Subversion at General Conference

It has been a month and I have yet to see the most controversial talk at General Conference discussed. I suppose it falls to me. Sure, Elder Packer’s talk and all those references to President Benson made it seem like the entire conference was in a time warp, but I want to talk about the talk that was both backward and forward looking. I speak, naturally, of the talk given by the first counselor in the Sunday School General Presidency, David M. McConkie. Ya’ll realize that it was an attack on correlated materials in Sunday School, right?

In the talk, Bro. McConkie offers 5 basic pieces of advice:

1. Have the right attitude as you teach
2. Read the scriptures
3. Apply the scriptures in your life
4. Pray to have the Spirit with you
5. Follow the promptings of the Spirit

Do you all see what is missing? There is no reference to the manuals there. Not once are you encouraged in this talk to open the manuals and follow the lesson there. The closest the talk comes is when Bro. McConkie, after suggesting that you might pray in order to have the Spirit with you as you prepare the lesson, also suggests that you should pray about the needs of individual students (“no class is so large that we cannot pray for inspiration for how to reach each student”). That is hardly a reference to correlated material, folks.

Further, all the examples that Bro. McConkie gives of good teachers come from an era before correlated material. William E. Berrett was the head of CES during the sixties, so the teacher of his teen-years would have taught well before correlation. We have some notion of when President Monson was in children’s Sunday School. They had some centrally provided materials, but, in both cases, the fact that the teacher focused on the scriptures is emphasized. If you are looking for an official repudiation of correlated material by the Sunday School Presidency, this is as close as we will ever get.

Now, you may think that I am reading too much between the lines here. Perhaps you would say, “John, the absence of a topic does not mean disapproval of that topic.” However, I have two arguments against that (of variable worth). The first of the arguments is this: when you look at the stuff that is present in this talk, it isn’t that inspiring. It all boils down to “It’s your fault; not ours” Mostly it seems to be addressed to the teacher (you have the wrong attitude, you haven’t prayed for the right things, you haven’t taken the time to nightly pray for the individual needs of each of the thirty people in your class, most of whom you only ever see in that class). To some degree, it could be seen as directed at students (he is teaching the “‘how’ of learning” in this lesson after all). What’s more, it is entirely true. Participants in Sunday School should have a good attitude about the experience, they should read the scriptures, they should pray and invite the Spirit, following its promptings. There is nothing that he says that isn’t painfully obvious, and that is part of the problem.

By laying the fault for bad lessons and bad meetings squarely on the individual students and teachers in the classroom, the Sunday School Presidency is abdicating its responsibility to provide materials conducive to that endeavor. Now, admittedly, it started down this path a while ago (again, note the lack of manuals in this talk). Nonetheless, laying all blame at the feet of teachers and students is, essentially, saying, “We’ve done our part; now you do yours.” Sadly, as I’ve said before, the part that they’ve done is pretty terrible. I do agree that it is the responsibility of individual teachers and students to invite the Spirit into the classroom (and that this is the most important aspect of Gospel teaching), but the lesson materials should facilitate this, not be an obstacle to it. While I often joke that drowsiness and Spiritual promptings are synonymous in Gospel Teaching, I’m not serious. I’m not sure that the General Sunday School presidency gets that. But you don’t have to provide meaningful teaching aids to your audience, if you’ve stopped mattering. And my second argument is that Sunday School has stopped mattering.

As far as I can tell, the Sunday School exists as a kind of relic of its old self. We don’t want to get rid of it, because it has historical value and it takes up a third or so of our meetings, but we don’t really know what it is for anymore. Since everything is correlated, it is just another iteration of the endless repetition of the same principles over and over again. It is not that the principles are bad or shouldn’t be repeated, it is that the endless repetition turns them into background noise and nobody pays attention to background noise after they’ve been listening to it for years. You get to where you don’t even hear it at all. Speaking as a Sunday School President in my ward, the Sunday School is a sort of vestigial auxiliary.

There have been some recent attempts to give the Sunday School more responsibility (did you hear that the Sunday School Presidency now trains teachers and is in charge of the library?). Of course, although these changes were made in the early ’00s (probably when they realized that the ward Sunday School presidencies had nothing to do), my bishop, when he called me, was unaware of them. I don’t say this to criticize my bishop (whom I love and think the world of); I say it to demonstrate just how little Sunday School matters.

In the very worst classes in the church, we are expected to listen to a teacher read from a manual, making appropriate noises and giving appropriate answers when called upon. In the very best classes in the church, we engage in a lively discussion of the gospel, gently guided by a capable instructor. However, is it possible that a universal in all LDS experience is the general feeling that none of it matters? People often say that the most important thing we do each Sunday is partake of the sacrament, which is true but it may lead us to wonder why we are there for an additional hour and a half. We spend the majority of our worship every Sunday on the admittedly secondary task of receiving instruction in one form or another, but is there anything in the way this instruction is given that indicates its importance or is it just time filler? My concern is that, in my experience, the classes I’ve attended (and taught) have often been more a way to spend an hour or so on a Sunday (pleasant or otherwise) rather than an opportunity to commit myself to the investigation of God and his work.

Sunday School is what adults have to do because Primary is two hours long and Priesthood and Relief Society lessons that are two hours long would be worse. Sunday School is there so that we can weekly proof-text our faith, demonstrating that we are, yet again, God’s chosen people with the affiliate knowledge and awesomeness. Sunday School offers an opportunity to engage in the community building ritual of reciting “prayer, scripture reading, and church attendance” over and over again in order to assert our Mormon affiliation. Sunday School is a waste of time, but we all do it out of a misbegotten sense of loyalty.

If you think I am being unfair, ask yourself: if I stopped attending Sunday School would my life and my feelings about God change? If I faithfully participated in the sacrament each week and participated in other meetings, but skipped Sunday School, would my spiritual life significantly change? Until we can confidently answer in the affirmative, it clearly doesn’t matter to us. If the answer isn’t (mostly) universal, then it clearly doesn’t matter to the church, either.

Bro. McConkie seems to get this. So, Bro. McConkie tells us to pray hard for the spirit and to set the manual aside (sorta). Focus on the scriptures. Focus on us as individuals and on the scriptures as a means of communication to God. Sure, he may imply that the scriptures are God’s CHI, but the message that we can turn to them for answers to our daily problems is true. The first step to making Sunday School matter again (assuming that is desirable) is to re-enshrine the unfiltered scriptures as our guiding text. Give the Spirit a reason to show up week after week and I am confident that He will.

Now, ya’ll know that I am kind of down on correlated teaching materials, but I do see their value. Some control over what is taught in classrooms is necessary, along with some distinction regarding what is essential to know and what is superfluous. I like that Sunday School is primarily about essentials; I just think that looking for essentials without guidance can be its own reward. To that end, I’ll end this jeremiad with a micromormon suggestion (because I love Scott B. as a brother). May I suggest that you do as Bro. McConkie alludes? Set aside the manual when you are preparing the lesson. Let it be you, the scriptures, and the words of the modern prophets. Then, once you’ve done that, take a look at the manual. Maybe you’ve missed something that the manual wants mentioned, but I doubt it. If you did, you should include it, but follow the Spirit. Trust yourself to listen to the Spirit and find what God wants said and, I’ll bet, 9 times out of 10 you will.

