Zelophehad’s Daughters

Confessions of a Visiting Teaching Drop-out

Posted by Lynnette

For the past two years or so, I’ve requested to not have anything to do with visiting teaching. I have a kind of meta-guilt about this, in that I feel like I ought to feel guilty for it. (I certainly hear plenty of exhortations on the subject calculated to prick one’s conscience.) But the truth is that I don’t actually feel all that bad. Not being involved in visiting teaching has been such an immense relief for me that it’s hard to summon up much regret for having made such a choice.

I don’t entirely understand why I have such negative feelings about the whole thing. It certainly hasn’t been all bad; I’ve at times had visiting teachers and teachees whom I quite liked. And unlike many people I’ve talked to, I haven’t had any truly awful visiting teaching experiences. But nonetheless, when I have participated in the program, it’s usually felt like far more misery than it was worth, a horrible weight hanging over me every month. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve generally viewed upcoming visiting teaching appointments in a similar manner to how I’ve viewed upcoming exams, with a combination of stress and anxiety and even dread.

Maybe part of the problem is my sense that in such a context I have to censor much of who I am. When church-related topics are discussed, I often don’t want to say what I really think for fear that it will lead to either a fight (which I’m guessing is probably not one of the Relief Society’s goals for visiting teaching), or that the other sisters will be concerned for my eternal soul and start trying to “fix” me. And it takes a lot of energy to come up with comments which aren’t dishonest but which also aren’t going to stir up unnecessary controversy. What do you say, for example, when you more or less disagree with the official message, and your companion and the visiting teachee are discussing how marvelous it is? It’s not that I think that all disagreement should be avoided, though I’ll admit to being a person who isn’t crazy about conflict. But visiting teaching doesn’t usually feel like the most appropriate setting to start airing my more heretical thoughts.

Part of this is probably also tied to personality tendencies. I’m very introverted, and I find engaging in small talk with people whom I don’t know well to be roughly as pleasant as having root canal work in the best of situations, let alone situations in which you’re visiting someone who would probably rather be doing something else but is doing their duty by allowing you to come by.

But this is one of the many areas in my relationship to the Church where I find it hard to delineate how much of the problem is me (my negative attitude? my lack of faith?) and how much is a legitimate mismatch between the program and myself. In other words, could I make it work for me if I tried harder, or would that be more akin to repeatedly banging my head against the wall and expecting it not to hurt?

The strange thing is that at least in theory, I rather like the idea of visiting teaching, of working to ensure that everyone in a ward feels connected to at least a few other people. I really can see its potential value. But when I’m confronted with the reality of it, my immediate impulse is to go into hiding. So I’m curious–how do other people feel about visiting teaching? Do you do it? What aspects of it have you found positive, or not-so-positive?

24 Responses to “Confessions of a Visiting Teaching Drop-out”

  1. 1.

    My favorite VT experiences have been when the visiting teacher uses the program to meet the other person’s needs. For example, a few years ago I had a visiting teacher who I think only came by once to share a spiritual message. However, I didn’t have a car at the time, and she took me to the grocery store every week. It was one of my best experiences with visiting teaching. I know this doesn’t totally answer your concern–for example, what if you have problems socializing, but the true need of your visiting teachees is for someone to come and socialize? That makes it difficult. Figuring out how to meet multiple people’s needs when their needs are very different is a tricky thing to do–but I think figuring out the needs of others and meeting them is one of the things that’s at the heart of visiting teaching (ideally).

  2. 2.

    I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with VTing. For a few years in the branch I lived in, I somehow fell off the list and had no assigned VTers. It was an immense relief. In general, I’d rather VT than be VTed, partly because I tend to associate letting unknown Mormon women into my house with stress. For example, a couple of moves ago, the LDS woman who came to help us clean and load the truck wanted to engage in a prolonged discussion about how shockingly dirty other women’s houses were. I don’t like having people who want to analyze dirt, literal or metaphoircal, in my house.

