Visiting teaching is the heart of Relief Society, said Elaine L. Jack, Relief Society general president.
In a Church News interview, the Relief Society general presidency and two board members talked about the importance of visiting teachers being aware of the individual needs of sisters and of listening to the promptings of the Spirit in responding to those needs.Pres. Jack noted that visiting teaching is "selfless service, which brings temporal and spiritual blessings. It is giving service as the Savior would."
She referred to an address she gave during a Relief Society open house in connection with the April 1991 general conference: "When I talk about visiting teaching, I'm not talking about administering a program. I am talking about our means of ministering to the sisters we love, the sisters we have been called by the Lord to serve.
"Through visiting teaching we act as mothers, sisters, helpers, companions and friends, one to the other," she explained. "Visiting teaching is one of the oldest and most important parts of Relief Society."
In speaking of the role of visiting teaching in touching the lives of others, Chieko N. Okazaki, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, said during the Church News interview: "We're told to help ourselves individually, to gain salvation for ourselves and for our families. But we may forget the community of Saints.
"In the early days, the community of Saints was knitted much tighter," said Sister Okazaki, whose responsibilities include visiting teaching. "Today, members are more spread out in the world. Therefore, I think that we need to know that we're here for each other and to serve each other."
And being there for each other is important in a world where women may feel isolated, said Aileen H. Clyde, second counselor in the general presidency. "Some women don't have much opportunity to interact, and yet they have as many needs for interaction as we've ever had. Visiting teaching is something that can still be done to provide that interaction. It's never been easy, but it is essential."
The Relief Society general leaders acknowledged visiting teaching can be challenging, but as Anne C. Pingree, a member of the Relief Society general board and chairwoman of the visiting teaching committee, explained: "When we reflect back to the lives of the early sisters, how could anything be more difficult than the challenges they had. Even though many lived in poverty, their foremost concern was for each other."
In illustrating the concern many visiting teachers have for others despite the challenges, Pres. Jack told the story of a woman in southern Utah who was a visiting teacher for 48 years. Quoting the woman's account of her struggles in the earlier years, Pres. Jack related: " `We were having our families then, so often had to take our babies with us [while visiting teachingT. There were no pavements in those days, and we would have to push the baby buggy through the mud. We would often lose our rubbers and really had a hard time to cross the streets. In the summer it was hot and dusty, but hot or cold, dust or mud, and no matter how busy we were, we always planned to do our teaching on time, and the Lord blessed us in our work.' "
Such accounts of women reaching out to each other through visiting teaching are commonplace in the Church, according to the general presidency. As Sister Okazaki noted during the Church News interview, visiting teaching is simply a way to organize the care that women provide for each other throughout the world.
In talking about how to administer the visiting teaching program, the general presidency and board members emphasized the importance of understanding the policy as stated in the Relief Society Handbook: "Each sister should receive a contact monthly, such as a personal visit, telephone call or letter. At least once each quarter, these contacts should be in the form of a personal visit. Those with special needs require more frequent contacts than others."
Sister Okazaki said that the question is often asked of her whether or not it's sufficient to visit personally only once every three months. "In some circumstances that will be fine, but you need to know your sisters. There are some who need a visit every month, or more than once."
She then quoted President Spencer W. Kimball from a 1958 address during a visiting teacher convention in the Salt Lake Monument Park Stake: " `Visiting teachers must excel and give leadership to the women into whose homes they go. They must excel in energy, and vision and thoroughness - and in testimony.'
"If you have those characteristics," Sister Okazaki added, "you will immediately know whether those you visit teach need a once-a-month visit, or a more-than-once-a-month visit, or that a letter or a telephone call is enough."
Concerning how often to visit, Pres. Jack added that the visiting teaching policy allows for flexibility, but, "The standard is still the best - a personal visit once a month."
In speaking about the monthly visiting teaching messages, the auxiliary leaders explained that being aware of individual needs applies here as well in knowing what message a sister needs, or whether it's appropriate to give a message at all. Pres. Jack explained that the visiting teaching messages are universal, "but adapt them according to specific needs."
The general presidency and board members also spoke of the importance of visiting teachers accommodating the schedules of those they visit. "There's nothing quite as moving to me," Pres. Jack remarked, "as when my visiting teachers say, `When would you have time? Is there any time this week we could come and visit you?' This says to me they are willing to make whatever changes in their schedule to accommodate me. Whether we get together or not, just that question has done wonders for me."
Learning to be accommodating, knowing when and how often to visit and what message to offer are principles learned by doing and training. Pres. Jack emphasized on-going training for visiting teachers. "In Relief Society there are three times for training - during interviews, in homemaking meetings when there's a 10-minute lesson period, and in the annual ward visiting teaching workshop," she added.
Bonnie D. Parkin, Relief Society general board member, suggested pairing experienced visiting teachers with those new to the program, such as young women entering Relief Society for the first time. "You don't just hand a visiting teacher a handbook, and say, `Go visit teach.' You train her," Sister Parkin explained.
And this training should include selfless love and service, Sister Okazaki said. "For example, a Relief Society president should use those same principles with her visiting teaching coordinator, and the visiting teaching coordinator should do likewise with the supervisors; the supervisors should do likewise with the teachers," she added.
Sister Clyde emphasized the need for supervisors to be trained to ask visiting teachers about the spiritual and temporal welfare of those assigned to them, rather than just asking whether or not the visiting teaching was completed. "They should talk about people instead of percentages or numbers," she added. "Numbers are important, but within those numbers should be people."
Concerning the assigning of visiting teaching companionships and those they teach, Pres. Jack counseled ward Relief Society presidents to do the assignments themselves. "Probably the most important part of your whole responsibility," she said, "is prayerfully putting those companionships together and assigning them in districts."
Pres. Jack spoke of the benefits that visiting teaching can have in the lives of others if done in a thoughtful and appropriate manner: "A moment of sharing refreshes our souls. We cannot always lift the burden of one who is troubled, but we can lift her so she can bear it well."