Adam Ellsworth served as the president of his elders quorum in Maryland for over two years, until the changes were announced to Elders quorums in 2018. Adam graduated from Brigham Young University and Pepperdine University School of Law, after which he took a job in Washington D.C. as a patent attorney. Adam and his family have called D.C. home for the last 12 years. Hear his How I Lead interview HERE.
When there are many families to reach, but not enough ministers to reach them all. [This article was originally published in 2017, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followed a Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching program to reach each family each month. Although the term “Home Teaching” has been changed to describe “ministering” in this article, other references to “ministering” in the article were present in the original. Our mandate all along has been to minister to those we visit, not just to share monthly messages! While some members may have viewed home teaching and visiting teaching as a rigid, monthly lesson, wise members have been ministering for years, and sometimes that included sharing a monthly message.]
For a new elders quorum president or relief society president needing to completely reorganize ministering assignments among members in their organization, trying to balance our God-given mandate to visit the home of each member with the equally-important goal of not over-burdening our organization members can be daunting. This is particularly challenging in areas where we have many families to reach and not enough ministering brothers and sisters to reach all the families. In my experience, the two most important principles to organizing and maintaining a successful ministering effort in our organizations are:
- Prioritize those who need regular, in-home visits the most and assign the most diligent ministering brothers and sisters to them and
- Conduct one-on-one interviews with your quorum regularly
If you are doing these two things, those who need frequent in-person visits the most will receive them, you will form closer bonds with your organization members, and more of your organization members will be more thoughtful and intentional in their ministering.
In addition to these core principles, there are some techniques I’ve found to be helpful that can make providing ministering assignments much easier and more effective, especially when there are many families to reach and not enough ministers to reach them all:
Tip 1 – Make a Physical Map!
A newly-called organization president won’t know where everyone lives. If you’re lucky, you might know where ten or fifteen people live out of the hundred or more that you are assigned to minister to. If your ward covers a large geographical area (mine is about a 50 minute drive from the Potomac River at one end to a thriving D.C. suburb at the other – large enough to be an inconvenience), a physical map can help you increase the number of families that receive frequent in-person interaction with their ministering brothers or sisters.
The digital ward map on lds.org can be a helpful tool, but I found that it didn’t provide me with the information I needed to set up ministering teaching and make visits. Using the online map, I found that I couldn’t filter the households shown to include only Elders, or even better, only Elders who have been willing to make visits and the markers on the map didn’t show names, so I had to constantly click through to see which families I was looking at. What I wanted was a larger map with each family’s name appearing by their home.
So I zoomed in to the map so that only about a quarter of my ward area was shown, and I printed it out. I did the same thing with the other three quarters of the ward area, and I taped them together to make one big war-room map. Then I manually put markers on the map to indicate:
- Active Elders
- Potential ministering teachers and
- Families we were assigned to visit and I wrote family names on the map
The war-room map let me more effectively make ministering assignments to reduce travel burdens on the ministering brothers in my quorum. Also, the physical map helped me be efficient delivering messages. We organized visits to the 70 or so members assigned to my quorum who no one knew, and the map helped us make sure we didn’t criss-cross the ward area, wasting time. If someone was going on splits with the missionaries, we could assign them a few families on our “search and rescue” list that were close to each other to stop by and try to meet the families in the event an appointment fell through or the missionaries did not have an appointment.
Another idea for creating your war-room map is to ask your Ward Clerk if there’s a spare map of the ward boundaries. In our ward, these are replaced from time to time by new maps from Church HQ, even when the boundaries haven’t changed. Turn your home office into a ministering war-room. With a physical map, you can more effectively make personal ministering assignments and schedule visits.
Tip 2 – Make One Assignment That Is Easy for Your Ministering Brothers and Sisters to Fulfill
We have a lot of members who will not accept in-person visits, and others who are just very difficult to meet with. If an Elder doesn’t know his companion well and doesn’t know those he is assigned to minister to well, he’s more likely to get discouraged and not make the attempt to minister to others. It’s harder to motivate an Elder from a place of failure and guilt than by a feeling of success.
So when you are making assignments, give your ministering brother or sister at least one assignment that is easy to fulfill. “Easy to fulfill” doesn’t just mean assigning an active member to the Elder. Rather consider assigning friends or neighbors as home ministering companions, or assigning one friend or neighbor to minister to another. I have even asked ministering teachers, on occasion, if they had any preference for a companion or a family to visit.
