Death by (Correlation) Committee

Image result for primary teacher ldsA topic that often comes up in online discussion groups among Mormons is the teaching manuals. As most of us know, these are written by a committee called the Curriculum Committee (under the oversight of the Correlation Committee). [3] “Correlation” was a byproduct of decades-long efforts to standardize materials, culminating in the 1960s, a huge effort to amass all leadership, budgets, publications, and teaching materials under one hierarchical, priesthood-overseen umbrella rather than separate auxilliary heads as it had been in the past. (See footnote 3 for a much more thorough explanation of the history.) This was to quash rogue teaching that might occur when these things were being done under separate oversight. As with anything where uniformity is the goal, blandness and groupthink is often the result (whereas rogue teaching, inequity, and folklore is often the result of the other approach). Because teachers in the church are average church members using these manuals to the best of their ability, lesson quality varies greatly. Additionally, everyone who has held a teaching calling (and that’s most active members) has an opinion on the materials they are provided and how effective they are.

You can listen to a podcast describing the curriculum process here. Just reading the overview of it on that same page is very interesting. You can read the transcript of an interview with Dan Peterson about his time on the Curriculum Writing committee here.

On a different discussion thread, several people mentioned that they had been asked to participate in an online survey about curriculum, so there does seem to be a desire to improve. The process to gather feedback sounded robust and included reviewing actual supplementary materials like videos and handouts. On the downside, if participants did not currently hold a calling (not restricted to teaching callings), they were quickly weeded out of the survey process without an explanation why. It’s unclear why their feedback would not be gathered, as there are many reasons someone might not currently hold a calling – recently moved, ward split, etc. – that don’t denote that they aren’t actively engaged with the curriculum. Survey methodology could simply separate feedback based on a variety of demographics.

Be that as it may, as you can imagine, very few people are gushing about the high quality of our teaching manuals in these online discussions (else why discuss them?). Generally speaking, the complaints fall into a few buckets:

  • Lack of accuracy / white-washing. This is a bigger concern in the Gospel Doctrine manuals where some of the “traditional” information may now be known to be misleading or “optimistic” in its portrayal of facts, although a few Primary and youth speakers also noted misleading stories and examples in the teaching materials.
  • Topics chosen are not Christ-centered. This is particularly of concern for teaching the Primary children and the youth who may be less familiar with the parables and stories of Jesus. Our kids seem to be pretty Biblically illiterate beyond some proof-texted memorization.
  • Lessons are too repetitive. Particularly the new youth curriculum which focuses on a topic each month, and then that same topic is used for both the 2nd and 3rd hour. Gospel Doctrine is of course repetitive because we rotate the same 4 books of scripture every 4 years. The RS/PH curriculum that focuses on one of the modern day prophet’s teachings for a full year is another one with a lot of repetition, depending on which year. For example, Pres. Hunter was in office less than the year we spent using his material as lesson fodder. (However, that one was a pretty good one, IMO).
  • Boring / not thought provoking / all milk and no meat. While it’s true that our lessons shouldn’t be a bear-baiting of controversial topics that have no real bearing on how to live a more Christian life in the coming week, when you are repeating the same materials as often as we are, offering some fresh perspective or interesting content is helpful. This is one place where the limits of correlation really shows (by contrast to manuals from earlier days).

Some previous curricula were written by individual church historians and scholars (for some great examples, see this top 10 list); I’m partial to the O.C. Tanner manuals. The current crop of writers seem to be a dull lot. Maybe that’s because they are each individually unthinking dullards, but more likely the curricula is suffering from a widely known phenomenon: death by committee, the stifling effect bureaucracy has on the creative process. An individual author may create something interesting, fresh and thought-provoking, but a committee of authors will create mindless pablum that is inoffensive and innocuous, fit only to line bird cages [1]. This phenomenon is well known in business.

Now, before we get too far down this path, let me clarify that I’m sure plenty of the teachers and students are also unthinking dullards who would ruin even the best teaching manuals with their insipid and uninspired comments. Granted. And truth be told, a great teacher can make something out of even the most threadbare material. For example, I could listen to President Uchtdorf read a page out of the phone book, but that’s probably 90% the cool accent. I digress. But first, regardless the quality of teachers and students, let’s start with great materials. All boats rise with the tide, and the curriculum is the tide.

A few very interesting comments came up when individuals asked leaders about the terrible curriculum. There seems to be a blame-the-victim approach:

I wrote to the curriculum committee once and asked why, on the Sunday before Christmas, we were discussing missionary work. Someone wrote back and said there was nothing preventing me from discussing Christmas in my family.

I’m relieved to know that the Correlation Committee decided not to prevent people from discussing Christmas in their families. Whew!

A few months ago my daughter expressed concern to her stake president that her five children were not learning about Christ in church meetings. His response: ‘Don’t expect your children to learn about Christ in church. You will need to teach them in the home.’

Image result for primary teacher ldsGood one. Of course, that makes me wonder why then do we go to church? Why is teaching about Jesus AT CHURCH a subversive idea? Another observation from a different commenter:

I was so embarrassed when we visited an evangelical church and the children came out of their children’s class telling me about the story of the loaves and fishes and they didn’t remember ever hearing it before!

Now, I’m sure we could excuse this by saying that we have the FULLNESS of the gospel to teach, whereas all they have is Jesus. But let’s get the priorities straight here. Our kids don’t have the foundations yet; they are still just kids. The more we teach about Jesus, the better. If our kids are illiterate about Jesus, no wonder everyone says we aren’t Christians. Another Primary President noted that she is baffled that the curriculum was focused on tithing and modesty–for pre-pubescent children–while those same children were mostly unfamiliar with the stories of Jesus. Our priorities seem a little off track.

So how do we make change? Well, the surveys should be a way to improve the materials. Another suggestion:

If you want the curriculum to change, you’ve got to have a different group of people writing it. We can’t expect these folks to all of a sudden come up with historically accurate, deeply considered material. Didn’t the Savior say something about new wine in old wine skins? I don’t understand why the Brethren won’t change this model. It’s obviously not working. I’d love to see some honest to goodness Mormon theologians and historians come together to write new lessons.

This sounds fantastic to me. In the attached podcast, the introductory note lays out the nine steps in the curriculum process and boasts that the materials are reviewed by hundreds of people before they are distributed. Hundreds! Well, I’m not some country bumpkin, impressed by the number of editors. Sometimes more is less, and this is one of those times. In addition to the creativity-strangling aspect of committees, there’s a psychological phenomenon known as bystander effect as well as a few other related psychological effects.

The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present.