    VTing sometimes seems a context in which people feel free to make all kinds of insensitive remarks. After years of infertility, I’m probably hypersensitive to the kid comments. I once asked to be changed because my partner and both of the people we VTed were pregnant, and that’s all they talked about, occasionally turning to me and telling me that someday I would understand. I’ve also had VTers tell me not to wait too long to have children and,right after I moved to South Dakota, my VTers sat me down and told me that now that I was in the mission field, I would find out that non-Mormons could be good people too. My jaw hit the floor! I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask them how they’d treated the non-LDS they’d known back in Utah, where my closest friends are not LDS. Just recently, after my latest move, I grit my teeth, took the initiative, and told myself I needed to give it a try. (Where I live we have groups, so we all get together and VT each other.) I called everyone in my group and got the meeting set up. Over breakfast, one of my group members turned to me and said that what she really wanted was to make friends with people whose kids were her kids’ ages. I have to admit, that about took care of the last shreds of my motivation. At the moment I’m engaged in passive resistance, ignoring VTing and hoping it will ignore me.

    On the other hand, I’ve sometimes developed good relationships and had good conversations through VTing. (Of course, I may have just thought I did. Perhaps I was unknowingly driving the people I VTed as nuts as my own VTers were driving me ;>)

  3. 3.

    I’ve never had a good experience with VTing. Not a one. Not ever never. On the other hand, I’ve had as few VTing experiences as I’ve been able to manage, and I’ve only had one or two really really bad ones. Most of them are just the unpleasant side of innocuous — something I suffer through if my VTers bother to come or if my partner is insistent that we go.
    This month, for instance, I survived a solid hour with my VTing group, three-quarters of which was devoted to complaints about guys not asking us out, a conversation which I found mind-numbing and occasionally offensive, but was easily shaken off once I escaped.

    On the other hand, when VTing is bad, it’s really, really bad. I have a particularly vivid memory of staring through a haze of about-to-be-treated-depression at two girls comparing split ends, one of whom finally turned to me and snapped “You don’t seem happy! Why aren’t you happy? Be happy!” I think part of the problem, for me at least, is in the level of intimacy that gets assumed in a VTing relationship. People who don’t know you, who are literally assigned to you, come over to your house to ask you how you’re doing and what you need, as if they have any history with you to make your answers make sense; as if they have the context to be able to tell you to be happy.

  4. 4.

    I don’t mind visiting teaching. I see it as an opportunity to go meet someone who I normally would not have the courage to just call up and visit. Usually, I go once or twice then I get lazy about setting appointments. I also typically don’t like the VT message, but who really listens to that anyway?

    I wouldn’t confide anything personal to a VTer until I trusted them to not report up the chain if I have any real issues. If it’s a request to bring in meals because I’m having surgery, that’s fine, but I don’t want my medical history discussed at PEC, or wherever they talk about the problems of the people in the ward.

  5. 5.

    Being of the XY type, I only have direct experience with home teaching. I suspect that some of the difficulties are the same, although others, such as Eve’s concern about having gossiping VTers analyze her dirt, are likely unique to VTing.

    I really like Lynnette’s point about VTing being perhaps a good theory, but difficult to make work well. I agree completely with this sentiment as far as HTing goes. Endless social science research shows that people are happier and healthier if they have more social connections. Certainly it also seems reasonable that the ward members know each other, the better off we’ll be when we genuinely need help, as there will be more people that we’ll actually be willing to ask.

    But making sure everyone has a friend by assigning friends (VTers and/or HTers) seems like an awfully ham-handed way of accomplishing this end. I don’t have a better solution; I just think the present VT/HTing don’t seem to work well much of the time, and they may actually do more harm than good in some circumstances. Certainly both Lynnette’s and Eve’s relief when not being involved in VTing or being VTed would argue for this.

    I wonder if the problem with VT/HTing might not be somewhat similar to the problem of establishing the United Order. In both cases, there is a worthy goal, that people have friends or that the poor are taken care of. But problems arise because both programs simply declare a solution by fiat: You are assigned to be the friend of person X. All your goods are to be given to the bishop for redistribution to ward members. These crude “solutions” overlook strong human tendencies that thwart them, namely, that people like to associate with others by choice rather than by assignment, and that people like to own stuff and keep it.

