt a home teacher was bothering you once a month? Or do I misunderstand?

  23. January 22, 2006 at 12:37 am

    You understand correctly, Wilfried. To be precise, I wrote a letter to the bishop and told him that I had already asked for no contact, I had been contacted repeatedly by someone who knew of that request, and I really expected my request for no official contact to be honored from that time on. He wrote back that he would interpret my letter as a request for name removal unless I contacted him within 30 days and told him otherwise. I let the 30 days pass without saying anything. I received a letter from Salt Lake City some months after that with notification that I was no longer a member.

    To briefly explain: due to a very painful mission, church had become a sad place for me, and almost everything associated with church was likely to trigger my depression. I got headaches Saturday evening that lasted till Monday morning, I cried uncontrollably (not just tender little moved-by-the-Spirit tears) during church meetings…I was really a mess. And when I sought help, the only answers people could offer me was “are you praying? are you reading your scriptures? have you repented of any serious sin?” I was praying, I was reading scriptures, I had never committed any serious sin and was repenting of every little thing I could think of. And still almost every church-related experience sent me down a spiral of sadness and guilt. I desperately needed no contact for a good long while so I could heal emotionally.

    The issues go a lot deeper than what I can say in a brief comment, of course. But it was not entirely the hometeacher’s fault for not understanding everything that was going on with me. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. His only tool was hometeaching, so everyone looked like they needed to be hometaught. My request not to be visited was incomprehensible to him. “Not visiting” had never been presented to him as a possible righteous choice. Nonetheless, if the direct, polite approach of “please do not visit me” had worked the first or second or third time I asked, my name would probably still be on the records right now. Although due to the depression and other issues which I won’t get into here, I’m sure my willingness to be a member would still be hanging by a thread at best.

  24. Mike B
    January 22, 2006 at 12:49 am

    Like one of the comments made above, I, too, am discouraged at members who refuse to home teach. I recognize we’re all different and each have our own challenges/limitations, but refusing to do HT is tantamount to saying: I’m too busy with X to care about someone else. There is something even more frustrating, however, and that is members reporting that they’re doing they’re home teaching when they’re really not. I do not understand that at all (especially when the person holds a stake calling).

  25. January 22, 2006 at 2:28 am

    Like Beijing, I am no stranger to depression, the uninvited visitor that refuses to leave your house no matter how many different approaches you use to get him out. But I have learned that crawling into a shell only makes matters worse, since you deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn coping skills by dealing with other imperfect people. Ever since I was called to be a counselor in an Elders Quorum presidency, I’ve had to accept the responsibility of helping oversee home teachers. It has often occurred to me that we could do a better job of training them to be better representatives of the Church. Another lesson I learned years ago is that one size indeed does not fit all. The four Gospels in the New Testament is to a large extent a log of home teaching visits by the Master, Jesus Christ, but you will search in vain for the phrase, “once a month.” On the other hand, the bishop and stake president will regularly ask us for more input, so I suppose that’s why we have a goal that’s easy for the average person to understand.

  26. manaen
    January 22, 2006 at 3:50 am

    During my years after divorce and disfellowshipment, I look forward to each home teaching visit. This my one real chance to talk in person about discoveries, concerns, joys, and pains with a “regular” LDS and not an interview with a leader.

    I was surprised that in one ward, I was assigned a HT (no companion) for a few years who had many intellectual doubts about the restored gospel and may not have had a testimony remaining. But I was able to talk share with him my change of heart and spirit healing and spritual experiences through repentance. He didn’t empathize because he didn’t feel the Spirit, but he listened and had no answer to my affirmations. Because he listened as I poured out my heart and bore testimony, our meetings were my substitute for what most of you do in the Sunday meetings. My current HT is a former bishop who strenthens me as well as listens.