This is why when 38 people overheard a woman screaming while being murdered in 1964 New York, nobody called the police (you can read about the murder of Kitty Genovese here) [4]. They all thought someone else would do it, or they were only partly attentive to what was happening. In the case of curriculum, the “victims” are the people who use the materials either as instructors or students: the recipients of the materials (as opposed to Kitty G., the recipient of murder). So in editing a document, if 100 people review it, the majority of them will assume it must be OK as it is because if not, somebody else would fix it. There’s another term for this:

Social loafing” basically means when people tend to spend less effort to achieve a goal when they’re working in a group.

Image result for lds gospel doctrine teacherThe greater the number of people who are involved with something the less any individual will feel responsible for the outcome. As a leader in business, it was certainly my experience that the more people who were asked to “sign off” on a document, the fewer who actually read it. I would often ask my peers if they had read such-and-such a document, and if we had all been asked to read it, most of them had not or had “skimmed it,” which usually means they read about the first paragraph and looked at any tables or charts, and then signed off. The clever ones might memorize a key phrase to demonstrate knowledge of the document to a superior if requested. If there was ever a problem, people would quickly point out that the document was X pages long, so maybe they had missed that one part. Yeah, right.

For those who have seen or read Julius Caesar, this is also the powerful idea behind all of them plunging a dagger into Caesar: no one person can be held accountable for the outcome. They all share the blame and the credit, so effectively nobody is accountable. In editing, it’s more likely that nobody will plunge the dagger, though, because evaluators are aware they are being watched:

Evaluation apprehension theory predicts that when we work in the presence of others, our concern over what they will think can enhance or impair our performance. We see the effects of evaluation apprehension in brainstorming sessions.

In other words, nobody wants to be “that guy.” Everyone wants to move that paper along and sign it off and get it off their desk so they can get back to their other stuff. People don’t want to be the one cog that doesn’t move the paper through the machine. They don’t want to be the bottleneck. They don’t want others to see them as “different” or “outside group norms.” This can affect the quality of their feedback as well. While it may be “safer” to bring up a typo or a grammatical change, it might be “risky” to point out larger issues like the content or topics chosen or to point out that the traditional view of the material is not accurate or needs to be updated. Cultural norms prevail.

Social facilitation, or the audience effect, is the tendency for people to perform differently when in the presence of others than when alone. Compared to their performance when alone, when in the presence of others, they tend to perform better on simple or well-rehearsed tasks and worse on complex or new ones.

So the higher the number of reviewers, the worse the finished product. Nobody wants to be creative or point out a flaw others accepted or express a contrary opinion because that can cause backlash toward them or put them under scrutiny. In our highly authoritarian church culture, this is especially difficult for average people to do; if they have titles or credentials to back them up, they may feel more confident in dissenting, but most of our curriculum committee consists of average people who have taught seminary or other secondary education roles [2]. Teaching and writing curriculum are not the same thing, and neither require any theological degrees or background in our church. Reviewers have the majority weight of the other reviewers to consider, as well as how their intervention will be perceived by others, peers in the process, as well as superiors.

Audience inhibition might explain why people are reluctant to intervene in response to a potential emergency. People become concerned about other people negatively appraising their altruistic behaviour.

Nobody wants to be pinpointed as the one who disagreed with everyone else. Standing alone is different when you are working with one other person than when you are working with 99 who are all fine with the status quo (but in reality probably haven’t even read the thing completely or may not have the skills or background to identify errors).

So, back to the curriculum. Let’s get your thoughts.

  • Do you think the curriculum is getting better or worse over time? Defend your answer in the comments.
  • How can we continually improve the curriculum to bring people closer to Christ? What’s lacking today, if anything, in your opinion. What would you do differently?
  • Is the curriculum development process a positive or negative in your view?


[1] I think I’m channeling Mark Twain.

[2] Again, based on those in online discussion forums who know people on the committee.

[3] From Ardis’ comment in discussion thread: The Correlation Committee is, for instance, a different entity from the Curriculum Committee: One writes the lessons; the other oversees them, and all other phases of Church output, for adherence to standards. Both committees go back decades longer than the 1960s, under one name or another: Correlation goes back at least to the 19teens; Curriculum, under the names of the Reading Committee and the Publications Committee and others, goes back at least to the 1930s. Just this week I’ve been reading the reports of the Publication Committee on a dozen or more manuals from the 1940s and 1950s, supposedly the heyday of those independently written, mythically perfect manuals … and the level of picky detail (“page X, line Y: Change ‘John shows us Jesus saying …’ to ‘Jesus said …’ so as not to imply that John made up the saying for literary effect.”) show micromanagement by committee as much as any manual today is.

[4] Or according to this article, fewer than 38, and maybe someone did call the police, and who really knows, but it makes a good story to illustrate a point (and gave rise to the idea of the indifferent New Yorker who ignores crimes and minds his or her own business, leaving imperiled neighbors to die).


  1. “How can we continually improve the curriculum to bring people closer to Christ? What’s lacking today, if anything, in your opinion. What would you do differently?”

    I’m a lifetime teacher in the church – everything from early morning seminary to gospel doctrine to sunbeams. The number one change I’d like to see is a de-emphasis of certainty and re-emphasis on curiosity, exploring, uncertainty – and then giving students the skills/resources to actually explore/research/come-to-their-own-conculsions. The process itself brings one to Christ, especially hard-earned, light-bulb moments.

    There is of course a downside. Sometimes in exploring we find answers not everyone (especially those who have pre-decided which light-bulb understandings from God are ‘correct’ and which are not) is comfortable with.

  2. Angela C says:

    Retx: Your comment brought me to mind of a lesson (and song) from the Primary curriculum: “I know the scriptures are true.” Rather than teaching kids to assert this statement, shouldn’t we be focused on helping them to learn how to read and engage with scriptures and make them meaningful in their lives? Just telling them to claim to “know” this doesn’t seem like an effective long-term strategy to make the scriptures meaningful in their lives.

  3. When I last had a teaching calling, the single most important indicator of how effective a lesson would be was the degree to which I disregarded the manual’s instruction not to use outside materials. Consequently, it took me 10 to 15 hours to prepare each lesson, and I had access to the resources of a university library.

    Not that any of the foregoing answers your questions about the material, but I commiserate with the bear of a task it would be to get an engaging curriculum through the stultifying committee process.

  4. May I ask where I can find this other discussion thread about curriculum? I’d like to read all the comments for myself.