    I know that “this is difficult” isn’t a good excuse for not doing something in a religion where we believe we’re supposed to overcome the natural person. I do think it might be a helpful line of thought, though, in considering how the goals of VT/HTing might be better accomplished. After all, they are just programs, and not eternal principles. The desired ends of these programs might be better accomplished by scrapping them in favor of some approach (I hesitate to say “program.”) that better took into account why VT/HTing can be hard.

  6. 6.

    As someone who assigns the VT companionships and sisters taught, I have some thoughts here.

    I understand your attitude, I’ve even been there myself. I’m an introvert, too, and would rather chew glass than make small talk with people I don’t know.

    When it comes time to assign sisters, we are forced to give some companionships up to 5 and 6 sisters, because we have active women who simply won’t go visit. It adds a huge burden to the ones who do go out.

    So, my question to you is this — are there women in your ward whom you see regularly anyway? Good friends/next door neighbor? Because you are certainly free to call your RS pres. and say, “I will VT, but I will only do it if I am assigned so-and-so.” Of course, you can put it more nicely than that, and cite time constraints and what-not, but even taking one woman in your ward relieves some of the burden (not to mention your meta-guilt ). And then just count your seeing them even when you don’t give a message, because the VT program is way more about keeping contacts and friendships than it is about formal lessons.

    So ask to teach alone, without a comp, and ask to teach only women you already see. It takes very little extra effort (if any)on your part, and will really help your RS Presidency a great deal. People ask for stuff like that all the time.

    My two cents.

  7. 7.

    I am posting this anonymously for fear of someone close to me reading my negative comments.

    VT is everything most of you have stated. In our stake if you are active and not doing your visiting teaching the stake president has said he has the right to withhold a temple recommend. So rather than being converted to the program and doing your best in situations your least qualified to handle, we are being threatened to do it. Great.

    Ever since I found out being active, tithe payers, was referred to as LMMs (low maintenance members) I’ve had the urge to move. Maybe it will change maybe not. It sure is disappointing though.

  8. 8.

    I, too, struggle with VT. In my current ward, I have had at least 6 companions over the 3 1/2 years I’ve been here. I realize that living in the apartment part of the ward, they don’t expect people to be too permanent, but it sure has been hard for me. I presently have 4 sisters assigned to me. Oh, and my companion just moved after a whopping 4 months together. One of my sisters has NEVER come to church, never answers her phone or her door. I’ve sent her notes and taken her goodies, but after a few times of that you just feel like giving up. I don’t even think the RS presidency knows her. Another sister is inactive, but her daughter has started coming to YW in the past year. She’s a single mom who works a lot, rarely has a working phone line, and I’ve never met her either. I do the same (notes & treats). One sister is a neighbor who I babysit for and chat with regularly, and the other is another active sister in the ward. This is typical of my assignment, though I usually only have one active/receptive sister. As far as my own VT are concerned…I find it to be hit and miss, more misses typically. I feel that I’ve been pretty lucky with who has been assigned to visit me, if only because I have at least liked all of them, even if we haven’t been best friends. I did become good friends with one of my first VT in the ward, but wouldn’t you know they reassigned her after only a couple of months.

    Personally, I think what i need is to be assigned as a “junior companion” to someone who is really on the ball about VT. With all my companion switching and the inactivity/lack of receptivity of my assigned sisters, it’s just been too much for me to dredge up the energy to do. I’m willing to go, but if I have to get together with a new comp, PLUS coordinate all the visits…no thanks.

  9. 9.

    Thanks for all the thoughts, everyone! It’s reassuring to hear that I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this.

    The Wiz, I appreciated your suggestion; I think it’s a good one, and something I may try should I ever venture back into the world of visiting teaching. My fear has always been that I’ll be told that I’m exhibiting a lack of faith, or that if I don’t meet new people I’m defeating the purpose of the program. So it’s good to hear from someone on the other side that such a request might actually be seen as helpful.

