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Visiting/Home Teaching, charity, welfare

May 25, 2010

Since commenting over at that site is probably worse than useless, I decided to write a post about Sunny’s latest article at By Common Consent. As you probably figured from my title, it is about visiting teaching…and whether or not “opting out” can be a justified choice.

However, from what I see, it also relates a lot to “charity” and “welfare.”

I can see some of the arguments either way. Sunny speaks delicately about her concerns (and honestly, at a site like BCC, I don’t really blame her.) Could it be that visiting teaching/home teaching makes service into a check-the-box commandment? By trying to distill and centralize (perhaps…correlate) the spirit of charity, social integration, and a social protection net, into an easy-to-promote commandment or program of visiting teaching (and home teaching), it actually misses the mark of the spirit. As is discussed in what would seem to be secular economics (I had a few better ones in mind, but I can’t find links at the moment), sometimes, a cohesive web of compelling social incentives can be disturbed or destroyed as an unintended consequence of more formal incentives.

As social incentives lessen in importance, the opening of Pandora’s Box often cannot be so easily reversed. When fines are established for tardy child pickups and parents find that the fine is easier to bear than the social guilt that once motivated them, one can’t just get rid of the fine and make things go back to the old ways. Rather, the new incentive must become compelling — greater fines, better incentives.

I guess the church isn’t fining people who don’t do their visiting or home teaching. Nevertheless, Sunny asks:

For those that feel that VT/HT help us focus on those we otherwise wouldn’t (and I do believe that’s true), do you also feel that it, in a way, permits you to not watch over others because you are not assigned to them, or because you feel you have done what is required in caring for your assigned families?

It seems to me that she laments a shift. Much like with the instances of fines (pay it and be done with it), she sense that people feel comfortable to check the box and be done with it.

…nevertheless, I understand the argument for visiting teaching and home teaching. Without it, there would be disparity. Those who are already socially integrated, gregarious, or popular in the ward would have a social net if something bad happened. Those who are not would not. No one would even suspect anything was wrong.

Additionally, some people speak in a self-deprecating way. They note that they know that were they not commanded to home teach or visit teach, they themselves probably would do nothing. But even for those who are natural servants, everyone has his bias. Sometimes, an assignment provides the incentive to reach out to the person one would never normally associate with.

I feel like some of these arguments don’t quite work. After all, it is not true that, because there is visiting and home teaching, there is an effective social network for all members. After all, many people don’t fulfill their visiting teaching or home teaching anyway. Or they do so in such a way that they can check the box — maybe they present some lesson from the Ensign each month — without reaching out to the individual’s core needs. I guess, however, that a question Sunny asks is pertinent:

Pretend with me here for a minute that we didn’t have these “safety net” programs in place. I’m curious as to whether general opinion is that watch-care would sink to an all-time low, or whether people might step it up and be more likely to reach out simply because they can’t assume things will be done through assignment?

Would we be better or worse off without a formal program?

What I find interesting is that the answers seem to apply quite well outside of the church. People often call welfare “forced charity,” but of course, when they levy this criticism, it’s much more acerbic. After all, charity has love. “Forced charity” does not. Those in favor of formal welfare programs often argue, alternatively, that charity alone does not seem to fix the issue. There are imbalances. This social good is scarce.

Some have noted that obedience to commandments will bring blessings, regardless of the spirit in which it is undertaken. That is, even if we serve begrudgingly, annoyed, because we are ‘commanded’ to and we wish to obey, service is service is service. Perhaps, with time, we can learn to appreciate service instead of being annoyed.

Is this the case, though? Is making a formal program the best way to have people “discover” the truer principle behind the program?

Will opting out of the program have people “discover” the truer principle “obscured” by the program?

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13 Comments
  1. I think the reality is that if people weren’t assigned to watch over some people, most of the ward wouldn’t really be watching over anyone.

  2. Duly noted.

    Same could be said for government welfare programs as opposed to voluntary charity.

  3. Not only that, but it should be noted that Home Teaching isn’t necessarily a chore. I actually have enjoyed Home Teaching all the active members I have been assigned. I like the non-threatening excuse to regularly socialize with people, without the social awkwardness of asking them to (using the term from elementary school) “come over and play.”

    A lot of my assigned families seemed to enjoy the visits as much as I did. And when you are talking lonely elderly people, well… the good points of this program really shine in my opinion.

    The downside was when I got assigned inactive families that I didn’t see much of and who were either hard to get a hold of, or just seemed a bit irritated to have us over. I tended to avoid those people, and having a “home teaching deficit” hanging over me wasn’t exactly pleasant (though I don’t let it ruin my day either).

  4. I guess for me, the division between enjoyment and not-so-much enjoyment wasn’t along active vs. inactive. But rather, “who would appreciate going off the beaten track” and “who wanted to stick to the lesson and nothing but.”