    And I do worry about the repetition. I was recently researching a talk, and went through all the RS/MP manuals. The tables of contents were so similar — just in a different order! I haven’t researched all the topics in detail, though I do remember that each successive prophet had a testimony of Joseph Smith, for instance. I wonder, if I went through and read all the statements about faith, for instance, if I would see that each prophet said pretty much the same thing, just in slightly different words.

    I’m also worried about the rumours I’ve been reading about the upcoming change in curriculum, where we will discuss the same topic each fourth Sunday for at least six months. I mean, sooner or later you will reach the point where everything has been said ad nauseum, and it might well be sooner. So I view this development of the curriculum as a negative — assuming this is truly the way it’s going. But as they say, cheer up, it might never happen! Although if it does not come to pass, then what will?

    As for ways to improve — I’m sorry. I don’t know. I’m currently the teacher for the fourth Sunday (conference talks) in my Relief Society, but I don’t consider myself a teacher. I don’t feel I actually teach anything. I just lead a discussion — or maybe I’m more of a talkshow moderator.

    Although to tell the awful truth, I consider myself more of a visual learner than anything else. I get bored if people talk too long or too much. So when I teach, I try to give what I personally would like to see. I use Powerpoint to show pictures that relate to the concepts we’re discussing. Whenever possible, I use pictures that involve women, because so much of our curriculum is men talking to and about men. I also write up the quotes I use from each talk, so that the sisters can read them for themselves, as well as having somebody read them out loud.

    But I wouldn’t suggest letting the Correlation Committee put out pre-prepared Powerpoint presentations to accompany each lesson!

  5. Yes, we need better, more engaging teaching materials in the Church.

    Otherwise, this post is like one of those pictures in a kids’ magazine where you see how many errors you can spot — the dog with six legs, the satellite dish on the covered wagon. The Correlation Committee is, for instance, a different entity from the Curriculum Committee: One writes the lessonbs; the other oversees them, and all other phases of Church output, for adherence to standards. Both committees go back decades longer than the 1960s, under one name or another: Correlation goes back at least to the 19teens; Curriculum, under the names of the Reading Committee and the Publications Committee and others, goes back at least to the 1930s. Just this week I’ve been reading the reports of the Publication Committee on a dozen or more manuals from the 1940s and 1950s, supposedly the heyday of those independently written, mythically perfect manuals … and the level of picky detail (“page X, line Y: Change ‘John shows us Jesus saying …’ to ‘Jesus said …’ so as not to imply that John made up the saying for literary effect.”) show micromanagement by committee as much as any manual today is.

    Manuals are generally terrible. I don’t mind teaching from them because I can take the stated lesson purpose and the assigned scriptural passage and write my own questions that are not limited to reading comprehension, and teach a satisfactory lesson that is close enough to the manual to escape condemnation yet interesting and suitable to my class. I hate being taught from the manuals by teachers who can’t do that.

    But wherever the fault lies, it isn’t something that can be fairly laid at the feet of some Correlation Bogeyman.

  6. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ardis’s posts consistently demonstrate BCC’s need for a “like” button.

  7. A much more defeated ReTx says:

    I listened to the podcast (twice!) and am so glad you recommended it. It was super interesting and super informative. I can see how hard the committees that are writing curriculum are genuinely trying.

    At the same I still found Bro. Marsh’s ideology (which I am assuming is prevalent in the upper echelons of the church) upsetting. Right now when I look around my sacrament room on Sunday, I see more people napping/playing on phones/staring off into the distance than paying attention (I won’t even comment on what is going on in Sunday School). It’s awful. I ache for an engaging, uplifting, inspiring, revelatory experience on Sundays. My prayers are that we will find a way to create such an experience for our members to replace the mind-numbing tedium of LDS church services/lessons. Let our Sunday services be meaningful and spiritual and God-touched. That this is possible for the future has been my hope.

    But then Bro. Marsh said this (typos possible):

    “…I would encourage members of the church to come to church, learn what they can there, but realize they are probably going to be frustrated if they want to go deep, but then go home and dig in all you want with anything. Read deeply, ready broadly, study whatever you can to inform yourself. I really believe that the Sunday experience was not meant to be all encompassing experience for us as far as gospel learning is concerned. We really have to learn to be self-reliant gospel learners and learn much on our own. Sunday is not going to do it for us.”

    I’m just stunned and somewhat angry about his words (which I acknowledge as I’m probably going to rant a bit here to get it off my chest). Gospel learning equates to spiritual learning, I feel like he is saying I should give up any hope of actual spiritual sustenance coming from LDS church services. No meat for us. Anything deep (non-milk, meaningful beyond the top ten popular topics) will not be served. If you are no longer an infant and a milk diet leaves you malnourished and starving, well you just go deal with that on your own as the church has nothing to offer. (Perhaps this is why no one is paying attention at church! It’s meant to ‘not do it for us’ and leave us ‘frustrated.’)

    But here is the thing then… If you are meat-eater, what is the point of going to church classes? For someone like me, an extreme introvert who finds LDS communities overwhelming and suffocating (and tends to be left out of social circles – which is fine by me), who isn’t interested in programs or social hierarchy. Why should I go? Why not just stay for the sacrament and leave so I can skip the boring lessons and use the time for self-study which (I know from experience) does provide the spiritual sustenance that is a religious life. Why, if I *can* find sustenance on my own and if the church is telling me it won’t be helping me anyway, why even go?

  8. Suzie Petunia says:

    We should move from a 3 hour to a 2 hour meeting schedule. I think lessons would be prepared more thoughtfully and there would be less repetition (the sort that makes us tune out).

    And THIS:
    “If our kids are illiterate about Jesus, no wonder everyone says we aren’t Christians.” AMEN and AMEN!

  9. Bro. B. says:

    ReTx, (wishing you less defeats and more victories ) your question at the end of your comment is compelling and should be a wake up call for people like me who have a calling that involves teaching as well as inviting people to teach lessons. Your comments, along with Ardis’ comments lead me to lay less responsibility on the correlation committee and more on myself and the individual instructor to have the courage to go a bit off the grid without going rogue. I’ve always enjoyed instructors willing to put themselves out there and make the material more personal. Also I echo the concern about not enough Christ-centered teaching. There are Sunday’s where His name barely gets mentioned if at all for the three hour block.

