First, a little background:
My initial exposure with the Church was through my Institute. It's a small building: one classroom, one game room, a small kitchen, an office, bathroom, and library. It didn't need to be much - it was for the local community college. I loved it there - I gained many friends and *gasp* somewhat of a social life. The Institute Director, Bro S., became somewhat a father figure to me. We didn't agree on much, but I loved him despite some zealous insanity.
Much of what I knew and much of my perceptions about the Church began with Bro. S. While most reject (some of) his dogma, many of his conservative views are largely held in my stake.
One of Bro. S' lessons led him to speak about visiting and home teaching. At this point, I worked with a good friend of mine, Sister J. She was awesome - she didn't worry about what anyone thought; she just did what she felt was right. Though I don't agree with her now, I really did love her confidence. She was genuine in all she did.
Anyway, Sister J. was very by-the-book. We would meet beforehand and have a prayer before we arrived at the house. She dressed up in her Sunday best and so did I. We talked about the lesson. We had a prayer with the girls afterward. The thing that saved her is that she wasn't crazy but rather had an innate unassuming nature.
In time, though, I wondered what the deal was with dressing up for visiting teaching. As I understand it, visiting teaching is a program designed for the women of the ward to look after one another. We're to befriend (or try our damndest) and help each other out. That said and in my experience, these meetings often couldn't be awkward enough. You show up at 9 in the morning dressed up like it's Sunday and the girl you're visiting is still in her jammies or casually dressed. She doesn't know you, you don't know her. Dressing up consistently struck me as presumptuous, haughty even. I didn't like it. An Institute class I attended clarified that we should dress up whenever we're representing the Lord, and indeed we are while visiting teaching.
Ugh, right? Well, I kept going with Sister J. the way she always had. It seemed to work quite well for her, and I did bask in her glow. She was awesome.
Once I moved from the ward, though, I found myself with a new...less serious companion. I wasn't sure if I should dress up when we did our "rounds." To avoid any embarrassment, I threw on a skirt for our first meeting. She was in slacks and a nice shirt - looked like she'd just gotten off work and was visiting a friend. Oy.
It took me a little while to get off the whole Sunday best thing while visiting teaching - mostly because of the guilt - but after a while I'd just go as is. It felt much more equal that way. After all, do I seriously have any authority over these women? I would hate it if a friend came over all dressed up and
Um...no I'm good thanks.
Friendships are built. I like the lesson as a "crap we've nothing to talk about" ice breaker, but even then it's scripted. "Boy I sure liked this part where Sister so-and-so said that we should follow the Prophet. It's so true, can't you feel the spirit?"
I had one woman, Sarah*, I visited who was my age and a hoot. As I didn't have a partner at this time, I felt more at ease. This girl lived in an apartment much like one I used to live in and she struck me as very approachable. I remember looking around the apartment for clues about what she liked because I HATED awkwardness. A fun discussion of Harry Potter came from that, and we became not strangers or ward members, but acquaintances.
Like I said, I'm not good at this stuff. She was social; I am not. Often I will want to be a person's friend, but I feel rushed by time and stumble with most things. I'm a social idiot. I also dealt with a lot back then and felt better at home alone. Now I think I might be better at socializing but it would still take some effort. The comfort level has to be relatively high, no weirdness on the phone. I don't want to feel as if I have to entertain anyone. Just come here and be.
I hate this stuff: "Hey...so...want to get together? Oh, you're busy. Okay. Um. Hm. Okay, sorry to bug you. Yeah maybe next week. I'll have to see, my schedule is always up in the air." Yeah, I'm a gem on the phone with a new person I want to get to know. There are exceptions, but aren't there always?
Back to Sarah and visiting teaching. I knew to not ask her if there was anything I could do for her. It's like asking "How're you?" Of course the answer is going to be "Fine" or "Good." Rarely is someone honest, and why should we be? I'm sure most who read this understand: If there's something we can do, we ought to know or at least suspect because we (a) listen to her and (b) remember things she's said, what's going on in her life.
We just do it or snoop around a bit for help by talking with her husband or other friends. We make sure she's having a baby shower. We keep in touch enough (preferably more than once a month and the passing "heys" in the chapel foyer) to know if she or her husband is sick or her baby is in the hospital. We just do it. And if we don't know what's going on, the greatest compliment comes when and if she asks us for help.
The standard "Can I do anything for you" is met with "No, I'm good" for a reason. Many girls don't get this.
When my youngest went into the hospital this past Christmas for pneumonia and RSV, my SIL freaked out. I love her more than she knows, but she wanted to help so bad she didn't want to see we were fine. She wanted to bring us dinner - but Eric was off on break. Granted, this was our first year where he had no school AND no work for three weeks straight, but still. I had Eric. She offered to call my RS President and alert my visiting teacher. I told her I didn't know who my VT was (which is fine) and there was no need to call the RS president. Joseph was home. It was an overnight stay. Getting the RS involved would've made my insides writhe. I hate being doted over for no good reason by people I don't know who only know because someone else told them. Dig?
Really, in times like that, offer to babysit. I'm sure she would have, too, but I don't like asking in times like that when I don't *really* need it. I know her intentions were golden and full of love and probably full of memories of times past when we were in the hospital with a very sick kid for a long time (and our VT/HT/RS didn't know. our fault). There are times when I really do need intervention during quiet times of desperation and a maddening week of active children when I may well explode without a couple hours to myself. Slight exaggeration.
The best service I ever received was from a girl who was not my visiting teacher in my last ward/stake. She had a daughter Abbie's age and a son just a month younger than Joseph. Poor Jason, always stuck in the middle with no guys his age - we need to fix that. Anyway. K offered one day to take the kids - all three of them - for me once a week for about three hours.
This, people, is service. As a person who couldn't bring herself to ask for help, she suspected the same of me and knew to just offer it. I needed this so badly and she taught me so much. Though we never really became friends, this was the most helpful act of service I've ever recieved.
Not from my visiting teacher. From a friendly, attentive person. If a person is new in the ward, be a friend don't "visit teach" them.
I know the home teaching program is slightly different, but the ideas are still the same. I am not going to confess any issues I might have in my personal or spiritual life to a person just because she is my visiting teacher or he is my home teacher. There's a fabulous chance I wouldn't even share these things with a friend. There are few people I entrust with my secrets, hopes, and fears. I won't share them to a couple girls or a couple guys from church because they've been assigned to me, I don't care how "inspired" it's claimed to be (if ever).
I think the idea of the VT/HT program is a good one and full of potential as many have experienced, but we need to focus less on numbers and more on the relationships - and really, it bugged the hell out of me that just as I'd be really getting to know a girl, I'd get reassigned. Frustrating. We can't establish a repetoire with people if we aren't with them consistently and for a long time. I really do think that's the key.
By the way, Bro. S was also my home teacher (and member of my ward). As a man who knew me well, he served as my home teacher better than anyone else ever could have...even if he did overstep his bounds sometimes. I'm grateful for him, too.
*Name changed. I tire of using only initials :)