Numerous program changes were made during the April 2018 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of the more drastic changes involved the retirement of “home teacher” and “visiting teacher” and the institution of “ministering brother” and “ministering sister.” The responsibilities for the priesthood brethren and the sisters are the same under both programs, but the emphasis is a little different.
Priesthood brethren are to watch over and care for families, and sisters are to watch over and care for sisters. The difference lies in the attitude of those offering the service. Under home teaching and visiting teaching, many people considered the responsibility as a task that could be checked off when completed and reported as done - or undone. Ministering implies more watchful care without considering how or if to report the service.
Ministering comes naturally to many people, but it is more difficult for some of us. I am a list maker, and I love to check off the tasks as I complete them. I am guilty of writing things on my list after I have completed them just so I can check them off! I was a faithful visiting teacher, and I contacted each of my sisters every month. I generally considered that my visiting teaching was complete after I made a contact – visit, telephone call, letter, etc. - although I continued to pray for them, watch for them at meetings, and generally watch out for them.
Since the emphasis was put on ministering, I continue to make the contacts, but this time my attempts are more frequent, my prayers are more heartfelt, and I am generally more concerned about meeting the needs of the two sisters under my stewardship.
One of the sisters has responded well to my attempts, and we are building a friendship as well as a sisterhood. However, my second sister is a little bit more difficult for me to connect with her. The first one is young enough to be one of my daughters, and the second is about my age. I have found that I have much in common with my young friend, but I have yet to learn much about my other sister.
On a recent visit I learned that my friend and her family were struggling to arrive at sacrament meeting before the meeting began. Since I struggle with the same problem, we had a lot to discuss. We determined that we simply try to accomplish too much on Sunday mornings before we walk out the door to our meetings. Once I realized the character of my problem, I was able to work with it. For the past two weeks I have arrived in the chapel five to ten minutes before sacrament meeting started. I soon realized that I was missing a great deal by walking in the door just as the meeting started as I previously had done.
Last Sunday my new friend and I were both in our seats a few minutes before the meeting started, and we congratulated ourselves on our accomplishments and commented about how we were able to choose wherever we wished to sit. My friend’s husband is grateful for help in getting his family out the door earlier. By arriving at the meeting earlier, I was able to visit for a couple of minutes with my own ministering sister and let her know what is happening in my life. Visiting with the two sisters for just a minute or two made a great difference in how I felt about my Sunday experience.
When I tried to cram too much into my Sunday mornings, I arrived too late to have any kind of interchange with anyone. Then I would go to Primary where I interacted with children for two hours and went home. Although I love my Primary children, I missed the adult-level relationships. Sometimes I would go home from Sunday meetings and realize that I had not spoken to a single adult during the three-hour block! In my attempt to minister to my new friend, I solved numerous problems for myself. Even though I am just beginning to understand how this ministering program works, I believe wholeheartedly in it and am grateful for counsel and ideas on how to do it better.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson spoke on the topic of ministering in the October 2018 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ in a talk titled “Shepherding Souls.” He shares several examples of shepherds of sheep and likens them to shepherds of souls. He tells a story about a sheep dog that would not abandon his lost sheep. It seems that a small group of sheep were left behind on the summer range and were “stranded and snowbound in the mountains.” The sheep were fortunate that one of the sheepdogs stayed behind with them.
When the sheep were left behind, the sheepdog stayed with them, for it was his duty to look after and protect the sheep. He would not go off watch! There he remained – circling about the lost sheep for months in the cold and snowy weather, serving as a protection against coyotes, mountain lions, or any other predator that would harm the sheep. He stayed there until he was able to lead or herd the sheep back to the safety of the shepherd and the flock….
Elder Stevenson reminds us that Jesus Christ taught His followers by precept and example about how to be shepherds of souls. He shares the following parable from the Savior that teaches more about our responsibility to be shepherds – ministering sisters and brothers – of the lost sheep of the kingdom of God.
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
“And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luke 15:4-6).
As we summarize the lesson taught in the parable, we find this valuable counsel:
1. We are to identify the lost sheep.
2. We search after them until they are found.
3. When they are found, we may have to lay them on our shoulders to bring them home.
4. We surround them with friends upon their return.
Brothers and sisters, our greatest challenges and our greatest rewards may come as we minister to lost sheep. The members of the Church in the Book of Mormon “watch[ed] over their people, and did nourish them with things pertaining to righteousness” (Mosiah 23:18). We can follow their examples and remember that ministering is to be “led by the Spirit, … flexible, and … customized to the needs of each member.” It is also critical that we “seek to help individuals and families prepare for their next ordinance, keep [their] covenants …, and become self-reliant” (“Ministering with Strengthened Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums and Relief Societies,” 4, 5).
Every soul is precious to our Heavenly Father. His personal invitation to minister is of greatest value and importance to Him, for it is His work and glory. It is quite literally the work of eternity. Each one of His children has immeasurable potential in His sight. He loves you with a love you cannot even begin to comprehend. Like the devoted sheepdog, the Lord will stay on the mountain to protect you through the wind, rainstorms, snow, and more.
I can be like that faithful sheepdog and stay close to the sisters to whom I am called to minister. I can learn more skills in connecting with them and learn to love them as true sisters and friends. I know that each of us is previous to God, and I know that He loves each of us. I can show my love for Him by helping Him to find His lost sheep and bringing them home to Him.