  10. Slightly less defeated after a nap ReTx says:

    Thank you Bro B! I just have to warn you that I follow the same philosophy of teaching off the grid, but sticking to the scriptures, the gospel, and church history. I got released from my last teaching calling even though I am a popular teacher because my ward leadership just wanted me to stick with the assigned material. I couldn’t in all good conscious do that and agreed to a quiet release. It’s the second time in a second ward that this has happened to me. I have tried to be really nice about it, but if I’m honest these experiences likely also fuel my anger at the idea that church should inherently be unfulfilling for many of us. I am willing to do the work to make lessons thoughtful and less rote. I know others are as well. But some people (some people with power to enforce their views) don’t want us to do so. So be careful. The second time it happened to me, I thought my lesson (that tipped the boat) was just fine. I didn’t see the problem coming.

  11. BCC conscience bgt says:

    I’m glad you’re not in the correlation committee, as you continue to spread the untrue myth that nobody called the police…

    “The murder of Kitty Genovese shifted from crime to legend a few weeks later, when The New York Times erroneously reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.”

  12. Angela C says:

    Ardis: I’ve amputated one of the six-legged dog’s legs, dismantled the satellite dish from the covered wagon and cobbled together the rest using your excellent comments. It’s still not quite ready for peer review, I’m sure. If I had you on retainer, I would have definitely checked with you first knowing that your grasp of the history is superior to my own (and practically everyone else’s). Thank you for weighing in. Oh that you were on the curriculum committee! (Or even better – teaching Gospel Doctrine in my ward). I do find it very interesting that the editorial process has always been very micromanaging as you say, although I suppose my fear is that more editors can mean less actual meaningful review.

    lizbusy: Thank you for pointing that out about the Kitty Genovese murder. I hadn’t seen the article you linked (now added as footnote 4). Just to clarify for those who haven’t read it, according to the WaPo article, she was murdered, and there were many people who overheard it, but records don’t name 38 witnesses (although it was below the windows of many apartments), and one witness claims she did call the police (although at least one investigator says it could be wishful thinking on her part, I’m inclined to believe her). Still, a useful story to encourage the public to be a bit more vigilant and neighborly.

    BCC Conscience: I am also glad I’m not on the curriculum committee. Sounds ghastly.

  13. Loursat says:

    This is a big deal. Every week I watch an exodus of otherwise active members going home after sacrament meeting because they find so little value in staying longer.

    The Curriculum Committee and the Correlation Committee (and any other such committees that may exist but have not yet been identified) have an exceptionally difficult problem. We damn them for creating bland and uninspiring materials, but it is unclear how they can create better materials without unleashing all the intolerable hobby horses that most of us like to ride. Nonetheless, that is their mandate. I’m with Defeated ReTx in finding the current committees’ lack of ambition inexcusable.

    Local leaders, in organizing our Sunday meetings, follow the guidelines created by the general authorities. I doubt that the general authorities have yet recognized the size of this problem, though they are obviously concerned. Two years ago they made a push for better personal observance of the Sabbath day. Currently there is an attempt to train teachers more effectively by the use of teacher councils. But these have been half-measures, at best. The problem is getting worse.

  14. I agree wholeheartedly with above comments about the need to focus on teaching about the Savior (especially New Testament). We need to really know what the Savior said and did.

    We also need to be more careful about the doctrine we teach our children, especially as it is taught through music Although there are many beautiful songs that DO teach wonderful doctrines, many of which the children love to sing because they feel the spirit strongly, there are some that can be confusing as far as doctrine goes.

    Example: When I was in senior Primary sharing time a few weeks ago, we were singing the song comparing being baptized to the world being washed clean by rain. The primary song leader made a remark about the children having been washed clean from their sins when they were baptized at age 8 (as referenced in the song). One of my kids (baptized last year) turned to me and said “but when we were baptized at 8 we didn’t have any sins because we weren’t accountable!” I told him that was a great observation and he was absolutely correct.

    Another instance not music related: In a different sharing time, a member of the primary presidency was giving a message and asked the children “when can we repent?” Her answer was “each week when we take the sacrament is a great time to repent because we can do it every week.” While the time of the sacrament ordinance is a time when we CAN repent, there is nothing in the sacramental prayers that mentions taking the sacrament as part of the repentance process. The prayers DO mention taking the sacrament as a witness that we will remember the Savior and keep his commandments so that we can have his spirit to be with us, which is a wonderful thing in itself. I worry that, over time, teachings like this can lead our children to “ritualize” the process of repentance (thinking that the very act of taking the sacrament brings forgiveness.”

    All members, but especially our children, deserve better curriculum and teaching.

  15. Mark Clark says:

    In terms of effectiveness, I think that the current correlated material is the most effective it could be in terms of maintaining the number of members at the highest level possible. It is NOT effective at impressing or maintaining intellectual members, such as the posters and commenters on this blog. But then, most of the church membership is not intellectual (I’m not saying they aren’t smart by saying that though). The unfortunate matter is that LDS church history and doctrine carries too much baggage and is too bizarre and the leaders do not derive any benefit from covering it in too much depth. The “pay, pray, obey” approach to curriculum development serves the interests of the LDS church leaders the best. If they could snap their fingers and make the damning history of Joseph Smith marrying a 14-year-old and the sheer implausibility of the historicity of the Book of Abraham, if not its impossibility, I’m sure they would. But they can’t. Hence their strategy has been to acknowledge hard-to-swallow issues once and then hope people forget about it.

    But if intellectual believers were able to determine what was taught at church, I’m afraid you would drastically increase the number of people leaving the LDS church altogether. Many people’s reactions to Joseph Smith marrying 14-year-olds is “I’ve heard enough” and then departure. The LDS church want to shield members from that sort of information. And seeming prophetic pedophilia is just the tip of iceberg, too.

  16. I believe that the curriculum is written for branches consisting of new members, which enables a member of a few years to be able to teach even newer members.
    So for non-rote learning, you’re going to need some personal study.
    But I’m currently in the point of life where personal study isn’t happening. Gospel Doctrine and Priesthood are the only chances I have to do anything without a toddler.
    The one year I taught the 11 year olds, I found it useful to not restrict myself to the scriptures in the lesson, but to the scriptures between the previous lesson and the next lesson. That forced a progression, with still providing the kids some different material.

  17. Angela C says:

    Mark Clark: “LDS church history and doctrine carries too much baggage and is too bizarre and the leaders do not derive any benefit from covering it in too much depth.” I don’t think the lessons should be a history lesson (and certainly not an inaccurate or white-washed history lesson at that!). The O.C. Tanner manual referenced in the link above actually had some really simple gospel topics, but with thought-provoking questions. Funny thing is, when I talk to fellow ward members who are just bored out of their minds with the Gospel Doctrine class, many of them find attending Gospel Principles to be a breath of fresh air. That doesn’t sound to me like delving into mysteries and histories is the solution.

    jader3rd: I wonder how we can improve personal study. The lessons as they are today sure aren’t getting many people interested in digging deeper outside of class.

