Administrating Teachings for Our Times

I like the idea of Teachings for Our Times. In an education system that encourages correlation, the program allows local leaders to make decisions based on the needs of students. This year, I was delighted to find that our stake did not choose the talks for these monthly lessons and passed that responsibility to the wards. I was asked by the bishop to come up with the TFOT lessons for the fist six months of the year, and I went through a process to make that happen. Based on my experience, here are some ideas related to the administration of Teaching for Our Times:

1. Make the decision as local as possible.

The point of the program, as it seems to me, is to allow local leaders to choose, through inspiration and/or discernment, from the 30+ talks from general Conference based on the needs of the people receiving the lessons. It makes sense for those closest to the students to make that decision and/or receive that inspiration. As a rule, the chance for inspired decision-making should be passed as far down the line as possible, especially in terms of administration rather than doctrine. From the guidelines for Teachings for Our Times: ‘Stake and district presidents may choose which talks should be used, or they may assign this responsibility to bishops and branch presidents.’ I would encourage passing the responsibility along unless spiritual discernment suggests otherwise.

Even at the ward level, could the different organizations that sponsor the lessons make their own choices? I gave our auxiliaries the chance to make their own lists of talks, but they declined, consistent with the guidelines. The idea is probably that families would study the talks togehter, but the percentage of class members with spouses attending the other class is small, and the groups might benefit from having their own focus for these lessons. But whatever, it was their decision. We did all agree that the teachers could participate in the process of choosing the talks rather than the organization presidents. After all, they have the right to inspiration in their calling, no?

The four of us (myself and the teachers from the EQ, HP & RS) each chose some talks from the Conference Report and then got together. It was a great discussion, where we dug into the contents of the conference talks that really touched us and shared the insights and feelings we had. We came to consensus on six talks even though we came to the process with more than twenty choices amongst us. I enjoyed the give-and-take of a spiritual debate, and it seemed to me to be the epitome of how church councils ought to work. I then took the list back to the bishop for his approval.

2. Look at the other lessons.

As we looked at the conference talks, we realized that some of them focused on the same principles covered in other third hour lessons. Rather than using those talks on the fourth Sunday, identifying the links between   conference talks and Gospel Principles lessons would enrich the lessons and reduce the amount of repetition. For instance, ‘Seeking to Know God, Our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ‘ is a wonderful talk by Elder Robert D. Hale and matches up well with chapters 1 and 3 of Gospel Principles; likewise, Vicki F. Matsumori’s ‘Helping Others Recognize the Whisperings of the Spirit‘ would enrich a discussion of chapter 7, ‘The Holy Ghost.’ And so on. We added these talks to the schedule of lessons so students could use those as supplementary reading and cut them from our list of possible TFOT talks. The same could be done with Sunday School lessons, and in wards where conference talks are assigned as topics for sacrament meeting talks, repetition could also be strategically avoided.

3. Talk about how to teach TFOT.

Because we got together to choose talks, we were also able to discuss how to approach the talk as a topic for a lesson. I will go through these ideas briefly because most are covered in more detail in other posts:

  • Be able to articulate what you want the class members to be able to do because of the lesson — relate a principle to their own lives, explain a principle in more detail, take some specific action, etc. You can also have a general question to use as a guiding question, but think in terms of what you want the class to remember in ten years.
  • It’s the speaker’s talk, but it’s your lesson. Do more than read the talk aloud and testify to the truth of every paragraph.
  • On the other hand, keep the original intent of the talk in mind rather than using the talk to prove your own theory about whether animals can speak to angels.
  • While the talk may have been addressed to a limited audience, look for ways of applying the concepts to members of the class not in that original audience.
  • Deal with the detailed language of the post, looking at phrases and words that helps you understand the principle in a new or deeper way.
  • Use the talk as a focal point, gathering scriptures and other resources around the talk.
  • As part of the lesson, narrate your own response to the principles of the talk and encourage others to do the same, including asking questions raised by the talk and methods of internalizing the principles of the talk.

