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June 21, 2012
In The Village
The Stats of the Saints
by Orson Scott Card

Starting in 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency required car manufacturers to meet certain fuel efficiency standards for the whole fleet of cars they sell in the United States.

Everyone expected that manufacturers would make their cars of lighter materials and develop smaller engines that got more miles per gallon.

That happened. But other things happened, too. Because Americans wanted big cars. It was not an ego thing. We just happen to be the best-nourished, bulkiest people on Earth, and we carry a lot of passengers and haul a lot of cargo.

Those who could fit their lives into little cars were perfectly happy with the smaller, lighter, less-powerful cars designed to get better gas mileage.

But there were a lot of people who wanted or needed more size.

What happened was that when a car company developed a full-size vehicle that people really liked, a lot of those cars were sold. But because those popular cars tended to be on the high end of the EPA mileage ratings, their popularity skewed the manufacturer's fleet average in the wrong direction.

The car companies scrambled to fix the problem. The Taurus, the Sable, and the PT Cruiser, for instance, all had major redesigns that shrank them in size and weight.

The change brought the average fleet fuel consumption closer to the target. It also crushed sales.

When a car is popular because it's roomy enough to do the job, then shrinking it is likely to shrink sales, too. The law kept killing the cars Americans needed.

There was a loophole in the law. While light trucks (a category that includes vans, minivans, and SUVs) are definitely included in the fleet fuel efficiency requirements, they are exempted from the "gas guzzler tax."

Ironically, this amounted to a comparative subsidy for the least efficient vehicles in the manufacturers' fleets, and SUVs became the high-growth segment of the automobile market.

People seek out the car that meets their needs and their price, regardless of whether it complies with a larger plan intended for the benefit of all.

Which brings me to home teaching statistics.

It was in my lifetime that the Church switched from "ward teaching" to "home teaching" and it became a major goal to have every household visited by priesthood holders once a month.

How's that working out?

Pretty well, actually -- a lot of dedicated people make those monthly visits, and arrange their schedules to receive them. Even in areas outside the Mormon Corridor, where home teaching can mean many miles of driving for each visit, our record is pretty good.

But it's far from one hundred percent, and so we get constant lessons, sermons, programs, goals, incentives, chastisement, and encouragement, all in the effort to increase the percentage of households visited every month.

Despite all that emphasis, after fifty years the percentage still never rises above a certain predictable level.

It's like those fuel efficiency targets. The goals are noble and worthy, and everyone approves of them. But in making their actual choices, people take other things into account.

Let's put it in practical terms. If you have a long commute every day, or travel a lot for your job, or simply work long hours, the time you have at home with your own family is limited and precious.

Not to mention time to unwind and shed the stress so you don't die of a heart attack or a stroke before your time.

Just how often does it feel right to leave your own wife and children to go visit somebody else's?

Especially if your two or four or six home teaching families live miles away, as does your companion, and it takes dozens of phone calls and emails over a period of days just to schedule the visits.

And in wards where active Melchizedek priesthood holders are sparse, the home teaching burden, on paper, is sisyphean.

Home teaching is a good program, but without ever saying so, we all make our own decisions about just how high a priority it is going to have in our lives.

"It's only one night a month -- how hard is that?" has a false premise. You don't have thirty free nights a month to choose from. Most men are lucky to have four or five evenings a month whose activities they are free to choose. If it takes three nights to visit all your wide-spread home teaching families, then monthly home teaching may well be half or more of your discretionary time.

Shouldn't your own wife and children have first claim on that time?

If another family is in real need of your help, then of course you visit them and help them. But if it's just a routine visit, when your own family needs their husband and father, then what would a 100% home teaching report say about your priorities?

The Church has recognized the problem and allowed some adjustments. Taking a wife along instead of a priesthood companion. Permitting nonstandard visits in nonstandard situations. Allowing some very active families to be visited less often. Ceasing to attempt to visit those who really don't want to be visited, especially when insisting might drive them away.

Yet month after month, year after year, we look at our home teaching statistics and feel bad. Less than fifty percent. We failed again.

I'm beginning to wonder if the problem might be the statistics themselves.

When we talk about the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity, one hundred percent compliance is pretty much the minimum. Zero cigarettes. Zero booze. Zero adultery. It's a very clear standard.

Even with the law of tithing, it's meaningful to compare the number of full tithepayers with the number of members. But nobody chastises the elders and high priests because the ward doesn't have 100% full tithepayers.

I suspect that if we actually achieved 100% home teaching, month after month, year after year, we would exhaust ourselves. Our own families would resent our excessively faithful home teaching, so would the families we visit, and they would be right.

In other words, we keep comparing ourselves against a goal that we don't even want to achieve -- and then consider ourselves failures for not achieving it.

What is the goal we really want to achieve?

A network of fellow-believers:

  1. Who know and trust each other.
  2. To whom we can turn in time of need.
  3. Who, in an emergency, can spread the word to everyone.
  4. Through whom ward leaders can keep track of what is being done to help families in stress.

That's what a successful home teaching program would achieve, and I believe that in most wards, most of the time, we're much closer to 100% than our current reporting regimen would suggest.

When families are in stress, they should get the visits and help they need.

When families are not in special need, then we shouldn't create stress by requiring them to submit to, or provide, an excess of visits. For most members, most of the time, touching bases is enough.

If a family doesn't even know who their home teachers are, that's a problem.

But if a family finds itself resenting the need to schedule yet another visit by the home teachers, that's also a problem.

We know that this is the best possible program because that's what most good members are already doing.

Maybe we need to decide that home teaching is perfect if the bishopric, Relief Society presidency, and quorum leaders know about every family in need; if every family knows who their home teacher is and trusts him; and if we tag up with an in-home visit at least once a year when there is no special need, just to make sure the network is functional.

Then maybe we can revise our reporting so that we can stop feeling bad about "failing" every month when in fact we aren't failing at all.

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