Gospel Discussion Group

From time to time I’ve made oblique references on the blog to a Gospel Discussion Group my wife and I were a part of in the mid-90s here in the Chicago area. I remember that as an idyllic time, and I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you more about it.

The Group (which didn’t really have a name; we just called it “Gospel Discussion Group,” hereafter “Group”) was organized by Jon and Colleen Thomas in the fall of 1990, and held its first meeting in January of 1991. It lasted about five or six years, and started to wind down in 1996-97. Originally it was strictly a City of Chicago affair, but when Jon and Colleen moved out to the suburbs, later followed by a couple of other group members, the geography of the Group broadened, and that is when my wife and I joined.

On October 15, 1990, Jon and Colleen sent a sort of prospectus letter to a number of carefully selected families (i.e,., families they thought might be open to such an invitation) in thier ward. The letter read in part as follows:

This is not a chain letter. This is not an announcement. This is not an advertisement. In fact, we’re not really sure what to call this–maybe a feeler. We would like to find out whether there are church members in the area who are interested in participating in a  monthly or bimonthhly gospel discussion group. It would most likely involve getting together for an hour or two on Sunday night (baby sitting could be worked out if enough are interested).

The kind of group we envision is one in which committed Latter-day Saints can discuss and pursue gospel topics/issues that can’t be covered in depth during our church meetings. It would most likely involve reading passages of scripture or articles dealing with Church history, theology, and contemporary religious experience. Articles could be drawn from magazines and journals such as BYU Studies, The Ensign, Sunstone, Dialogue, Chirstianity Today and Bible Review. This would not be a forum for discussing “every wind of doctrine” or esoteric religious interests; but a diversity of topics and perspectives would be encouraged.

Jon and Colleen organized the Group for basically three reasons. First, there were lots of really thoughtful, informed articles on Mormon history, doctrine and culture being published in a variety of LDS-related magazines, journals and books, which they thought ward members interested in a more scholarly approach to gospel study might be interested in. Second, they wanted to create an intimate environment to discuss with friends what they were reading related to all things Mormon. Third, they wanted to provide a forum to help members  who were or might be troubled by difficult or challenging things about the Church.

Their initial thought was that they would need a minimum of ten positive responsese to make the Group a worthwhile thing to pursue; they actually got 15, so the Group was on. On January 6, 1991, they sent out a letter announcing the first meeting, which would be held on January 27th at 7:00 p.m.

My recollection of the way the Group worked is as follows: we met the fourth Sunday of every month, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The venue rotated among the houses of Group members. Every meeting had a moderator, which also rotated. The moderator would pick a subject in advance, and provide Group members with two articles or book chapters (occasionally three) on that topic, but ideally from different perspectives. If the moderator needed help coming up with articles to read, Jon would help select some from his extensive library. We would start with prayer, maybe sing a hymn (I don’t quite remember), and then the moderator would introduce that evening’s subject and the readings and give an overview. Then he or she would lead a discussion of the readings. My sense was that these discussions were always animated and productive; I scarcely can recall any dead time at all. Everyone was thoroughly engaged. (And yes, of course there were refreshments after; we are after all Mormons, are we not?)

We didn’t just discuss Gospel topics; often the conversation would veer to issues of the day, or favorite movies, books and music. In that sense it was like any good book group.

Although bringing in invited speakers (a la Miller-Eccles) was the exception, not the rule, occasionally we would do that. Examples included Stephen Ricks (on the Dead Sea Scrolls) and Gordon Allred (both before my time there). The one I remember was a local RLDS pastor, whom we hosted at my house. That was a fantastic evening, as we got to  compare and contrast elements of practice between our two traditions. (That was when I learned that the RLDS [now CoC] tithe only after basic living expenses, and that they even have a little form you fill out.)

These evenings were filled with much laughter, good will, and sometimes profound insights, and we formed strong and long-lasting friendships from within that Group.

