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Home Teaching Etiquette
By Aaron Johnston January 22, 2007

In I Love Lucy, whenever Lucy would wreak havoc at home, breaking something or making a mess of the kitchen, Ricky would waltz in at just the wrong moment, give his wife a scornful look, and say, "Lucy, you got a lot 'splaining to do!"

Well, I imagine many of you readers are thinking the same thing. "Aaron, you got a lot 'splaining to do!"

"Where have you been all these months?" you ask. "Why no columns? Did you go inactive?"

Well, no, I didn't go inactive -- not in a religious sense, anyway. Physically, I went very inactive indeed. I'm terribly out of shape. Climbing a step ladder could send me into cardiac arrest.

But inactive from church? Not by a long shot. Or as we sing, "'I'll never, no never, no never forsake!"

No, the reason why I haven't written a column in eons is because my family and I moved across country and I've begun a new job that keeps me insanely busy.

Maybe you can relate. I've talked with several people recently and monitored the work schedules of siblings and parents, and it seems like everyone I know is putting in longer hours these days.

Nine to five is a thing of the past. These days it's eight to six. Or nine to seven. I even have a friend who regularly works until eight in the evening. Seven-thirty if he's lucky. And this is an active, family-loving, salt-of-the-earth type of fellow. Not one of these career types obsessed with making a name for himself.

And maybe this isn't a new trend. Maybe I'm just growing up and realizing what it means to be an adult in the real world. Maybe you've been living this way for years.

Either way, it's new to me. Yes, I worked hard in my previous job, but I worked from home. If I wanted to see my kids, I only had to leave the room that was my office and there they were. It was great.

Nowadays I hustle to get home before they go to bed.

And what's my point? you ask. Why the ramble on the sad and busy state of my life? And more importantly, how does this relate to the title of this column?

Well, all of this is a long way of saying that family time is sacred time, especially on Sunday. If you're going to home teach us -- and by all means please do -- don't stay too long. Our family loves you; we're grateful you're sacrificing some of your time to do your priesthood duty; but for the sake of our family and yours, visit us only as long as needed.

And how long is that? Well, that depends.

Last week, when I was doing my own home teaching, visiting a family of five small children, my companion and I were in and out in fifteen minutes. That's coming in, catching up, sharing a message, saying a prayer, and then skeedaddling.

When the mother realized that we were leaving so quickly she looked surprised, as if she expected us to stay longer.

"Fifteen minutes? That's it? That's as much as you love our family?"

My response (had she actually asked those questions) would have been, "Sister, our brevity is PROOF that we love your family. Every minute you spend acting as hostess to us is a minute you could have spent together as a family doing family things. We're only going to stay as long as we're needed. Then we're going to vamoose."

But then the question naturally arises. Is fifteen minutes the right amount of time for everyone?

My answer is no. I also home teach an elderly widow who rarely gets visitors and who is thrilled to have us come by and who talks our ears off whenever we do. Last time we were at her house, we stayed for an hour and forty-five minutes. That's a long time yes, but it was precisely the amount of time this sister needed. Fifteen minutes would have been too brief. She needed someone to talk to.

So there is no set length of time for home teaching visits. But whoever it is you're visiting I think it's wise to:

1. Stay only as long as you're needed and not a second more.

Err on the side of brevity. It's like theater. Leave the audience wanting more. Over stay your welcome, and you'll suddenly be less welcome.

The Spirit will guide us of course, but if the family is active and there are little children about: get in, get out, thank you and good night.

2. Share a message.

I'm not a fan of the chit-chatter, the home teacher who makes small talk for half an hour, then slaps his knee and says, "Well we best be off then."

This guy is not a home teacher. He's a home small-talk maker.

If you're going to come to my home and gather my family as a priesthood representative, share a message. The First Presidency goes to great pains to prepare these messages each month; the least we can do as home teachers is share them with those over whom we have stewardship.

And if not the message in the Ensign, then we should share a message particularly meaningful to the family. Again, the Spirit will guide us.

Yes, it's important to be a friend to the family or the individual member, but bringing the Spirit into the home and strengthening faith should be our primary objective.

3. Love the family, no matter what.

Some people don't want to be home taught. Let's face it. Some people, inactive and active alike, don't like home teachers coming around. Maybe home teachers make them feel guilty about not going to church and rather than having to confront their guilt, they avoid you.

Or maybe their home teachers stayed too long during their last visit (see rule number one).

Or maybe a home teacher bopped them on their head once and took their lunch money.

Who knows? The fact is, these people don't want to be home taught.

And this is a problem. Because unlike the missionaries, who can simply stop going to someone's house if the person is not interested, home teachers have an obligation to be that person's home teacher. We can't just stop going.

This doesn't mean we should anger people of course. If someone asks you not to come back, I'm of the opinion that we should honor their request -- or at the very least we should contact the proper priesthood authority for guidance. Maybe there's someone else in the ward with whom the person feels more comfortable and with whom they would entertain a home teaching visit.