  18. “I doubt that the general authorities have yet recognized the size of this problem…”

    I doubt that stake presidencies or bishoprics have any real idea of the problem. It seems most GAs, Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics do not spend their time in SS classes or RS classes or EQ or HPG classes. During many years of teaching Gospel Doctrine, some years of teaching Primary, some years of teaching teenage SS classes, and some years in an EQ Presidency, some as HP Group leader (and many more in either EQ or HPG meetings, I almost never saw a bishopric member or stake presidency member there. They, like GAs, were either in conferences, administrative meetings, or interviews. So what do they really know about the problem?

    The manuals for SS have been an outdated disaster for years; they were written to be used by all SS classes from age 12 through 112+ (except only the Gospel Principles class). The manuals for Pr/RS have not been much better for years. General Conference talk book reports are neither instructive nor motivating. But General Conference talks can be a good basis for preparing a lesson/discussion on an included topic. The SS manuals can be used the same way, IF local authorities are willing to permit it.

    I have been very lucky in 2 of my 3 stints teaching the GD class to be allowed a free hand to interest, engage and motivate the class with art, music, literary and linguistic analysis, cultural context, etc. going far beyond what is in the manuals or the Church library. While it is probably necessary to create manuals that can be used by teachers unable or unwilling to do that, and for class members unable or unready to engage at any level different from an 8-year-old, there is something to be said for including additional suggestions and guidance for those who are able to use it, and for “teaching correct principles and letting [the teachers] govern themselves.” In the meantime, now that I’m not teaching SS, I can sometimes improve the discussion by participating, or sometimes be much more helpful to someone in the hall class.

    The most frustrating issue in my limited experience has been the vast scope of Mormons’ biblical illiteracy. Many do not know the 4 gospels well enough to have much of an idea what Christianity is about. Even more do not know the KJV well enough to even know when its language was adopted by and may inform the meaning of the BM or the D&C. Even more do not have any idea what the KJV means with words like “peculiar” or “conversation,” etc. or what some words meant in the 1830s-40s when different from current American usage. JS with his 3d grade education was more biblically literate than most Mormons of my acquaintance with graduate degrees. Maybe we need to do something about it. In the meantime, there is no good reason we can’t be teaching children and teenagers to engage with Jesus’ parables (in their cultural context) and learn by practice to consider how they are meaningful to their lives, if controlling authorities were willing to teach correct principles and let teachers govern themselves.

    End of harangue.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, Angela. I agree with your thoughts on committee review by hundreds. If I were a reviewer in so large a pool I would probably be reticent about creating any major waves.

    I have three priesthood manuals that belonged to my father: the second and third parts (for 1953 and 1954) of James L. Barker’s “The Divine Church” (I’m missing part one from 1952) and T. Edgar Lyon’s Apostasy to Restoration from 1960. (I also have the 1958 manual, Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon.)

    To give you a taste for the content of these manuals, here are some of the lesson topics from the 1953 manual:

    The Arian Controversy (two lessons)
    Caesaro Papism (six lessons)
    The Christological Controversy (five lessons)
    Resistance to the Council of Chalcedon
    [You get the idea]

    I can see pluses and minuses to this older approach. On the plus side, having a named author means an actual person is taking responsibility for the content. That avoids the death by committee phenomenon you describe. And the content is about a hundred times more substantive than what we get today. Almost everyone would actually learn something, in an academic sense, from those lessons.

    On the negative side, while five lessons on the Christological Controversy sounds fantastic to me, I’m sure such a prospect would have some students wanting to slit their throats. The content simply wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes. And the whole apostasy to restoration idea is overly simplistic and hasn’t aged particularly well. A good idea in the 50s; not so much today.

    Problems are inherent in the idea that everyone in the entire world is going to have the exact same lesson on a given Sunday. That necessitates a lowest common denominator approach that will truly satisfy very few. If there could be multiple manuals written on different levels and to different interests that might help; but then that would cut against the ideal of correlation, and individuals in a given class might not be happy with the level of the material they are subjected to.

    In other words, I have no idea how to improve the situation in a way that would work world-wide.

  20. Angela C says:

    JR: “JS with his 3d grade education was more biblically literate than most Mormons of my acquaintance with graduate degrees.” Yes, I have often had this same thought. He really was very well versed in the Bible, and by contrast, I have found average ward members don’t know the difference between Peter and Paul and still think Jesus said “I never said it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it.”

    Kevin: Uhm, the Arian Controversy? Yikes! Why does that suddenly sound freshly relevant? But it’s helpful to know that maybe the good ole days weren’t.

  21. As a bishop I did 5th Sunday lessons and tried to introduce resources like James Faulconer’s “Made Harder” scripture study questions series or Grant Hardy’s Book of Mormon stuff. Not really any takers. I wish I had a better systemic solution…

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I was a TA for a professor of ancient scripture when I was at BYU. When I teach, I endeavor to teach on the level of a good BYU Religious Education class. My leaders seem to have appreciated that approach, because they have kept calling me to do it (I’ve been GD teacher four times [for a total of maybe 20 years] and I did a multi-year stint as the stake’s adult continuing education teacher). This has been either in university wards or relatively affluent wards in the suburbs of Chicago, so I suppose that makes a difference. Most students love my classes, but there are always a few who do not (because I don’t follow the manual slavishly, which would be their preference). It has worked for my particular situation, but I’m sure there are a lot of wards that wouldn’t let me touch a teaching calling with a ten-foot pole. (My current calling is 1C in the SS presidency, which I’m really enjoying. We just had our first teaching committee meetings this past Sunday, and they went great.)

  23. chompers says:

    You know, for a church that calls itself the “true” church, we don’t actually teach the scriptures at church. For example, the Old Testament Sunday School lessons are not really about the Old Testament. Instead, we shoehorn modern restoration teachings into an ancient document, proof-text a few verses and then just skip over everything else. Even in the Book of Mormon course, the lessons don’t really reflect the text and what is actually happening. Rather, we’re given a single generic principal (which are all the same, really) for each lesson and told to teach that, rather than letting the scriptures teach us.

    I’ve also been told that the lessons are prepared so that a brand-new member could teach it (and @jader3rd mentioned it above). Aside from being intellectually disgraceful, that approach merely means that we get the lowest common denominator. We probably shouldn’t be assigning a new member to teach a class – it’s a stupid way to run a church. The LDS church also doesn’t allow people to find their own callings, which means we usually get stuck with people who can’t teach (among other things) and can’t lead. I understand giving people opportunities, but that needs to be balanced.