    I don’t see the current HT program as an American cultural phenomenon that the Church is trying to graft into other cultures. I see it as an inspired way for us to transcend *any* local culture to develop the oneness for which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. Instead of being strangers in each others’ households, it’s a way for us to become “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” ( Eph 2:19)

  27. Kathy Jackson
    January 22, 2006 at 5:35 am

    Beijing, Wow. You really must have had a hard time on your mission, and must be dealing with many difficult things. I am very sorry for that. I’m glad your testimony is hanging on, if only by a thread, and I hope you can hang on to it. It really can save you. Parts of my mission were very difficult for me as well, and I fought with depression afterward, though nothing as serious as what you describe. I hope you are getting real help as well as continuing to pray and ask your Father in Heaven for help. In my case, it was prayer that lead to a very clear understanding of what was going on inside of me and what specifically I could do about it. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life, but it didn’t come for quite a while.

    Beijing’s experience aside, I think HT is an inspired program. Certainly it should be adapted to a certain extent to fit different cultures, I suppose that is a Bishop’s or EQ pres’ job, but there are lots of changes one makes upon accepting the gospel and the church. That’s why we are a peculiar people even here in the United States (I know I sure am here in No Cal). We are a lay church and people are going to implement programs with varying degrees of skill and ability here and abroad, but the program is a good one that benefits both the teachees and the teachers. I may not feel I need a HTer (which is good, because often they don’t show up anyways) but who am I to say they don’t need an opportunity to serve my family? I know of church leaders who have ended up in trouble with people they were counseling, but I don’t think that is an argument against talking to my Bishop.

  28. Wilfried
    January 22, 2006 at 9:40 am

    Beijing (23), thank you for your straightforward comment. I’m sorry to hear about the way your letter was received and interpreted. There were probably other ways to deal with your request, but at least you hang around with us here at the Bloggernacle and it’s great to have you here at your own rhythm. Keep coming.

    Mike B (24), I concur with your frustration when you see HT being treated negligently or even dishonestly. One thing I have noticed that sometimes helps, is the attitude of those members who have careless home teachers: call the home teachers yourselves to get them to come, show appreciation for their visit, build them up with your own stories and testimony, and send them birthday and Christmas cards… In other words, become their home teachers in your own home.

    Charles Sakai (25), thank you for your mentioning “the opportunity to learn coping skills by dealing with other imperfect people.” And indeed, “one size does not fit all.” It requires a lot of maturity and wisdom to come to that realization.

    Manaen (26), that was a candid and much appreciated comment about your experiences. Yes, sometimes home teaching and/or personal interaction can be a helpful substitute for Sunday meetings if it is there that the Spirit finds its way to hearts. As to the HT program being an American cultural phenomenon, I certainly did not want to convey that idea. Rather that in some countries the program may have “to be monitored with special care and adapted guidelines” to taken into account cultural sensitivities and help avoid misunderstandings or major problems. It’s always difficult to enter into a different cultural realm, compounded moreover by the challenges to work with inexperienced converts and other traditions.

    Kathy Jackson (27), thank you for your kind words to Beijing. You point to a very important aspect: we are a peculiar “lay church” and that implies a lot more than we sometimes realize. In no other church are we given so many challenges and opportunities to grow but also to fail.

    Well, the thread has been evolving to a discussion of HT as such, with heartfelt contributions from personal experiences. I appreciate the respectful and genuine tone that is prevailing and the kindness with which we are treating each other in our respective quests for understanding and in our desire to help.

  29. January 22, 2006 at 10:12 am

    Kathy and Wilfried, thank you for your kind words. I guess I didn’t make it clear that I was speaking of the past, and that I have moved on. All of that happened more than two years ago. The thread my testimony was hanging on has been cut. I have experienced a great deal of healing since then. I have joined another religion, and it meets my spiritual needs. I am involved in my local congregation. My spirit still suffers when certain LDS-specific buttons are pushed, and my family has not completely figured out how to avoid pushing them. That is why I come to the Bloggernacle, to face those fears and learn to make peace with my Mormon past. I also hope that something good could come from my experience; that maybe my sharing it will help someone else.