Like I said before, I really enjoyed this process, and it was fulfilling in a way that church administration sometimes isn’t. If you have insights into the process, please add them in the comments.

If you’re curious, here are our choices:

January: That Your Burdens May Be Light, Elder L. Whitney Clayton

February: Mind the Gap, Barbara Thompson

March (Palm Sunday): Our Perfect Example, President Henry B. Eyring

April: The Love of God, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf

May: Preserving the Heart’s Mighty Change, Elder Dale G. Renlund

June: School Thy Feelings, O My Brother, President Thomas S. Monson

Seeking to Know God, Our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ

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  1. Kevin Barney says:

    What a great process, Norbert. The thoughtfulness brought to the process will surely help to result in superior lessons from these sources.

  2. Alex T. Valencic says:

    I can see advantages to having local (ward/branch) leaders pick the TFOT talks, but I can also see the advantages of having the stake leaders select them.

    My stake president is acutely aware of the needs of the members of the stake, and he selects topics that he feels will help the members with these issues. The bishop, of course, could select topics that are even more relevant to the members of his ward, but, at least with my bishop, he does that when he feels it is needed by advising the EQP/HPGL/RSP of a topic he feels should be addressed on the 1st Sunday, not to mention the four 5th Sunday available this year.

    Of course, with all LDS classes, even the most riveting topic can be bludgeoned to death by an unprepared teacher, but I don’t want this to digress into a discussion of LDS gospel teaching. (That’s been done and done!)

    I do like the system you used, and I am very glad that you tried to avoid repeating topics. This is one of those issues that annoys me at times. (And other times I just find too funny, like the time on my mission when Sacrament, SS, and EQ were all focused on the Word of Wisdom, and, at the end, my investigator said, “Fine! I’ll give up coffee!”)

    I appreciate that, in my stake, we get bookmarks with all of the lessons for the 3rd block outlined, so we know where we will be. Ideally, this means that, for folks like my wife and I, who teach in the Primary, we can study along with the ward/stake. (In practice, this doesn’t happen for us very much.) Maybe I can track down my bookmark and see if we have any overlapping choices.

  3. An idea we’ve used a few times in our quorum is to watch the TFOT talk from the Conference DVD from the meetinghouse library, then discuss. I think this works better than reading aloud long passages from the talk. Also, since most people here don’t buy the Conference DVD for themselves, watching the talk in class would be only the second time they’ve seen it. For some, it’s the first time.

  4. i like both your process and your selections. here, the bishop chooses the talks. i was the tfot instructor for a year and a half and it became incredibly frustrating for me. i LOVED teaching it, but a third to a half of our rs tfot lessons were from the priesthood session and never once did we get anything from the rs or yw sessions. it was maddening. one or two of the priesthood talks were relevant, but since they were talks given specifically to a group of men, it was frequently tough to translate them to a group of women.

    i got in trouble for taking a talk given to the aaronic priesthood and using the main points to discuss how we could make those important changes in our own lives. apparently, i was supposed to talk to a room of women that was about 40% geriatric and 40% newlywed/new moms about how they could immediately address these issues directly to the aaronic priesthood.

    i was released. our lessons have gone from being large group discussions (my favorite type of lesson) to sitting in silence for 40 minutes while we’re “taught.” it’s frustrating.

  5. In both wards I served on ward council in, the Bishop would ask each of us to give him a list of our recommendations. Now that I am not on the ward council but DH is, I just give him my list. :) My batting average is about 66% (4 out of 6 talks) It’s kind of become a fun game for us to see if we can predict which talks will be used (yeah, I’m a nerd like that).

    Also, our first Sunday RS lessons are frequently pulled from conference talks, too. Our first Sunday lesson after this last conference was on President Uchtdorf’s priesthood session talk on finances.

    Makakona, that sounds like a most unfortunate experience. I hate lessons like that, too.