Comments

  1. Funny you bring this up. I taught elders quorum last week. While I used the manual as a guide in preparing the lesson, I didn’t read from it once when I gave the lesson; the only reading we did was from the scriptures.

  2. This was well put.

    I really like the idea of starting with the subject, setting aside the manual and then coming back to see if you may have missed something that feels important.

    I teach the 14 year olds in my ward and my point in preparing some custom lessons is to break through the background noise and talk about the gospel in a utilitarian way. Prepare them for making well reasoned decisions that incorporate theology into their actual lives.

    Like anything, religion is best when you start with the basics. The problem is that we sometimes get confused about what the “basics” are.

    Basics have nothing to do with behavior. The basics aren’t the Law of Chastity or the Word of Wisdom, or Tithing, or etc… Without perspective, “Prayer” and “Reading the Scriptures” aren’t even “basics” to someone who doesn’t recognize the underlying need for them.

    The atonement of Christ is usually brought up as the ultimate “basic”, but I think many of our young people are so “Jesused Out” (both at church and from evangelical friends) that they lose track of why Jesus is actually important in their lives… He’s another catch phrase sometimes in their world of competing catch phrases.

    The “basics” should be the mechanics of personal revelation, a clear sense of our capacity (and responsibility) to grow in wisdom, experience and discernment – and an appreciation for the universal source of all truth.

    Then, practices can start to make sense as a way of helping us keep an environment conducive to understanding and appreciating truth.

    And, more importantly, the crucial need for a relationship to Christ can be recognized and cultivated.

  3. I know everyone has their personal beef with SS classes and the manuals, but while we wait for serious changes in this regard, couldn’t we implement more obvious measures that would improve the quality of the class? Personally, I think part of the problem with Gospel Doctrine is that it’s just way too big: has anyone in any setting ever had a good discussion-based class with over 40 students? When I think back to the Sunday School classes I have enjoyed (and there are a number of positive memories), they have all been small classes. I know buildings have limited space, but if we cannot support these classes, why have them?

  4. I am currently reading through an anthology of articles from “The Instructor” that was published by Deseret Book in 1960. The articles were all published in the 1940s and 1950s and focus on how Sunday School teachers can excel in their callings. One of my favourite lines was where the author stated that some people just aren’t meant to teach. He said that no matter how knowledgeable they are in the Gospel, and how well-prepared they are, and no matter how many manuals they’ve been given, they are just not going to be good teachers. So he concludes that Sunday Schools are responsible for providing good teachers for every class. Then, and only then, can the Presidencies blame the students for a lack of preparation.

    The other thing that I have enjoyed while reading this book is the emphasis on NOT relying entirely upon the manual. Of course, this book was before correlated materials, but as I’ve looked at the manuals we now have, they all offer Suggested Lesson Development. So what I am really struggling to understand is this: when did the Suggested Lesson Development become the Teach The Lesson This Way Or Suffer The Wrath Of The Correlation Committee? Since the latter isn’t in the manuals, I have a hunch it has become a pharisaic approach to interpreting counsel from Salt Lake.

    Finally, I would suggest a different method to John’s micomormon suggestion: Use the manual to plan, but leave it at home when you teach. While in the MTC, we were told to “prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare. Then trust in the Lord enough to leave your notes at home and let the Spirit guide your teaching.” Good advice, I think, that allows the manuals to serve the purpose of guiding, rather than being, the lesson.

  5. Alex,
    If I had any control over who gets called to be teachers in our ward, I would feel more responsibility for their teaching. That decision, ultimately, doesn’t rest with me.

  6. wondering says:

    the Sunday School Presidency is abdicating its responsibility to provide materials conducive to that endeavor.

    Why do you believe that the General Sunday School Presidency has any control over the Gospel Doctrine manuals? Aren’t we still using the same materials we have been for years before they were even called? I don’t know what goes on in Salt Lake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have essentially no control in this area. Similarly, I doubt the other general auxiliary presidents have any control over their manuals either. See this FMH post:

    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=3274

  7. Call me naive, wondering, but I still believe that the general auxiliary presidencies have more control over their auxiliaries than nameless committees. I fully admit that I may be wrong in this, but it is a possible fiction that I like.

  8. Note how Sunday School is always in the middle of the block schedule — careful positioning to protect a weak brand.

    The obvious solution is to cut out Sunday School and go to a two-hour block, with a monthly joint PH/RS meeting on the fourth Sunday taught from the scriptures as a Sunday School lesson by the Gospel Doctrine teacher. I’m sure the brilliant bureaucrats at the COB can figure out how to squeeze Primary into 45 minutes.

    Everyone knows the three-hour block is just too long.

  9. Dave – my problem with that is that then the scriptures qua the scriptures become an occasional guest star in our Sunday worship, which would clearly be the breaking of the seventh seal of the correlated apocalypse. I’d support the idea if we jettisoned the Gospel Principles manual and started the standard works in annual rotation in Relief Society and quorum meetings instead.

  10. I have always wished we had tables in Sunday School and other classes so we could take notes. Hard when balancing all those books on your lap!

  11. Please let primary only be 45 minutes! Or an hour. We could pray, sing and let them have a lesson that lasts 25-30 minutes–much more appropriate for their attention span.

  12. Fwiw, I’ve seen Sunday School work exactly as it’s intended to work in Elder McConkie’s talk in the last two wards I’ve attended – specifically because the teachers approached it as Elder McConkie explained. Nobody in those wards wants to eliminate Sunday School, since we get fed great feasts on a regular basis.

    “has anyone in any setting ever had a good discussion-based class with over 40 students?”

    Yes, with well over 40 students – again, because the teacher was an excellent, prepared teacher who taught in a way that inspired participation. I’ve been fed spiritually in a Gospel Doctrine class of over 40 FAR more than a HP Group class of around 12 on many occasions, and the reason is laid out very well in this post.

  13. #11 – The length of Primary isn’t the issue. The structure is.

    Back to discussing Sunday School.

  14. I like Sunday School, among other reasons, as a place to talk about scriptures/gospel with men and women together.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    J. I like SS as well. When done properly it’s great.

  16. Best Sunday School ever: Tony Kimball in the University Ward in Cambridge ’76-’80? Don’t remember exactly how many of those years he taught…
    Now someone will tell me he never taught SS, it was Institute. Whatever. I’m old.

  17. Sunday School is either the best of times or the worst of times depending upon the teacher. I don’t want to eliminate the the one just because the other is sometimes the case.

  18. Thanks Ray, but I was responding to a point raised in the OP “Sunday School is what adults have to do because Primary is two hours long and Priesthood and Relief Society lessons that are two hours long would be worse,” as well as Dave’s comment #8.
    Primary doesn’t have to be 2 hours long. It could easily be restructured to accomodate a shorter block meeting time if Sunday School was actually deemed superfluous.

