Memoirs of a CES agent

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 [1]. 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 [2]. In the past I have viewed CES as a bastion of anachronistic ark-steadying priestcraft [3].

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. [4] 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.

_______________________

  1. However, with all the studies showing that adolescents need massive amounts of sleep, the whole project may need to be re-evaluated
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Comments

  1. I completely loved this post. Good stuff. Don’t know what else to say. Amen.

  2. Thank you for a positive post about seminary. While I do recall some cheesy moments, for the most part seminary did a lot to build my testimony and we had some great discussions. Even 20 years later, I still remember the conviction with which one of my seminary teachers testified of the law of tithing, and the way he was just fascinated with the scriptures. He had quite a bit of influence on my developing testimony.

  3. How thrilling it would have been to have a seminary teacher like you. Our seminary teachers basically sleep-walked through the mornings as much as the students and everything (everything,) revolved around scripture chases. Very rare to have an actual discussion such as you describe. Good show!

  4. Bro. Jones says:

    See, if I could be assured that my (future) children would have a Seminary experience as you describe, I’d actually consider encouraging them to attend. Thanks for the post.

  5. Thanks for this. I appreciate the description of your frank discussion approach. But, as one who also teaches the youth, I have to say that you failed to mention the huge amount of preparation you must do/have done to be able to competently handle a really, good discussion. And I’m suddenly a little sick to my stomach that perhaps one reason my own lessons don’t get into too much depth is because of my own lack of real preparation.

    So, kudos to you, J. I’m sure that your students will call on the information they learned from you throughout their lives, even if sporadically.

  6. Ah, I just finished a year of teaching seminary too. Except in my ward, the kids are so spread out and there is so little parent support that we did it only once a week, through the home study program. We kept high-school aged kids an hour after the weekly mutual activities.

    I loved teaching seminary, precisely because I know some people experienced it as trite and silly. I loved the absolute freedom to prepare a lesson any way I liked, even picking the topic myself based on one week’s readings. I was teaching a very diverse group of kids, a handful who’d been members since birth, a couple who were young converts, and a few who were investigators, and even one who was baptized during the year. I had a group of kids who’ve had to face civil war, near starvation, absolute poverty, daily violence, immigration, racism, etc. I felt like the stakes were really high for me to be able to offer a meaningful lesson, something that they really NEEDED.

    It was awesome, and incredibly challenging. I think my favorite moments were when I taught about the evils surrounding wealth…… and when we talked about black liberation theology. :)

  7. I’m sure you’ve had an impact on your students. I had a seminary teacher whose love of the scriptures and the gospel were so powerful, that we, as teenagers who knew it all, often laughed at her for having a testimony that it appeared as caricature. We weren’t the most mature bunch back then, I admit.

    To this day I reflect on her attitude about the scriptures, and wish that I could track her down and thank her for putting her whole soul into the work to which she’d been called.

  8. I was thrown out of seminary for being the “anti-Christ.” (I deserved most of it, though it was evolution that earned me that high-octane moniker.) Then I signed up for it again (in Utah, released time) and was finally ejected for not having shown up for class in 8 months.

    Then in college or medical school (it’s all a blur now), I taught some Institute classes. It was a highlight of my school experience, this special place where we could be honest with each other about how earnestly we believed in God and his miraculous church. For us it wasn’t a question about “tough” topics, it was just sharing and exploring. I don’t think we used the CES manuals, though.

    I’m glad you had a good experience with seminary. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks all. I’m not sure that it was even regularly as good as it sometimes was; and I think that having multiple teachers is good to have different approaches.

    I didn’t do scripture mastery, surely to the consternation of…well…everyone.

  10. I am a believer in scripture mastery – not necessarily the flash cards, etc., but I do find value in having a memory of the scriptures, being able to cite them and know where key verses are and what they mean. Operationally I think you don’t need to use the official scripture mastery program, but there’s some worth to memorization as a pedagogical technique here.

  11. I also believe that there is a place for scripture mastery. It helps people remember the important scriptures that LDS teachings are backed up by.

    I do not have much exposure to professional CES teachers. I do though think that they should not be serving as bishops and SP’s due to the conflict of interest. Same goes for the physical facilities people. Its classic priescraft. I have taught seminary from time to time and enjoyed it a lot.

  12. “I do though think that they should not be serving as bishops and SP’s due to the conflict of interest.”