    My new congregation does not have a full-time minister and does not plan on hiring one, which means that we are also a “lay church” for the foreseeable future, with all the opportunities for service and individual shortcomings that that entails. I enjoy it. I don’t see a problem with “lay churches” as such. It depends on how their systems are designed and how their culture operates. That is why I think sometimes it is a bit of a cop-out to chalk every shortcoming up to being a “lay church.” For one thing, human failings are just as rampant in “professional churches” because professionals are also human and fail sometimes. For another, there isn’t just one design for a “lay church;” there are many possibilities, some of which work better than others in various circumstances.

  30. January 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I’m glad I was given good training in my early years as a home-teacher. There are things that a pair of home teachers can do, without having to get the whole quorum or the bishop involved. There are things that the quorum can do without getting the bishop involved. And there are things for which the home-teacher or EQ pres should refer the person to the Bishop.

    Even for things where the person should see the Bishop, I think the home teacher(s) should not cut them off, but respectfully listen, and then refrain from counseling them other than to “see the Bishop”.

  31. Jeff
    January 22, 2006 at 4:25 pm

    Beijing, I can sympathize. So often we’re engaged in ‘getting our home teaching done’ that we forget that our primary concern is to fulfill the needs of those we serve and visit, even if the need is to be left alone.

    Elder James A Cullimore said the following in 1973 Gen. Conf:

    “In September 1963 home teaching was introduced to the Church. This differs from ward teaching in that greater emphasis is placed on watching over the family, rather than just making a monthly visit…After nine years of home teaching, however, I am afraid we are really still doing mostly ward teaching. We are still prodding the priesthood home teachers to “hurry and get your home teaching done—the month is nearly over.â€?

    Sometimes they need visits, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they need help moving (ugh!). In other words, the program was made for man, man was not made for the program. When done right, with the right spirit, with the right encouragement and follow-up (when the last time you had monthly PPI’s with quorum leaders?) it is a wonderfully enriching and effective program that can truly help a bishop better minister to his flock, as help us all feel a part of something.

    But as our Stake President always counsels, “Don’t go alone!!”

  32. Tatiana
    January 22, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    As a new convert whose contact with the church before I took the lessons was exclusively with online friends, I had no acquaintences or friends in the local church other than the missionaries. Then when my first set of missionaries got transferred, I knew nobody beyond a passing hello. At that time my home teacher (who was such a great choice for me) was my strongest thread of friendship within the local church. His companion was inactive, so he would come with the missionaries, or bring his wife, or a young ward missionary, but he always came. He became one of my very few real friends in the church, and his family still invites me to dinner sometimes, though I’ve long since left that ward. He has a wonderful family, and it’s a joy to spend time with them. I’m grateful to the home teaching program for bringing about that friendship. I’ve had two wonderful home teachers now and I feel lucky.

    As a Visiting Teacher, I often feel I’m being a bother, when people find it hard to think of a time when they’re free for us to visit. There is also a feeling here in the South that a real visit with actual friends should last at least an hour, and a 15 minute or half hour visit feels rushed or perfunctory. Lately we’ve tried to incorporate something that seems to work well, when we can convince each other to let us do it. Because I basically suck at chit-chat, we’ve tried to join together and do some sort of chore with each teaching visit, and share a treat. So the visits last about an hour, and they take the form of (chore, treat, message). First we three join together and accomplish some chore at the teachee’s house, like raking the yard, vacuuming and dusting the living area, knocking out a pile of dishes, or something of the kind. Next we sit down and share the treat, which feels at this point like a reward for our hard work. :-) Thirdly we share the message in the Ensign. Then we have a prayer and say bye. It really seems to forge a real feeling of friendship for us, far more than just the visit and message alone, which feel like more of an intrusion, especially with less active members.

    The hard part is getting the teachee to let us do the chore. Too often, before receiving a visit, the sisters (and me too) want to have a clean house and be prepared to be the hostess. Hostesses don’t put their visitors to work, you know? So there’s that hurdle to get over. But visiting teachers aren’t really the same thing as regular guests, and when we persist in asking, and show by our actions that we really mean it, it turns out to be a very fun and meaningful visit, of a type that creates real friendships. I just thought I’d offer that as a suggestion, in case anyone else would like to try something along those lines.

