Shepherds, Lambs, and Home Teachers


Russell M. Nelson

Someone once offered this sage advice: “Survey large fields; cultivate small ones.” That seems quite appropriate for home teachers. I, at least, became a better home teacher when my perspective became more global than local. I realized that this would be a better world if everyone had good home teachers. And if such a global outlook is helpful, how much more valuable is an eternal viewpoint, compared with one that is merely mundane.

Faith would increase in the earth and God’s everlasting covenant would be established if the Master’s desire could be fulfilled. For He expressed the hope “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world” (D&C 1:20). Every priesthood holder could do this while serving as a home teacher.

As I have surveyed large fields of this planet, my sense of appreciation for home and neighbors nearby has become even more dear. Those feelings of fondness have found meaningful expression in home teaching. Sister Nelson and I are so grateful to have been blessed with home teachers who have given much-needed encouragement to us and our family. Wherever we have lived through the years, we have appreciated home teachers who have observed four hallmarks of effective home teaching. Our home teachers have

  • Faithfully kept appointments scheduled in advance;

  • Come prepared with brief messages relevant to contemporary need, determined previously in counsel with us as parents;

  • Honored our time constraints with visits that were appropriately concise;

  • Invoked the Spirit of the Lord upon our family with prayer.

Returning to the broader perspective, in the world today many religious denominations and other well-meaning groups focus attention on concepts such as “wholeness of self,” “self-realization,” “self-fulfillment,” or “self-awareness.” But such slogans cause me to wonder whether the two great commandments are ignored or forgotten. Jesus said:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:37–39; see also D&C 59:6).

The two great commandments work in perfect harmony because obedience to the first is manifest by obedience to the second: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).

Rewards for selfless service were revealed by the Lord, who said, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25; see also Matt. 10:39).

Long ago, an enduring standard of interpersonal conduct was set. We know it as the Golden Rule: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12).

That principle was established by Jesus, who called himself the “good shepherd.” Appropriately, shepherds were among the first to receive the announcement of His birth (see Luke 2:8–18). He is our Shepherd and we are the sheep of His fold (see Ps. 23:1). Often He used that metaphor in His teachings:

“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

“As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15; see also John 10:11, 27; D&C 50:44).

When the Good Shepherd bade farewell to His disciples, important instructions were given: “Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs” (John 21:15; emphasis added).

Because the available manuscripts of the New Testament are in Greek, additional insight is gained when the meanings of the words italicized above are studied in the Greek language. In the preceding verse, the word feed comes from the Greek term bosko, which means “to nourish or to pasture.” The word lamb comes from the diminutive term arnion, meaning “little lamb.”

“[Jesus] saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep” (John 21:16; emphasis added).

In this verse, the word feed comes from a different term, poimaino, which means “to shepherd, to tend, or to care.” The word sheep comes from the term probaton, meaning “mature sheep.”

“[Jesus] saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep” (John 21:17; emphasis added).

In this verse, the word feed again comes from the Greek bosko, referring to nourishment. The word sheep was again translated from the Greek term probaton, referring to adult sheep.

These three verses, which seem so similar in the English language, really contain three distinct messages in Greek:

  • Little lambs need to be nourished in order to grow;

  • Sheep need to be tended;

  • Sheep need to be nourished.

Therefore, one of the tangible signs of the restored church of Jesus Christ would have to be the establishment of an orderly system by which each precious member—young or old, male or female—might be given the continuing care and nourishment the Lord decreed for every one of His flock.

That system includes priesthood home teaching. To describe those called to render such service, I like the term “true undershepherds,” as written by Mary B. Wingate in the hymn we love to sing. Her text carries a meaningful message:

Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the sheep of his fold;
Dear is the love that he gives them,
Dearer than silver or gold.
Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are his “other” lost sheep;
Over the mountains he follows,
Over the waters so deep. …
Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the lambs of his fold;
Some from the pastures are straying,
Hungry and helpless and cold.
See, the Good Shepherd is seeking,
Seeking the lambs that are lost,
Bringing them in with rejoicing,
Saved at such infinite cost. …
Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the “ninety and nine”;
Dear are the sheep that have wandered
Out in the desert to pine.
Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
“Will you not seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?” …
Green are the pastures inviting;
Sweet are the waters and still.
Lord, we will answer thee gladly,
“Yes, blessed Master, we will!
Make us thy true undershepherds;
Give us a love that is deep.
Send us out into the desert,
Seeking thy wandering sheep.”
Out in the desert they wander,
Hungry and helpless and cold;
Off to the rescue we’ll hasten,
Bringing them back to the fold.

(Hymns, 1985, no. 221; emphasis added)

No doubt Mary B. Wingate’s text was inspired by the Savior’s parable of the lost sheep, recorded in the New Testament: “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?” (Luke 15:4.)

When the Prophet Joseph Smith rendered his inspired translation of that verse, he wrote, “What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the wilderness after that which is lost, until he find it?” (JST, Luke 15:4.)

The concept that the man would leave his normal surroundings and “go into the wilderness” in order to rescue is very compelling to me. What an example for home teachers!