    I am confused by this statement. Either teaching seminary/institute is priestcraft or it isn’t. Whether someone also has a calling seems superfluous to the analysis. What am I missing?

  13. The professional CES teachers is whom I am referring to. Thise among us like myself who have seen SP’s and Bishops who are professional CES or Physical facilities fulltime employees know of what I am talking about.

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    Your class sounds like it was awesome. During my last two years, my mother was my seminary teacher. I sometimes regret the questions that my little brother and I would bring up, but she didn’t kick us out. For me, even more inspiring than the lessons was watching her at home, preparing from 2-4 hours every day. It was impressive to observe how seriously she approached her calling.

    I have hopes for where the seminary program could go (particularly in conjunction with youth ss) but I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

  15. Mike Parker says:

    Re. endnote #2: If you’re looking for substance, I’m afraid you won’t find it in Gospel Doctrine.

    I spent two years teaching early-morning classes to kids, most of whom could care less and some of whom made things as difficult as possible for me. Preparing five 45-minute lessons a week for such a group is no mean feat. Thanks for being a good seminary teacher, J.

  16. I am definitely not a fan of professional CES teachers; I had one in a California singles ward, and it still disturbs me that he got paid for what he did.
    I guess what really annoyed me was that he seemed to think that his point of view was the only valid one, and he easily dismissed engaging comments, from a brilliant graduate student who was also the most reliable (and in my eyes, the most important) member of that ward, as unimportant.
    I think that when people get paid for teaching the gospel, there’s a danger that they may come to believe that their understanding of the gospel is greater than other members–after all, they’re paid to teach it.
    That being said, I had some good seminary teachers and some great religious education teachers at BYU (as well as some not-so-great ones).

  17. Stirling says:

    My oldest daughter knows that I think her attendance at seminary isn’t the best use of her time. She rebels by going, and enjoying it.

  18. J, I recently had the opportunity to teach Seminary to the kids at our high school, and my experience was similar to yours. What great kids, and what fantastic discussions were had when the door was open for them to contribute. I really enjoyed it, and hope I get called again.

    Nice post.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Those are some lucky kids.

    I was hoping you’d tell us about your experience. Thanks for the report. I admire anyone who can teach seminary and do it well.

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    “Whenever a difficult subject or questions came up, I generally gave the students the tough answers”

    J., during your entire tenure as seminary teacher, I’m curious if you ever found yourself in a situation where (a) you didn’t give the students the tough answers, and later wished you did; or (b) you gave the students the tough answers, and later wished you didn’t.

    AB

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    My entire experience with seminary consists of sporadic attendance for one year (9th grade), with a teacher who loved to talk about the occult, out-of-body experiences, backmasking on heavy metal tapes, and the way certain pyschedelic drugs did or did not facilitate attempts at astral projection. I distinctly remember thinking that the Satanic messages we were supposedly “hearing” on the metal tracks were really our own projections, though Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” admittedly does sound like it contains repeated admonitions to “start to smoke marijuana” when listened to in reverse.

    AB

  22. I taught seminary for a year. I failed. I expected the students to stay awake, they wanted to sleep. I was determined that they would listen to the lesson I had prepared and they wanted something else. By the end they hated my guts. I deserved it. I was new, eager for them to learn the from the manual. The mantra then was, “Teach the Scriptures–not from the scriptures.” and I was determined to do so. I also had some major disciplinary problems from a student whose mother had told him she would buy him a car if he went. He went all right and was a constant source of disruption. I called her once to try and get her to help and she told me it was my fault because I was so boring. Point taken, but even so . . .

    I really did love them and tried so hard to reach them, but somehow I lost them and once I did I couldn’t seem to get them back. Every morning I felt helplessly despised and I was. It was a total crash and burn.

    Anyway, your students were very lucky to get someone who would step into real questions. I stuck to the program inflexibly and none of us were served.

  23. I learned more in early morning seminary than I did in BYU religion classes, which isn’t saying much because I don’t recall learning anything in BYU religion classes except for the New Testament Independent Study class.

    Back in the day, BYU religion classes were horrible, especially the ones taught by kooks like Reid Bankhead.

  24. One of the most depressing stories I have read on the Internet was of a CES instructor who, after twenty years in the CES, realized that the Church was not true. At that point in his life, he had very few career options so he was faced with the choice of continuing to teach something he knew was false or quit his job and face the uncertainty of looking for a new job and a new career in his mid-40s.

