Well, it isn’t CES anymore – the official name is Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (with emphatic instruction to not create an acronym) and Stakes are now in charge of calling (yes it is a calling now) and managing teachers, so you don’t really work for CES-SIR. That said, I just wrapped up a year of teaching early-morning seminary. This is my story.
The school district in which I reside has late start on Wednesday. Consequently, we skip seminary that day and tack on 10 minutes for the other days. Four days a week is still too much for a calling and the Stake has wisely called two teachers for each class. I typically taught Mondays and Tuesdays. This was manageable . I was fairly shocked when they called me, though; my own experience with seminary and CES has generally not been positive. As a teenager, I generally loathed the over-sentimental religio-entertainment hawked by the traveling CES stars, longing for substance . In the past I have viewed CES as a bastion of anachronistic ark-steadying priestcraft .
Yet here I was charged with teaching the New Testament of our Lord to Juniors and Seniors in highschool. My general shtick was to sit down on the Relief Society room table, open the scriptures, and ask the hard questions. I wanted them to engage the text and not just swallow a saccharine gloss. I wanted them to experience the words and power of God and be changed because of it. I prayed not for what to say, but that the students would think enough to interact and ask questions of their own.
The first day of class was the “plan of salvation” lesson – you know, with the circles. I told them that they should henceforth call it Mormon Cosmology and we spoke of its development in our own tradition and what it means for us. When I got home after class, my wife met me at the door and told me that my nephew, whom I love, died that morning, just one month after being married. That morning that cosmology was a comfort.
I was impressed with the curriculum which CES prepared. While it still too heavily relies on tired works like Doctrinal Commentary on the New Testament, many of the lesson suggestions were forward looking, even brave. Like the lesson on how the apostles, when traveling through a Samaritan village, wanted to call down fire to destroy it and its people. Jesus’ comment is haunting: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” We were able to discuss our own propensity to racism and rebuke our own false ideas.  There are also surprising bits typically outside the bounds of correlated discourse; e.g., stories of healing handkerchiefs.
Whenever a difficult subject or questions came up, I generally gave the students the tough answers – sometimes general authorities have disagreed; sometimes they were wrong; sometimes we haven’t lived up to our Religion. In every similar situation, the students shined with resiliency. They trust the Lord and are taking the work forward. There is no reason to shelter them. And sitting in the Relief Society room, the portraits of past presidents hung on the walls, making their way into our discussions more than once. Emmeline the stalwart and Zina the healer. That is the risk you take when you call me. It is also the wisdom of calling more than one teacher; I’m certain that there were some students better reached by the other teacher and different methods.
I don’t believe these kids are a chosen generation, held in reserve for this period in time. But I do believe that they can become chosen. I will remember them and the feelings I felt as we talked about faith and as we talked about its foundations. The choices they make in the next two to four years will generally be the most consequential of their lives and I am grateful to have walked with them for a time.
- However, with all the studies showing that adolescents need massive amounts of sleep, the whole project may need to be re-evaluated
- This is why I skipped out on youth Sunday School to go to Gospel Doctrine with my Mom from the time I was 16 or so
- I have generally repented of that view, and have come to view the paid youth ministry of CES as generally an acceptable appendage to the Church. Many of the employees do a great work. I do think that in the long term it isn’t sustainable and will generally be phased out, though I could easily be mistaken
- Though to be fair, false doctrine is a staple of seminary and everyone who attends should be able to look back in 20 years and suddenly realize that the comment they just made in Gospel Doctrine was ridiculous and then trace the concept back to something their seminary teacher once said. Viz., the city of Enoch was in the Gulf of Mexico.