  24. chompers says:

    @A much more defeated ReTx says: “My prayers are that we will find a way to create such an experience for our members to replace the mind-numbing tedium of LDS church services/lessons. Let our Sunday services be meaningful and spiritual and God-touched. That this is possible for the future has been my hope.”

    You know that there is a way to do this? It’s very simple:
    Moroni 6:9 – And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done.

    When was the last time you were in a Sacrament meeting that wasn’t deathly boring and uninspired? I’d suggest that this is a big part of it. I think most bishops must think that assigning sacrament talks is what consititutes “inspiration”.

  25. Left Field says:

    A month or two ago I was assigned to teach the high priests from the Teachings of President [whoever it is this year] manual. I prepared for some discussion jumping off from a few of the quotations in the lesson and completely ignored any passages in the lesson that annoyed or failed to move me. I thought it went pretty well, but I seemed to have confused a few of the brethren who wanted to know where I was reading in the manual. I said that we were having a discussion based on the topic raised on page X. I thought it made for a better lesson than if we had just started at the beginning and run sequentially through everything in the lesson.

    And besides, the manual itself says to teach exactly in the manner I did. Plowing straight forward through the text of the lesson is explicitly discouraged.

  26. Echoing a lot of the comments . . . and appreciative of the gentle discussion about assigning blame.

    From my point of view, a common problem — whether assignable to Correlation/Curriculum or individual teachers or to the whole of us as participants — is our cultural insistence on answers. The mythos of Mormon education is that we have the answers, all the answers, the right answers. But my experience is that the topics for which we really do have answers (a closed-form solution, in mathematical terms), is a relatively small subset of the interesting, valuable, edifying, growing experiences we could have in the classroom.

  27. whizzbang says:

    This bleeds into High Council talks and EQ Lessons. We get General Conference talks on a constant basis. I like what the late Joseph F. McConkie said about this
    “We sometimes go to sacrament meeting in which all the speakers are assigned to repeat the same general conference talk. What we get are the best-crafted talks in the history of the Church and fewer people listening than ever before. In my judgment, the reason we have fewer people listening is not because of the quality of what is being said, but because the speaker is bringing nothing to the altar that constitutes his own offering. It is just a handoff: this man said something, and we have picked it up and handed it to you as though nothing went through us.”

  28. Re: classes taught by new members, one of the most moving Sunday School lessons I’ve ever sat through was in a little Hungarian branch where the 6-8 (all brand-new!) members who stayed past sacrament meeting rotated teaching duties. This particular Sunday, it was the turn of a middle-aged factory worker who had probably never before spoken in front of that many people. His hands shook as he pulled passages from his much-marked-up copy of Gospel Principles, asked class members to comment, and finished with a simple, beautiful testimony. The love and wonder and beauty of the gospel he managed to convey made me feel as though I were in a little 1st-century church, hearing it all for the first time. I’ve thought of that lesson since when someone’s gratitude for renewal in Christ cuts through our tired old platitudes and makes the gospel fresh and new again. Beats me how to get that into a manual, though.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    You might enjoy Dan P.’s experiences in the trenches on the Curriculum Committee:

  30. David Day says:

    IMO the easiest way to make progress initially is to create versions of each lesson and let each ward/teacher decide which version to teach. One differentiator for the lessons would be to write one lesson assuming that everyone in the class likely has a tablet and is able to click on links/text/multimedia in the lesson in real time while another lesson should assume that the class members don’t have anything other than the standard works in book form. There could, I suppose, still be a lesson on Amos that is nothing more than a reading/prooftext of Amos 3:7 and a discussion about modern day prophets (that inevitably veers into assurances that although we don’t claim prophetic infallibility we actually pretty much do) but there could also be another lesson that looks more like a lecture on Amos given in a undergraduate intro to OT class would look. There could be a NT lesson that introduces a simple story (and does no more) and also one that assumes the story is known and delves into the differences in the way the synoptics tell the story, with emphasis on what can be learned from those differences. Sometimes the differences would just be content (i.e. if you have Jacob 5-7 you can teach either the olive tree or the trial of Sherem, your choice since there’s a lesson on both).

    It’s not technically correct to state that we are supposed to use only the manuals (and even less true this year, the manual actually contains a long list of supplemental material). Yes, we do have quotes like this in the front of the manual: “Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them” (“Teaching—No Greater Call,” Ensign, May 1983, 68). but a close reading of the quote actually suggests that we are supposed to use supplemental materials, we are just supposed to use them after reviewing the manual. Last year (BoM) has the same Ballard quote but includes this next line: If teachers feel a need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines. I’ll just note that that line validates the idea that teachers may feel a need (not a desire, but a need) to use supplemental resources and also implicitly validates the idea that a teacher could easily first consider the use of Church magazines and then fairly quickly reject those as equally unhelpful (I’m generalizing, I know) and go utilize something that is actually a good supplemental resource.

  31. karpetlapangan says:


  32. Happy Hubby says:

    “Do you think the curriculum is getting better or worse over time?”
    I am in my 50’s and it sure feels like they have become more bland the last few decades. Some of that may be that after rotating between 4 topics for 4+ decades there is just nothing new. Like singing the same song every week in sacrament meeting.

    “How can we continually improve the curriculum to bring people closer to Christ?”
    The last 2 years I have basically ignored the lesson manuals. I may look at the topic, but I don’t use the manual. When I see others teach right from the manual, especially in High Priests, half the class falls asleep. We actually have had an iPad screen break from being dropped as someone fell asleep.

    “Is the curriculum development process a positive or negative in your view?”
    I fully understand the need and I think a I am about as equally cynical of the output of bureaucracies as Angela. I have to deal with a huge bureaucracy 5 days a week and having to also see some of the same issues on Sunday takes the wind out of my sails.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    The GD curriculum used to feel more meaty to me in the old days when we did two years on each standard work. The change to one year only resulted in a greatly accelerated and simplified approach. (My understanding is they made the change because they didn’t want to go six years in between the BoM years.)

  34. Mike W. says:

    Personally I like the manuals. I read through the lesson once. That is my prep. Then I deliver the lesson. Easy-peasy. And that’s what I’ve been instructed to do. Some of you may not realize that this year’s D&C priesthood lesson actually addresses Joseph Smith allowing women to give blessings of healing.

  35. Rockwell says:

    Is the curriculum getting better or worse?

    The curriculum seems to be staying in the 19th century. Case in point: we insist on using the King James version. The official handbook explicitly states KJV should be used for all classes. KJV language sounds poetic, but if you understand it as well as a modern translation, I tip my mitre to you.

    Ironically, the concept of modern revelation makes it difficult to drop old ideas because people aren’t certain what was inspired and what was not.

    I would like to see less talk on mormon cultural boundaries (dress, appearance, authority, pioneers, one-true-churchness, councils) and more talk about basic goodness (charity, love, compassion). This would include more Christ centered discussions as has been mentioned numerous times above.

    Discussions of church history should be more honest or left out altogether. It would be better to say nothing than to claim that Thomas Marsh apostatized over milk strippings.

    I may be alone on this one, but I’d also like to see some talk about current scholarly understanding about the Bible. You shouldn’t do 4 years in CES without hearing about the documentary hypothesis, as one example. A New Testament course is incomplete if it doesn’t mention that most scholars believe Matthew and Luke are derived from two sources, Mark, and the obliquely named Q. Don’t believe it? Fine. But don’t pretend that there is not evidence of it.

  36. Rockwell says:

    An interesting thing has happened this year with respect to curriculum, by the way. The printed GD manual is the same as it has been in years past, but the online version includes additional resources, including references to the gospel topics essays. In spite of the fact that we have been through this manual four (?) times, I have only seen the material referenced once or twice. The curriculum seems to have given is a chance to take some baby steps forward, but my ward is struggling to get on its feet.

  37. Rockwell says:

    Pardon my poor editing. (sigh)

    Among other things I’d like to fix in my comment, there is this:

    I have only seen *the new* material referenced once or twice.

  38. Our ward bulletin lists the online resources keyed to the following week’s lesson. I don’t know how many take advantage of this–when I was teaching GD, no one ever copied down the references (to the JSPP, etc) I wrote on the board.

  39. Mark Clark says:

    Angela C,

    “I don’t think the lessons should be a history lesson (and certainly not an inaccurate or white-washed history lesson at that!).”

    In the OP you clearly implied that more accurate history should be taught (one of the common complaints you noted was a lack of accuracy and white-washing and an overly optimistic portrayal of facts). Plus, a huge part of the current teachings of the LDS church IS history already. To talk about Jesus is to present a particular historical narrative and emphasize particular aspects of history, is it not? To not teach the particular historical narrative that the LDS church emphasizes in LDS classes would be to undermine the message of Mormonism, which is already largely historical.

    “Funny thing is, when I talk to fellow ward members who are just bored out of their minds with the Gospel Doctrine class, many of them find attending Gospel Principles to be a breath of fresh air. That doesn’t sound to me like delving into mysteries and histories is the solution.”

    So wait, you’re suggesting that the problem is not so much with correlated material per se, but only the correlated material used in Gospel Doctrine class? And your solution is to replace it with the correlated material from the Gospel Principles manual? Nevermind the fact that the Gospel Principles delves quite a bit into mysteries and histories, just positive, overly optimistic, white-washed mysteries and histories. Your comment appears to contradict what you were writing in the OP!

  40. Mike W. says:

    I was never given a hard-copy of the lesson manual for GD. I’m betting most people use the online version. But what do I know. Plenty of “tough” material in the online lessons.

  41. Aaron Brown says:

    I think the manuals are perfect, even the most perfect manuals that could conceivably exist, and I have no idea what any of you are talking about. Probably because I have faith and you guys don’t, that’s my theory.

    Aaron B

  42. orangganjil says:

    I was asked by a member of my EQ presidency whether I’d be willing to take a teaching position. I stated that, yes, I’d be willing to if I could teach from the four Gospels rather than the manuals. They ran it by leadership and it was shot down, so they didn’t ask me to teach.

    The paucity of Christ-centered material in our lessons is embarrassing, and it isn’t for a lack of material.

  43. orangganjil says:

    Edit: The previous comment’s final sentence should be: The paucity of Christ-centered material in our lessons is embarrassing, and it isn’t for a lack of available material.

  44. orangganjil, I took a different approach to teaching HP Group the “Teachings of Our Times” assignments. Without bothering to tell people what I’m doing, I find in the assign General Conference talk a subject I can teach largely from the four Gospels, while making occasional reference to the talk, and I’m done with no complaints. On the other hand, when I was called to teach the GD class, I made it perfectly clear that I would use, but not stick to, the manual and would seek to interest, challenge, and motivate the class; that if the Bishopric didn’t like what I was doing, they could let me know and then I would probably continue doing it until released!

  45. Robert60 says:

    I don’t know if Gospel Doctrine is boring or not because I haven’t attended for over two years or so. However I have always thought Mormons have a good understanding of religion and the Bible. A 2010 Pew Research survey confirmed this. One of several positive comments found in the Pew survey regarding Mormon’s knowledge about religion in general and the Bible specifically is as follows:

    “On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.”

    And again

    “On the full battery of seven questions about the Bible (five Old Testament and two New Testament items) Mormons do best, followed by white evangelical Protestants. Atheists/agnostics, black Protestants and Jews come next, all exhibiting greater knowledge of the Bible than white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, who in turn outscore those who describe their religion as nothing in particular.”

    So it appears, contrary to the implications of some of the comments, that Mormons understand the Bible as well as other religions. I suppose they would also score the highest on their knowledge of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and even the Book of Abraham. (Sarcasm intended).

  46. Robert60, My comment on LDS biblical illiteracy was not comparative to other religions, nor did it imply anything of the sort. I haven’t checked any others for such comparison. But with your having introduced the comparison, I will note only that whoever responded to Pew Research must be different subsets of Mormons, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants than the limited subsets I have dealt with. My LDS teaching frustrations, of course, have only to do with those I deal with. (Scepticism about Pew Research surveys intended.)

  47. Aaron Brown, There have been folks in my ward who actually believe your comment above. I prefer the version in your BCC bio: “Aaron is a Gospel Doctrine teacher in his ward, and he loves the Gospel Doctrine manual, which he knows with every fibre of his being to be the best possible manual imaginable, and he also knows that anyone who disagrees is soooo going to the Telestial Kingdom, he is not even kidding.”

  48. Not a Cougar says:

    JR, you must indeed run in select circles. I’m friends with many religious people, and rarely have I ever found Mormons to be significantly less knowledgeable about the Bible than your average church-going Christian (I’m not putting them up against clergy, mind you). I’m put in mind of a trivia night some ten years ago at a local bar where the contestants were asked to name the garden in which Jesus offered the Great Intercessory Prayer. Not a single group got the name right. This occurred in West Texas in a room full of church-minded Protestant men and women. Blame it on the free flowing Dos Equis and margaritas, I guess?