  25. There were days were I felt like the crash and burn, Steve.

    Aaron, I can’t really think of any time for either. There were times where I felt like the conversation didn’t go quite well and perhaps something I said didn’t quite feel like it was received as intended or that there were lingering questions. In such cases, I would take the next day to clarify or revisit the issue briefly. Seemed to work out.

  26. Well I learned a lot about teaching. Now I would just talk about ants and dinosaurs mingled with scripture.

  27. Andrea, there are perils in many life changing choices. We have all probably heard stories about priests or ministers in other faiths who convert to Mormonism. What do they do for their day job?

  28. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve only taught youth once; that was this last Sunday.

    I’ve only got one piece of advice: never say, “what would you like to talk about?”

    This was great stuff Bro Stapley. ~

  29. I loved my seminary teachers (well, for the most part, except the one who made me stand up in front of the class and apologize for answering too many questions).

    I even taught my Sunday School kids some of the stuff (false doctrine?) I remember from one of my favorite seminary teachers.

    Good times :)

  30. I haven’t taught seminary on a regular basis, but have substituted a few times, most recently about four years ago for two days. The first day, I came in pumped about teaching from the scriptures the way I would teach a gospel doctrine class, and watched my carefully prepared discussions float over their sleeping heads. The next day I was to teach the parable of the sower. I took some advice from my school teacher wife, and had the kids break up into about five different small groups, take one of the various seed stories (wayside, tares, etc), and had them draw a picture with crayons, and then talk about the scriptural part of the parable, and draw parallels for their own lives. Completely opposite experience from the previous day. The kids were engaged, reading and discussing the scriptures amongst themselves, and then presenting their picture and discussion to the whole class.

    My wife has taught early morning seminary, and loved it, despite the grinding workload involved of preparing for one hour of class five days a week.

    RE: Priestcraft. When we still lived in Utah many years ago, our very young suburban ward was divided, and we ended up with 7 single recently divorced moms with young kids in our ward (all of the ones from the ward pre-split), and all 7 of the CES employees ended up in the other ward. When someone asked me how that happened, I answered, “We got first choice”.

  31. Oh, and Stapley, I know how you teach. Your kids were lucky to have you as a teacher this last year.

  32. Jim Donaldson says:

    I just finished my second year as a volunteer (non CES) five day per week early morning seminary teacher. I enjoyed it and I suspect they’ll invite me back next year, and I’ll do it again. I have several locally well known personal quirks and opinions about gospel teaching that made the calling a surprise to me, but I figured they (and/or the Lord) knew what they were getting into when they called me, so I did it pretty much my way. I’ll add my experiences to Br. Stapley’s terrific observations. We agree on many points.

    I taught the initial plan of salvation lesson the first year and then, knowing better, divided it up among the older kids to teach the next year, which is how I will do it next year. If you are a kid teaching part of it, it is hard to roll your eyes.

    We really did focus on the scriptures, especially in context. The church curriculum treats individual verses like they are Lego blocks and one can push them together anyway he wants to build whatever he wants. That really annoys me. I think that half the meaning of any passage is contained in its context and we continually drain the passage of that meaning. Another weird thing: Probably half the scriptural citations in the manuals are for verses in books other than the book we are studying. Huh? I figure we are studying the New Testament and we ought to read it, so I skipped all those. We spent a lot of our time, probably most of it, ‘translating passages from Scripture into English.’ Everybody took turns. We’d define hard words (under the guise of SAT Vocab), and dissemble the sentences (‘who does “he” refer to?’ ‘who is talking to whom?’) and put them back together and then try to understand. I felt I was always teaching reading techniques, not just the scriptures. Give a man a fish, etc etc etc. I always assumed that no one had read the material, which was fine because until they’d been taught how to read it, they wouldn’t get much out of the text itself anyway. I asked many many questions, everyone participated, and if a student was answering she could ask others for help if she got stuck, and we had something of a lighthearted game show kind of vibe most times. It was fun. I had great kids, but I pretty much treated it as an adult class. I told them that if they didn’t know a word I used to interrupt me and I’ll explain it and they did it. I got better and would often stop after I used a word and ask if they knew what it meant, and somebody usually would and she’d explain. I dumbed down nothing. The kids liked that. I agree with Br. Stapley, though he didn’t say it this way: they are smarter than they look.

