Visiting teaching. In years past, these two words spoken in any Relief Society gathering a evoked a myriad of conflicting emotions. Joy. Guilt. Gratitude. Annoyance. Peace. Guilt. Excitement. Frustration. Love. Guilt. Some loved the watchcare program set forth nearly two hundred years ago. Others, not so much. And most, whether you love it or not, have carried some guilt associated with it. Because that’s what we women do. When we don’t live up to the expectations of ourselves or others, we feel guilty. But now no more. No more guilt, and as of April 1st, 2018, no more visiting teaching.
During the Sunday afternoon session of general conference that day, President Russell M. Nelson surprised millions of members with a bold announcement. “We have made the decision to retire ‘home teaching’ and ‘visiting teaching’ as we have known them. Instead, we will implement a new, holier approach to caring and ministering to others. We will refer to those efforts simply as ‘ministering.’”
I sat in awe as our prophets shared this new shift in the Church. Questions swam in my head. What will we do without visiting teaching? What will ministering look like? How will it be organized? How will the sisters react to no more visiting teaching?
Some things will feel the same, but the dynamic shift will allow and encourage sisters to 1) work with the brethren more closely, 2) work with our young women, and 3) not just watch over, but minister to our sisters as we seek to meet their needs.
We’ll get more into the changes and focus in a moment, but, first I want to say: this is a firm no guilt zone. It doesn’t matter if you had 100% visiting teaching or refused a route in the past. We are not going to dwell on how you think you should have done visiting teaching all those years, or how you think you should have felt about it or your companions or assigned sisters. We are going to put the bats of guilt down here and now and look ahead. This is not about the past. Because visiting teaching is gone. The watchcare program is changing. And so, in turn, are we.
We are ministering sisters now, trusted by the Lord to seek and listen to Him as we care for our sisters. No monthly reporting. No monthly message. No boxes to check. Simply caring for sisters the way they need to be cared for—ministering the Lord’s way.
In October of 2017, the newly called General Relief Society Presidency announced a major shift in visiting teaching. Sister Jean B. Bingham, the General President of the Relief Society, said, “We want to help sisters understand how to really care for and strengthen each sister. The (Church) handbook doesn’t talk about our responsibilities to teach a lesson. It talks about how ‘visiting teachers sincerely come to know and love each sister, help her strengthen her faith and give service.’ (Handbook 2, 9.5.1)” Sister Reyna I. Aburto, the Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency added that it “can be as simple as listening with love” (Presidency, 2017).
The informal transition from visiting teaching to ministering started in October of 2017, when the newly called General Relief Society Presidency announced a major shift in the visiting teaching program. Sister Jean B. Bingham, the General President of the Relief Society, said, “We want to help sisters understand how to really care for and strengthen each sister. The (Church) handbook doesn’t talk about our responsibilities to teach a lesson. It talks about how ‘visiting teachers sincerely come to know and love each sister, help her strengthen her faith and give service’ (Handbook 2, 9.5.1)” Sister Reyna I. Aburto, the Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency added that it “can be as simple as listening with love” (Presidency, 2017).
Visiting teaching was moving away from a monthly scheduled visit in which we shared a message from the Ensign or Liahona. Sister Sharon Eubanks, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, posed a question: “What are we supposed to do?” Her answer was simple, yet profound. “Do what she needs.”
Do what she needs.
Visiting teaching had always been about helping our sisters with their spiritual and temporal needs. It had been the watchcare program for the sisters of the church since the organization of the Relief Society under the Priesthood through Joseph Smith in March of 1842. He said the organized efforts of the sisters was “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls” (Snow). That’s what it’s done, and that is what our ministering will continue to do.
But why the change? Why change something that has been here for a decade? Because change comes with revelation, and we are a church of divine and living revelation. The gospel stays the same, but the Church changes as the Lord sees fit. That even includes long-time programs like home teaching and visiting teaching.
Change isn’t new to Relief Society. The focus and format of Relief Society and visiting teaching have changed often over the years. At their inception, the sisters went about seeing to the temporal and emotional needs of the members during the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. In 1916, visiting teachers were asked to also share a spiritual message. In 1923, uniform monthly messages were provided for all visiting teachers. In 1944, the Relief Society’s responsibilities to collect donations was changed, and visiting teacher’s roles became more spiritually focused (Daughters in My Kingdom, 2011, 2017). Though focus and format have changed in the nearly 200 years since it’s conception, the purpose has remained the same: to save souls.
For almost 100 years visiting teachers have gone by twos into sisters’ homes to share a monthly message. It’s what visiting teaching was. Something you “do.” Once I overheard two older ladies in church. Sister One said, “It’s the middle of January and we really need to do our visiting teaching. Do you want to call and make the appointments or give the message?” Sister Two thoughtfully replied, “You call. I’ll give the message. Just let me know what time you set up.” Sister One nods and heads off with purposeful strides.
This had been a conversation I’ve had many times with past companions. I’m sure it’s a conversation held by most visiting teachers. Divide and conquer! Set the appointment. Teach a lesson. Check visiting teaching off our list.
But, visiting teaching wasn’t something we do. Visiting teachers were who we are. We ministered.
I feel like, with this change from visiting teaching to ministering, we have graduated from the Mosaic Law of ministering to a higher law. We no longer have a message to share on the monthly visit to a sister’s home. The new format helps sisters to stop focusing on “what counts” as a visit and encourages them to focus more on the sisters they visit teach. Sister Bingham has said, “Since each of us is unique, each sister will need something different. . . That’s the focus—we want to make sure that we are strengthening sisters in the gospel and each sister feels valued, needed, and included” (Presidency, 2017).
Watch for more tips and insights into the new visiting teaching program from Michelle Wilson next month.