    Melyngoch, thanks for so well articulating one of the other aspects of the program I very much dislike– that feeling of forced intimacy. I take quite a while to get to know people, and I find it immensely awkward to have a near-stranger ask about something like my personal spiritual life. And as Melinda mentioned, you don’t want to confide problems until you have a fair amount of trust established. I suppose that ideally you would eventually get to know the person well enough that more authentic conversation would be possible, but I’ve never lived in a ward where it wasn’t all constantly shuffled (though it probably doesn’t help that I’ve been in a lot of singles wards with high turnover rates).

    Mindy, the idea of being a junior companion made me smile. I think I’ve more or less informally done that in several companionships in which the other person was more motivated than I. They would set up the appointments and read the message, and I would dutifully go along.

    Anonymous, I agree that it’s a bit much to threaten people into doing it. I actually find that a bit telling– do they see it as so unpleasant that people won’t do it otherwise?

    Eve, you’ve certainly had some choice visiting teachers! I’m also not crazy about letting unknown Mormon women into my living space; I’m much more comfortable with meeting people I don’t know well on neutral territory.

    I liked S’s observation that really the program should be about meeting the needs of the people involved. And I’m contemplating Ziff’s excellent question about whether there might be other ways of achieving the goals that visiting and home teaching were designed for. I’ve occasionally wondered what it would be like if visiting teaching were made optional; that way, those who did get something out of it could continue to do so, and it would maybe help with the situation in which people get assigned an unmanageable load of visiting teachees. I don’t know what I’d suggest as an alternate way to encourage connections for those who opted out of visiting teaching, but considering the number of people who already don’t do it, it seems like it might be worth thinking about.

  10. 10.

    Hello, I’m your worst nightmare. The VT supervisor. I hate this calling, because it leads entirely to me trying to control everyone and all those bad feelings and stuff.

    I worked fulltime last week and the first day I came home and thought, “if anybody called me about visiting teaching today, I would get in my car, drive over to their house and slap them.”

    We had 94% visiting last month. That’s high even for us, but we usually have about 80%. Because I work my a** off. Now I feel so bad about how I might have impacted some lives and added to their burden.

    On the other hand, we have a good ward, the sisters are creating lasting bonds and ministering to each other. They are getting the spirit.

    On the still other hand, I am so going to tell them to lighten up when I have to give my talke at the convention. I am going to say, “girls, this is not the most important thing you will do with your lives. do the best you can and let the rest go with God.”

    I apologize to the whole world.

  11. 11.

    On still another hand (didn’t know I was an alien, did you, or perhaps you suspected), my very best friends are people I met visiting teaching. We met years ago, helped each other through a lot of crap and we stayed friends. some are active, some are not.

    That’s the spirit and benefit. The downside, I guess, is the stress. I think part of that is lack of training.

  12. 12.

    annegb, you have a nightmare calling, one I’d never want. When I was in college, my roommate had your calling and she introduced herself as “The Relief Society Nag.” You seem to have a healthy approach to it, I must say.

  13. 13.

    With Lynnette, I like the Wiz’s suggestion about requesting to VT or be VTed by people you already know. I think she’s wise to be wary, though, without having some idea of how her RS leaders will react.

    My experience, again with HT, is that it’s too often run by people who believe that it’s supposed to be difficult, and that if it isn’t naturally, it must be made difficult. Therefore, if you already know someone in the ward well, you are forever banned from HTing them, being HTed by them, or having them as an HT companion. If you suggest otherwise to such a leader, as Lynnette pointed out, you’ll likely get chastized for lacking faith.

  14. 14.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been in wards with the kind of approach that Ziff describes. In most of my BYU wards, they made roommates companions, which was very helpful both in terms of scheduling, and just in that it’s easier to go visiting teaching with someone you already know. (Though I realize that if you got stuck with a roommate you really didn’t get along with, that could pose its own problems.) But my freshman year, based on the concern that having a roommate as a companion prevented you from getting to know a new person, they mixed everyone up. I remember being 18 years old and very new to visiting teaching, sitting awkwardly with two other 18-year-olds whom I didn’t know at all, and wishing desperately that I were somewhere else.

    Annegb, I agree with Eve that you have a nightmare calling. One of the few things that scares me more than visiting teaching is having to call others and try to convince them to do their visiting teaching! But I like your approach of saying do the best you can and then let it go. I also think it’s fabulous that you’ve met good friends that way. In my current cynical state, I think it’s probably good for me to hear stories like that.