Recently I spoke with a heartbroken stake president who tearfully told me that one of his own adult children had lost faith in the Lord and had strayed from the Church. He said, “I extend a helping hand to less-active members in my stake more searchingly now, hoping that somewhere someone might do the same and find and feed my lost one.”

One who rescues a lamb of the Lord brings joy to many: “And when he hath found [the lost sheep], 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 15:5–6).

Doctrinal Foundation for Home Teaching

The doctrinal foundation for home teaching has been instituted by the Lord. In the revelation on Church organization and government in Doctrine and Covenants section 20, these directions are recorded:

“The duty of the elders, priests, teachers, deacons, and members of the church of Christ …

“[Is] to teach, expound, exhort, baptize, and watch over the church” (D&C 20:38, 42).

“The priest’s duty is to preach, teach, …

“And visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties” (D&C 20:46–47).

“[An elder is to] visit the house of each member, exhorting them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties.

“In all these duties the priest is to assist the elder if occasion requires” (D&C 20:51–52).

“The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;

“And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;

“And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty” (D&C 20:53–55).

Additional instructions were given regarding the pairing of companions in the work of the Lord:

“If any man among you be strong in the Spirit, let him take with him him that is weak, that he may be edified in all meekness, that he may become strong also.

“Therefore, take with you those who are ordained unto the lesser priesthood, and send them before you to make appointments, and to prepare the way” (D&C 84:106–7).

As I reflect upon my own opportunities for Church service in the several cities where Sister Nelson and I have lived, few experiences have been more gratifying than those as a home teacher. Some of the brothers and sisters we first met through those contacts, who at one time may not have been very active in the Church, have since been called to serve as stake presidents, mission presidents, auxiliary presidents, and temple presidents and matrons. They and members of their families have become some of our dearest friends.

Home teaching requires energy. I remember times when I was so exhausted from the demands of difficult days in the surgical operating room (in addition to duties relating to family needs and to Church responsibilities) that the prospects of spending evening hours in home teaching were not always anticipated eagerly. Almost without exception, however, I can say that I returned home more invigorated and happy than when I left. I often told Sister Nelson that rewards for a home teacher were not remote; they were immediate, at least for me.

Besides, in this world of gluttony and greed, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from rendering service to others purely because of love and not for pay. I think the Apostle Peter felt that same exhilaration when he wrote:

“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;

“Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.

“And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Pet. 5:2–4).

I recognize that it takes time to develop the discipline and desire to prioritize concern for others ahead of one’s personal interests. That ennobling transition begins when one makes the baptismal covenant:

“Now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

“Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, …

“Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:8–10; see also D&C 20:37.)

Home teaching opportunities provide a means by which an important aspect of character may be developed: love of service above self. We become more like the Savior, who has challenged us to emulate His example: “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27; see also John 13:15; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3 Ne. 18:6, 16).

Each individual who sincerely strives to become more like the Good Shepherd will be blessed. His promise and challenge are real: “Thou art my servant; and I covenant with thee that thou shalt have eternal life; and thou shalt serve me and go forth in my name, and shalt gather together my sheep” (Mosiah 26:20).

Remembering that the Savior is our exemplar, picture in your mind a little lamb being carried across His shoulders, as you read His divine directive:

“Ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do;

“Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day” (3 Ne. 27:21–22).

The following admonition was given by President Ezra Taft Benson:

“The Good Shepherd gave His life for the sheep—for you and me—for us all (see John 10:17–18). The symbolism of the Good Shepherd is not without parallel in the Church today. The sheep need to be led by watchful shepherds. Too many are wandering. Some are being enticed away by momentary distractions. Others have become completely lost. …

“With a shepherd’s care, our new members, those newly born into the gospel, must be nurtured by attentive fellowshipping as they increase in gospel knowledge and begin living new standards. Such attention will help to ensure that they will not return to old habits. With a shepherd’s loving care, our young people, our young lambs, will not be as inclined to wander. And if they do, the crook of the shepherd’s staff, a loving arm and an understanding heart, will help to retrieve them. With a shepherd’s care, many of those who are now independent of the flock can still be reclaimed. Many who have married outside the Church and have assumed the life-styles of the world may respond to an invitation to return to the fold” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, pp. 231–32).

As I foresee the troublesome times that lie ahead—when deepening trials and testing shall be thrust upon members of the Church (see D&C 1:12–23; D&C 101:4–5)—the gentle caring of compassionate home teachers may literally save spiritual lives.

“For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? …

“And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed” (Alma 5:60).

Personal security through the travails of life cannot be guaranteed by wealth, fame, or governmental programs. But it can come from doing the will of the Lord, whose instructions are given to bring spiritual protection to His Saints. His merciful commandments, with undergirding and overarching power to sustain all natural law, tenderly allow gentle hands to guard His children well.

The Good Shepherd lovingly cares for all sheep of His fold, and we are His true undershepherds. Our privilege is to bear His love and to add our own love to friends and neighbors—feeding, tending, and nurturing them—as the Savior would have us do. By so doing, we evidence one of the godly characteristics of His restored Church upon the earth.

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson

[illustration] The Good Shepherd, by Del Parson

[illustration] Illustrated by Oliver Parson

[illustration] The Good Shepherd, by William Henry Margetson