Called to Teach


In my post O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion I mentioned in the comments that I had conveyed the gist of that post (to the effect that the herald of Isaiah 40:9 may have been a woman) to my GD class and that the idea was well received. A commenter then asked the following question:

Thought-provoking post, thanks! It leads me to ask, though, for those of you who are discussing the Divine Council and the gender of heralds during your SS classes, how much do you ever adhere to the GD manual? I’m still trying to get my class situated with basic historical context, but it usually involves major deviation from the stated lesson objectives and I’m starting to question the value spiritually.

I gave a short response in that thread, but I’d like to take a shot at a longer explanation here.

I returned from my mission to Colorado in October 1979. After working for a few months, I returned to BYU in January 1980. As often seems to happen at BYU, I pretty quickly got married (in August of that year). And so my new wife and I transitioned from our respective singles student wards to the married student ward for where we lived.

The high council representative for our new ward was John Sorenson, the long time professor of anthropology at BYU (and a significant scholar of the Book of Mormon). I had (and have) tremendous respect for John, and considered it a privilege to attend the same ward as him (he was there every week).

At some point during that first semester he called me in to meet with him. During the meeting he extended to me a calling to teach the Elders Quorum. This was to be my first ever teaching calling in the Church. I of course accepted.

What made an immense impression on me, and what I have never forgotten, is the counsel he gave me about how to approach the calling. This was back in the Jurassic Era, before we studied the teachings of the prophets each year. Back then we had topical priesthood manuals. He held up the current manual and showed me that part of the title was “Personal Study Guide.” He explained that the purpose of the PSG was for individual elders to study on their own (thus the “Personal”) during the week; it was not intended to be the lesson plan itself. He said that the true lesson manual was the scriptures, and enjoined me to always ground my lessons in the scriptures themselves, not to slavishly follow some manual produced by the Curriculum Department. The true fount of our learning at Church should always be the scriptures.

His counsel to me on that occasion needless to say made a huge impression on me, and I resolved to teach accordingly. And indeed I have striven to follow that counsel for my entire career as a teacher in the Church.

(While I taught Elders Quorum in that ward, our GD teacher was Blake Ostler, who must have been given a similar speech. He taught the scriptures themselves as well, using a pretty pure form of Socratic Method, which was something I’ve never seen before or since in the Church context. Those were fantastic lessons, although I’m not sure how they would have translated outside of a university setting. Each Sunday involved hard questions that genuinely challenged faith and put it at legitimate risk–but if you survived, your faith and understanding were strengthened much more than would be possible otherwise.)

That stint teaching EQ was the beginning of my teaching career in the Church. I currently teach GD in my ward–my fourth time with that calling. I used to be my stake’s institute teacher (in the sense of adult continuing education), and I think I taught eight classes over a period of years in that role. (My stake even loaned me to the neighboring stake once so I could teach an actual institute class at Northwestern University.) And of course I’ve taught more priesthood lessons than I can count. (I have twice been invited to teach seminary, and both times declined. Partly this is a function of the logistics of my commuting by train into Chicago, but mostly it is a function of my practice of over-preparing my lessons. Having to teach a new lesson every single morning would eventually kill me.)

I had a bishop once who tried to get me on the administrative track. I’m sure he thought he was doing me a favor, since administration in the Church is usually perceived as more important than teaching. So I had a string of callings along those lines: YMP, EQP, Executive Secretary. I did my best in those callings and think I was ok at them, but nothing special. I frankly am happy to be back on the teaching track, which I personally am much more passionate about.

The Church as an institution has moved to a position of stressing use of the manual. I use the manual in the sense of following the scripture readings and occasionally using a teaching idea or a quote for enrichment. But because of the way I was initially acculturated as a teacher in the Church, to this day I feel as though I have great latitude in how I approach a class, so long as my whole focus is on the scriptures and trying to bring them to life for the class and intrigue and excite them enough that perhaps, just maybe, they might actually crack them open on their own sometime. That is my goal when teaching, to inculcate in others the excitement I feel when studying the scriptures. And, if I do say so myself, I think it has worked out pretty well over the years.


  1. patatomic says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your statement that the Church has moved towards stressing manuals. If anything, they’ve pushed towards relying on the spirit, scriptures and personal experiences. I’m thinking of the Youth and missionaries specifically (Come, Follow Me and Preach My Gospel).