  15. 15.

    Now I am an extreem extrovert, which may explain why I really do like visiting teaching. Even in the awkward moments when someone tried to draw me into the conversation with a question they don’t really want an honest answer (from me) about.

    However, good for you for giving it up. And even better for you for not feeling real guilt about it.

    A gold star for you forehead.

  16. 16.

    A couple of months ago, I called the RS president and requested a VTing change. Although I’ve done that a couple of times over the course of my VTing life, I have very mixed feelings about harrassing an RS president, who, by definition, already has so much to manage.
    Just found out today at church that I’ve been assigned to a new group. I cannot express my relief! Like Lynnette, I’m very introverted, and having to sustain small talk with people I find difficult is the kind of dead weight on my church life I don’t even realize is crushing me until it’s gone. The woman who approached me to let me know I’d been assigned to her group was so kind and warm. Although I’ll try to tell her, I’m sure she’ll never have any idea how significant not so much anything she said, but just her tone, was to me.

    I could dance all over the church!

  17. 17.

    I have recently specifically asked to be taken off the VT rolls. It was actually kind of difficult to do, and once it was done, I found out that instead of just removing me from the list of women to teach or be taught, the VT coordinator told the women currenlty assigned to me that I didn’t want them to VT me-(which is true, I just would’ve liked a less dramatic exit–as apparently hurt feelings ensued).

    My reasons for not wanting to be a part of VT are similar to those already voiced, but I would add that I want those who would be spending time with me, to spend their time elswhere, with indiviuals who not only perhaps “need” their time more, but who would appreciate and benefit from their time more.

    also, if I’m off the roll, why would that be burdening other women in RS more? I shouldn’t affect the equation becuase I shouldn’t be in the equation.

  18. 18.

    Aspen, I’ve encountered the same situation and wondered about similar questions. I want out of the program altogether; I really don’t want to be added to the visiting teaching loads of other sisters (especially since by refusing to do any visiting teaching of my own, I’ve only increased the imbalance mentioned by The Wiz.)

  19. 19.

    Aspen, you have a great name. And I agree that your VT coordinator didn’t handle your situation well. I’ve requested changes a couple of times, but I’ve always assumed my request will be kept confidential. While, as you said, it’s true that I don’t want to be VTed by certain people, they don’t necessarily need to know that.

    As I’ve thought more about why so many VTing experiences have left a bad taste in my mouth, I realize that a lot of my distaste has to do with advice, autonomy, and personal boundaries. I don’t like it when near-strangers give me unsolicited advice. I don’t feel they’ve earned the right, and I tend to be fiercely protective of my autonomy. I bristle, partly at the assumption that they can advise me based on so little acquaintance with me and my circumstances. But it’s important for me to remember that not everyone is like I am. Maybe other people who had my VTers loved being “mothered” and advised and craved it. The situation actually reminds me of culture clashes between Italians and American sisters I encountered on my mission. Some Italian sisters expressed caring by what some American sisters (including me!) instinctively perceived as bossiness. I had to take a deep breath at times and do some mental cultural translation–telling me what to eat means they care.

    I’ve occasionally thought that we need better communication among VTers and VTees about what they’d like. As a VTer, I always wonder–do you want me to stay ten minutes and then get out of your way, or do you crave an hour or two of conversation? Do you want the spiritual message, or not? This stuff is all so implicit that it’s hard to guess at.

  20. 20.

    Oh, I forgot–anonymous, the discussion of LMMs I’ve occasionally heard scares me too. I’ve heard periodic discussions in church settings of the importance and difficulty of learning to receive, and I think we don’t examine enough why some people feel so reluctant to accept help and so ashamed of needing it. I wonder if characterizing others as LM or HM feeds into that shame.

  21. 21.

    Exactly Eve! I have been so ingrained to being self-reliant, I would never think to ask anyone for help. It is an unfortunate circumstance to be found in, especially when we are supposed to givers and receivers of service.

  22. 22.