    I personally would miss Sunday School, even the boring, substandard classes, more than I’d miss Relief Society. But as my calling prevents me from going to either, my opinion doesn’t much matter.

  19. My biggest beef with the Sunday School is how under-utilized it is. The Sunday School Presidency is responsible for helping ensure the quality of teaching all across the ward. All too often the Sunday School presidency is filled out by high priests being put out to pasture and are not held to any responsibilities by the bishopric. Ideally they’d take teacher development more seriously and offer meaningful feedback and support.

    The manuals as written, taken together with the gospel teaching and leadership sections of the GHI are fine. The problem is how poorly they’re followed.

  20. The manuals as written … are fine. The problem is how poorly they’re followed.

    We will disagree on this. I’ve been reading the New Testament manual in preparation for the upcoming year, and the manual — as a manual — is dreadful, worse than most. The lesson purpose statements are totally meaningless and interchangeable, with no particular relevance to the lessons they preface, and the lessons themselves are mostly conglomerates of episodes with no relation to each other. Lesson 13, for example, has the purpose statement “To strengthen class members’ testimonies that Jesus is the Christ and that the priesthood keys bestowed on the Mount of Transfiguration have been restored,” but also sweeps in the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 and Jesus’ statement to Peter that “Upon this rock I will build my church.” A teacher is supposed to find a connection among those episodes for a coherent lesson? And the feeding of the multitude and “upon this rock” statement support the purpose how?

    This doesn’t mean that the principles spotlighted by the manual aren’t truel, or that a good teacher can’t teach a great lesson springing from some part of the outlined lesson. But the manual as a manual isn’t “fine,” and following the manual as written can result only in a fragmented, disjointed, frustrating and useless 40 minutes.

  21. My current Gospel Doctrine class is great, but historically Sunday School has bored me to tears. I couldn’t fault the teachers because the teachers were usually pretty good. At least I couldn’t come up with anything that I didn’t like about their teaching. Maybe the ones we have now are just sensational.

  22. I’d love a 2-hour block, but 9 times out of 10 the gospel discussion in SS is leaps and bounds better than the dreary liturgy of mumbles in EQ.

  23. Having no experience with the SS manuals, I’m hesitant to pass judgement. That said, as our current teacher essentially regurgitates the manual verbatim each class, it doesn’t twinge my conscience to take a nap or use class time to tweek my YW lesson. There are quite a few times where I feel my own testimony and Gospel understanding would be better served by saying a quick prayer and then opening the Scriptures at random to read.

    I think bits of the manuals are useful for those who aren’t natural teachers, but to make them useful it still requires sifting through quite a bit of disjointed material. This is definitely where the prayer and bringing the Spirit to class come in handy.

    #20: I agree: it’s not about how poorly the manuals are followed. As I say, our SS teacher is strictly by-the-book and our classes are uninspiring and soul-crushingly boring most weeks. I say, check what the title of the lesson is and do your own Scripture searching and browsing through old GC talks to see what those do to illuminate the subject. The manual should definitely be the last check that you’ve covered relevant points.

  24. All,
    The point that I was trying to make is that Sunday School, whether well-taught or ill-taught at present, is time fill. We appreciate it being well taught (or, at least, I do), but it is still basically filler. The manuals contribute to this because they ensure that neither the teacher nor the students have to prepare themselves all that much to participate. The fact that you can not read the scriptures at all during the week (as teacher or student) and it will little alter your experience each Sunday demonstrates this. I would love a Sunday School experience that gave me an incentive to think about God and his works every Sunday or one that inspired me to become more like Christ. The current manual works against that outcome, because its emphasis is more on giving ill-prepared teachers something to do for 45 or so minutes.

    Of course it is possible to have genuinely moving experiences in Sunday School in the current set up, we have the gift of the Holy Ghost after all. Nor am I insisting that a 2hr block is inherently better (although I could watch more football with a two-hour block). My real point is that if we made Sunday School more spiritually necessary on a weekly basis (and if the church offered materials that facilitated this), we wouldn’t be wishing we were home watching football. We’d be there, at church, in the Spirit, becoming saints. That is the outcome I’d like to see. At present, we don’t seem to care institutionally, so we have to rely on individuals overcoming the material provided to achieve this sort of experience.

  25. @Ardis, when I say the manuals as written are “fine,” I will clarify to mean that they provide all that is necessary for both a novice and experienced teacher, working in conjunction with good ward leadership, to provide quality lessons. In no instance does the manual itself require its lesson plans to be exactly followed, and I will agree with the OP that the brethren’s lack of teaching on the issue of “Embrace Standardized Manuals,” is telling to the secondary, even tertiary, nature of the manuals. In fact, the manuals and the instructions in the handbook encourage the teacher to seek the Spirit in adapting the message to the needs of the class. Both rely on students preparing beforehand by reading and giving it some thought.

    Don’t get me wrong: you’ll never come across a larger SS snob than yours truly. I’m tremendously unfair and critical of students and teachers whose lack of preparation is painfully obvious. I don’t find the hole in the system, though. I find the hole in ward leadership not encouraging students and instructors to do their proper part. Sunday School presidencies, even class presidencies, need to be instructed on how to truly develop teaching and learning in the ward. Within the current structure, those leaders should feel comfortable offering meaningful feedback to teachers that will improve their teaching and challenge instructors to go beyond the “let me just get through my material” attitude that is so detrimental to good learning.

  26. We have a great teacher and I am loving Sundayschool. It’s beena few years since I’ve had a calling, that would allow me to attend. She really inspiresyou to read the scriptures–especially the parts she will be referring to,or did refer to. Great discussions with 50+students. She does sometimes quote from the manual.

    It is a tough line..I’ve been stuck and handed the manual at 2minutes before a class. I prefer just sharing whatever I’ve been reading and studying about…but on a bad week, I would rely on the manual at least as a jumping off point. Having been in branches in which the lesson can easily diverge to UFOs or Jehovah’s witness bible study(from the branch president still clinging to said bible)…a manual is a Godsend.

  27. Good post John. I have long thought that LDS have a “magical” view of the scriptures, which I don’t think is a good thing. We are told that we don’t need to understand them, but merely meditate upon their arcane phrases and whala, we will have the Spirit in our lives. If we can’t understand a historical reference or bit of Jacobean English, we need only pray harder. Now, I do think that having the spirit in our lives is more important than the scriptures, but if we have a class in Church dedicated to the scriptures, we should help our members understand them. And for that purpose, we need materials that help to actually understand these texts.

  28. britt,
    If you have been given 5 minutes to prepare a lesson, the manual is a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, the Principle of Least Effort means that most people only give 5 minutes to prepare their lesson as a result (or the moral equivalent).

    Enoch,
    I’m a proponent of that “magical” view of scriptures, but I also agree that it is useful to understand what they say. We get different things when we approach scripture study as meditation than when we approach it as a learning experience, but both sets are valuable and, I think, provide useful checks on one another.

