Church-Hacker #18: Stick to the Manual (Margins)

After a four-year hiatus, it’s time to reboot the Church-Hacker series. For those of you who weren’t here four years ago, everyone’s input is welcome, and this series is simple: We post ideas that you can try in your ward or calling to make the meeting block more spiritual or more engaging.

Routine can become rut, and after a lifetime of sameness, even very small changes to The Way Things Are Done can make people sit up, put their phones away, and pay more attention in lessons and meetings. Church-Hacker hunts for those small ideas that can have an outsize impact.

And now for this week’s idea:

Expand and rename the Priesthood Executive Council

Shoot, hang on…

OK, here’s another idea, from one of our own BCC permas. You might not be surprised to learn that a large number of By Common Consent bloggers are Gospel Doctrine teachers (those who aren’t in bishoprics), so we often share advice and notes with each other on how to approach the week’s lesson. Last week, someone shared this tip:

I actually really like the New Testament Manual. It has nice, wide margins to write notes in, so, when I teach from it, people think that I am using it.

A perfectly simple way to put everyone’s mind at ease, so they can focus on feeling the Spirit instead of wondering where that great quote came from.

Feel free to toss your teaching advice into the comments—I’m especially interested in how you use the manual in your lessons, and whether manual use is mandated in your ward.


We want your ideas, so if your ward or stake or youth class or Cub Scout den does something different or innovative, submit it!

Looking for more church-hacking ideas? See all entries in this series here.


  1. I am very grateful that we haven’t had (except for a brief period where a returned missionary was also a teacher) straight out scripture reading -> comment on scripture… next, format for a long while. We have 2 alternating teachers. One teaches the history and context of what we have read. The other teaches more in-depth principles that we can learn from what we’ve read. Both have their merits, but my personal preference goes to the latter.

    What my wife and I find helps a lot with Sunday School lessons, is to not just read the assigned scriptures, but also after that, watch the related BYU Round Table discussion video’s, and read various blogs. Whenever I do this, we are more engaged in the lesson.

    But to come to the point: Our teachers don’t use the manual in the lesson itself, they probably use it a a jump off place in preparation, but on Sunday, they teach from their note blocks.

  2. Sorry, it should read: Whenever *we* do this, we are more engaged in the lesson.

  3. I think that if I tried to make a show of using the manual when I teach GD, nobody in my ward would believe me :)

  4. That’s how I use it too, SuHwak. I paste the manual’s lesson into my lesson doc and read through it quickly to grab any useful quotes or insights. But I replace most of it…I try to teach to the flow of the scriptures themselves, instead of jumping around by theme like the manual does.

  5. I’ll start with the Gospel Doctrine manual, read the entire thing along with all the scriptures and make a few notes. Then I head over to and read through a few of the lessons others have done and maybe steal a few ideas or quotes. I try to set up historical context at the beginning of the lesson and later,hopefully, spark conversation about the principles and how they apply. Throw in a few questionable quotes from McConkie and then try to invite the spirit in for at least one strong moment. . . of course the most important thing about teaching. .end on time.

  6. Hack needed: How to create an environment where discussion happens, ideas are shared, and the class is meaningful from a teacher who still cuts out the lesson, passes out scripture blocks, member of the class read, but the teacher comments. Our classes are often 35/40 minutes of the teacher talking vs questions being answered.

    BTW, this has been my experience more than it’s not been the experience for at least 20 years now.

  7. I haven’t taught Gospel Doctrine regularly for a long time. I have, however, been a frequent (and often spontaneous) substitute, and served as the SS President for a while, and did the teacher training meetings.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who had served on a writing committee for the Church. They were told to write for the average member, which meant, statistically speaking, someone with a 9th grade education who joined the Church within the last 5 years.

    If that doesn’t describe your class, you should be adapting the #$%! out of the manual and leveling it up for your class. The catechism-like questions likely don’t apply, and using them will get you silence. Faulconer’s questions ( and Julie Smith’s ) are much more thought and discussion-provoking.

  8. When I taught GD, I found the simpleness of putting the chapters being discussed ex. Genesis 1-7 in the upper left hand corner of the board to be a no-brainer. I can’t tell you the number of people who thanked me for that. (Spoiler Alert: People rarely read the lesson beforehand). I’m amazed so few teachers do this.

    I lived in a ward where the GD teacher picked a person each week to be his scripture reader. Instead of asking who would like to read each time a scripture is read or found, there s/he was ready to go. I believe that he gave a list of scriptures to read or may have bookmarked it beforehand. No more catching people who didn’t bring their scriptures, catching those reading scores on ESPN on their devices, calling on people with anxiety or discomfort reading in public, etc. I remember thinking if I was asked to teach again I would replicate that.

  9. “I’m amazed so few teachers do this.”

    Yes!! I’ve attended half a dozen different wards this summer, and it’s frustrating to not have any clue what lesson we’re on until the teacher has been talking for 5 minutes already.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Sometimes you can stir things up by asking an innocently provocative question. I read a story once about Lowell Bennion visiting another ward and attending the elders quorum, and someone was teaching a deadly dull lesson on home teaching. So he raised his hand and asked “Why do we find it so difficult to do our home teaching?” and the floodgates opened with lots of thoughtful commentary from the rest of the class.