  2. Amen, Kevin. While the correlated lesson manuals are useful for preparing a presentation I’m not convinced that they are always a useful guide for teaching by the spirit.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    patatomic, good point, there has been recent movement away from the older follow the manual slavishly idea, particularly in the new youth curriculum, which as I understand it will eventually find its way to the adult curriculum. I consider this a welcome development.

  4. In my experience, it’s on the local level that we get a strong “stick to the manual” message. I suppose there are various ways and degrees of “sticking to the manual”, and I’ve never been called on the carpet.

    While I write a weekly Gospel Doctrine post, it’s rarely as a lesson plan. I did recently write an after-the-fact How I Taught This Lesson thing.

    When I prepare, I skim the manual. I look over my past notes and research. I read and reread the passage, looking for significant points of interest, and things that can generate productive conversation.

    I prepare with several goals: broadening minds, lighting a spark that makes people want to read, showing them things in the text they hadn’t noticed, as well as building resilient faith.

  5. Deborah Christensen says:

    As someone who currently teaches the 10/11 year-olds I agree with you. I follow the purpose, assigned scriptures, and then take it from there. I think the manuals are a great resource for those who are learning how to teach. Not so much for experienced teachers.

    On the other hand, as a former RS president, I like the idea of sticking to the manual. I’ve seen sisters completely disregard the topic from the manual to promote their favorite commandment/value or whatever. I’ve sat through lessons that I’m not sure what the topic was. And the worst was when a sister taught the RS lesson with references from the Catholic Encyclopedia. (the references were incorrect doctrine) Even though I kept asking her to not use it during the said lesson. sigh…Sometimes it is better to stick to the manual.

  6. Once more, Kevin, your post today reminds me why I take a daily peek at your blog site. One occasionally finds a real gem, and yours was one. Thanks, and thank you for your years of service in the kingdom. I am sure that many members have been blessed by your teaching and personal influence. I hope to see you at the FairMormon Conference in August and say hi. Fred

  7. FWIW, TT collected some recent statements about the manual here. I wrote up my own thoughts in response to his here.

    The manual, like the poor, will always be with us.

  8. In my own ward, Follow the Manual is the order of the day, to the extent that those that stray from the scripted question/response system it delineates get called into meetings with the bishop, where he tells them that only Certain Materials are acceptable sources for teachers to use. This even if the scriptures are the only other source used. Our bishop claims there’s an official list published by the Church of what’s acceptable, though he hasn’t yet managed to produce. One time, a particularly heavily correlated elder complained to the teacher, during a quorum meeting, “Will you quit reading scriptures and just stick to the manual?”

    I sure hope it’s just our ward.

  9. whizzbang says:

    i too, skim the manual and yeah see what areas they want stressed and than I use my won stuff and class members experiences and their scriptures. I honestly don’t know many members who would even know we weren’t in the manual! so, who would know the difference?

  10. My second link seems to be dead… try this.

  11. I too have noticed a swing away from the idea of teaching straight from the manual in recent years. I am the Sunday School president in my ward. Last October we were invited to attend a training with the Sunday School General Presidency at the Bountiful regional center. Every one of the messages President Callister and his counselors shared included a strong emphasis on the importance of NOT teaching straight from the manual and instead teach from the scriptures and the spiritual promptings we receive. They didn’t say this but the theme of the training clearly followed a talk by Bruce R. McConkie entitled The Teacher’s Divine Commission (included in Teaching, No Greater Call). The main point they stressed was that teachers are commanded to teach the principles of the gospel as found in the standard works by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    Luckily in my ward we’ve never been asked to place too much emphasis on the manuals. Of course, there will always be teachers who rely solely rely on the them, but there’s not much we can do about that. Along with giving newly called teachers a copy of their manual I give them a printed copy of Teaching, No Greater Call and specifically tell them to read that talk. I know that if I had read that when I was first called as a teacher it would have been a lot better than the orientation I received. Hopefully this trend continues.

  12. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. Like you, I consider the scriptures the primary source for gospel instruction. In teaching GD, I look at the manual only to learn the assigned scriptures. Then I read them and take it from there.

  13. As an on-again, off-again GD teacher for several cycles through the standards works, one of the questions I currently ask myself while preparing a lesson is: Did we talk about this topic four (or 8 or 12) years ago, and are there others that could stand a little more emphasis this week? Especially right now, as we are using the Gospels as our base. With all those quotes from the Savior, it seems a shame to just use the same subset over and over again.
    I use the manual to determine the scriptures to cover for the assigned reading, then expand it to the chapters containing those verses. I’m lucky to be in a ward where this kind of deviation from the manual is tolerated by most of the class (probably because they don’t do any preparatory reading), and the bishop.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I second the recommendation of Teaching: No Greater Call. Great stuff there.