  29. Chris,
    While I appreciate that you don’t think I am wresting Bro. McConkie’s words (which I’m pretty sure I am), if the best thing that we can say about the manuals is that we don’t have to use them, then they really are bad manuals.

  30. Pedantry alert and PSA:

    “their arcane phrases and whala”

    “whala” really threw me for a second, as I thought it was another term for an “arcane phrase.” Turns out I’ve also seen it in other odd forms.

    It’s French, and written voilà. http://french.about.com/od/vocabulary/a/voila.htm

  31. I read the talk. It is for ALL teachers in the gospel. Not just SS.
    I think “use the manual” is a given. He assumes you know what topic you are going to teach. So once you have the manual or know the lesson (like a conference talk or FHE lesson that you have thought of) he has some advice about how to proceed.
    I have not taught SS. But I have taught RS and Primary. Of course you use the manual but there are so many different ways you can teach. I can’t imagine not using my own ideas in a Primary class. Those kids deserve my best ideas.
    So when I teach a primary class I read the lesson and try to figure out how to best teach the gospel principles and keep the kids engaged.
    The manual doesn’t say exactly what to do in every situation.
    Not sure where this is all coming from. I never have teachers that just read the manual.
    This talk seems like it has some key things for teachers to prepare.

  32. jks,

    I have had lessons (especially in the EQ) where the manual was read from directly as the lesson numerous times. I have also had GD teachers that stick so close to the lesson manual that all life and vibrancy is drained from the class.

    I think it should be noted that the post accurately draws our attention to what was NOT said which is just as important as what was said.

    In my opinion, our current three hour block is currently a disaster and a turn-off for many converts as well as members. It has become a social event for married straight couples and for the youth. Except for the partaking of the sacrament, it is hard for me to gain much from the meetings.

  33. I think Enoch (27) has put his finger on the most important, and (in my opinion) most distressing thing about the talk: Brother McConkie articulated (forcefully and very clearly, to his credit) a commonly held belief in the Church–that “the Spirit” can operate or be felt independent of the intellect, and that therefore the content of lessons isn’t really as important as the extracurricular communication of the teacher’s love for students and devotion to the gospel. The Spirit’s operation is, on this view, entirely limited to the emotive and affective.

    The problem with that is that sooner or later most of us will face a “dark night of the soul” where all of those warm feelings are utterly absent. If we don’t, in those moments, have an unshakeable intellectual conviction of gospel truths, and a solid grounding in the scriptures’ abundant teaching about people who have endured similar trials, the felt loss of emotive connection to the gospel may sway us. When obeying the gospel feels painful rather than warm and fuzzy, we need the Spirit to work in our minds as well as our hearts.

    (Folks in the know will recognize this as mostly a bad paraphrase of chunks of _Mere Christianity_ and the “troughs” letter from Screwtape)

  34. “We are told that we don’t need to understand them, but merely meditate upon their arcane phrases and whala, we will have the Spirit in our lives.”

    Enoch’s other points aside, I’ve never heard this taught anywhere I’ve ever lived. I’ve been taught all my life that we need to understand the scriptures – that truly understanding and living by them is the purpose of having them. Otoh, I’ve had Protestant friends tell me we aren’t Christian because we focus so much on “works” – including actually trying to understand and live by the scriptures.

    We can argue about what “understanding in the scriptures” means to different members, including leaders, but I honestly can’t agree that the LDS Church teaches that its members don’t need to understand the scriptures. Pondering is inherently an intellectual exercise, after all.

  35. “understanding the scriptures” – not “understanding in the scriptures”

  36. John,
    You have a well-argued post but I disagree with your opinion that Sunday School is broken. Sunday School struggles because too many of us think we need to teach content when we should be bearing testimony.

    I was going to write my whole response to your post as a comment but it grew too large. Here is the rest of my post: http://mormondad.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/in-defense-of-sunday-school/

  37. A 2-hour block would save the Church lots of money on the building budget. You could get 4 or 5 Wards to meet in the same building.

    On the topic of large v. small classes. I’m a Gospel Principles co-teacher right now. Every week is the Ward Mission Leader, a Ward Missionary, the Bishop and his wife, and 1 or 2 other couples. In Utah, and we rarely have an investigator attend. These classes have been great! I introduce the topic, maybe a quote or two from the Gospel Principles manual and some scriptures and we discuss. We challenge each other. The Bishop likes to throw “monkey wrenches” in the discussion and propose different ways to view the subject. The time just blows by. Someone will often mention that we need to invite more people because the class is so interesting and fun, but I think everyone secretly wants to keep the class as it is right now.

  38. 33 – I’ve often used D&C 8:2 as a prooftext for understanding revalation. Knowing that the spirit speaks to the mind and the heart I can reject things that only come to my mind but don’t speak to my heart as not being revelation but just my ideas. Equally I can reject things that speak to my heart, but don’t have any sense of logic or order to them as not being revelation, but simply emotion, nostalgia, excitement, or even just cold feet.

    Using this logic looking backwards, I completely agree with you. I think that when founded on both the intellect as well as the “warm fuzzies” our testimonies are more capable of withstanding the “fiery darts of the adversary”. I think if we are going to go through the process of attending (and teaching) Sunday School week after week, and have the audacity of using the word School which kinda gives the feeling of academia/intellect, we should probably include some emphasis on studying, enhancing understanding, and not solely feeling good and happy that we’ve survived another week of church.

  39. Gerrit (36) – If taken to the extreme we could distill our lessons down to hours of preparation in order to passionately exclaim “I know the church is true”, “I know the Book of Mormon is true”, “I know that Jesus died for us” and pat ourselves on the back for having taught a good lesson.

    Content is important.

    We wouldn’t have been given thousands of pages of detailed scriptures, giving us interesting and powerful stories, histories, and poetry. We wouldn’t have written records of 175 years of modern day prophets and apostles expounding these scriptures, giving modern day examples, personal histories, etc. if content wasn’t important. If content wasn’t important it would more appropriately be called Sunday Spirituality instead of Sunday School.

  40. Sunday School has been a problem for as long as I can remember. There is always a group of people who can be seen wandering the halls and foyers during SS, or holding ad hoc auxiliary leadership meetings.

    The problem is cultural. If everyone thinks it is a waste, it becomes one, regardless of the quality of teaching, which can often be surprisingly good. I’m not denying that it can also be soul-numbingly bad, but that seems to be a less frequent occurrence, in my experience.

    But if the bishopric uses SS time for interviews, the HC rep uses it for holding a PPI with EQ and HP group leaders, and nobody takes the calling of stake SS presidency seriously, we have a problem. None of us expect much from it, so we lower our expectations by not preparing as students. It doesn’t take long for the average SS teacher to pick up on those vibes. The most visible thing our ward SS president does is to welcome us to class, select who will pray, and ring the electric buzzer to announce the end of classes. I know he does more than that, (ie, teacher development or whatever they call it these days), but most of us can’t articulate those things. We’re seduced into a culture of lowered expectations, and it’s no surprise when the actual practice follows.