  33. Razorfish
    January 22, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    Albert Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” In my corner of the Lord’s vineyard hometeaching hovers around 20%. It may rise or fall depending on the care and exhortation of the local leaders, but it invariably comes back to this gravitational resting point.

    I believe hometeaching is an inspired program revealed by modern day prophets. I also believe like other inspired programs such as missionary work, church format (block meetings, etc), etc, no program is immune to being fine-tuned or improved. Just as you take your car in to get serviced so it can run more optimally, the same analogy could be considered for HT.

    I’m not trying to shirk the real responsibility all of us bear to minister to the Lord’s flock or show stewardship or responsibility over those we are entrusted. But just as post 18 suggests, there are A LOT of creative and pragmatic approaches that one could make to make the design of hometeaching much more effective and yield much more spiritual success. Why can’t we critically examine practical ways to think outside of the box on issues like this with the intent of being better stewards??

    To come full circle to Wilfried’s post, I think the Church will have to embrace this principle more as it continues to expand globally into culture’s and custom’s that are very different from our own. As far as our stewardship is concerned, we may not be able to simply script a formula that is reduced to “Did you do your hometeaching last month.” As Beijing teaches us, everyone is not a nail, and home teaching (as a program) is more than just a hammer.

  34. Melinda
    January 22, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    I like getting to know people, but I lack the ability to just become somebody’s friend without an extra hook. It’s like I need two contacts to get a friend. If we’re in the same ward and the same book club, then friendship is possible. If we have a mutual friend, and we’re in the same ward, then again we’re potentially friends. But just being in the same ward is rarely enough for me to make a friend. I look at HT and VT as being the second contact to make a friend. I have a reason to call them, or to welcome them into my home. Then I can get to know them past the stage of just saying hello at church.

    What are the means by which friendships form in other cultures? If it takes more than just finding out that you have a couple of things in common, then HT and VT ought to consider those extras. Is it customary to be introduced by a common acquaintance? To get together on neutral territory instead of at someone’s house? To have larger gatherings than just two visitors?

    I see the goal of HT and VT as forming friends in church – friends who are good enough friends that you dare to talk to them about real stuff. So perhaps HT and VT in other cultures should accommodate the customs that go along with forming friendships in other cultures. In America you just throw people together and wait for them to find something in common. Perhaps other cultures need more structure?

  35. Wilfried
    January 23, 2006 at 1:28 am

    Bookslinger (30), wise advice as to the balance between home teacher, quorum and bishop. It’s something that is not often trained, I’m afraid. The brother in my story should have immediately understood that he had better kept distance when the wife sought his advice on intimate matters. Even so, it requires also moral and emotional strength to take the right decisions at crucial moments.

    Jeff (31), thank you for the valuable quote by Elder James A Cullimore. At the same time the injunction to “watch over the family” also entails the risks that my story illustrates. It may all seem very obvious to Americans with long Church experience, but it is not always the case elsewhere. Moreover, problems with marginal, unbalanced, unstable converts often pose peculiar challenges. I mentioned the problem of emotional engagement. Another is financial trouble (loans, collateral, abuse…) as a consequence of misunderstanding “watching over the family”. Not easy… On the other hand, there is of course also a lot of excellent home teaching!

    Tatiana (32), that was a great contribution about the positive aspects of home teaching and the creative endeavor with your visiting teaching. Interesting that you mentioned “a feeling here in the South that a real visit with actual friends should last at least an hour, and a 15 minute or half hour visit feels rushed or perfunctory.” Intercultural differences, even in the U.S.? In European countries, it is often the same, and even an hour would sometimes be considered short. Some people understand “a visit” to also include cookies and (herb) tea, otherwise it would be impolite. A visit quickly becomes elaborate. I can relate well to your suggestions in relation to doing chores and the hurdles to overcome in order to start new traditions. And I can see how one way to solve a problem could create new ones. Complex!