In my experience, the vast majority of Elders are willing to reach out and minister to others and giving each companionship one family that is easy to reach ensures that your quorum members will have opportunities to minister on a personal level. When we have a shortage of ministering brothers or sisters, it can be challenging to ensure everyone receives the thoughtful and inspired ministry they need. Having at least one assignment that is easy to fulfill keeps our ministering brothers and sisters motivated by success, which is more effective than trying to motivate by guilt.
Tip 3 – Use The Youth
Teachers, Priests, Mia Maids, and Laurels may all be assigned in appropriate companionships, which can increase the number of ministering companionships to reach more families. But have you considered utilizing Beehives and Deacons? In our ward, our Bishop authorized the assignment of Deacons to minister with their fathers, as long as their fathers were diligent ministers to their assigned families. This was great for the Deacon, great for the father, and great for our efforts to reach more families since it increased our total number of ministering companionships. When we conducted our ministering interviews, we would often invite both the father and son. These Deacons learned what it means to hold and magnify the Priesthood and to love and minister to others and they spent meaningful time serving with their fathers.
Tip 4 – Use Full-time Missionaries
We used our full-time missionaries to assist our ministering efforts to part-member, recent convert, and less-active families. We could not assign them online, but we gave them verbal assignments to be companions with our ward mission leader and we gave them the responsibility (together) to teach and minister to recent converts and part-member families. This pairing is particularly effective since the ward mission leader is already out visiting together with the missionaries regularly, so he uses some of those visits to stop by families he is specifically assigned to minister to who either are unwilling to set up appointments or just may need some additional contact each month.
The full-time missionaries can also help provide ministering contacts to other less-active families. When our quorum members sign up to go on splits with the missionaries, they may take with them messages for less-active families they are assigned to minister to. If they have time due to a canceled appointment, they can visit one or more of their personal ministering families.
While full-time missionaries can be a great help to assist us in our ministering efforts, they are not standalone ministering brothers and sisters for a ward. That is primarily our responsibility as ward members. However, their flexibility to visit members and to schedule appointments makes them a great asset to assist in our ministering efforts, particularly with part-member, recent-convert, and less-active families.
Tip 5 – Assign Only One Family to New or Struggling Ministering Brothers and Sisters
For new members to an Elders quorum or Relief Society, junior companions, or companions who may struggle to minister to others consistently, just assign them one family to minister to. Give them the taste of success, then allow them to grow their responsibility over time.
Communication when providing ministering assignments is key. For example, if there are six families on an assignment paper, it can be overwhelming to a new ministering brother or sister, which can discourage them from reaching out, and as a result they may begin their ministering responsibilities from a place of failure and guilt. So sit down with your new ministering brother or sister and explain that of those six families, they are primarily responsible for only one, and their companion will be responsible for the rest.
You can even have a three-person companionship, making one new member responsible for one family, and their companions responsible for the rest.
We had a young man who graduated from high school and was going to school nearby preparing to serve a mission. He had been a home teacher as a young man, but had never been given the primary responsibility to minister to a family. When I called the young man as a home teacher, I told him that he was responsible for one family on his list (who was incidentally one of my counselors), including setting up appointments and teaching the family. His companion was primarily responsible for the rest. We worked with the young man to go from no home teaching in the first two months, to home teaching when my counselor asked to be home taught for the next few months, to finally having the young man set up appointments independently. My counselor’s family sincerely appreciated the visits in his home and the young man was introduced to the responsibilities of ministering to others with experiences of success. In time, he would shoulder a heavier burden of ministering to more families or difficult families. Thus, when our ministering brothers or sisters are just getting started, we should give them the chance to succeed and grow rather than throwing them in over their heads and setting them up to fail.
Tip 6 – Assign a Lot of Families to a Few Ministering Brothers or Sisters
In an area where there are many members who will not accept personal contacts, we can set ourselves up for failure if we evenly distribute these families among ministering companionships, or even worse, fail to assign them altogether. My quorum was assigned to home teach about 65 families who would not receive home teachers in their homes. Some of them were antagonistic to the Church, but unwilling to have their names removed from the records of the church. I personally visited members who identified as Pentecostal, Jewish, Atheist, and Wiccan. Other members will not answer the door or phone and most don’t have emails listed. None of the members in our ward knew who these families were. Their records had either been there forever, or had been moved in from Salt Lake, but the family had never attended church. How can we possibly minister to these families? A typical solution is to divide them evenly among companionships and spread the burden around. However, my experience has been that this leads to failure. Some companionships never visit these families – it can be frustrating and discouraging to continually reach out a hand of friendship and receive nothing in return and not every quorum member is willing to do it.