  11. Kevin, my favorite teacher does that during the third hour. Just asks a really simple, provocative question and lets the conversation go where it wants to.

  12. Michelle L says:

    I don’t read the lesson manual at all, other than to get the scripture reading for that week. Usually, the reading encompasses way more than I’m able to cover, so I pick 1-2 concepts that I want to go in-depth on and stick to that. I also make a point to read aloud alternative translations of the text during almost every lesson.

    I’ve also tried to incorporate different study techniques that I’ve seen modeled by other religious teachers/traditions. For instance, I started going to a Torah study class held weekly at one of the local Synagogues. The Rabbi there will often cover just 8-10 verses per 90 minute class, with lots of discussion from class members. She also brings in different perspectives & quotes, many of which contradict each other, from other Rabbis or Jewish thinkers and allows the class to wrestle with various interpretations. I’ve also learned a bit about the Jesuit practice of “Imaginative Prayer” (see here: and I use that technique a lot with the class in the more narrative-heavy lessons. When the lesson IS narrative-heavy, I try really hard to get the class to empathize with the “villain.”

    But mostly, like some other commenters have said, I just try to come up with one or two challenging questions based on the reading and let the discussion unfold from there.

  13. I teach GP but the majority of the 30 or so attendees are long term members who just prefer the class to GD. In preparing, I glance at the manual, but I prefer not to let it influence me too much. I really dislike how the manuals have a principle and then a scripture that ‘prove’ the principle. To me, that has always seemed a backwards way to teach people how to understand the scriptures.

    So instead I take the scriptures from the manual and focus the classroom time on pulling lessons out of them. Sometimes this takes me a bit far afield from the exact topic of the lesson, but almost always it comes back around – if not in the exact way the manual wants it to.

    Also, I don’t avoid the hard questions. If anything, I seek hard questions, which always gets me lots of discussion. I do call ‘speculation’ on people if needed, but for the most part it is all good.

    I will say that I have yet to take a boring lesson taught by someone else and make it interesting. I know HOW to do it (start asking interesting questions), but most of the time when a teacher is super-boring, it’s because they don’t know how to teach, they are scared, etc. I don’t want to make things too hard on them. Which in a way is too bad, because we’ve had several interesting topics come up that really were discussion worthy, but the very young, very nervous person teaching the lesson couldn’t have handled it.

    The other thing I do that has works really well, is print out all the most pertinent scriptures I am going to use (that would be the actual words of the scriptures) and post them on the board as we discuss. This solves the problem of those that haven’t brought scriptures and gives the class a focal point for discussion that I really like. Of course, some days the board is covered in scriptures…

  14. My favorite Sunday School/RS teacher is a literature expert. I love her lessons because she’ll say “I wanted to understand the context behind this quote from President ____. It doesn’t make any sense that he would say ‘xyz’ at the time, so I dug up his original sermon.” She questions all ellipses. Every so often she’ll share that the original source gives an unrelated (or even opposite) message from the manual’s spin. Everyone listens to her. Some class members don’t like her evil speaking of the manual’s appointed, but most of us appreciate her verve.

  15. “evil speaking of the manual’s appointed”, . .. ha, stealing that. THANKS

  16. I’d echo the “Faulconer’s questions ( and Julie Smith’s ) are much more thought and discussion-provoking.” (I think that was Ben S.) But when I was teaching I found it much easier than that. When I read the scriptures — the real text and not just proof-texting snippets — and do it without prejudging (without the “I’ve read this a dozen times and I know what it’s about” snark) then almost every time I have a “WHAT’S GOING ON HERE??” reaction. And there’s the lesson.

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    How to create an environment where discussion happens, ideas are shared, and the class is meaningful from a teacher who still cuts out the lesson, passes out scripture blocks, member of the class read, but the teacher comments.”
    Not possible. Some things cannot be overcome. This is the worst form of teaching. Well, it’s not actually teaching.

  18. Jason K., I will be sure to call you out in the middle of class if I ever see you use the manual!

  19. “How to create an environment where discussion happens, ideas are shared, and the class is meaningful from a teacher who still cuts out the lesson, passes out scripture blocks, member of the class read, but the teacher comments.”

    Come prepared with some thought provoking questions of your own. Then, you’ve got to be bold and say something like, “When I was reading this passage earlier this week I had this question. I was wondering if anyone in the class might have any thoughts.” If the teacher tries to answer the question, thank him or her and then say, “That’s an interesting thought. Does anyone else have any ideas?”

    You can’t do this too often or the teacher might get offended, but sometimes it works great in getting everyone engaged.

  20. FWIW, the Teaching: No Greater Call manual explicitly authorizes hijacking “ineffective” lessons with good questions.

  21. I always read the KJV of the scriptures being discussed, and then at least one other translation (NIV or RSV) to see if there is something to be gained from them. Almost always I find something to share with the class from another translation.

%d bloggers like this: