It finally happened. I had sort of given up hope that it would ever happen. But it just did, moments ago, in Elder Holland’s talk during the Priesthood session of GC.
Priesthood home teaching for a long, long time has in my view been broken. A home teaching visit is a very stereotyped, formulaic dance. There have to be two priesthood brethren, with an appointment made in advance, in the home, with all the family present, the TV turned off, reading a 1P message from the Ensign, half-heartedly asking if the family needs anything, leaving with a prayer. Often this happens at the end of the month. Anything less than this doesn’t count, so if some element of this formulaic play call isn’t going to work, we just give up altogether and punt.
It has been this way for decades. And it has seemed patently obvious to me that this is a big problem. But no one in a position of authority has been willing to stand up at that conference pulpit and say that there’s nothing magical about that particular dance, that you should do what you can, by whatever means is available, whatever will genuinely help the individual or family in question. Until just now, with Elder Holland’s address titled “Emissaries to the Church.” We have now been given the direction and counsel we need to get more pragmatic as to how we go about this important service in the Church.
Elder Holland sets the stage by telling a story:
Not long ago a single sister, whom I will call Molly, came home from work only to find two inches of water covering her entire basement floor. Immediately she realized that her neighbors, with whom she shared drainage lines, must have done an inordinate amount of laundry and bathing that day because she got all the backed-up water.
After calling a friend to come and help, the two began bailing and mopping. Just then the doorbell rang. Her friend cried out, “It’s your home teachers!” Molly laughed. “It is the last day of the month,” she replied, “but I can assure you it is NOT my home teachers.”
With bare feet, wet trousers, hair up in a bandana and a very fashionable pair of latex gloves, Molly made her way to the door. But her stark appearance did not compare with the stark sight standing before her eyes. “It WAS my home teachers!” she later told me. “You could have knocked me over with a plumber’s friend! This was a home teaching miracle;” she said, “the kind the Brethren share in general conference talks! But then, just as I was trying to decide whether to give them a kiss or hand them a mop, they said, ‘Oh Molly, we are sorry. We can see you are busy. We don’t want to intrude, so we’ll come another time.’ And they were gone.”
“Who was it?” her friend called out from down below. “I wanted to say ‘It certainly wasn’t the Three Nephites,’” Molly admitted, “but I restrained myself and said very calmly, ‘It was my home teachers but they felt this was not an opportune time to leave their message.’”
Elder Holland then goes on to say that “Entire forests have been sacrificed providing the paper to organize and then reorganize [home teaching]. A thousand pep talks have been given trying to encourage it. Certainly no Freudian travel agency anywhere could possibly arrange the number of guilt trips the subject has provoked. Yet still we struggle to achieve anywhere near an acceptable standard of performance regarding the Lord’s commandment to “watch over the Church always” thorough priesthood home teaching.”
What are some of the problems we have in trying to do home teaching? Elder Holland identifies several issues:
- Demographic changes. (The old days of what we used to call “block” teaching are gone.)
- Often a limited number of priesthood holders available to do this service, which can result in unreasonable assignments (as high as 18 to 20 families in some areas).
- Long distances.
- Transportation issues.
- The length of the work day/week.
- Cultural taboos.
- Safety issues in certain areas.
A monthly visit in the home remains the ideal. But there needs to be a greater appreciation that often the ideal is not practicable for any number of reasons. If a monthly visit is not possible, come up with a schedule to make such visits that is achievable. Prioritize the families you visit to those who need you the most—”investigators the missionaries are teaching, newly baptized converts, those who are ill, the lonely, the less active, single-parent families with children still at home, and so forth.”
Elder Holland encourages the use of other forms of contact. Watch for your families at Church; use modern technology (phone calls, texts, emails, social media).
As Elder Holland continues:
Brethren, the appeal I am making tonight is for you to lift your vision of home teaching and in newer, better ways see yourselves as emissaries of the Lord to His children. That means leaving behind the tradition of a frantic, Law of Moses-like, end-of-the-month calendar in which you rush to leave a scripted message from the Church magazines that the family has already read. We would hope, rather, that you will establish an era of genuine, gospel-oriented concern for the members, watching over and caring for each other in compassionate ways, addressing spiritual and temporal needs as best you can by any means possible. As for what “counts” as home teaching, every good thing you do “counts,” so report it all! Indeed, the report that matters most is how you have blessed and cared for those within your stewardship, which has virtually nothing to do with a specific calendar or a particular location. What matters most is that you love your people and are fulfilling the commandment to “watch over the Church always.”
I want to stress here the words “by any means possible.”
Realistically, until an Apostle was willing to stand up in General Conference and give us some leeway as to what “counts” for home teaching purposes, nothing was ever going to change. And for a long time, no one had the chutzpah to stand up and do it. That has now changed. I understand this direction as empowering priesthood holders to use common sense, to do what the family actually needs without worrying about checking a box, to get creative, to worry more about the health and welfare of a family than going through some meaningless motions.
In my view, it’s about time. I applaud Elder Holland for his practical direction and counsel, and hope that we will follow his call to a greater and more meaningful watch-care over our people.
 My wife and I don’t have a significant need for home teachers and would actually prefer something less than an in-home visit, and yet we have often been assigned some of the most diligent home teachers in the ward. This has always struck me as an unnecessary misallocation of a precious resource.