  6. zionssuburb says:

    Backing up and looking at the monthly teaching schedule it shows a great deal of flexibility to the process. Presidencies already have a Sunday each week which allows for an extremely localized (RS/EQ/HPG) teaching, or a coordinated effort among all three. The Stake or Ward could pick the 4th Sunday. 5th Sunday’s are the Bishop’s.

    I believe these Sunday’s can be used to direct messages to smaller, localized groups, very practical in my opinion. However, nothing is worse than using these times for very generic teaching, I think it shows a lack of maturity in leaders, or a lack of good direction from leaders.

  7. makakona, what do you mean you “got in trouble”? By who and what was said or done?

  8. i was first called out on it in class by a middle-aged sister who taught the 12-13yo sunday school class. she said she thought i was out of line and that we should all be actively engaged in the concerns of the aaronic priests. i clarified that i took the angle i did because we were a group of women gathered for the specific uplifting and edification of ourselves and that many of us didn’t have aaronic priests in our own family and didn’t know any personally. she countered that we all knew aaronic priests because they were in our ward. her argument was that we should have studied the talk as it was given to the priests and then made sure we became well enough acquainted with a boy or two in our ward to put the talk to use. good intentions, sure, but it seemed impractical to me.

    in the end, the relief society presidency got involved and i met with the bishop over it. our ward is an older ward that takes pride in being unchanged over the years. the end result was feeling as though it didn’t matter what i felt or thought about it (even though *i* was the person called and set apart for this job), someone better established in the ward had spoken her piece and was automatically more correct.

  9. Stephanie says:

    makakona, that is just so weird.

  10. makakona,

    …her argument was that …

    Her argument was stupid.

  11. esodhiambo says:

    Like your system and the results. I must admit, I just would have submitted a list of talks I liked. But I would have tried to cover the various PH, RS/YW sessions.

  12. Great process you describe. I am tickled that the TFOT teachers actually talked together about how to teach the lesson. I’ve been in some of those lessons where I wish our instructor had gotten some suggestions from successful teachers… (Ready, Aim, Read & Comment; Ready, Aim, Read & Comment…)

    I’ve been in wards where we’ve selected at a ward level and a stake level. In the end, makakona’s exceptionally disappointing experience notwithstanding, the teacher ought to have some control over how the lesson plays to his or her particular audience.

    (Makakona, I’m very sorry for your experience; I can imagine that it was very disturbing to you. Not that I get a vote, but I’d say you were right on.)

    I will say that when we’ve used talks from the RS and YW sessions, they’ve also been excellent discussions.


  13. After about 20 years of developing computer curriculum — much of it distributed worldwide and taught by hundreds of instructors – I have some eccentric ideas about this kind of thing.

    I now try to see the people delivering my curriculum as peers. That means:

    Don’t force them to specify behavioral outcomes – most things worth learning are far too subtle for that narrow approach.
    Skill sets vary – some instructors may better serve the class by simply reading the information and agreeing.
    The “original intent” of the talk is often not the most important thing to consider. Peers, remember?

    At the risk of stating the obvious, this is really about more than just curriculum distribution. It is about who we are when we interact with others – and having a willingness to use judgment as appropriate.

  14. makakona,

    I am so sorry. But following Elder Oaks pronouncement that the lessons should be taught specifically as assigned with the teaching points taken from the manual, I see the outcome perfectly.

    My guess is that if we follow Br. Oaks requirements exactly we will be getting DVDs with the lessons taught by professional teachers to play in our lesson times. In these DVD lessons there may be pauses for the class to answer questions. Kind of like the temple ceremony, kind of like a ritual.

    The situation described by Norbert is ephemeral and notable only for its exceptionality. I am sure that most stakes, wards and branches lie somewhere between Norbert’s situation and the DVD future, probably biased toward the DVD future because of Elder Oaks’ comments.

    TFOT in our stake is pretty rigorous and we adhere to conference talks, mostly read and followed point by point. (In relief society TFOT yesterday we found out that those who voted against prop. 8 were minions of the devil. This had not been explicitly stated before even though strongly implied.)