Sunday, November 9, 2008

Perfecting Imperfect Home Teaching Percentages

On an October Sunday in 2003, Tom Kelly, president of the Simsbury Connecticut Stake, grimaced as he and his presidency examined their latest quarterly report. “I don’t know what to do about home teaching,” he mused. “Once in a while we find an on-fire elders quorum president who holds good PPIs and won’t get off the phone until home teaching gets done. But then he moves, wears out, or joins the bishopric, and home teaching falls right back down. Look at the Wallingford Ward. Three months after we called Gary Gessell to be Elders Quorum president home teaching went from 30% to 80%. Then Bishop Kolts called Gary to be his counselor, and look here – last quarter they did 34%. We’ve made some progress in perfecting the saints of the Simsbury Stake, but we’ve sure not done it through home teaching.”

President Kelly continued, “My problem is that I don’t know how to solve this problem. We never got it above 50% when I was bishop. And the other stake presidents around here don’t have much to teach us. Look at this data from our last Coordinating Council meeting for all the wards and branches in New England. Some stakes do better than others, but only one visits even 40% of their families. On average, they’re all doing as poorly as we are.”

Home Teaching Percentages in the 13 New England Stakes, Quarters 3 & 4, 2004

This case is a synthesis of the experiences of leaders in the Murrieta CA Stake, the Cambridge II Ward of the Cambridge MA Stake, and the Saratoga Ward of the Albany NY Stake. It has been written to facilitate discussions about how we might better lead the home teaching effort.

“One of our area seventies told us about wards in Vermont, Massachusetts and Ireland that keep baptizing lots of good people,” President Kelly said. “As he studied what they were doing to bring so many people into the church, he sensed that these were wards that God trusted. People who joined the church in those wards came from different walks of life. Some were member referrals, missionaries found some, and others found the church on their own. But all reported that the minute they walked in the door of the chapel, they felt surrounded by love – and the feeling that they had “come home” never left them. It seemed somehow that God had decided that if He moved upon people in those wards’ areas to get to the door of the church, He could trust that the ward would nurture them the rest of the way.

“Can God trust the wards in the Simsbury Stake? We baptize about 70 people every year. Ten years ago sacrament meeting attendance in the stake was about 1,100. The latest report I saw put total attendance at about 1,250. Normal population growth at 1% would have taken us to 1,200. That means, roughly, that we’ve baptized 700 people, and only a small fraction of these are attending sacrament meeting today. Can the Lord lead new members to us and trust that the members of our wards will nourish them so that the spirit will transform them into committed, converted saints? With 30% home teaching and a miserable retention record, I don’t think so. Why would the Lord have His spirit move upon the people of this area to seek the covenants of baptism when there’s such a high probability that they will fall away?”

First counselor Bill Marble stood, and while pacing the room proposed, “We need to dig deeper than just telling our bishops that they need to do a better job home teaching. When we lived in Minneapolis, I was on a governor’s task force on productivity in government with the CEO of Dayton Hudson. At our first meeting he said, ‘Inventory turnover in retailing is very important. But when one of our store managers tries to “do” turnover, his store quickly becomes unprofitable. Turnover is something that happens when we concentrate on getting more basic fundamentals right.’ I wonder whether home teaching is the same thing,” President Marble wondered. “If we concentrate on “doing” home teaching, we don’t get traction. Maybe there are some structural fundamentals that none of us are getting right – and if we figure them out, home teaching will happen.

Second counselor Doug Porter added, “Some say that home teachers who don’t magnify their callings just aren’t converted – and the solution is that we need to get them to be more deeply converted. Whether this reasoning is fundamental or glib, it sure puts us in a chicken-and-egg bind. How can we help more of our home teachers become more deeply converted, if their own home teachers aren’t converted enough to help them become more converted?”

“I hate to end such a philosophical discussion, but we’ve got to get to the Avon Ward conference.” Rick Parks, the stake clerk, said. “I think we should focus our next high council meeting on figuring this out.” Parks, a data analyst by profession, continued, “As a general rule, when you see some units doing well and some doing poorly, you can solve the problem by “conversion,” broadly defined – by finding leaders who are more converted, or somehow by training and motivating those who aren’t succeeding, to do better. But when you see something like this – where almost every leader is struggling to succeed – you can’t pin your hopes on urging the leaders to work harder and do better, or to get themselves converted. There’s just got to be something fundamental about the way we’ve defined and structured home teaching as a system that isn’t right.”