As of January 1995 the Group had studied and discussed some 78 articles or book chapters. Listing all of those here would be impracticable; instead, I’ll list every tenth title or so (a tithe, if you will) just to give you a taste of some of the things we studied:

Abunuwara, E. (1981). Nothing Holy: A Different Perspective of Israel. Dialogue, 22. 93-101.

Berry, W. (1987). Men and Women in Search of Common Ground. Sunstone, 11. 8-12.

Clark, H.G. (1955). Millions of Meetings, 18-35.

Hatch, O.G. Civic Virtue: Wellspring of Liberty. National Forum, 34-38.

Kimball, S.W. (1976). Absolute Truth. Ensign. September, 3-8.

Nibley, H. (1991). How to Get Rich. In H. Nibley, Approaching Zion (pp. 178-201). Salt Lake City, UT, Deseret Book.

Peterson, G.B. (1987).Priesthood and Latter-day Saint Women: Eight Contemproary Definitions. In M. U. Beecher and L.F. Anderson (Eds.), Sisters in Spirit. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, R.P. (1986).Science: A Part of or Apart from Mormonism? Dialogue, 19, 106-113.

Wood, G.S. The Intellectual Origins of the American Constitution. National Forum. 5-8, 13.

Why did the Group peter out? Mainly from people moving. Also, at some point Jon was called as a bishop and the time commitment just became too much. For many years we would talk about gearing it up again, but the inertia was strong and it just never happened.

Still, I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for the few years I was able to be a part of the Group. It’s an experience I wish many of our young people could have, which would, I hope, as it did for me, lead them to a richer and more textured faith.

Comments

  1. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Where have all the study groups gone?

  2. Good memories! I don’t know your Group, but I know of and have been involved in conversations that sound similar. When it worked, in my experience, there were three characteristics or rules that helped make it work. First was a tentativeness–this is not about THE answer, but about possibilities and ways of thinking and approaches. Second was a lack of or avoidance of authority. To turn that around, having someone in the group announce “by virtue of my age/calling/position/authority my view is truth” is a real spoiler. Third, more formalized, I’ve always found the “quote but don’t attribute” rule, sometimes called the Chatham House rule, conducive to a rich discussion.
    I wonder if this kind of group works today? I’ve been involved in very interesting ad hoc group conversations in the last year. However, I worry that an ongoing every-fourth-Sunday type group would quickly disintegrate because there are too many hard edges. Too many discussions that devolve into “in or out?” Too much anger over the exclusion policy. Divisive attention to historicity. Strong and irreconcilable views about women’s role in the Church.
    I am regularly amazed at how well BCC works–amazed for general avoidance of all the same problems.

  3. “Where have all the study groups gone?”

    Every time I talk with someone about starting up a study group, I hear the same phrase: “Didn’t the church issue a statement not to have them any more?” I’ve looked, and looked, and looked, and I can’t really find anything to support that. I can find a few vague statements that don’t address study groups, but other groups that might contribute to some elements that can be taken to extremes (see First Presidency statement about Self-Awareness groups, published in LDS Church News on June 9, 2001) – no link, because I don’t want it to be caught in a spam filter. But there’s nothing concrete.

    Add to that the overly conservative nature of many leaders, and I ask the same thing – what changed? Where did the study groups go? And what happened to rigorous discussions? The blogs are still a good place for discussion, but comments aren’t what they used to be. And the Facebook groups? I don’t know if I have ever met a more wretched hive of scum and villainy (and I say this as a moderator of one of the big ones).

    Kudos to Millers-Eccle and Dialogue for recording and publishing theirs on the Dialogue podcast feed. That’s the closest I can get to a real study group.

  4. Sounds wonderful.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    brandt, before I posted I did some searching on the web to see if I could find a Church statement against study groups, and I couldn’t find one, either. It seems to be one of those things people think they remember but doesn’t actually exist.