    Teaching the NT is easy because Jesus is a totally captivating character who spends half his time baffling the ones who believe in him and annoying the rest, especially the Pharisees. He had to make sure that they’d be sufficiently aggravated to kill him at some point, and acts accordingly. He is truly an unpredictable and subversive guy. Everything he does is unexpected by those around him. He never answers the question anybody asks. We role-played the dialogs and wrote “Q.” and “A.” in the margins so the kids could see that. He always answered the question the asker should have asked if the asker were smarter. That’s how he taught. The asker had to get the answer and then work back to understand what the question should have been and then match it up with the answer. The only questions Jesus did answer were trick questions, where no answer was expected. At first the disciples asked him to explain his teachings, but he would baffle them more with his answers, so they learned to discuss their questions among themselves before asking him. It is so easy to teach the gospels because the material is so rich. We also read and discussed every word of Paul in class, hard as it can be sometimes. That’s probably the only time they will ever do that in their lives. And everybody enjoys the over the top acid-trip of the Revelation. Good times.

    I didn’t have much trouble with the Old Testament the year before either. You can’t beat sex, blood, and death, and there are tons of it in there. If it were a movie, it would clearly be R rated. Great special effects too. We also had a evening party last year where we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (for extra credit) and ate popcorn.

    You can always trust the material, it’s first rate.

    The teacher’s manual very often takes a key word in the scriptural block and turns the lesson into a topical lesson on that topic (just like the YM/YW manuals), more or less ignoring the text. I hate that. And we never did it. Most of the media stuff is too cheesy to be taken seriously and, given my personality, I couldn’t use any of it because would be unable to resist mocking it and I did not want to do that. The pop-type music is hideous. I was sometimes unable to resist mentioning some of the more ridiculous and juvenile object lessons suggested by the manual for the purpose of pointing out how lucky they were that their teacher didn’t do such things. But sometimes, for comic relief, we did ‘virtual object lessons’ where I didn’t really bring in three buckets of water and two ritz crackers, but just pretended I did.

    Attendance was amazingly good; every kid at one point or another slept through a lesson, nose tucked in the fold of their scriptures on their desk. I never mentioned it. I never marked anybody late. I only had seven kids so this may be an example of the fallacy of small samples, but I was clearly a lucky guy.

    I took up very little time with in class with scripture mastery, but made arrangements to help those who were interested outside. I didn’t want to alienate the disinterested or be distracted with my obsession for the text.

    By the way, I didn’t go to seminary in high school either. My own adult kids think this is God’s payback.

  33. “with emphatic instruction not to create an acronym” …

    hmmmf.

  34. “Thise among us like myself who have seen SP’s and Bishops who are professional CES or Physical facilities fulltime employees know of what I am talking about.”

    My father spent his entire life teaching institute for pay, and during that time served as bishop and counselor, SP and counselor, and mission president. As such, I am familiar with the situation you describe above, but still fail to see the correlation between a CES employee practicing priestcraft if he has a large calling. Either teaching seminary/institute for pay is priestcraft or it isn’t, right? How does having a big calling factor in?

    Please don’t misinterpret this as a defensive mechanism. I have certain problems with my father being paid to teach the gospel as well and have talked to him about it in depth (though I do not think the analysis is as facile as anything presented here). I just fail to see how teaching for money is any more or less “priestcraft” if someone has a large calling.

  35. 24 – Actually, I heard that he has been doing quite well financially after publishing _An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins_.

  36. “One of the most depressing stories I have read on the Internet was of a CES instructor who, after twenty years in the CES, realized that the Church was not true. At that point in his life, he had very few career options so he was faced with the choice of continuing to teach something he knew was false or quit his job and face the uncertainty of looking for a new job and a new career in his mid-40s.”

    I think I personally know the man you’re referring to (unless it’s Grant Palmer, as intimated in 35). He’s got a good job as an admissions counselor at a college in the north of the state where I live and now spends most of his free time attending ex-mormon conferences and “helping” mormons find their way out of the “cult.” (His parlance, not mine.) So he’s doing fine, I suppose.

    As a side note, he feels no compunction whatsoever for having accepted a call to be bishop even though when he accepted it, he definitively no longer believed in the gospel.