    The potential is in there, and I get the most out of the lessons when I have actually read the scriptures to be covered, and when the teacher has done some significant preparation. Sunday school is in need of repair, but it is not irretrievably broken.

  41. kevinf,
    yes, that, exactly. It doesn’t matter.

  42. John, I think kevinf is saying that it does matter – enough that it needs to be repaired.

    In my own words, it doesn’t matter at the practical level in some wards and branches – solely because it has been allowed to not matter in the hearts and minds of the students and teachers at that level. It matters very, very much at the practical level in many, many others – both because it matters in the hearts and minds of the students and teachers in those units AND because of its effect on those students and teachers in those units as a result of it mattering to them. I would argue that it really does matter a great deal at the conceptual level everywhere – and that repairing it is critical specifically because it really does matter conceptually.

    If you are inclined to not agree, think of all the time taken here and elsewhere in the Bloggernacle bemoaning the perceived lack of quality Gospel instruction in the Church – and actively complaining that the Church doesn’t do more to foster such quality instruction. Sunday School is the one section of church meetings on Sunday that is supposed to be dedicated to that issue, so it’s hard for me to say it doesn’t matter. Perhaps your frustration is a result of your recognition that it really is vitally important and your recognition that too many members don’t treat it as such. Thus, the distinction between mattering in practical terms and in theory.

  43. #39 – Amen, BRuss.

  44. Hey, John–you sound kind of glum. Cheer up! It could be worse; you could be the choir director :) Now, _there’s_ a culture of apathy and low standards.

  45. Ray,
    I think my point is that the church as an institution treats Sunday School like it doesn’t matter. kevinf’s comment supports that, I think, as does yours, I think. Of course, I’d like that to change, but I’m trying to describe the current state.

    Kristine,
    My ward doesn’t even have a choir…

  46. Thomas Parkin says:

    ” a commonly held belief in the Church–that “the Spirit” can operate or be felt independent of the intellect, and that therefore the content of lessons isn’t really as important as the extracurricular communication of the teacher’s love for students and devotion to the gospel. The Spirit’s operation is, on this view, entirely limited to the emotive and affective.”

    Yes! And, contained in that the idea that progress in the gospel is also progress in many different kinds of knowledge, that it is learning … which means having ideas that we haven’t had before, sometimes listening to old things and hearing them in new ways, in any case _understanding_ more today than we understood yesterday.

    BRuss, #38, I don’t think I will ever forget your first paragraph. Right words at the right time. Thank you.

    What a great post and discussion.

  47. I’m also a ward SS President, and this post resonates with me.

    I do think that SS for the youth is valuable. I remember attending every week along with most of the youth in our ward. (You get to mingle with the opposite sex, of course you’ll go!) I have memories of actually learning and discussing the Gospel. I generally believe the church does a pretty good job with youth SS classes.

    I completely agree, on the other hand, that SS is treated like an optional “go-if-you-don’t-have-something-better-to-do” time for adults. Local leaders need to take it seriously if we want ward members to. I also often think SS classes are just too big. I love attending Gospel Principles where the attendance is generally five or six people and the youth classes in our ward are generally about the same size.

  48. John C, you do sound glum. Sorry for that.

    My own experience is that I attend the Gospel Principles class — and it’s a valuable experience for the new members and visitors who attend. I teach sometimes and share those responsibilities with another class member.

    I agree with some of your views as they relate to Gospel Doctrine. Yes, the manuals could be better. Yes, teachers could prepare better (both intellectually and spiritually). Yes, sudents could prepare better. And when they do (teachers and students), then even Gospel Doctrine can be a good — even great — experience.

    I do remember a Sunday School experience from my youth (remember when we had Sunday School on Sunday and Primary another day of the week?). Sister Hatch was my Sunday School teacher when I was about 10. We loved her as a teacher. One week her husband took the class because she was sick. He sat and read the lesson manual to a group of half a dozen 10 year olds. He never looked up, and ran his finger along the words as he read. Not my best Sunday School experience (but memorable enough for me to recount it 40 years later…).

  49. John C. (#7),

    Doesn’t it bother you that you don’t know one way or the other?

  50. When I was a teenager, the good kids would make a doughnut run during Sunday School, and the bad ones would go smoke in the parking lot.

    I remembered this acutely when I taught youth Sunday School. The class needs to be at least as good as the next available option. So, I unleashed a few techniques I picked up working in a group home for developmentally disabled adults.

    1. Random rewards. The kids never knew when it might be doughnut day.
    2. Socialization time. I’d make a specific deal with the students – they got half the lesson time to talk and ask questions, and then we’d “pretend to have a lesson”.
    3. Keep it simple. We’d cover one point only, but I’d make it a good one. My only requirement was that when they got home, if they were asked “What did you learn about in Church today?”, they’d have an answer ready. My job was only to facilitate discussion in the home.
    4. Focus on stories. 75% of the Bible is stories. The reason Isaiah is so hard is there aren’t any stories in there. I can tell good stories about Isaiah, and that makes it interesting. But, our manuals (and often our teachers) seem to assume we already know the stories, so we just focus on “recaps” and what we are supposed to learn from those stories. Well, the culture isn’t what it was 100 years ago, and most of the Bible stories are almost extinct from the culture. There has to be something there from which to make a point or draw a conclusion.
    5. Be sneaky. “All right, nobody tell the Bishop I’m telling you this….” I’d even hand out “bootleg” mp3 files of General Conference Priesthood session talks. Nothing gets a teen’s attention like telling them they shouldn’t be hearing this. For a while, we’d even have a five-minute lesson and then I’d teach them how to give missionary discussions, with students teaching discussion sections to the rest of the class.
    6. Don’t hesitate to toss the lesson. On some days, I’d get a question and we’d end up discussing that for the entire time.

    My grandfather was the rare type who studied the lesson in advance. He probably spent 30-40 hours going over the lesson, reading, thinking, and he’d come up with one really good comment for class. Some teachers hated it, some loved it, but it always got discussion going. Now that he’s gone, when I visit that ward, I always hear comments from people about how they miss my Grandfather, and how Sunday School has suffered with his passing.

  51. StillConfused says:

    My spouse never uses the manual when teaching young men. Since the only thing I ever get asked to teach at my current ward is estate planning, I don’t think the church provides a manual for that

  52. #50 Michael — great list. Though I don’t expect to hear that in my teacher training broadcast this coming weekend… (I especially like the “sneaky” suggestion.)

  53. Re: comment 50#5

    Alright, now you guys can’t let anyone know I’m telling you about this, but we have a secret church organization – much like the CIA. First we’ll train you for 3-6 weeks depending on the language of your destination. Then we’ll send you out, possibly overseas, to try to covertly recruit new troops for our church.
    You’ll work alongside another operative. This mission is so important that you will never be able to leave each others’ side. You’ll wear the standard uniform, and you’ll be given a black badge. You may even have to wear a trenchcoat depending on the situation.
    I can’t believe I’m telling you this, if word gets out they could have my head, but I just think you guys should know what may lie ahead should you choose to pursue the mission of an “Elder”.