  15. I will admit in my role as a local church administrator to preaching “stick to the manual and standard church sources”. Other than the time STaysom was my GD teacher, “bringing in outside materials” has almost without exception meant bringing in weird gospel hobby junk. My understanding of the approved materials is the scriptures, church magazines, and CURRENT versions of the manuals. Experience unfortunately teaches me not to trust our amateur teachers beyond that–I have had to deal with enough false doctrine even within those restrictive guidelines.

  16. A great post and ensuing discussion. I agree that scriptures need to be our manual – no matter what class we teach. And we should not be a slave to the curriculum manual, though we should not dismiss it either.
    I was surprised at the somewhat-disdain directed towards ‘administrative’ callings. Firstly, for calling EQP an administrative calling, as I think it so much about ministering. I consider Exec Sec and Clerk to be administrative callings. Perhaps you are trying to emphasise that GD Teacher doesn’t attend presidency meetings and the like.
    I too, have great love for the Teaching, No Greater Call resource. It reminds us that teaching is at the core of all that we do in the gospel – family life, missionary work, home & visiting teaching, missionary work, leadership callings etc. It starts with personal worthiness and example. Some of the greatest scriptorians/historians can be very poor teachers because they neglect the principle of ‘invite diligent learning’. Their focus is them self – their own knowledge and experiences. Instead of focusing on those they have been called to teach. Effective gospel teaching is a lifelong pursuit, I think.

  17. For those RS and EQ presidents out there – I get why you emphasize sticking to the manual, I really do. But I have sat through enough lessons that are literally reading one paragraph after another out of the #$%^ manual to wish for a little thoughtful discussion including other sources, even unconventional ones. Or if that is too much, could we at least use the words of great thinkers in the church who are not in the current manual? Eliza R. Snow? Henry Eyring? Chieko Okazaki?

    In sum, after years of attending church every single week, I have had my fill of words from the church curriculum department. I’d really like to hear what my neighbor has to say from his or her personal study instead.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    I didn’t intend any disdain for “administrative” callings; I only meant to express that they’re probably not my personal strength.

  19. Kevin, my apologies for being a little snippy in my comment. After I posted my comment, I felt that you were probably just talking about where your strengths lie. Thank you for being as gracious as you were! I think it is my classroom PTSD kicking in…

    I have served as EQP (x2), GD teacher, Teaching No Greater Call instructor, Exec Sec (x3), SS Pres, YMP…Every calling, every opportunity has been enriching and allowed me to serve others. Usually, I have only learnt the most important lessons well after being released!

    When I was called as GD Teacher, I felt like I had hit the goldmine of church callings. It is the only calling (other than leadership) in the ward where you have the ability to interact with such a broad cross-section of ward members on a weekly basis. And you get to stand out the front and be important! :) Another brother said to me, “that is the calling I have always wanted. I have calling envy” His comment was a little tongue-in-cheek. I began to reflect about my attitude and that expressed by my brother. I realised how selfish I was. I knew I needed to humble myself. Focus on others, instead of me. How many of us (as teachers) say things like, “now we don’t have much time for discussion today, because I have a lot of material to cover…what I what you to understand is…I was reading and wanted to share all of these quotes..” etc. Instead, as teachers, we should teach the doctrine, love those we have been called to teach, teach by the Spirit (and be worthy of its guidance), invite diligent learning and…well, Teaching No Greater Call explains it all! :)

    Teaching in the church is not a forum to promote our opinions and become a light unto ourself. It is an opportunity to help others come unto Christ by understanding His doctrine and changing/repenting/growing.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    No worries, Chad. Yeah, teaching GD is a great calling.

  21. Matt Whiting says:

    The best example I’ve had in how to change a lesson that is a “let’s read every paragraph from the manual” lesson is from one of the councilors in our stake presidency visiting in our Elder’s Quorum meeting. It was one of those read from the manual lessons that we have 2-3 times a month in our ward and Pres Workman stopped us all at a pause in the reading with a question something like, “That’s all good, but what does it mean to you… What does it really mean to you?” Looking at the members of the class in the eyes as he turned in his seat. First one, then another, then another started sharing personal experiences. It turned out to be a spirit-filled discussion and sharing of both person insight and personal experience. It was wonderful.