    I dropped out of visiting teaching completely after an unfortunate experience last summer. In my visiting teacher’s defense, I’ve pretty much stopped censoring myself–I’ve told more people than have any desire to hear from me what’s stupid about the church.
    And I’ve reaped the whirlwind, so to speak: an entire parade of people have tried to convince me, not just that the church isn’t sexist, but that I personally have no problem with it, so I need to buck up and get over myself.

    This was more or less my visiting teacher’s tack; she cornered me after Relief Society obviously in a mood to pick a fight (I certainly don’t claim to be innocent in the situation! I’ve picked several fights myself, so I probably deserved it) and explained, in essence, that she had no problem with the church, therefore neither did I. How does one counter this line of thought? I’m glad other people are at peace with their church membership. I’m not. I can’t seriously think about the church without crying.

    In any case, she told me my problem was just that I thought I was deeper than everyone else. I left crying, we never spoke again, and I haven’t seen a visiting teacher/teachee since. I think at this point the church and I are hazardous to each other’s health and need to be kept apart.

  23. 23.

    Anonymous, that may be the mother of all VTing stories, so to speak.

    Your experience illustrates a problem I’ve encountered over and over at church, the idea that all of our personal answers and revelations are generalizable, and that other people who seem to have problems we’ve resolved for ourselves are less developed versions of us who simply need a few of our answers to get up to snuff. (I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve hastened to reveal to me the meaning of my infertility, as revealed to their sister-in-law’s cousin in a faith-promoting rumor–for example, that I still need time to get used to marriage, or that God wants me to adopt, or that I simply need to decide how badly I want children. I persist in the evidently radical belief that if God has reasons for my infertility, He’ll reveal them to me.)

    Although the old Missionary Guide was, to put it mildly, not my favorite reading ever, it did have one great example that’s stuck with me through the years (don’t pass out, Ziff ;>). I can’t remember the details, and my only copy is in Italian and buried in my closet with my other missionary stuff, but it was in the Resolving Concerns section, an analogy about putting your eyeglasses on someone else to make them see clearly. If someone already has the answers ready to shove at you and is convinced that because they’ve worked for her they must work for you, how can you even begin to articulate your questions? I absolutely believe in personal revelation, but I’ve often thought we don’t adequately respect the personal nature of our answers, which come to us in our own language (Doctrine and Covenants 90:11) and, I think, tempered to our very individual circumstances and needs. I also think the personal communication we receive from God, like more general revelation for the church, is part of an ongoing dialogue, an unfolding, a conversation. Although of course our insights can help each other, ultimately we remain responsible for our own seeking and our own revelation. It’s far too tempting to freeze-frame our answers and push them on others as a way to get them to stop asking uncomfortable questions. I shudder to think how glibly I’ve done this at times, how I’ve rushed over someone’s problems, verbally yanking them toward what seems to me the obvious and easy solution.

    And as a culture we seem to feel entitled to say the strangest things about others’ intellectual/doctrinal/emotional issues, things we would never say about other trials. If someone struggles with her testimony or express doubt about some aspect of the church, we often rush to observe that we ourselves have never doubted and always had a testimony. By contrast, if someone said that her child had died, would we quickly point out to her that we ourselves have never lost any children? I’ve long thought it’s significant that in the baptismal covenant in Mosiah 18:9, we promise first “to mourn with those that mourn,” and then “to comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” I’m persuaded that the order is significant. We don’t earn the right to comfort someone until we have mourned with him. It’s too easy to fall into the complacent role of Job’s comforters, offering an easy received wisdom that preserves our own unthinking preconceptions to those in the depths of sorrow. I think that like Christ, whose atonement is our example, we earn both the right and the power to comfort by being willing to enter into the sorrows of others. And that requires time, an open heart, and a willingness to set aside the discomfort others’ sorrows may evoke in us.

    When I think of the rare people I’ve met who’ve offered me that open, considerate heart and who have been willing to hear my sorrows, I want to learn to be one of them.

  24. 24.

    Anon, that does sound like a complete nightmare. I’m thinking that this goes back to what S said in the very first comment here about the importance of seriously listening to the needs of the other person. (Beijing’s story about home teachers on T&S has a rather similar theme.)

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