Another solution we have implemented is to give a large number of these families to a small number of companionships, while making sure to let the companionships know that they are special or atypical. We called these assignments “search-and-rescue,” since, ideally, we would search out lost members and help to rescue them and bring them back to the fold. There may be a large number of families (perhaps ten or more) assigned, but since they would not typically receive in-person contacts, providing a message to each family did not take a lot of time. Here, Elder Holland’s recent counsel applies: make a schedule to visit a certain number each month and provide a message to the rest in whatever manner they will accept. There is value in attempting an in-person contact, and where possible, we should strive for an in-person contact. Knock on a door, and if no one answers, leave a written message. But we also make a phone call, write a letter, send a text, or leave a message on a social media service. We minister in whatever manner we can.
One additional note about this method – sometimes, especially when this method is first implemented – a companionship may run into families that are willing to accept in-person visits, but they just hadn’t been visited in the past. This is fantastic, but also creates a challenge for the organization president. Be ready to adjust ministering assignments as needed to avoid over-burdening companionships. Providing messages to the door of ten families may not be a burden, but if three of them decide they would appreciate visits in their homes, then suddenly your ministering brothers or sisters may be overburdened and may not be able to fulfill their assignments as they feel they should. We never want to set up our ministering companionships to fail.
I served as Elders Quorum president for close to three years and at the end of my tenure, there were still many people who never came to the door or answered the phone. We knew they live at the listed address, because when we mailed messages, they were not returned. These can be difficult families to continue try to minister to, since any messages we provided seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Yet we keep visiting and reaching out week by week, month by month, and year by year, and every once in a while, we’re rewarded with a short note or email, thanking us for a message. One sister I ministered to told me when I first met her (after months of leaving messages at her door) that she had previously submitted her name to be removed from the church and didn’t want visits. I explained that I didn’t know what had happened with her records, but she was still on the records of the church and I felt God wanted me to provide her with messages. I continued that if she wouldn’t mind, I’d just leave a written message at her home until her membership status was resolved. She agreed. Many months later, she sent an email expressing her thanks for the messages she had received. She said that even though she felt she had lost her faith, “some of your letters came at times when I needed them. For that I will be forever grateful.” A small tender mercy perhaps, for a daughter of our Heavenly Father who had lost her faith. She hasn’t returned to the Church and I didn’t receive any more emails or acknowledgment. The hours of effort I spent writing and leaving messages at her home helped her feel something and I hope that one day she recognizes it as the love of God for her.
Hers was not the only message of thanks I have received. One sister who had not attended our ward in years one day asked her home teacher for a blessing. Another sister who seemed to be avoiding me called one night asking for help with funeral arrangements for her mother and her family was very receptive when the Relief Society president and I visited her home. We shared a sacred time together in prayer and testimony. These glimpses of hope from “search-and-rescue” families may come very rarely – perhaps three or four a year – but they let us know that even though we are met with silence when we knock, on the other side of the silence may be a receptive heart grateful for a message from the God they still love and the church from which they have strayed.
Not every ministering brother or sister in a place emotionally or spiritually where they will diligently reach out to those who will not acknowledge their existence. It is hard to do month after month. So consider giving a special “search and rescue” assignment to a few companionships to minister to a large number of these families. Even so, being ignored month after month can take an emotional toll, so I still recommend giving these special companionships at least one active family who will allow them to minister in person and share in testimony and friendship together.
Our ministering assignments in our quorums and organizations should reflect the pure ministry of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, we would love to personally share meaningful messages and experiences with those we minister to. But in areas where there are many families to minister to and not enough ministers, we may not feel like we are ministering as Christ would minister. It is discouraging to be rejected by those who should be our friends, and it is discouraging to fail in our responsibilities, both as ministering brothers and sisters and as organization presidencies.
If you’re in an area where you have too many families to minister to, and not enough ministers, take care of the most important things first: prioritizing ministering assignments based on the needs of those being ministered to and conducting one-on-one interviews with our organization members. Once you are doing those things, the above tips can help you and your organization minister as Christ would minister. They helped my quorum to dramatically increase the number of quorum members who actively ministered to others as well as the number of families receiving visits from Elders in my quorum to be nourished by the good word of God.
- Doctrine and Covenants 20:47 “Visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.”
- Church Handbook of Instructions 2 1:4 :”Priesthood and auxiliary leaders must endeavor to strengthen the sacredness of the home by ensuring that all Church activities support the lives of individuals and families. Church leaders need to be careful not to overwhelm families with too many Church responsibilities.”
- Another great resource for an accurate unit map is the Church Directory of Organizations and Leaders (CDOL). If you have access in the “Leader and Clerk Resources” tab, find your unit, click on “Unit and Boundary Forms/Maps” and print out your own unit map.
- “Emissaries to the Church” General Conference, October 2016