  36. Wilfried
    January 23, 2006 at 1:28 am

    Razorfish (33), thank you for pointing to the original concern — “I think the Church will have to embrace this principle [examine practical ways to think outside of the box] more as it continues to expand globally into cultures and customs that are very different from our own”. That is indeed a core issue. The principle of home teaching is not under discussion here, but the optimal ways to implement the program, taking into consideration different cultural concepts of what “watching over” means, and “friendship”, and “visit”. Think only, e.g., in certain cultures, of the ingrained “suspicion and jealousy” a husband may feel when male home teachers address his wife. Or the tradition that “watching over” may be understood as “paying part or all of our expenses”.

    Melinda (34), you raise good questions what “friendship” means in other cultures. Not easy to answer, but it seems that in the U.S. people are much more quickly called “friends” than in e.g. most West-European countries, where clear differences are made between “acquaintances” and actual “friends”. The former are people you know, with whom you may even have daily and intense contact, cooperation and exchanges. The latter are very few inner-circle people, obtaining the privilege to be invited into your home, engaged on a very personal level. It make take years before an acquaintance becomes a friend. Other friends are made and remain from childhood on. You may think that Church membership would facilitate the forming of these kinds of friendship, and it does happen, but the divergent social and cultural origins of converts may also hamper it (European branches and wards also have very composite membership). You simply cannot force such deep friendships. Experienced Church leaders in Europe may even counsel to keep the necessary distances and not force friendship relations in an artificial way. Some converts indeed expect to be considered “friends” in the intimate sense, while others are simply not able to respond to it. That may create tensions. An example is the delicate balance in using names, calling the one “brother so-and-so”, and the other with his first name. Home teaching and visiting teaching may lead to the formation of friendships, but the frequent changes in assignments may hamper it. Another aspect is also delicate: solid friendships in small networks may lead to cliques. The dynamics of interpersonal relations cannot be easily controlled nor structured. All by all, perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about “making friends” in Church, but simply stress our togetherness in testimony and dedication to keep the faith and build the Kingdom.

  37. Tatiana
    January 23, 2006 at 3:19 am

    Wilfried, we have many cultural differences in the different regions of the U.S. Sometimes it leads to unfortunate misunderstandings.

  38. January 23, 2006 at 4:12 am

    I’m thinking back, now, to when I lived in New York state, as opposed to here in Utah.

    It seems to me, that given the driving times involved, and how much it seemed most in the ward felt, that any excuse to get together and associate with fellow Mormons but much more importantly, fellow ward members, was a good one. There just seemed to be an attitude of a kind of cameraderie, of refreshment from being among so many who do not share your beliefs; a feeling of rejuvenation and likeness in spirit when coming together.

    Thinking back, I remember that when we had home teachers, half an hour to forty-five minutes was the norm, and and hour was not unusual. There was a cluster of members within about 10 minutes of each other, and a few at 15 and 20 minutes out, with a large number at 25, 30, and more minutes away. Which, probably makes sense, as the farther out you go, the larger the amount of territory.

    Anyway, with the drive for the two partners to meet up, and then drive to someone’s house, it was always a very welcome and generally convivial occasion (there was one rather dour home teacher that I vaguely remember, though). Especially the farther out from the central area one went.

    I have NO idea what the home teaching percentages were, though.

    So it’s interesting for me to look back at the different attitudes about it from New York to Utah . . . it definitely was a different culture, and I had a hard time adjusting. I, at least, always warmed up fast to most new home teachers, and the rest of my family did the same (large family).

    I also went on visits with my dad, in his bishopbric capacity of going out and visiting shut-ins, the elderly, etc. Starting at about age 11 . . . and so, in a way, I was kind of a home-teaching companion with him, lol! I treasure these memories in a way I never thought I would, at the time.

    Anyway, it was really good for me to see how valued the visits were by those we visited, and how warmly they welcomed us in, and treated me, a virtual stranger, so kindly (well, being a child probably helped . . . and probably helped smooth the way in to some of the less active, perhaps . . .)

    So! I appreciate the thoughts in this post and thread, and how they’ve instigated a look back at my own experiences in two different parts of the country.