    As the EQ President at the time, I was so grateful for his skillful intervention, and his other interventions since. I view his question as an attempt to sustain the teacher and give substance and sustenance to the class. I’ve followed his example many times as President and after release. I’m not always as effective as he was that day, but I definitely feel more responsible as a member of the class than I previously had. I’ve made it a habit of thanking Heavenly Father in our family prayers for those that teach us the gospel each Sunday in church.

    Thank you to all those out there that have taught and teach others the gospel. It’s a wonderful blessing to be able to teach with authority and with power, and a wonderful blessing to be taught that way.

  22. I see my job as Gospel Doctrine teacher as getting the class to a point where they feel the spirit and are willing to share, talk, ask questions, etc. I also try to teach them at least one new thing about the scriptures in each lesson, but the important spiritual moments don’t come while I’m talking, they always come when the class is involved. That’s harder when I’m teaching Old Testament or New Testament, because the class isn’t as familiar and I feel some responsibility to educate on the texts, since we only talk about them every four years and I assume the class isn’t reading them on their own.

    The best classes I’ve ever been in are led by one of our EQ teachers. He brings a series of questions and discussion points, and lets the conversation go where it wants to. We often don’t even get past the first question. (Yesterday’s was “What does Joseph Smith mean to you?” and we talked about it for the full 40 minutes.) It’s not about what he says, he’s just providing the appropriate setting for the class to feel the spirit together.

  23. Matt Whiting, I appreciate your sharing of the example of the member of your SP asking a very thought provoking question to turn around the type of lesson that we’ve all been in. It shows the power of what a well thought out, open ended question can do.

    As Stake Sunday School President, I’m continually thinking of the best way to magnify my calling and improve the teaching (and learning) in our Stake. I appreciate the mention of “Teaching, no Greater Call”. It is a wonderful resource that is woefully underutilized in the Church.

    One focus our presidency is tackling this year in our Stake is the improvement of audiovisual resources in our meetinghouse libraries. Right now in our 4 meetinghouses in our Stake we have the old CRT tvs that are impossible to connect to a laptop to utilize the online media library on For smaller classrooms you can use a laptop or tablet to show videos and other online resources, but for larger classes like GD, you need a larger tv. Recently when I was assigned to teach GD in a ward, I brought my own flat screen tv from home to set up and use to incorporate several of the bible videos from, to enhance my lesson (which I felt it did). Have any Ward or Stake SS Presidencies been successful in upgrading to more usable technology in your meetinghouse libraries like this. If so, what was your experience like and do you feel that it has enhanced the teaching and learning in your wards and stakes?

  24. U240,

    My building has upgraded to three roughly 36 inch flat screen TV’s and a projector over the past year. We still had connectivity issues. I purchases a slew of HDMI cables and mini Display Port to HDMI cables from and gave them to the library. Instructors also frequently ask me to borrow my personal projector.

    For very large groups a laptop connected to a projector, with audio pumped through the chapel speakers works well, but requires the most setup and a surface on which to project. You also need to dim the lights.

    Frequently it is easier to just connect the laptop to a TV.

    I have mixed feelings about the increased use of technology in teaching. I think that many teachers use it as an excuse to fill time with a video. I had an HDTV in the room yesterday for my lesson on the First Vision and someone said, “Alright! We get to watch a video!” I was less than impressed. We used the TV for less than a minute to examine the scan of the 1832 account of the First Vision from the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The purpose was simply to show that the source materials are out there if people care to look at them. Then we didn’t use the TV again. I hope the brother that was excited about watching a video wasn’t too distressed.

    I also think that many people (the great majority actually) are terrible at creating presentations and then using them to teach. If you have slide after slide filled with text you are likely screwing up. If you have a map you want to show, that is great. Some artwork? Excellent. The text of a question for emphasis? That is alright too. But that isn’t what I tend to see.

    Finally, if you are going to show a video, please pre-download it and if possible insert it into your presentation. Watching someone browse for a video that isn’t going to play due to bandwidth constraints is painful.

  25. Mary Ann says:

    Kevin, thanks for the post. It gave me a lot of good food for thought. :) Part of the reason I wondered whether adhering to the manual may be a better approach is that it tends to emphasize spiritual application. I’m personally uplifted by studying the scriptures through an academic approach, but I recognize that many classmembers don’t necessarily feel the same way. I’ve noticed more class participation when we move to application of principles in our own lives, so I’m just trying to find balance so that classmembers can feel edified both spiritually and intellectually.

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