Who knows? The point is, regardless of how enthusiastically we are received, we should always love the families we are assigned -- even if their dog vomits on our shoes.

And speaking of dogs vomiting on shoes, allow me to tell you about Brother Stinkyshoe (name has been changed).

When I was a kid, Brother Stinkyshoe was our home teacher. And he was a good one.

On one occasion, our poodle Peaches (name has NOT been changed) entered the living room during a home teaching visit, walked over to Brother Stinkyshoe's polished dress shoes, and blew chunks.

My family and I were appalled. The dog just hurled on the home teacher!

What was especially disturbing, however, was that Peaches had tossed her cookies so causally and gracefully that had you not known the dog as well as we did, you would have assumed that she had done so intentionally, that giving back what she had only partially digested was no accident.

You would have thought, this dog doesn't like this man, and this is how she says so.

Now, had I been Brother Stinkyshoe, I would have gone ballistic, not out of anger, mind you, but out of sheer disgust, shrieking and hollering and kicking my foot in a violent fashion in the hope of dislodging the shoe from it.

This would have would gone over very poorly.

Fortuntely, Brother Stinkyshoe showed incredible restraint and patience. Rather than get angry, he had a good laugh. And even more impressive, he came back next month to visit us again, albeit in a much more expendable pair of shoes.

In other words, no matter how poorly your received or treated, do your darndest not to sling your shoe. Love the family for who they are. Wackiness and all.

4. Everyone should get a home teacher.

In my last ward, there was this odd policy that "some families don't need a home teacher." In other words, if the family is active and doing well, they don't need a visit from the priesthood. Let's focus our efforts on those families who really need us, who are in spiritual dire straits and who can benefit from some special attention.

OK, I understand the principle here. And in some places this may be the best way to operate. I'm not going to argue with priesthood leaders who are entitled to relevant revelation.

But on the whole, I think this is a bad idea. First off, if you live in a ward that follows this policy, what are going to think if you have a home teacher?

Answer: You're going to think that you've been singled out as a special case. You're going to think that the bishop considers you a lost sheep or a delicate member. And that's not particularly flattering.

And even if that isn't news to you, even if you agree that you're a special case, the fact that you have home teachers means that THEY know you're a special case too. Having a home teacher means "Hey, this person has issues, boys. Fix 'em."

And conversely, if you have issues and would like special attention but DON'T have home teachers assigned to you, you're going to think that the bishop doesn't consider your problems great enough to warrant home teachers. You may even begin to wonder if anyone cares. And so your problems continue and perhaps even worsen.

And therein lies the second problem to this practice. Home teaching is now a rescue operation, not a perfect-the-saints operation. How will we know if a person or family needs the priesthood if we're not visiting them regularly? How will we know if someone who hasn't been assigned home teachers suddenly needs them?

And why don't good people need constant spiritual guidance?

No, the greatest fault of this type of home teaching program is that it assumes that "good" people will remain good and never require assistance.

This became particularly acute to us when our son Luke was sick and needed a priesthood blessing. Normally, I would have called one of our home teachers to come over and assist me. But since we didn't have home teachers assigned to us, I didn't know who to call.

What resulted was my calling someone and apologizing.

"Hey, I know you're not our home teacher and I'm sorry to bother you like this, but would you mind coming over and helping me give my son a blessing?"

Of course the person was willing and claimed not to be inconvenienced at all, but it bothered me to have to pull someone away from his family, someone who had no priesthood obligation to watch over mine.

Gratefully, we're now in a ward that assigns everyone home teachers. We love it. Now I feel like we're being acknowledged and cared for and that willing, guilt-free help is only a phone call away.

5. Don't schedule an appointment at the last minute.

Don't call me Sunday afternoon and ask if you can swing by in a few minutes. This is inconsiderate. I will feel obligated to say yes, and that isn't fair.

The house could be in disarray. We could be eating. We could have company over. We could be having a family activity. Whatever. Calling and scheduling an appointment at the last minute is impolite.

If you're going to set an appointment, set one a few days in advance. Give the family time to arrange their schedule to accommodate your visit.

Last minute appointment setting suggests that that the homes teacher doesn't consider his visits all that important.

Mind you, I don't think setting appointments should be a formal affair, but I do think that we should be considerate to a family's schedule. If you call a family and they invite you to come over immediately, then by all means we should. But they should decide that, not us.

And for the record, "seeing someone at church" is not home teaching. That's church teaching -- and probably not teaching at all. It's polite conversation. Of course we'll talk to your home teachees at church. They're our friends, after all, and we have a special interest in their welfare. We should not, says I, count these hallways hellos as a home teaching visit.

So there you have it, my five rules of proper home teaching etiquette and a rather lame excuse for not having written a column in so long a time. Until next time, it's all the 'splaining I can do.

Copyright © 2007 by Aaron Johnston

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