  39. Jeff
    January 23, 2006 at 8:54 am

    Wilfried (#35):

    Point(s) taken. Sometimes we try to be ‘home saviors’ instead of home teachers, when many issues should be simply reported back to Priesthood leaders. Elder Cullimore also lectures at length about the need for home teachers to work through the father, and help the father to better minister and patriarch to his family, not to usurp his position or ‘take over.’

    Thanks for your post. It started the wheels a turnin’.

  40. Ginny
    January 23, 2006 at 10:50 am

    This is very interesting to me – as a new convert and the only member of my family, a cultural mis-match regarding HT came up just yesterday.

    Both my husband and I were raised in a similar way to Andersmom – that the men make arrangements with the men, and the women with the women. My home teacher, an extremely nice man (I’ve never met his companion, so I can’t speak of him), has been struggling to set up HT’ing with me, because I feel very uncomfortable speaking one-on-one (or two-on-one) with him. Generally he asks if so-and-so date is available, I say that I need to discuss it with my husband first (as a non-member, he’s supportive of my involvement with the church, but doesn’t really “get it”), and nothing ever comes of it. This doesn’t really bother me – based on my experiences with VT’d, it’s more nervewracking than spritually fulfililng, so I can only imagine HT’ing would be moreso. Mainly I feel bad for my Home Teacher, as it’s not his fault and I realize that he doesn’t understand our particular cultural/family “quirks”.

  41. b bell
    January 23, 2006 at 11:32 am

    Hi Wilfried.

    How does one pack so many experiences into one lifetime I wonder?

    To me HT is inspired.

    There is an issue of personalities at play with it like all other human endeavors. Personally I always get assigned to inactives or recent converts to HT. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it does not. They either like me or they do not. I can never tell how it will turn out but I keep plugging.

    I had never considered the international element. I would imagine that local leaders could structure HT to fit in with cultural norms? Am I wrong? If I was say a Bish in a country I would do whatever worked and make it work with my own culture.

  42. MDS
    January 23, 2006 at 11:41 am


    I am aware of similar situations. All of the ones I am aware of happened in situations where the ward was overwhelmed with the number of home teaching assignments to be given and decided that the best way to address the problem was to send the brethren out without companions, so two brethren could cover more territory by themselves than together. This proved to be disastrous. I see no allowance for such a contingency in the handbook, although I fully understand why the little pocket of priesthood holders in a fledgling congregation would be tempted to make such a move so a home teacher could have, say, ten families instead of twenty.

    I believe we could be much more flexible with home teaching and still accomplish much good. I don’t believe that the idea of a husband and wife visiting together should be such taught as the rare exception that it is. There are literally dozens of good practical reasons why such an arrangement can make very good sense.

  43. Wilfried
    January 24, 2006 at 9:07 am

    I still need to thank the latest commenters.

    Tatiana (37) and Sarebear (38), thank you for pointing at cultural differences within the U.S. Sarebear, the point about distances is well taken. Same in the mission field: when you first have to drive half an hour to pick up your companion, then again half an hour drive to visit a family, you don’t limit the visit to 15 minutes. The feeling is intense because of the effort invested. And e.g. six families to visit often means six evenings a month. Here in Provo HT-companions are often neighbors and they cross the street to visit neighbors, meaning we see HT-companions and families also all through the week. It does not mean the value of HT is different, but the atmosphere is.

    Jeff (39), great reminder that “sometimes we try to be ‘home saviors’ instead of home teachers, when many issues should be simply reported back to Priesthood leaders.” I think that the rhetoric surrounding HT sometimes contributes to that misunderstanding, and it may be more problematic when there is no long Church tradition and when young converts are being fired up to go out and “watch over” their families. In the mission field I remember how an angry father once told the home teachers to stop stalking his family. But the other extreme is the 10-minute drop-by on the last day of the month. Finding the balance between the two extremes is the point.