  6. Here was the text of the June 9, 2001 letter from the First Presidency to be read in sacrament meetings, for those who might be interested. Again, this was the closest I could find:

    It has come to our attention that some commercial enterprises promising heightened self-esteem, improved family relationships, increased spirituality and the like by participating in their programs are implying Church endorsement. Such claims are untrue and unfounded.

    The Church has not endorsed any such enterprise. Neither should the Church’s failure to formally challenge any such enterprise coming to its attention be construed as a tacit endorsement or stamp of approval.

    We repeat the counsel set forth in the Church Handbook of Instruction, page 157:

    “Church members should not participate in groups that:

    1. Challenge religious and moral values or advocate unwarranted confrontation with spouse or family members as a means of reaching one’s potential.

    2. Imitate sacred rites or ceremonies.

    3. Foster physical contact among participants.

    4. Meet late into the evening or in the early-morning hours.

    5. Encourage open confession or disclosure of personal information normally discussed only in confidential settings.

    6. Cause a husband and wife to be paired with other parties.”

    We strongly counsel against affiliation with any such group and warn against believing any claim of Church approval, tacit or otherwise, by any private organization offering “experiential” or “empowerment” training.

    Sincerely yours,
    Gordon B. Hinckley
    Thomas S. Monson
    James E. Faust

  7. jlouielucero says:

    My friends and I have been doing this exact thing since 2006. We do it mostly monthly and have had 6 core families but have had 20 or so other individuals some in and out of the group. Many attendees were less active or even former members. Some came back some didn’t but it was always a great experience for them. I am very thankful for the group and we have no plans to stop anytime soon and I hope to include my kids as they get older. I wish more people did them but it does require someone like your Jon to organize and keep it going.

  8. One of my friends in the London YSA ward hosted ~monthly discussion and soup evenings (church finished at 4pm, we tended to begin at 6-7pm and go until 10pm). My first was talking about the parable of the prodigal son, and everyone brought such interesting perspectives from varied faith traditions and personal experience, I didn’t miss another one (as long as I was in the country).

    My favourite was when we all brought a creation story from another culture to share, and did the contrasting/comparing together. It was so much fun, that we ended up searching the Internet for many more.

    It kind of fizzled when some of the stalwart attendees moved away, and our bishop, right before beginning my temple recommend interview (for my endowment) before I went back to Australia the next week, grilled me about it a little, saying he’d heard we might be inviting the spirit of contention, or fostering doubt, or something like that. He was clearly kind of worried about us meeting to discuss church-related issues without any oversight (he was less worried when I mentioned that we’d discussed climate change, and favourite poetry at recent gatherings), but I mostly chalk that up to good natured worrying. Still, there does seem to be some friction involved, and I haven’t started my own since I moved away in part because I don’t want that drama.

    There was one super cool informal fireside up here in Seattle that I went to one time (with the book about Job guy!), and I heard it was a semi-frequent event, but I haven’t heard of another. (Going to search my spam now, in case I was just missing the emails).

    Kevin, you’ve given me a very specific kind of homesickness! Darn you, and thank you for sharing this.

  9. Gavin Duckworth says:

    Kevin,

    Long time reader of BCC for years but haven’t commented. This seems like the right time. I don’t expect you to remember me or my wife, Emilee, but we attended the Chicago discussion group 9 or 10 times in 1996 and 1997. We were very young (in our mid twenties). We had married 6 months earlier in Utah, graduated from BYU, and started work in Chicago.

    We became good friends with the Bishop and his wife in our Chicago ward, and they invited us to come to the group discussion. As I look back, I realize now how that invitation really set the course for our adult church lives. We loved the group. We had never even heard of Lowell Bennion. We had never been in a setting at church where adults talk about the Gospel in an unscripted, vulnerable, non-correlated way. It was so refreshing.

    Jon and Colleen asked us to lead a discussion on church marketing and how it can be helpful and how it could potentially present some issues. We had no idea what we were doing but for the first time, we started to think about our lives in the church and the related culture and all that goes with it apart from our primary/seminary/institute/mission instruction. And we had the chance to talk in a non-correlated way among a circle of faithful members. It was amazing.

