Visiting teaching. In years past, these two words spoken in any Relief Society gathering evoked a myriad of conflicting emotions. Joy. Guilt. Gratitude. Annoyance. Peace. Guilt. Excitement. Frustration. Love. Guilt. Some loved the watchcare program set forth nearly 200 years ago—others, not so much. And most of us, whether we loved it or not, have carried some guilt associated with it. But now, no more guilt, and as of April 1, 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.’”
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First, let me assure you again: this is a firm no-guilt zone. It doesn’t matter if you had 100 percent 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 the program or your companions or your assigned sisters. This is not about the past, because 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.
Change is not new to Relief Society. At its inception, the Relief Society consisted of sisters who 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. Prior to 1944, the Relief Society’s responsibility had been to collect charitable donations for those in need, but during that year the purpose was changed, and visiting teachers’ roles became more spiritually focused (Daughters in My Kingdom, 2011, 2017). Though its focus and format have changed in the nearly 200 years since its beginning, the purpose of the Relief Society has remained the same: to save souls.
The formal transition from “visiting teachers” to “ministering sisters” actually began in October 2017, when the newly called general Relief Society presidency announced a major shift in visiting teaching. Sister Jean B. Bingham, 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.’” Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, added that it “can be as simple as listening with love.”
Visiting teaching then began moving away from monthly scheduled visits in which we shared a message from the Ensign or Liahona. Sister Sharon Eubank, 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.”
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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. The Prophet said the organized efforts of the sisters were “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.” That’s just what visiting teaching has done.
So why change something that has been here for decades? Because change comes with revelation, and we are a church of divine and living revelation. The gospel remains the same, but the Church organization changes as the Lord sees fit. That includes long-time programs like home teaching and visiting teaching.
For almost 100 years, visiting teachers have gone by twos into sisters’ homes to share a monthly message. Now we have the structure to help us minister according to their needs. Monthly reports are now replaced by quarterly interviews, where we can sit face-to-face with Relief Society leaders as we discuss in love and faith the sisters we are called to care for and more effectively save souls. Yes, things are changing. Visiting teaching was something we did. But ministering sisters are who we are.
From Teaching to Ministering
As a newly called Relief Society president years ago, I felt the weight of the needs of the sisters in my ward. I prayed fervently for direction, peace, wisdom, and strength. I wanted to give every sister everything they needed. It was a heavy and sacred privilege, but one that I learned wasn’t mine alone.
I immediately began focusing my efforts on visiting teaching in our ward and soon realized that, though our visiting teaching numbers were strong and the sentiment was mostly positive, the temperature of the water was often lukewarm. Some sisters didn’t like who they were assigned to visit. Others felt too busy. Some didn’t think they needed visiting teachers. And a few even felt the program, saying they didn’t like to be “forced” into friendships with other sisters.
I made this a matter of prayer. I knew that I wanted to give the sisters a fresh perspective.
With the bishop’s approval, I asked the brothers in our ward to teach the Young Women and Primary lessons so I could have all the sisters in our Relief Society class that Sunday. With a counselor at each door and a room filled with women, I dropped the bomb on them: “Thank you all for coming to our special Relief Society lesson. Today we will be talking about . . . visiting teaching.” I mentally lost about a quarter of them right there. “Don’t leave!” I laughed and pleaded simultaneously. “It’s not what you expect. In fact, I want to announce that we will no longer be doing visiting teaching in this ward.”
Now the sisters were listening.
“I’d like to talk about visiting reaching.” My announcement was met with the same sort of quizzical looks we all gave each other during this recent April general conference announcement. I spent the next 30 minutes talking about what “visiting reaching” was: focusing on the needs of the sisters (not the “checklist” of the visiting teacher), praying daily for the sisters, and seeking and acting on inspiration. I encouraged them to ask themselves four questions as they did these things:
- Do I know her?
- Am I striving to love her?
- Are her needs being met?
- Is she coming closer to Christ?
Monthly mandated visits and messages were not required. It was a change of focus (or perhaps a refocus) to what visiting teaching was really about—what their sisters needed.
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This same mentality of Christlike service we strove for in our ward’s Relief Society is now being supported to an even greater extent with the new ministering focus. We no longer check any box. Instead, we love the sisters. We can get to know them on terms and in situations that suit their needs. We can strive to love them in this holier approach without the pressure, focus, or guilt of deadlines. We can help them grow closer to Christ through simply loving and serving them.
Being a ministering sister allows us to look beyond a structured program straight to the Lord for guidance. It is the spirit of the law without the letter of the law. By following the Spirit, we can help meet their needs the way the Lord wants us to.
What Does She Need?
Each sister is different—and so are her needs. This shift to ministering allows us to really focus on the individual and personal needs of the sisters for whom we have stewardship. But how can we know what their needs are? I posed this question during a recent Relief Society class discussion. A sister raised her hand high before I had even finished speaking. “Ask her,” she said plainly.
It seems like an obvious answer, but many of us are afraid to ask our sisters what they need. We might feel that we don’t want to intrude or that we are overstepping our bounds. But one of the best ways to find out how the sister you minister to is doing is to ask her face to face.
Another way to get to know the needs of the sister is to simply get to know her. Sometimes we don’t outright say what we need. And sometimes we don’t even realize what we need. As we get to know our sisters, we can discover needs they have and offer specific help without waiting for them to ask.
One way to get to know your sister is to request to “friend” or “follow” her on social media. This allows you to discover her interests, celebrate her successes, and get to know her in a different way. One of the best ways we can know what our sisters need is inspiration. Heavenly Father knows what His daughters need, and if we are actively seeking and listening for inspiration, He can tell us.
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An example of this comes from my own life. In 2001, I had a medically necessary hysterectomy. It was a hard time for me. I developed an infection in my stomach and needed further emergency surgery 12 days later. The recovery was slow, and I was struggling with some very tender and deep feelings. I had had endometriosis since I was a teen. The side effects were painful, irregular menstrual cycles and higher levels of testosterone. I would pluck my whiskers and cry to my mom about how I struggled to feel feminine. And now I had no “oven” in my stomach. In fact, the whole kitchen was gone. So was my identity.
I wept one day as I wondered if I would feel feminine again—if I would feel like a woman again. When I had recovered enough from my surgeries to take a bath, I soaked in the hot water for a long time. I had lit a candle a sister in my ward had dropped off for me a few days before. She wasn’t my visiting teacher or even a close friend at the time. She simply followed a prompting. “It’s really nothing,” she said as she handed me a candle and some lotion. “I just felt like I should drop them by.”
After the bath, I dried, put on my new lotion, and then I began to weep again. With the smell of flowers on my skin, something happened inside me. For the first time in weeks, I felt like a woman again. I felt whole.
This sweet sister had no idea of my innermost struggle. She simply listened to the Spirit—as strange and small as the thought was—and she brought me a gift. She ministered to me. And by doing so she gave the gift I truly needed—healing. How grateful I am for her and for other sisters who listen to inspiration.
Ministering to our sisters can come in the form of home visits, text messages, drop-ins, phone calls, and acts of service. It can be anything from a trip to the frozen yogurt shop to days spent caring for their children, cleaning their meals. However, we aren’t required to meet every single need of our sisters. As we listen to the Spirit, we will know which needs the Lord would have us meet and how we can minister to them in ways that will be the most beneficial for all.
We are not alone. Our ministering companionships are more than two sisters. They include Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and angels round about us. Why? Because this work is sacred. It is about God’s very purpose, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). And we are asked to join heaven in this work—not only to fulfill the needs of those we minister to but also to allow God to fulfill ours.
This story appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of LDS Living Magazine.