On the second Thursday in November, President Kelly convened an unusual high council meeting – unusual because it focused on one issue, and because it focused on understanding a problem, rather than solving it. They began by giving each man 3” x 5” post-it notes, and asking each to write on the first sheet what he felt to be the most important reason why home teaching in the stake wasn’t getting done consistently or well. They were asked to write the next-most-important reason on their second sheet, and so on, up to five. President Kelly then asked the junior member of the council to stick the post-it with his most important cause on the center of a flip-chart, and to explain his reasoning to the rest of the group. He then asked if any other members had identified a similar cause; and when several hands were raised, he asked them to explain their reasoning and to put their post-its on the same chart. He then taped that chart to the wall, and asked the next councilman to place the most important of the causes remaining on his set of post-its on another flip-chart, and explain his reasoning. Others who had identified the same problem were invited to explain and post what they had written onto the flip-chart, and so on, until the causes on every post-it note had been considered. They comprised six flip charts. “What we did,” Rick Parks explained, “was getting what everyone had been thinking out of their heads and onto paper; and then grouping similar ideas together.”

President Kelly then assigned a chart to each of six sub-groups. The group members then re-read the descriptions of the particular problem that had been posted on their chart, and summarized those statements into a single sentence. Each group then read its summary statement to the others, to be sure that in summarizing they had not lost any of the important meaning that the individuals who had contributed an idea to that chart had intended.

Once these causes of the stake’s home teaching malaise had been defined, President Kelly asked each group to consider whether the summary statement they had drafted might be a manifestation of an even deeper root cause for why home teaching wasn’t being done well; and if so, to state what that root cause might be. Each group then reported to the rest of the group. The list below is their summary of the six reasons why home teaching wasn’t being done consistently and effectively in the Simsbury Stake.

Issue 1) Most home teachers really don’t think home teaching is important, when compared with other demands on their time.

Response 1)
They perceive it right: home teaching actually isn’t important to many of the families they visit. Most inactive ones don’t want the visit at all. Most active families view home teachers as a backstop; their well-being doesn’t hinge on the monthly visit.

Issue 2)
We get what we measure. Reporting percent visited perversely influences most home teachers’ approach to the job.

Response 2)
We report percent because it is an easy, standardized measurement. Measures of the kinds of actions that we want home teachers to do are hard to quantify and standardize.

Issue 3)
Whereas many callings require service on a regular schedule, home teaching can be scheduled at any time. It is easy to postpone.

Response 3)
We have never asked or required any of our home teachers to schedule in advance when they will do this work.

Issue 4)
Many home teachers don’t know how to be effective.

Response 4)
Because home teaching is rarely done well, most of us have learned from poor role models.

Issue 5)
We collect reports, but home teachers aren’t accountable – there are no consequences for failure.

Response 5)
It takes time and energy to hold people accountable. We fail as stake officers to hold bishops and elders quorum presidents accountable for good home teaching.

Issue 6)
The burden is too heavy in most units – visiting 6-8 families per month is impossible.

Response 6)
Our missionary work and youth programs are feeding inactive members onto our home teaching rolls at a faster rate than they are giving us dependable home teachers.

Developing this consensus about the cause of the stake’s home teaching malaise took the entire meeting. At its conclusion, President Kelly announced that the next meeting, two weeks hence, would have a similarly focused agenda – how to address the root causes of this problem. He asked the six groups to prepare by meeting in the interim with the other members of their group, and devising possible solutions to the problem on their chart. They were to present their ideas at the next meeting. The only constraint, President Kelly said, was that home teaching was to be the primary means through which priesthood leaders worked to perfect the saints. “There are no other sacred cows. Everything else, as it is now practiced, is up for debate.”

In addition to holding this discussion with the high council, President Kelly solicited the bishops’ inputs at their training meeting the following week. The bishops fundamentally agreed with the high council’s diagnosis of the causes of poor home teaching.

Proposed Solutions to the Causes of Poor Home Teaching

At the next high council meeting, President Kelly asked a spokesman from each of the sub-groups to present their recommendations about what might be done to solve the problems.