    ^that’s both ways, I think. As a home teacher, and as the home taught.

  5. I usually teach the official First Presidency lesson… MY way.

    I have plenty of fun as a Home Teacher.

  6. Going back to church… what a novel idea. I had considered going back just to see how I would feel about it. I think I may go visit one of those mega churches, just to see what they are like. There are so many of them in Jacksonville, and I have seen them on television, but never ventured inside…

  7. Well, tadpole, my idea was in getting back to my “roots” from a cultural perspective. In many ways, my ward is my family. I’m wondering how long I can keep going under this paradigm before disbelief/unbelief will blow everything.

  8. It depends on the home teacher. On average I’ve found that there’s a moderately pleasant conversation followed by an incredibly strange and striking transition that starts with, “Well we’d like to leave you a message.” Suddenly everyone shuts up, the home teachees’ eyes glaze over, one of the companions enters into slumber mode, and the other begins to baby talk in a didactic churchy dialect with a different tone of voice for a while. When that part is over, with an “amen”, things snap back to normal. “Is there anything we can do?” A joke about something they couldn’t possibly do, thank you for coming and it’s over for a month.

    I would always try to get rid of the transition by keeping the conversation going, just about a gospel topic instead. It’s harder than you might think to do that, because many Mormons are hard-wired from birth with a “gospel talk” switch in their minds that makes them go into teacher/pupil mode and immediately stop thinking about what is being said in the same way they would in any other type of conversation. It’s like, suddenly I’m just right about whatever I say and there’s no room for disagreement or critical discussion anymore because I’m saying gospely stuff. Sometimes I would try to say some edgy, borderline apostate things just to get people to snap out of it and think.

    • I think it’s mostly because your normal average person isn’t really comfortable giving sermons, or doing the whole teaching thing. They don’t really know how to do it, so the rote, paint-by-the-numbers approach to the lesson you just described is sort of a comforting safety mechanism to help the guy giving the lesson not feel too uncomfortable. It assures him that we don’t expect too much from him – which is nice for him (if not necessarily for the bored 17 year-old he drug along as a companion).

      It’s one of those social unspoken rules that help us stay comfortable around each other. I don’t really follow that model myself.

      I tend to really say what I think about the topic (though I keep the most radical notions to myself, or find a way to couch them in reassuring “church talk”). It’s usually interesting. But I don’t expect too much from others. I’m just happy to see them.

      If there are young kids being taught, the rules are a bit different for me. There’s absolutely zero point talking to mom and dad, since the kids will get antsy and start acting up – then mom and dad won’t hear anything you say anyway. So I just skip mom and dad and teach the kids – which I can usually pull off fairly well having taught in Primary for a couple years.

      Sometimes I guess there are just these little rituals we engage in as being part of a community.

  9. Interesting post. I think it would be worthwhile (for LDS leadership/active LDS) to figure out what the true principle behind the program is. I personally am not sure that’s clear to everyone at the moment.

    Is the principle to serve others and to reach out? Or is it to see if everyone is still outwardly faithful? Or is it to notify leadership if there are needs that aren’t being addressed? In other words, are there better ways to serve the true principle than what’s going on currently?

    Over the years, I can think of many people who have asked their home teacher to help them move. (My parents have asked many times, and have been asked to help others). I’ve asked friends to help me move in the past – and have helped them move…all without being officially assigned by a bishop or religious leader. And the next move we make – I will be hiring a mover. No need to throw my back out – or injure any of my friends!

    I think if home or visiting teaching were just socializing and were more optional – I think it would be better/more successful to my mind. But I’m no longer LDS, so it seems like it’s currently working for them (at least some people) – to have people meet or talk on the phone each month about an article from the ensign.

  10. I don’t necessarily think all of these principles are mutually exclusive. After all, one can serve others and reach out in a way that encourages or monitors for faith, and when one serves, he or she can discover needs that may not be addressed.

    The issue is whether these things should happen because of assignment/duty/obligation or whether love/charity would (or should) encourage people to do these things naturally.

  11. jessica permalink

    All the “success” stories for HT and VT seem to involve free labor. Babysitting. Free hot food delivered each night. Painting a home. Cleaning the gutters. Free “Cab/shuttle” services, etc.

    In all the meetings were the leaders talk it up they emphasize the spiritual side.

    I wish they would just be more honest about the program. Maybe 5% of the time a diligent teacher will make headway with spiritual/emotional issues.

    95% of the time anything that they do that is really needed and appreciated all boils down to “Free Labor.”

  12. Jessica,

    These two things aren’t really inconsistent. What is it that James 1:27 says? Pure religion undefiled consists in visiting orphans and widows, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

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