Adam Ellsworth is currently serving as the president of his elders quorum in Maryland. Both Adam and his wife were raised in Southern California but did not meet until they attended the same student ward at Brigham Young University. After receiving his bachelors degree at BYU, Adam graduated law school from Pepperdine University 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 10 years. Hear his How I Lead interview HERE.
For a new Elders Quorum President, or an Elders Quorum presidency needing to completely reorganize home teaching assignments, trying to balance our God-given mandate to visit the home of each member with the equally-important goal of not over-burdening our quorum members can be daunting. This is particularly challenging in areas where we have many families to home teach, and not enough Elders willing to do the home teaching. In my experience, the two most important principles to organizing and maintaining a successful home-teaching effort are (1) prioritize those who need regular, in-home visits the most, and assign the most diligent home teachers to them, and (2) conduct one-on-one interviews with your quorum regularly. If you are doing these two things, those who need visits the most will receive them, you will form closer bonds with your quorum members, and more of your quorum members will visit families more often.
In addition to these core principles, there are some techniques I’ve found to be helpful that can make assigning home teachers much easier and more effective, especially when there are many families to home teach and not enough home teachers:
1. Make a physical map.
A newly-called Elders Quorum president won’t know where everyone lives. If he’s lucky, he might know where ten or fifteen people live out of the hundred or more that his quorum is assigned to home teach. If your ward covers a large geographical area (mine is about a 20 minute drive from one end to the other — large enough to be an inconvenience), a physical map can help you increase the number of families that receive home teaching messages each month.
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 home 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 home teach — 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 (1) active Elders, (2) other potential home teachers, and (3) other families we were assigned to home teach, and I wrote family names on the map. I called this my war-room map.
The war-room map let me more effectively make home teaching assignments to reduce travel burdens on home teachers. 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 home teaching war-room. With a physical map, you can more effectively make home teaching assignments and schedule visits.
2. Make one assignment that is easy for your home teachers to fulfill.
We have a lot of members who will not accept home teaching 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 home teaches well, he’s more likely to get discouraged and not go home teaching. 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 for home teaching companions and families, make one of them easy for the Elder to fulfill. “Easy to fulfill” doesn’t just mean assigning an active member to the Elder. Rather, consider assigning friends or neighbors as home teaching companions, or assigning one friend or neighbor to home teach another. I have even asked home teachers on occasion if they had any preference for a companion or a family to home teach.
In my experience, the vast majority of Elders are willing to home teach, and giving each companionship one family that is easy to home teach ensures that your quorum members will have opportunities to minister on a personal level. When we have a shortage of home teachers, rarely, if ever, will everyone receive a home-teaching visit in the same month. Some months, only the easy assignment will be fulfilled – that’s okay. Having at least one assignment that is easy to fulfill keeps Elders motivated by success, which is more effective than trying to motivate our Elders by guilt.
3. Use Deacons.
If you’re short on numbers of home teachers, consider asking your Bishop if you can selectively use Deacons to assist with home teaching. In our ward, our Bishop has authorized the use of a Deacon if their father is an active home teacher (not an active member who is a home teacher, but a home teacher who visits families every month). This is great for the Deacon, great for the father, and great for my home teaching organization efforts, since it frees up a home teaching spot for another Elder. We even conduct priesthood interviews with both the father and son, from time to time. These Deacons are learning what it means to hold and magnify the Priesthood, and to love and minister to others, and they spend meaningful time with their fathers.
4. Use Missionaries as home teachers.
We use our full-time missionaries to assist home teaching part-member, recent-convert, and less-active families. We can’t assign them online, but we have given them verbal assignments to be companions with our ward mission leader, and we have given them the responsibility (together) to home teach 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 assigned to home teach 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 home-teaching visits 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 home teach. If they have time due to a cancelled appointment, they can visit one or more of their home-teaching families.