Addressing the Importance of Home Teaching

High councilman Darcy Mott led off with his group’s proposal for the problem they had been assigned, that home teaching as it was currently structured and practiced actually wasn’t important to most people (#1 on the chart above). “When something is at stake, people are motivated to do things. Things slip when nothing is at stake. We can’t lick this problem by convincing our brethren that home teaching really is important. We have to change the structure of the system so that it is important.”

Brother Mott continued, “Realistically, home teaching is important to a subset of members and their home teachers. A lot is at stake for new members, newly reactivated members, members whose non-member spouses are friendly to the church, and some single adult members. It isn’t important to inactive families that are antagonistic towards the church. It’s less important to many of our strongest families – they ought to need it, but if home teachers don’t visit, they seem to do just fine.” We have an eternal perspective and can easily say that it is important to all these people. But if they don’t feel its importance, most people won’t act.

“President, you told us to think outside of the box, so here goes,” Mott continued. “We propose that we organize home teaching by stake-wide districts. People in districts 1 & 2 will be people for whom home teaching is in fact important. Those in District 1 could be members who were baptized or reactivated within the last four months, as well as progressing investigators. Missionary work is really home teaching to investigators; and because of this, we should staff district 1 with ward missionaries – which means most wards will need to call a few more. Our goal should be to visit 100% of members in District 1 not every month, but every week. The reason is that new members just can’t go from almost daily visits by missionaries to monthly visits from home teachers. This is a big transition.

Weekly visits for four months might seem like overkill – but it really isn’t. The first three visits after baptism they should be helping to get them to the temple to be baptized for their own family members; and then they need five weeks for the new member lessons. They should teach new members how to succeed in their first calling; and men need to be taught about the priesthood. They ought to teach them how to study the scriptures and pray, and they should follow through to be sure this becomes a habit. Each new member ought to invite a family member or friend to begin taking the missionary discussions – not just for the good of the new investigator, but for the new member. There’s plenty to do.

“Four groups of members could be assigned to District 2,” Mott proposed: “The first are those we will call “maturing members.” They have “graduated” from District 1, were baptized or reactivated between 5 and 24 months ago, but haven’t yet been endowed. The second are part-member and less-active families where we sense potential; and third, single adult members who are fully active or attend occasionally. Fourth are other families with special needs or concerns. District 2 should be staffed with the most reliable home teachers in our wards, and we should visit 100% of these people every month.”

Another high council member, Lee Curtis, interjected, “How can you expect home teachers to visit 100% of these people every month, let alone every week, when we only visit 30% in the stake?”

Mott responded, “If people have a responsibility that they regard as important, where they are indispensable to the people they serve, they will do it. We think that the job of home teachers to this group of people can be structured or redefined so that the home teachers feel indispensable. And look at it the other way. We average 30% home teaching every month. Most of it is done by home teachers who are in fact faithful and reliable. We’re just saying that we ought to focus our best on the people who we absolutely can’t miss.”

Jeff Burr, another member of Mott’s group, pitched in. “President Monson once described a sanity test. Take someone to a tub full of water, into which water is flowing rapidly, and tell them to empty it. An insane person will start bailing water out of the tub. A sane person will first shut off the water flowing into the tub, and then bail the water out. Brethren, by this test we are insane. Remember the statistics President Kelly told us about how slowly sacrament meeting attendance is growing relative to the number of baptisms in our stake? Our converts are pouring into the tub of inactive members that President Monson talked about. The sane approach to a situation where we don’t have enough energy to home teach everybody is at least to shut off what is flowing into the tub. If we can do this, it will go a long way to our becoming a stake that God can trust.”

“So what about everyone else?” President Kelly asked. “How do we get them visited?”

“That’s where District 3 comes in,” Mott replied, “The members in District 3 would be the most faithful, reliable families. We’d put the least reliable home teachers in District 3, but the assignments would work in reverse. It would be the District 3 families’ responsibility to call their home teacher every month and say, ‘Brother Brown, we need a home teacher’s visit. When can you come?’ You know how some priesthood leaders will call their less-reliable home teachers towards the end of the month to be sure they do it? We won’t have the quorum leaders call the home teachers. They’ll call the home teachees, asking if they have invited their home teacher to come. We, as members in District 3, need to figure out how to make these visits important to us – a dimension of the gospel that we need to improve upon. We then get our home teachers to hold us accountable. If a home teacher in District 2 misses for more than two months, he should be reassigned to District 3 for remedial work.