    We were so sad to leave Chicago after just a couple of years. We have never been able to find or replicate such a group. That said, it opened the door for us to seek out friends in the church that were interested in discussing things as they really are and things as they really may be.

    Many of our close friends have left the church over the past few years. I feel strongly that those early years in Chicago helped me grapple with difficult issues as I started my adult years. Talk about inoculation. I’ve had 20 years to work on these things and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I believe those discussion groups gave me a framework of considering not just the difficult/bad side of things but to see the beauty as well.

    You were a great moderator/commenter in those groups, Kevin. Thank you. I also wish that everyone could have the experience that we all had.

    Gavin Duckworth

  10. We belong to a group that is currently meeting on a regular basis to discuss topics includi but not limited to the church and the gospel. It sounds a lot like your group except for two fairly significant differneces: all of the members of our group are either uncorrelated/unorthodox Mormons or have left the church, and we have wine. It’s fabulous, I highly recommend a few bottles of wine for any group discussion – especially if it involves church issues!

  11. Thanks for sharing. It makes me want to create a group amongst friends. A few weeks ago I heard someone mention that in one stake somewhere, there was a gospel doctrine class specifically for people who are struggling with the church where the format was more open and people could bring up their questions or difficulties. Do you think that same type of kinship and usefulness could exist in some way in that second hour of church?

  12. brandt, as I recall, the disapprobation directed towards study groups occurred in the early 90s, at a similar time to the September 6 drama, though perhaps a little earlier than that. A study group hadn’t been going for very long in my parents ward in the English Midlands when it had to be discontinued. It was around this time that the CES Institute library in London had to clear out all unapproved material. These instructions had to have come down from somewhere.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Gavin! Thanks so much for coming here and sharing your perspective of what the group was like and how it was helpful to you and your wife.

    ashmae, since I teach GD I try to sort of replicate that vibe in my classes, but it’s hard to do in such a formal setting. (Maybe wine is the answer after all…)

  14. This sounds wonderful. Although I did sigh a bit at the “carefully selected” part. I am sure that we would not have been invited because we don’t have a lot of friends at church. I can understand why one would feel the need to create a protected space, but the exclusion can be hurtful.

    In my stake, the single adults have had a twice-monthly gospel study group for years. We’ve had “Know Your Religion” series. And many of the stakes have had adult Institute classes aimed at older folks, including when we were in Brasil.

    So many of us spend our Sundays teaching or serving others, that our own gospel study and interactions with others to discuss adult issues may be lacking. I love it when Ardis posts her Gospel Doctrine lessons but it isn’t the same.

  15. I also think that GD can be a challenge because you have people at so many different levels in their understanding….when I taught, I had two non-members who regularly attended, so I had to explain a lot of terminology.

  16. Hedgehog/Brandt – Yes, very early 90’s is what I remember as well. I recall hearing it read out in Sacrament mtg., but really not sure. I remember it because I remember asking my dad what the issue was, and thinking it was crazy that people would want to get together to talk about more Church stuff when there was already so much Church to begin with.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Naismith, I think “carefully selected” wasn’t about exclusion but about who would be open to the concept. Even without a Handbook provision directive against study groups, many Saints would be extremely skittish about such an uncorrelated activity. Anyone who heard about it and wanted to come was welcome.

  18. A group of friends gathering together to better understand the gospel is one those things I long for. I know many of the people involved in the group Kevin discusses and several are very good friends. We had newly moved into the area when Jon and Colleen’s group was flourishing so didn’t get a chance to participate but I know from extensive discussions with some of the other participants this was a very faithful effort. Somehow I knew you were part of the group Kevin but for whatever reason we never talked about it.

    The question that always gets asked is at what point does such a group shift away from the local group of empty nesters gathering to read scriptures together on Thursday mornings to something more problematic? Why do we ask that question?