    Ginny (40), I always find it interesting and inspiring to hear of situations of converts and of part-member-families, as I come from a similar background. When I still lived at home with my non-member parents, HT was out of the question. It confirms time and time again there is no “one fits all” in the Church. We need to adapt and use wisdom and inspiration to find the best way to help people. It makes the Church a dynamic place for growth.

    b bell (41), always good to hear from you. You ask about adaptation of Church programs to cultural norms. It’s a balancing act. There are many things where the culture has to adapt to the Church (Sabbath observance, Word of Wisdom…), but there are also temporal things were some leniency would be welcome to adapt Church traditions to the culture in order to avoid unwanted consequences. The latter is a slow process and does require time.

    MDS (42), thank you for also confirming this need for flexibility. Indeed, in home teaching and in visiting, different combinations and arrangements according to needs and circumstances certainly can help a great deal. At the same time we need some order in the whole endeavor to avoid freelance experiments and chaos. It’s interesting to see how a key element is often the maturity of those called to supervise programs.

  44. Visorstuff
    January 24, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    Since my wife and I have been married, we’ve rarely had home teachers who initate contact with us. In my ward, people are so busy that they need a friend – and when I visit them in my current calling, I find that they are very needy in that area. True home teaching would solve many of our problems in this ward. I feel lucky to have been able to make many friends in our wards, but others are not so lucky. Still, I have to make it a point to ask my home teachers to come over, to be a friend and to help with things.

    I’ve had hometeachers come into our home and say some really stupid things. We’ve tried to realize their intent and accept the friendship, encouragement, and move on – and have been successful thus far. Sometimes, I realize what I need is a kick in the pants to help me grow.

    I agree that the principle of home teaching is summed up in president Hinckley’s call for everyone to have a friend, a calling and to be nourished by the good word of God. I may not “need” home teachers, but there is something Zion-esque about using them, helping them serve you, serving them and becoming friends that are willing to hold you accountable. To me that principle crosses cultural lines. I love home teaching.

    Situations like Bejing’s are exceptions to the rule. Requests should be respected, but I also agree that accepting home teachers is part of being a church member. Membership in a religion is a sacred thing, and shouldn’t be taken lightly, but people forget that they signed up for it – even if it was when they were eight. There must be a balance, and that is when the listening to the Spirit is so crucial. We should not force anyone, but we should also do our duty. Oh, if I could find that balance!

    It seems that since that time Bejing has been able to not only move on, but forgive the honest intent of the home teacher. Not an easy thing to have done, I’m sure, as it seems to have hurt more than any of us can know.

    I wish that hometeaching was more how it was designed to be – more two-sided rather than one-sided.

  45. Wilfried
    January 24, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Thank you, Visorstuff, for your contribution and testimony. You’re right, the two-sidedness of home teaching is a valuable thing to realize for us. Sometimes the visited, especially if they are the more active and dedicated, can do more for the visitors than the other way around. Rather than think “Our home teachers are negligent…”, there is probably something proactive than can be done to help them.

  46. Paul
    January 24, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Wilfried, don’t want to threadjack, but it seems to me that one of the biggest tragedies of your story, and one that gets only a line or two, is the inability for any of the individuals involved to go through the repentance/forgiveness process and return to the course. sometimes, this “wasted goods” mentality in the gospel negates the most powerful aspect of the gospel — the atonement.

  47. MDS
    January 24, 2006 at 6:45 pm

    Amen, Paul.

  48. Wilfried
    January 24, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you for mentioning that aspect, Paul. Indeed, I did not elaborate on the sequel. I could tell you about all the agonies and conversations and pleadings and tears we went through with those two families. For months. I could tell you of the day the betrayed husband threatened to kill the adulterer, and finally, after a heartrending process, decided to throw away his gun in a river and to forgive. I have been in contact with those people for years afterwards. I could tell you so many things… But that would fill pages. In my posts, I try to limit memories of my experiences to one main idea. Here the core issue was unworthiness at a crucial moment and a simple lesson for us all. Remain worthy. The title conveys it in those simple words: “I can’t, he said”.

    But I appreciate your concern for the rest of the story and your mentioning of the atonement. It is true none of these two families returned to activity in the Church, but that does not mean they did not go through the refiner’s fire. And who knows, some day, one of them, or more, will find their way back to the chapel.

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