“And District 4 would be everybody else – active and inactive members.” Burr concluded. “Some of the inactive families that get assigned to District 4 aren’t really in the ward any more – but because we have done so poorly in home teaching we just don’t know when people move. So a key task for District 4 will be keep an accurate record of members. We recommend asking the missionaries to help us with this. They will find opportunities to bring some of these back to the church; to meet other members of their families; and so on.

“Finally, District 5. It will be a holding tank for do-not-contact and lost members.”

Solutions to Problem #2: We Measure the Wrong Thing

High councilman Bruce Call then summarized his group’s assessment of cause #2 – measurement of percentage visited. “This is a pernicious problem,” he began. “Whether it’s business, school or church, we get what we measure. We ask for a visit, at best we get a visit. This fuels the problem that it doesn’t seem to be important. What’s worse, we choose this measure because it’s “accurate.” But it’s full of fudge. Take me, for example. There are times when I go months without a call from my high priests leader asking for a home teaching report – and yet I know he’s turning in a number every month. I’m a good home teacher, but I miss some – and I bet he’s just assuming that I do 100%.

“The fact that we tolerate fudged data year after year should set us free from the visit-no-visit measure. It’s not accurate anyway. We should start measuring the behavior that we want,” Call continued. “Instead of asking if I “did” my home teaching, my group leader should ask, “What did you do this month to strengthen the faith of this family, or bless their lives?” After I report, then he could ask, ‘What do you plan to do in the coming month to strengthen their faith and bless their lives?’ Then when he calls next month, he’d ask how I followed through on my plan. If we get what we measure, doing something like this would help us make home teaching more important in every one of the districts.”

Scheduling When Home Teaching Will Be Done

The third group’s leader, Doug Romney, reported: “Most members have committed to fulfill their church callings at a regular time each week. Sunday School and Primary teachers commit to prepare and teach a lesson at the same time each Sunday. YM and YW advisers commit to serve every Tuesday night. Financial clerks count donations after church. The fact that these are scheduled helps them get it done. So if home teaching is easy to postpone, let’s ask each home teacher to set a fixed time every month with each of their families, and to block these times out on their calendars a year in advance. Almost every busy person we know who gets to the temple regularly does this. Why not do it for home teaching? When quorum presidencies get December’s home teaching reports in early January, they can ask each home teacher what time they’ve set each month to visit each of their families. For those that haven’t done it by then, they can just keep asking.

Let me adapt this proposal to Jeff and Darcy’s District 1 idea. We should ask ward missionaries to declare and reserve one or more regular blocks of time every week, as the time when they will serve as ward missionaries. This could be Wednesday evening, Sunday afternoon, or whenever – but the same time every week. Most ward missionaries are adrift in their callings, just like stake missionaries were – there’s no structure to their work, no specific responsibility. If this time is reserved, then they’ll need to find something productive to do during this time – and they’ll get the home teaching done for the people in District 1. If these things are the responsibility of ward missionaries and they commit to a schedule, they’ll do it. If we keep trying to get them done catch-as-catch can, we’ll continue catching a few, and fumbling most.

“Some bishops might say that they don’t have enough men to call as ward missionaries to staff District 1. There are a lot of members who spend 6-8 hours per week in their church calling. If ward missionaries blocked out this much time every week, two or three could do it,” Romney concluded.

Solutions to Problems #4 & 5: Training and Accountability

“We decided after our last meeting that problems 4 & 5 were so related that’d do our problem-solving together,” high councilman Guido Guercio said as he walked to the front of the room. “President, we would be dumb just to say that we need to do a better job training home teachers. We’ve tried. But when somebody stands up in leadership meetings and says he’s going to talk about how to be an effective home teacher, people just check out. A few obediently take notes, but not much behavior changes. The reason, we think, is that people will learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. Because most home teachers in their gut don’t think it’s that important, most of them haven’t been ready to learn when we’ve taught them. Furthermore, because we just ask if they “did” their home teaching – and if they “didn’t” we don’t hold them accountable – we don’t create a readiness to learn. So we propose that we create a readiness to learn by changing the way we hold home teachers accountable.