    As for what caused this belief that “the brethren frown upon study groups” a little review of history helps.

    This General Conference talk by Elder Oaks in 1989 warning of the dangers of “Alternate Voices” along with the Church Handbook warning below are part and parcel of the late 80’s into the 90’s shift away from Study Groups.

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1989/04/alternate-voices?lang=eng

    The Church warns its members against symposia and other similar gatherings that include presentations that (1) disparage, ridicule, make light of, or are otherwise inappropriate in their treatment of sacred matters or (2) could injure the Church, detract from its mission, or jeopardize its members’ well-being. Members should not allow their position or standing in the Church to be used to promote or imply endorsement of such gatherings.

    Armand Mauss explored the question to what extent Sunstone and similar symposia were the target in this Sunstone article the year following Elder Oaks’ talk:

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/076-07-10.pdf [warning PDF]

    In closing Mauss outlines a “Decalogue for Dissenters” which makes for interesting reading. It’s something that anyone who has questions about the Church’s stance on any particular issue should consider. I wonder to what extent with the publishing of such deep history as we’re seeing today whether those rules are possibly softened somewhat.

    There was at least one fundamentalist offshoot that evolved out of small gatherings of members in their homes discussing deep elements of the scriptures around that time period. The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Day in Manti is the highly visible point of concern that likely caused a smiley face to be turned upside down toward studying deeply.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_and_Living_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Saints_of_the_Last_Days

    Those were all the elements that came to mind as I considered the question, “where did all the study groups go?”

    Thanks for sharing the group’s history Kevin.

  19. Thanks for sharing this – sounds like it would be a fantastic group to be a part of. One question (and I don’t mean to hijack the conversation): Your reading list excerpt is the first I’d ever heard that Wendell Berry spoke at a Sunstone symposium, and I’m intrigued. Anyone know more about this?

  20. …some commercial enterprises promising heightened self-esteem, improved family relationships, increased spirituality and the like by participating in their programs are implying Church endorsement.

    Or, in other words, Deseret Book. Time Out For Women, I’m looking at you.

  21. Can someone knock my comment out of moderation please?

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I just did, Alain. Thanks for the comment.

  23. In the context of “study group,” I participated in a nondenominational Christian study group that may or may not have had as its undercurrent goal of conversion to a born again Christian group. I went regularly, as my husband was in grad school, they had a kid play area in the basement, and it was a reason to be motivated to read my scriptures. Also, right next door in the icy cold of Western NYS, I didn’t have to drive.

    I learned so much that year, about what I believed, backed up my testimony with great stuff from the NT, and also learned I could co-exist and agree to disagree with good friends and followers of Christ, *and still fellowship together* in our study of the Word. That study group blessed my life forever in a year that was very hard and dark for other reasons.

    I believe in study, at this point we have those discussions with our teen kids.

    Romans 14 forever.

  24. We have a study group in or ward. We meet Wednesday afternoons. It’s just a half dozen or so little old ladies and isn’t really intellectual, but we do learn stuff. When I joined the group a few years back, we were part way into a study of Talmage’s “Jesus the Christ.” We have since done a couple of books about Eliza R Snow, “The Savior in Kirtland,” Camille Fronk Olsen’s “Women of the Old Testament,” a small book about the Christus statue, among others. We are currently studying the Pearl of Great Price, which never gets much coverage in GD class. When we are finished with it, the leader of our group would like to do a biography about some church leader. I suggested Howard W. Hunter as DI has tons of copies of his biography for a couple of dollars. We old ladies have to watch our $$.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Sharee, good for you and your group!

  26. name withheld for this one says:

    Handbook 2: 21.1.40
    Symposia and Similar Gatherings

    The Church warns its members against symposia and similar gatherings that include presentations that (1) disparage, ridicule, make light of, or are otherwise inappropriate in their treatment of sacred matters or (2) could injure the Church, detract from its mission, or jeopardize its members’ well-being. Members should not allow their position or standing in the Church to be used to promote or imply endorsement of such gatherings.

