Ministering and Serving: What is the Difference?

Recently, the LDS Church announced it was retiring its Home Teaching and Visiting Teaching programs and switching to a ministering program.  Many elements of the former program are still in effect.  Members of a congregation will still be assigned to other members, but they way it is coordinated, reported, and measured will change.

To read more about the new ministering program, click here.  

As I've had over a week to think about this new change, I've pondered the idea of ministering to others instead of serving others.  Are the two words synonyms?  Is there a difference between the two?

To help me see if there is any difference, I thought of the words as nouns.  Two images comes to mind:

A minister


and a server


A minister is someone who preaches sermons, visits those in his or her congregation, helps with baptism, weddings, funerals, provides a listening ear, and shows love and compassion.


A server is someone who provides a list of options, you let the server know what you need, and he or she brings you what you asked for.


Neither of these descriptions accurately portray what the LDS Church is asking of its own members, but thinking about the difference in these terms helps me see where the shift of focus needs to be.

When we serve others, we really are offering to another what it is that we have to give.  If a person gives birth, we bring them a dinner to their home.  If a person loses a loved one, we bring them flowers.  If a person gets married, we give them a gift.  Essentially we are providing them something we assume they need.  Hopefully we are right, and the service is appreciated.

When we minister to others, we think about them as an individual.  We don't offer one-size-fits-all gifts.  We listen with love and try to get in tune as to what they really need.  If they are lost, depressed, or disaffected, we strive to find them to let them know they are loved.  If they are lonely we sit with them and offer companionship.  If they are hurting, we hurt with them.  We don't try to necessarily fix them or heal them, we just love them.

Note: Click on the source of the picture above.  It will take you to a Hallmark page giving suggestions of what to say to someone struggling with a serious illness.  They have good advice.  

I don't see ministering and serving as mutually exclusive.  There is a time and place for both.  Sometimes it is appropriate for someone to say, "This is what I need, will you bring it to me?"  Or for another to say, "If there is anything I can do, just ask."  That is service.

But others times it is appropriate to not ask at all, but just do.  We have a thought or inspiration to bake an extra loaf of bread and bring it to someone.  We stop by someone's home just to say hi.  We kneel at night and pray for someone else.  We don't focus on what it is that we are able to give as much as what the other actually needs.  That is ministering.

A few months ago I had an opportunity to stand in front of a small group of women where all were members of a worldwide organization called the Relief Society living in lower New York City.  I was asked to share my feelings on visiting teaching.  This was a hard assignment because at the time I did not like the visiting teaching program and thought it needed to be completely overhauled.  But I didn't want to undermine the program so this is what I said:

"Give yourself permission to fail.  We are going to make mistakes when we try to serve each other.  And people are going to make mistakes trying to serve us.  Let's forgive ourselves and each other as we try to figure out how to best do this. Every morning pray and ask how you can help someone else.  And then go and do without worrying whether you are doing it 'right' or not."  

As LDS members trying to figure out what ministering like the Savior really looks like, I think the same advice can apply.  We shouldn't let our fear of making a mistake keep us from trying.  Sometimes we'll serve someone a dinner when what they really needed was just a visit.  Or we'll talk their ear off when all they needed was someone to help them fold laundry.  And that's okay, we'll keep trying and we'll get better at it.


For resources and tips on ministering like the Savior, click here.

This is not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.