“Nephi couldn’t go and do unless he was commanded to do something,” Guercio continued. Most of us have never received an assignment to do something other than “be” a home teacher. When home teaching is divided up by geography or alphabetically, as most wards do it, you can’t have any standard measures of performance and accountability. Ideally each home teacher would have a plan to help each of his families with their different needs, and in monthly PPIs each leader would follow through in a unique way on each of those families. But that takes a lot more maturity than most of our home teachers have. The nice thing about districting the way Jeff and Darcy have proposed, is that within Districts 1 and 2, there are some standard things that they can be held accountable for.

“For the home teachers in the other districts, I think if we ask the questions every month that Brother Call proposed – ‘What did you do this month to strengthen the faith of this family, or bless their lives? and ‘What do you plan to do in the coming month to strengthen their faith and bless their lives?’ – it will do more to train our home teachers to be effective than anything we’ve done to date in this stake.

Another member of Guercio’s group, Joe Ortega, added, “High councilors need to accept some blame, because we don’t hold elders presidencies and high priests group leaders accountable for what they should be doing. For example, home teachers should be set apart. How many of us know if the leaders in the wards we advise have set apart their home teachers? When was the last time that we each sat down with them and reviewed when they held the last personal interview with each home teacher?

“I listened to a talk of Elder Holland’s, where he was teaching missionaries how to help their investigators make and keep commitments. He said, in essence, “If your investigators tell you they haven’t read the section in the Book of Mormon that you assigned, and if they haven’t prayed sincerely about it, be devastated, elders! Don’t just meekly suggest that they try harder next time. Be devastated! You’ve got to help them see that getting a testimony of the truths of eternity is serious business.”

“I miss visiting some of my home teaching families on occasion,” Ortega confessed. “Not once, however, has my priesthood leader been devastated when I’ve confessed to dropping the ball. Often they don’t even meekly suggest that I try harder next time. They just say thanks and hang up. And frankly, when I’ve met with the priesthood leaders in the wards I advise, I’ve never been devastated by their reports of 30% home teaching. All the way up to our level, we’re reinforcing the sense that home teaching isn’t important.”

The group that had been assigned problem # 6 – that the home teaching workload was just to vast – deferred, saying that the other groups’ ideas for shutting off the flow of new members into the tub of inactivity, and for scheduling home teaching to those in Districts 1 & 2 at a regular time each week and month, took in everything they had discussed.

President Kelly stood to close the meeting. “Brethren, you’ve gotten us out of the box. Thank you, thank you, for working so hard and so prayerfully on these proposals. I’d like you to join me in fasting this Sunday. Fast for the stake presidency, that we will be wise and inspired. We want to share your ideas with the bishops at our next training meeting with them; and then we’ll get back to you in our next high council meeting with recommendations on what we will do.”

The Simsbury Stake’s Home Teaching Plan

Second Counselor Douglas Porter introduced the presidency’s recommendations at the next high council meeting, by saying, “We feel to accept most of the things you’ve recommended, brethren. They are inspired. The bishops endorsed your ideas quite enthusiastically at our last meeting with them. Let me summarize the key points of our plan, and then we’ll ask for your sustaining vote.” Rick Parks handed out a sheet that summarized these points. (A copy is included below.)

“First, we’ll ask each ward to organize home teaching into the four districts that we discussed. We reviewed a December 2001 First Presidency letter, “Watching Over and Strengthening Members.” They said that if home teaching to every home isn’t possible, we should give priority to new converts, less-active families that are receptive, and other families with the greatest needs – and then visit others as resources permit. Our district strategy is very consistent with these instructions. (A copy of that letter is attached as Appendix 2.) It shouldn’t be that complicated administratively, because most wards already are in geographic or alphabetical districts. We need to urge our leaders prayerfully to seek inspiration about which families and which home teachers to assign to each district.