While full-time missionaries can be a great help to assist us in our home teaching efforts, they are not standalone home teachers. That is our responsibility as ward members. But their flexibility to visit members and to schedule appointments makes them a great asset to assist in home teaching efforts, particularly with part-member, recent-convert, and less-active families.
5. Assign only one family to new or struggling home teachers.
For new Elders, junior companions, or companions who may struggle to home teach consistently, just assign them one family to home teach. Give them the taste of success, then allow them to grow their responsibility over time.
Here, communication when providing home teaching assignments is key. For example, if there are six families on a home teaching assignment paper, it can be overwhelming to a new home teacher, which can discourage them from home teaching and start them off from a place of failure and guilt. So sit down with your new home teacher 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 home teacher responsible for one family, and his 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 home teaching visits, and the young man was introduced to the responsibilities of home teaching with experiences of success. In time, he will shoulder a heavier burden of ministry to more families or difficult families. But when our home teachers 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.
6. Assign a lot of families to a few Elders.
In an area where there are many members who will not accept home teaching visits in their home, we can set ourselves up for failure if we evenly distribute these families among home teaching companionships, or even worse, fail to assign them altogether. My quorum is assigned to home teach about 65 families who will not receive home teachers in their homes. Some of them are antagonistic to the church, but unwilling to have their names removed from the records of the church. I personally home teach members who identify as Pentecostal, Jewish, Atheist, and Wiccan. Other members just do not answer the door or phone, and most don’t have emails listed. None of the members in our ward know who these families are. Their records have either been here forever, or have been moved in from Salt Lake, but the family has never attended church. How can we possibly home teach these families? A typical solution is to divide them evenly among companionships, and spread the burden around. But 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 call these assignments “search-and-rescue,” since, ideally, we will 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 will not typically receive visits in the home, providing a message to each family should 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. For many of these families, visiting the home means walking to the door, knocking, and leaving a message at the door when no one answers. We call, we email, we snail mail, we knock. 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 visits, but they just hadn’t been visited in the past. This is fantastic, but also creates a challenge for the Elders quorum president. The Elders quorum president should promptly adjust the home-teaching assignments to avoid over-burdening the companionship. Providing messages to the door of ten families may not be a burden, but if three of them decide they will accept visits in their homes, then suddenly the Elder may be over-burdened, and he may not be able to fulfill his assignment. We never want to set up our Elders to fail. In this case, we have to either re-assign the “search-and-rescue” families to another companionship, or re-assign the families willing to accept visits to another companionship, and give the Elder a few more “search-and-rescue” families to minister to.
I’ve been serving as Elders Quorum president for well over a year, and there are still forty or so people who have never come to the door or answered the phone. Nor does anyone in the ward know who they are. We know they live there, because when we mail messages, they are not returned. These can be difficult families to continue home teaching, since any messages we provide seem to fall on deaf ears. But we keep visiting and reaching out month after month, and every once in a while, we’re rewarded with a short note or email, thanking us for a message.
One sister I home teach 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, and 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 has lost her faith. She hasn’t returned to the Church, and in the last six months, I haven’t received any more emails or acknowledgment. But 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 has not attended our ward in years recently asked her home teacher for a blessing. 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 Elder is in a place emotionally or spiritually where he will diligently provide messages to those who will not acknowledge his 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 just one active family who will allow them to sit down and share a message each month.
Home teaching should be the pure ministry of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, we would love to personally share meaningful messages with those we home teach. But in areas where there are many families to home teach and not enough home teachers, 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 home teachers and as Elders Quorum presidencies.
If you’re in an area where you have too many families to home teach, and not enough home teachers, take care of the most important things first: prioritizing home teaching assignments based on the needs of those being home taught, and conducting one-on-one interviews with our quorum members. Once you are doing those things, the above tips can help you and your quorum minister as Christ would minister. They have helped my quorum to dramatically increase the number of quorum members who actively home teach as well as the number of families receiving visits from home teachers to be nourished by the good word of God.