  37. As for CES and PF employees being called as bishops and stake presidents, how is this different from a BYU professor being called to one of these positions? Or one of the associate general counsels for the church, or anyone else that receives a paycheck from the church? Is your issue with the source of the pay, or with the fact that they get paid to teach the gospel? If the latter, why would PF employees be thrown in the mix?

    Say what you will about “travelling CES stars,” but I honestly trace my spiritual conversion to a one-week period spent among these travelling stars at EFY. While the content of their presentations may not seem as substantive to me now, they spoke to me then, and I think they continue to reach many of the youth attending EFY today.

  38. The first paragraph in my last post was responding to one of the comments, and the second was responding to the OP.

  39. BBell said: “Those among us like myself who have seen SP’s and Bishops who are professional CES or Physical facilities fulltime employees know of what I am talking about.”

    Nope, I don’t. Some of my best friends and family members are professional CES as well as bishops and stake presidents. And they conduct their affairs with the utmost discretion and competence while being very aware that their two roles are distinct. I see no conflict, just a challenge to not merge the two roles, or view them as one in the same. I guess I just don’t understand the idea that a tithe-paying employee of the church somehow ventures into priestcraft by fulfilling callings in that church. Seems silly.

    As for the original post, nice job. I love teaching seminary. We have had a rotation in our ward as well as a one-teacher system. I think the rotation worked great for the kids.

  40. jjackson says:

    The efforts of the church notwithstanding, any lesson taught to youth whether in YM, YW or seminary will be a reflection of what the teacher brings to it, not of whatever the program or “curriculum” is. I remember very meaningful lessons with one seminary teacher, and lessons that were dramatically less meaningful with another. I’d absolutely love to have my children taught by this post’s author. I’d also have to say that given the seminary teacher my kids would have in our ward right now (if they were old enough to be attending) I would absolutely be finding an alternative to having their thinking tainted on a daily basis by a well-meaning nut job.

  41. Anyway, I think the one thing that’s missing from your post is the utility of seminary to the students. Whether or not they’re learning anything useful or doctrinal, they’re meeting with friends to study the scriptures every day. That will affect their social circle at school, their decision-making process throughout the day, and their ability to resist the ridiculous amount of temptation that goes along with being a 21st-century teenager.

    It will also affect the long-term goals they start to form in high school (mission, college, etc), and standards they want to take with them to college (abstinence, WoW, etc).

    And for many kids it takes the place of family/personal prayer and scripture study, which is lacking in the home.

    If there’s a movement to get rid of the seminary program, you and I will be on opposite sides of that debate, J. Stapely. And I say that as a former early-morning seminary teacher who really struggled with the timing and structure of my class.

  42. What lucky kids in your class. My mom was my seminary teacher and I absolute owe my love of the scriptures to her example.

    The workload is intense, two days a week is still a ton of prep time.

  43. Regarding CES employees and church leadership positions, I don’t have a problem with that, assuming that the normal revelatory calling process is in place. Out here in the Seattle area, we only have full time CES institute folks, and they have been all pretty good folks. A couple have been truly great. Our early morning teachers are all just regular ward members, and many are Stapley-esque in their teaching ability.

    What used to cause me some anguish with my two oldest kids when we still lived in Utah some 16 years ago was the prevalence of some pretty bizarre doctrines and just outright wrong things that got tossed out by a few of the seminary teachers our kids encountered. There was, though, a certain deference shown by many to them as full time church educators, kind of our “full time paid clergy”, that occasionally made me uncomfortable. Often, priesthood or gospel doctrine teachers would turn to them for the final word on a question, and then assume that their answer was the only correct one, and discussion would end.

  44. Carlos U. says:

    My wife and I just finishe our first year teaching Early morning Seminary. We loved it. We do assume the kids are smart and proceed from there. We used some of the media, but refused some to use any video or lesson suggestion we thought was cheesy. Sometimes we did great, sometimes we bombed. Hopefully we learned lots and do much better next year. It’s been a very enjoyable calling.

  45. I didn’t enjoy much about church when I was a teenager (I didn’t enjoy much period), but I did love seminary. It can be a wonderful thing.

    I do wish some teacher had given me the tough answers at some point. I’m glad they’ve got you doing this job.

    (However, it kills me that the church is always creating entities with long-@$$ names and asking us not to shorten them or use acronyms. If they don’t want us abbreviating, they should use less cumbersome names, like “Fred” or “Mavis.” That is just my pet peeve.)

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