“We’ll ask the ward missionaries who will serve as District 1 home teachers to visit weekly. By home teaching progressing investigators as well as new members every week, we’ll eliminate the hand-off at baptism from missionaries to members where we’ve fumbled the ball so many times. We can set a standard template of expectations for these home teachers, to which we can hold them accountable. They should serve at the same time every week; take every new member to the temple with their own family names within a month of baptism. They should ensure that each new member who they home teach as a progressing investigator gets a calling at the time of baptism that is custom-tailored to their abilities. New converts always should serve with another member. Men must be ordained within a week of baptism. During their weekly visits, home teachers will teach them about the priesthood, teach them how to serve successfully in their callings, and teach the new member lessons. We should ask our ward mission leaders, serving as home teaching district leaders for District 1, to supervise this effort. The new MLS system will enable us to customize a report that cuts across wards. We can know at the stake level who the members of these districts are, so that we can hold leaders accountable.

“Second, your suggestion that we put in District 2 single adults and maturing members is wise. We have been baptizing about 35 adult men in the stake every year. But you can count on just a few fingers how many men stand in a typical stake conference to be ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood who aren’t young men who were raised in the church. Most of our male converts get ordained as priests, but we do a horrible job getting them ordained elders and endowed in the temple. And as you know, we are working to pull more single members into the mainstream of activity and leadership.

“We will ask every home teacher to work out in advance a fixed time every month to home teach. In addition to asking home teachers to do this at the beginning of the year, we should ask as a standard accountability question when we collect end-of-month reports when the next month’s visit is scheduled.

“We will immediately fire any priesthood leader who collects home teaching reports with a yes-no “did you do it” question. We won’t accept a “they’re fine” answer from our home teachers, either. Our priesthood leaders must ask for detail and get detail in response. This is how we’ll train good home teachers. Ward mission leaders will hold District 1 home teachers accountable for each of the points we’ve noted on the sheet Rick gave you. District 2 home teachers will be held accountable to have a plan to get the maturing members they home teach to be endowed in the temple, and to help the single adult members they visit to feel that they fit in the church as much as married members do.

“In the first satellite training broadcast, Elder Eyring told us that there is always something that every family can do better. We want to modify the accountability questions that you defined – ‘What did you do this month to strengthen the faith of this family, bless their lives, and help them get to the temple?’ and ‘What do you plan to do in the coming month to strengthen their faith, bless their lives, and help them get to the temple?’ These will be great ways to hold the rest of our home teachers accountable, to find those things that each family needs to do better. Let’s see how far we get by using these accountability questions to entice the right kind of home teaching.

“We’ll ask our quorum and group leaders to hold a personal interview with each home teacher once each quarter, and to collect their reports by phone for the other two months. In the next personal interview, we’ll ask them to set apart all home teachers who haven’t previously received that blessing, and to set apart all new home teachers. In some wards, quorum and group presidencies have called home teaching district leaders whose job it is to collect reports. We should discontinue this practice. None of our wards is so big that this is warranted. It reflects the attitude of low importance that we are trying to overcome. We should call any brothers who now are doing this to be ward missionaries in District 1.”

President Porter closed by saying, “Brethren, on behalf of the presidency I express our utter devastation about the way we have led the home teaching effort in this stake. Our plan doesn’t involve complicated new things – they’re things we should have been doing all along. We pray that the Lord will forgive us for this part of our past, and pledge to Him that we will do our best to perfect the saints of the Simsbury Stake through home teaching in the future. We pray that as we do these things, the wards and branches in our stake might truly become ones that God can trust.”

President Kelly then stood and asked those who were willing to support this plan to raise their hand – and all who were present did so. He then asked each of them to schedule a time with the priesthood leaders in the wards and branches they advised, to start them on the process of implementing this plan.


December 10, 2001

· Review the needs of ward members. Select new converts, less-active families who may be the most receptive, and other families who may have the greatest need to receive home teachers. Then visit others as resources permit.

· Make better use of Aaronic Priesthood teachers and priests as home teaching companions to Me1chizedek Priesthood holders.

· Consider using full-time missionaries on a limited basis to work with Melchizedek Priesthood holders to home teach part-member families and less-active members. Sister missionaries may be assigned to visit teach with Relief Society sisters as needed.

· Encourage quorum and auxiliary leaders to watch over and strengthen those members and families for whom they are responsible. Their visits and contacts with members can help to fulfill the responsibility to watch over and strengthen each member. When these leaders and teachers learn of family or individual concerns, they should inform the bishop.

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