    I don’t believe the handbook is speaking out against groups like Kevin’s, but I do know there has been much damage caused via some study groups in the past. I have personal experience with the ‘jeopardize its members’ well-being’ part of the warning.

    Where I live a “study group” was created in the late 90’s by an excommunicated mormon who entered the area and started such a group. The man truly was evil and created a cult following by exercising strict control over his followers. Several families were broken up and dozens excommunicated as the group became more and more isolated in following this man. The cult finally ended when the cult leader died. We’ve seen half a dozen members return and get rebaptised in the past ten years. I am a Bishop now and meet regularly with some of the still excommunicated members and their families who are dealing with the trauma and psychological damage from living within the cult. The damage is real and for those who were in the deepest its going to take years of therapy to recover.

    For good reason, old-timers around here gets skittish whenever somebody new moves in and suggests beginning a study group.

  27. Does anyone else find it really bizarre that the church has rules about people joining or studying with other groups (as described)? I mean, we’re adults right?

  28. When I was doing a post-doc, I was at a university where several faculty members were LDS, and there were enough LDS students that the church had purchased a nearby home for an institute building. A segment of the LDS faculty formed a study group that met for lunch at the institute and used one of the empty classrooms. It was a good time and helped us get to know each other and the Institute director who was a great guy. We took on issues like race, Mormon history, as well as historicity in the Bible and Mormon scripture. But largely it was just a fun timeout from the pressures of work and an opportunity to form friendships that helped us get through the ups and downs of life at the time. After about a year, someone in one of the three wards in the city became concerned that we were being led astray in some way, and complained to the stake presidency. It turned out that there were some stories circulating about the group that put us all in a pretty bad light. The stake complained to the regional CES director I think. We kept going for a while but none of us wanted to put a job in jeopardy, and we terminated our meetings, though we still had some occasional lunches at the Institute. Later I found out the stories were put out by one person who felt somehow excluded by the existence of such a group and a weird sort of jealousy developed. It was great while it was running and three of us ended out forming one of the ward bishoprics. I always hoped to recreate that experience at other universities where I worked, but things never worked out that way.

  29. WVS, I was fortunate enough to be part of a small lunch group with fellow students and the CES Institute director, in the late 80s in London. The church was so close, it was practically on campus. It was by far the best bit of Institute, IME, and I would agree with your assessment of the benefits. I also participated in weekly lunch groups organised on a departmental basis with one of the chaplains, in this case the Anglican chaplain, which I also found to be beneficial and thought-provoking.

  30. RT at 5:09 pm (and indirectly name withheld at 2:53pm): I don’t see a “rule” about joining or studying. I see a warning about certain gatherings, and experience that justifies a warning. I think we should avoid the tendency to turn warnings and advice and counsel into commands.
    I do see a rule about allowing or using position in the Church to promote or endorse. (And that one I applaud–it should be a rule.)

  31. youtalktoomuch says:

    You can stand in a field from dawn to dusk and talk about the gospel but at the end of the day the grass and the trees would have taught us more about the will of God

  32. Thanks, Kevin, for publicly documenting on BCC what was for Colleen and me our “Camelot” years for gospel group discussion. This will come as no surprise to BCC readers, but Kevin and Sandy’s contributions to that study group were instructive, substantive and expansive.
    We really miss those monthly gatherings with who would become lasting friends, generating thoughtful, humorous, and sometimes disruptive (in the good sense of that word) gospel conversations in an informal, homey environment. It was a needed complement to the more pastoral parts of our church service.
    Colleen and I would intermittently think about getting the gospel discussion band back together, but then I would always think that perhaps the bloggernacle was fulfilling that need for me and other like-minded Latter-day Saints on a vastly larger scale. Maybe I’ve been wrong about that. Shall we get it going again?