    . . . . Now where were we with today’s lesson?

  54. it's a series of tubes says:

    I echo Michael’s comments in 50. I taught the 15-16 class during my four years of grad school and I think it was the best / most enjoyable calling I ever had. Like Michael indicated, I remembered my own experience and tried hard to make SS better than the next option – to make it a place where they WANTED to be. And (perhaps not) surprisingly, we often ended up having great, spiritual discussions as well as a really good time – often driven by a single question from one of the youth.

  55. Great post.

    We’ve done a few things in our ward to try and improve the experience (disclaimer: It’s a YSA ward).

    We swapped Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society. This was mostly done as an effort to avoid separating the sexes for the last hour. Attendance from the first to last hour dropped precipitously, so the bishop figured that allowing the men and women to mingle at the end of the block would increase attendance. It’s actually worked.

    Regarding the size problem, I agree. We have two separate Gospel Doctrine courses in our ward, for which one of them I am the teacher. We follow the same track, but it’s a good way to keep the classes from being prohibitively large and allow for more robust, intimate discussion. I wholeheartedly agree that classes that are too big impede lively, honest discussion, which is what SS is all about. I can’t stand classes that are really just a forty-minute discourse from the teacher. It defeats the purpose.

    As far as the manuals, I think that the overall structure and arc they help create for a year’s worth of teaching are valuable, but it would be foolish to follow them to a tee. Like most things in the Gospel, manuals and pre-conceived lessons form a useful template, but we have to form lessons through prayer and study while covering the core points.

  56. What I don’t like about #50__What about the other teachers trying to play it straight? Will their efforts be looked up to by these kids?

  57. RE: the OP

    I don’t think there is any clear allusion in Br. McConkie’s talk to _not_ using the manuals. There is just as much evidence to argue the opposite with his inclusion of this example:

    “Soon after I was called to be a stake president, our stake presidency received training from an Area Seventy. During the training, I asked a question to which he responded, “That is a good question. Let’s turn to the Church Handbook of Instructions for the answer.” We then went to the handbook, and there was the answer to my question. A little later in our training, I asked another question. Once again he responded, “Good question. Let’s turn to the handbook.” I did not venture to ask any more questions. I thought it best to read the handbook.”

    I have very, very rarely experienced the stereotypical lesson well-discussed in the comment section where all the teacher does is read out of the manual. Yes, those lessons are horrible. But by and large, I have found that the best lessons are where the teacher is generally following the curriculum and using the suggestions of Br. McConkie (re: attitude, seeking the spirit, and learning the material).

  58. In a Utah ward, the Bishop released the other youth Sunday School teachers and sent ages 12-17 to my class. It worked rather well.

    Since my last release, there’s been quite a few tears, and the students are generally found back in the halls or out in the parking lot again. I’ve had more than a few students ask if there’s any way I could come back. I’d like nothing better, but it’s not up to me. I know the Bishop did the best he could – pulling a former Bishop off the High Council, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a difficult calling at best.

    I think Sunday School suffers because it can be such an easy calling to just “phone in”. With some of the kids, I’d spend weeks trying to figure out how to get through to them. Sometimes it took informal meetings with parents, e-mails, careful research, and even efforts from other students.

    One Sunday, the HP group leader took one of the Priests by the tie and proceeded to chastize him in front of about 12 other kids – he was wearing a black dress shirt and a tie, and this HP was letting him know that he was a disappointment to Jesus because a white shirt is the only allowable uniform of the Priesthood. While the tongue-lashing was going on, I interrupted and told the young man that I intended to wear a black shirt the following week too. Thankfully, it shut the HP up. The next week, he was there checking to see if I’d kept my promise. I had. We joked about all the scorn we’d get from that HP, and how he didn’t seem to understand that being present was really the main consideration. But, he was in class and generally paying attention for a long time after that. I think he just needed to feel like somebody was in his corner, and that I could look past the outward appearance.

  59. Kristine (33): I think Br. McConkie’s point with regard to attitude is similar to the old saying: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Not: “People don’t care how much you know, only that you care.” In other words, the teacher’s attitude is a very significant factor in how well people listen to the substance of what you have to say. I don’t think he was dismissing the content of the lessons as much as he was emphasizing the factors that would make the content sink deep into their minds/souls.

  60. (Continuing 59)

    I went back and read the talk again, and he pretty much spelled out the point I was trying to make in #59:

    “Think for a moment of a teacher who really made a difference in your life. What was it about him or her that caused you to remember what was taught, to want to discover the truth for yourself, to exercise your agency and act and not just to be acted upon—in other words, to learn? What was it about this teacher that set him or her apart from the rest?”

    It doesn’t sound like he was dismissing the content of the teaching.

  61. John, I got really excited when I read that the scriptures were God’s CHI, until I realized that you meant they acronym, not the energy. I never go to Sunday School. My husband is the president.

  62. But Kristine, I do go to choir. You would love our ward choir director. She actually tries to get us to sing beautiful music well.

  63. The Church did not have SS until about 1880. If you read the history of it, we find that a very dedicated man had seen the value of SS in Protestant churches, so he started one in his ward. The Leaders of the Church saw that and ultimately, SS was developed thruout the Church. The late Pres McKay was very instumental in that development.
    One of the Apostles recently gave a conference talk on how he had visited one of the meetings of the group of persons who had been called and set apart to write SS manuals. He said that he was very impressed with their spirit. Suppose that you had been asked to serve on that writing commitee. Would you try to write something that was ‘boring’ or would you try to write something that would convey the spirit? If you carefully look at the GD manual (or any other) you will see that it was written by humans like yourself who were trying to write a manual that would be valuable to you and all others.

  64. Ned,
    I know. It was written by people with training in instructional technology, by businessmen, and by some people with formal training in ancient cultures/19th-century history. As I tried to explain in a previous post, the educators involved tend to come from BYU which creates its own set of biases regarding instruction. I am trying to suggest the ways in which those biases are hurting Gospel teaching.

    JT,
    I’m glad someone finally said it. Of course I am misreading Bro. McConkie’s talk. I thought it was obvious, but… Anyhoo, I’m a little troubled by that analogy. The Scriptures aren’t exactly like the CHI, obviously, so I don’t know if we can expect people to just open up the topical guide and find all their answers clearly written out. But my faith may not be the equal of Bro. McConkie’s, which I freely admit.

    Kristine,
    I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get to your excellent comment. I just wanted to say that I do think that the Spirit matters more (but that both Spirit and content are absolutely necessary). In my head, I compare it to the faith/works division. I also think that the “long night of the soul” idea is powerful. When I’ve had mine, such as they were, it was more a sense of inertia and a determination to have not been wrong all that time than an intellectual conviction of the church that saw me through. But, to each their own.

    arJ,
    No. It doesn’t particularly bother me. Maybe it will someday, but not now.

  65. meggle, I know it can be done–I’ve been a ward choir director for all but about six months since I was sixteen :) And actually, it’s an interesting comparison with Sunday School, because I think it’s easier to effect a change in one ward’s culture around choir than around Sunday School, precisely because choirs are less correlated than Sunday School, and more improvisation is possible at the ward level.

    I wish you were in my choir! (Actually, unless I’m misremembering, my very first ward choir experience was with you, when we were Beehives, singing “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger” with Brother Marsh (or Brother Chamberlin?) conducting).

  66. I just want to second #38 and #39 and all other comments that shore up the need for good faith effort to understand the text or topic at hand.

  67. Everyone knows the three-hour block is just too long.

    Hey, have some pity on your ward clerks, who often need those two hours after sacrament meeting to get the ward’s work done!

  68. You know, this thread has really resonated, and while I’ve been hesitant to throw the bathwater out as John C. suggests for fear of losing the baby, it does make me wonder if it won’t be long before we see a time where the Sunday curriculum makes a “course correction” similar to Preach My Gospel’s was to the Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel (aka “the discussions).

    It took a lot of planning and lot of pre-planning before they were ready to implement PMG, but I know that they did so in the hope that it would transform the returned-missionary experience as much as it would the missionary experience for the kids who serve. I could see them waiting to see how the PMG experiment (largely based on teaching the missionaries how to fish for what to teach and how as opposed to overly prescribing) pans out for a few more years and implementing similar changes across other programs.

    I’ve heard that the new GHI might allow for more flexibility and discovery, but we won’t know officially for another week and a half.

    Interestingly, PMG is getting some supplemental materials for the missionaries to use to help them have a better idea of what to teach and how. It’s a learning process and I would certainly welcome experimentation in other auxiliaries.

    I still remain concerned that the type of drastic overhaul that John C.’s calling for is premature. The cultural issues discussed relative to SS are no less important to address (e.g., ward and stake leadership not taking it seriously), and the OP hasn’t made an effective case for why a manual overhaul would cause the cultural shift required.

  69. 68 – I may be wrong, but I think you misread John’s intent. I don’t think he’s proposing cancelling the Sunday School program. I think he’s implying that its broken, and unless its fixed you might as well cancel it.

    But I think there’s a pretty strong undertone in this post (and others by John) that he’d rather see it fixed than cancelled.

  70. From the OP:
    “re-enshrine the unfiltered scriptures as our guiding text”

    I’m not entirely sure what this means or whether it is even possible. Translations are already interpretations, and as LDS certain things mean more or differently, not because of an unfiltered reading, but precisely because our experiences and history have made meaning out of Isa 29 or James 1:5.

    That said, the interpretation the manuals offer is not really representative of what is happening in the scriptures since it is based on moral or spiritual lessons that we are supposed to learn.

    There must be something in between the monological readings the manuals offer and the belief that the scriptures have an unmediated message if we just read them. I think that the answer is that we must read the scriptures dialogically, in conversation with ourselves and our presuppositions.

  71. Yeah, fixed is better than cancelled.

    A manual overhaul, if done correctly, could provide top-down leadership. Church leadership have practically no say over what happens in individual classrooms aside from manuals. Since we are an organization that likes to take its cues from the top (since they are led by God and all), overall change will only be affected top-down.

    I would, in theory, very much approve of manuals that go in the direction of Preach my Gospel. However, the new Gospel Principles manual has been an unmitigated disaster, in my opinion and experience and it does the same. Cultural change is more important than manual change, but that needs to come from the top, too.

    All that said, I do realize that I have no authority and, frankly, no reason to assume that anyone important in the church hierarchy will read this and/or care. I’ll get by.

  72. TT,
    I agree; I was trying to say we should have that dialogue without the interference of the manual telling us what we should say (or hear).

  73. it's a series of tubes says:

    What I don’t like about #50__What about the other teachers trying to play it straight? Will their efforts be looked up to by these kids?

    See 58 and 59. What’s more important – “playing it straight” by simply slogging through the content of the manual, or putting in the sorely needed substantive time, effort, and spiritual “work” to understand each member of the class and their needs, and how to reach them with the Spirit?

    Given the choice between A) a vibrant, spiritual class that might not closely adhere to the manual, where the kids WANT to be there, and B) a dull, boring class that thoroughly covers the manual, I’ll try to create A every time with no apologies.

    The anecdote at the end of 58 speaks volumes to me.

  74. >#56 What about the other teachers trying to play it straight? Will their efforts be looked up to by these kids?

    So, are you suggesting that good teachers should do a poor job of teaching so they don’t make the poor teachers look bad? How is that “magnifying our callings”?

  75. #56:You feel your teaching ways are “Good Teaching”. They may be.
    But IMO, not what the Church wants. The Church want to set up the classroom with plans, standards, and some rules, (not easy).

  76. The Church wants to keep its young people and has no idea how to do it–we ought to be very, very grateful for the Michaels who know how to connect, and encourage all innovations that aren’t teaching false doctrine.

  77. (75) Its interesting that you think a church that is led by people as different as Boyd K Packer and Dieter F Uchtdorf would be so monolithic and have something so specific that “they” want.

    I’d be more interested in what God wants, and how the spirit directs you to teach than what the “church” wants. Perhaps the spirit will lead you to teach by the book, from the book, not deviating away from the book. And that spirit might direct commenter 50 to teach by the book somedays, and direct him that there is a more pressing need that should be discussed other days.

    Additionally, I don’t see anything in comment 50 that would make you think that he is some sort of rebel breaking all the rules. Its not like he is screening Midnight Cowboy during Sunday School. What in particular is so offensive to you? The idea that the kids might not dread going to his class? Heaven forbid.

  78. #77 : “I don’t see anything in comment 50 that would make you think that he is some sort of rebel breaking all the rules”.
    #50:Donut Day
    “Pretent to have a lesson”.
    “My Job was only….”. (Rebel)
    “Be sneaky”__Lie
    Five minute lesson.
    “Toss the lesson”…..
    I call that breaking rules.

  79. I know Michael, and I can tell you that he is a rebel who breaks all the rules. He can teach my kid’s Sunday School class anytime. (Actually, I’d like him to teach my Sunday School class. Heck, maybe since he’s such a rule breaker, he could even teach my Relief Society class. That would be awesome. But I’m kind of a sucker for donuts.)

  80. #80: Kristine__Cute!
    How many classes does the Church have in a week__a million?
    Does the Church need to find one million Michaels? Or let all just teach as they see fit?
    Or do you try to build a program that has plans, training, standards, and rules to be followed? I know all of these could be made better, but how else field a million teachers?

  81. Of course the rules and structure are necessary–no one’s arguing otherwise. Michael’s suggesting that it’s ok to be human, not a rulebound automaton. Especially with teenagers.

  82. 82 — Actually Michael is doing more than than. He’s suggesting we follow the advice of Brother McConkie and Brother Osguthorpe who spoke in the last conference — we should know our class members and teach them in a way they will learn — learn that their teacher loves them, that God loves them, and that the gospel has something to offer them. We should engage the class in a discussion that engages them. We should invite the spirit into the classroom.

    The only thing on Bob’s list (in 78) that would be an issue for me is lying, but I don’t read Michael’s suggestion as recommending we lie.

  83. #83: Lie:” pretend with intent to deceive”.
    But this isn’t about Michael. It’s about building a group teaching plan that works for millions of people every week.

  84. I don’t think Michael or anyone else was suggesting his method be adopted universally.

  85. Bob,
    If you feel Michael’s approach is morally deficient, then you definitely shouldn’t adopt it. There, problem solved. Let’s move on.

  86. As an educator, I applaud Michael’s methods. Not because I think that everyone should do it, but simply because he was actually magnifying his calling. He actually cared, and he actually prepared his lessons. Unorthodox as some of his methods were, none of them were actually contrary to the principles of church education. There is nothing in any of the class manuals or TNGC that says that teachers are not allowed to bring donuts (or doughnuts) to class.

    And as I will point out as often as possible (when it is relevant) the lesson manuals explicitly state that they provide suggested lesson development. They also explicitly direct teachers to select a few elements of the lesson to teach. So someone who simply “slogs through the manual” is not only not even following the manual, they are completely missing the point of Gospel instruction. That is not “playing it straight”–it is playing to lowest common denominator.

    John – I agree with you that the SS system is broken. I would love to see a complete overhaul that brings the program closer to its origins in which SS was treated as an educational environment and not a 45-minute block of reading through a manual. I think we would have far more success if there was a way to change the cultural attitude toward Sunday School. The manuals are suggestions for lesson development. Teachers are expected to use the scriptures associated with the lesson as the guideline, but there is no reason to not add more scriptures or just focus on a few key points. But as long as we have nearly all the SS teachers approach the manual as a script, we are going to have a broken system, regardless of the quality of the lesson plans.

  87. #86: John, I am moving on. Others drag me back into the comments.
    I do not think badly of Michael or judge him. He is doing the best he can. If I have a beef, it’s with at the higher level, the ones who have not given more leadership by providing a better plan, training, manuels for SS. And by not stating what are the rules and standards. Brother McConkie did not address any of this in his talk.

  88. Alex,
    I agree. That is why, I think, that lesson plans should be taken to extremes. Either provide woefully insufficient information or provide way too much. Having sat through several lessons based on the current Gospel Principles manuals, I think that (for whatever reason) we aren’t ready to follow the insufficient information method. So I’m now advocating lesson plans that provide way too much information (say, 30 pages on each lesson). Ideally this will force teachers to pick and choose (and convince them to go off page when prompted). Not that I have any actual say in the matter and not that I should, of course.

  89. A few years ago, I started meeting with a group of Evangelical Christians once a week for Bible study. Quite a revelation to see how other churches study the Bible.

    They’d pick a book, then cover one chapter a week. For people who felt comfortable reading (because what can be worse than just running through the rows and have everyone take a turn), they’d each take about five verses. When we got to the end of the chapter, there would be a minute or two for personal reflection.

    Then, the study would start. We’d identify themes – the big thing that God was trying to tell us – and go through it again with particular attention paid to those sections. This would be the time for personal stories – about how a particular verse has given us strength or a “beat-down”. Thoughtful comments brought out more thoughtful comments, and I’d come away with a much better understanding of the New Testament as a result.

    I’m certain I learned more from that than I ever did from seminary.

    Sometimes I think that we, as a Church, have a problem with the Scriptures. And that problem is we don’t regard the Scriptures as “correlated”.

  90. The Harvard School of Business did a study a while back about companies that focused on utilizing people’s strengths vs. companies that focused on improving people’s deficiencies.
    They found that organizations that played to people’s strengths and didn’t spend as much time trying to make people generalists – capable of doing everything, were far more successful than organizations that took the approach of trying to help their employees have exposure to things they were deficient in to make them more “well rounded”.

    I agree with John that a big part of Sunday School’s problem is the manuals. But as has been noted multiple times on this thread – the teacher makes all the difference.
    Many times the church (or people in middle-management positions in the church) will choose leaders/teachers/etc. because they feel that the calling will help the person develop and become more “well-rounded”. Many times people are called to teaching positions who have stage-fright, have no teaching experience, and are quite frankly terrible at it.
    I don’t understand this mentality. It certainly doesn’t follow up the ladder – we don’t (intentionally) call people to General Authority positions who have shaky testimonies, are terrible leaders, are extreme introverts . . .
    We don’t always know who will make a good teacher and who won’t, but many times we do. I think personal development can and should be a priority when assigning callings, but it should be secondary (or tertiary).
    After all “It is better that one man [should not be called to teach] than a whole [Sunday School class] should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”

  91. Good comment, B.Russ. Your General Authority example is compelling. I agree that personal development should be a secondary priority. The obvious corrolary to teaching in the Church is music in the Church. It takes a certain level of proficiency to play them keys and all the good will in the world won’t make up for that lack of skillz. And so we shouldn’t be surprised when the Ward Choir dwindles and perishes (to borrow from B.Russ’s paraphrase) when Ward Choir Director can’t beat time. Personal development? Maybe. Corporate loss? Definitely.

  92. john c Thanks for this post. I have been teaching GD for over a year in a well seasoned Utah ward and I have rarely used the manuel (though I most always read it AFTER I have prepared my lesson–just in case). But I must say I have been worried that the class will recognize that I am not teaching the same lesson they had 4 years ago. But for me using the scriptures FIRST to find the principles I will teach, then coming up with my own ideas to teach, has been very rewarding. Some notable examples: teaching OD 2 (spending the whole lesson on what is given only an after thought for D&C lesson 42); using a replica of “The Nauvoo Expositor” in teaching about the Martydom; even talking about “Eunuch’s” in last weeks lesson. These have been powerful lessons as the members seemed awake for my unconventional lessons. The class even seems used to the idea that each week they are going to get some rare LDS book displayed as my center peice. I have found as long as I am scripture based, and they know where I am at in the scriptures at all times, the class will respond with some of the most profound comments. Yes, even a class larger than 40!

  93. Not to put a new wrinkle on things, but as a young parent I’m grateful that we have some measure of repetition in the church. I’ve not heard a complete lesson in any of my classes for some time, and when young’uns get to that magical age where they walk but are too small for nursery, I don’t get to hear ANY lesson. There’s a certain reassurance that when our little ones grow up we’ll get another shot at the materials. :)

    (If the tongue-and-cheek nature of this comment is unrecognizable due to the limitations of typing, re-read it with that intent.)

  94. By the time they grow up, Chris, you’ll find that you can’t sit through a 40-minute lesson anyway–attention span is one of those things that gets passed from kids to parents :)

  95. I think I was called to teach youth SS because I actually like the youth, even though I am 40+ years older than they are and often they are not especially likeable. I agree that if you can get one point across, even if it is a minor one, each Sunday, that is enough. I always start with the manual and pick one thing that I hope to get across, with a couple others as back up. Then I look for as much info on the chosen points as I can find. I also look for a handout that will go with it as kids like to take things home. Some weeks it is a zoo no matter what I do but hopefully even then they know I am happy they showed up.

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