  49. Not a Cougar, You’re probably right. Those non-Mormons willing to talk to me about religion are a very small sample.

  50. I have had people share their testimony with me on the perfection of church manuals any number of times. It’s always really awkward, because what does one say? “We wouldn’t have been assigned this lesson in the manual this Sunday by the prophet if someone in this classroom didn’t need to hear specifically something found only in it.”

    I quietly say, “I think we will have to agree to disagree,” and leave it at that. It was also the reason given for releasing me from my teaching calling.

  51. Brother Sky says:

    I second JR’s harangue about Mormons not knowing the bible. I teach at a small college and every single one of my students, Christian or not, knows more about the bible than about 95% of my ward. I realize it’s ridiculous to expect us all to be theologians, but I think part of this whole curriculum issue, as some folks have already pointed out, is that it’s designed to appeal to mainstream members who aren’t looking for much more than to have their beliefs confirmed by what is taught. And since these lessons are about confirming beliefs that it’s assumed all of the students of a given class already hold, is it any wonder that they’re not terribly rigorous or that they aren’t designed to actually get to the heart of any profound theological question? This, of course, is the opposite of what teaching ought to do, but the church, as someone else rightly pointed out above, isn’t really clamoring to find ways to appeal to intellectuals who are bored with the 20th iteration of the lesson on tithing. That’s just not the business this church is in; it’s in the business of making sure there’s nothing too controversial that might drive mainstream members away. This is the reason both for the church’s anti-intellectualism and for not really pushing its members towards deep, rigorous biblical study. That would only lead to more questions that the church can’t answer.

  52. Michael H says:

    Leadership/GAs assigned to oversee curriculum must not be aware of this problem. How do we get the message to them?

  53. Old Man says:

    I don’t think LDS are as illiterate about the Bible or religion as many of you suspect.

    But I agree that church lessons are seriously lacking on several fronts.

  54. I used to work at Church magazines. I remember one article I was editing. It was not a problematic topic. It required 14 separate approvals. This may explain why the manuals are what they are. If you ask someone to approve something, he (not she in Church approval positions) infers that he supposed to find something objectionable with it. He is, after all, one of the guardians of truth and knowledge. In this system, it is amazing what sorts of things people can nitpick. Did you know, for example, that Mormons are supposed to “resist yard sales”?

  55. Angela C says:

    Rockwell: I completely agree that we miss the boat in never teaching about documentary hypothesis. Given that our own article of faith talks about “as far as it is translated correctly,” I would think Biblical scholarship and the origin of the various books (as well as the dubiousness of others) would bolster our claims.

    Mark Clark: History is an important backdrop to what we teach, but it’s not the point of the teaching. It provides context. Presenting inaccurate or white-washed history to create the kind of story we want (rather than the one that exists) is what I am against, but not because history should be the focus of the entire lesson. I don’t think you & I would really disagree on this point. The focus should be the questions posed that lead us to want to live a better Christian life. The point about both GP and GD being correlated is valid. I’m not sure why people find GP to be a breath of fresh air except that maybe it has less oversight and therefore more free-form discussion. Unfortunately, we have a real issue in this church with “firing” anyone who uses materials outside the lesson manual. I was taken to task once for giving out a copy of the actual Wentworth letter in a lesson on the Articles of Faith because it wasn’t in the manual. We seem to care exclusively what the pearl-clutchers think and not enough what the zoned out Candy Crushers think.

    Kevin: That interview with Dan Peterson was fantastic. I strongly recommend it to anyone reading this thread. Really interesting stuff. You can see the psychological issues with too many reviewers described in the article–in action! Here’s a snippet:

    “Peterson: [Lee said], ‘You’re just the person we want because we want to improve them.’ Well, when I got onto the committee, in fact, there wasn’t much we could do. We were constrained within certain limits.”

    Wotherspoon, “Was it Correlation Committee or was it certain personalities that had?”

    Peterson, “I was never clear. I think it was Correlation, I think it was the Curriculum Committee. They would lay out certain things about the way they wanted us to do it. For example, we were doing the Old Testament one year and we wanted to put in some historical background. People can’t make sense of this if they don’t know what’s going on. I think a big aid to understanding Isaiah is to understand the politics of his day. Isaiah and Jeremiah were reacting to great power politics, and if you don’t know any of that, you can’t make any sense of it. A lot of it is talking about their day.

    We tried to put some of that in and we were rebuked by someone, some nameless bureaucrat up in Salt Lake who said, ‘you’re just trying to show off.’ I thought ‘How? We’re anonymous. Who would know?”

  56. Michael H says:

    R, very fascinating. I doubt any of those approvers are claiming any sort of inspiration in a process that creates such drab publications–they must all be administrators, e.g. non-GAs, right?

  57. Angela C says:

    orangganjil: “I’d be willing to if I could teach from the four Gospels rather than the manuals. They ran it by leadership and it was shot down, so they didn’t ask me to teach.” I once subbed in GD and after the lesson, a sister approached me. She said she had noticed that I hadn’t said what the manual said, but that what I said was what was actually in the scriptures. I said, “Imagine that.” I have long believed that if you are teaching about the scriptures, actually reading from them can’t go amiss, but the manuals frequently cut passages or twist them to fit a different lesson than what it really says.

    One example is the lesson on Romans. Paul is talking about being saved by grace, not works, but the lesson manual tries to cut the offending passages to make it all about works. When someone in the class referred to the scripture about works in James, and how to reconcile them, I pointed out that Paul didn’t write James. These are different authors with different views writing to different audiences in different contexts. For me to suggest that two different authors might disagree with each other was apparently very unexpected to class members. Why the lesson manual can’t acknowledge that these types of discrepancies exist I’ll never know.

  58. Angela C says:

    Oh, man, more from that Peterson interview that is salient to these points. He teaches the same way I teach:

    Peterson: “at one point the stake Sunday School president came into my Gospel Doctrine class and he sat through the whole thing. My lessons still is the way I teach them. I look at the lesson to see what the passages are that I’m supposed to teach, then I put it away. I mean I mean to read it, but I don’t. I never do. Then I read the passages, and then I comment on them and come up with what I think is the theme of the passage and try to give a historical background and so on.

    Well this guy sat through my lesson and came up afterward and rebuked me, that I wasn’t using the Gospel Doctrine manual. Did I not realize that these were given by revelation and so on and so forth? [I responded] Well, you should know that I’m on the committee that writes them, and I don’t like them at all.”

    That. Is. Awesome.

  59. Happy Hubby says:

    In reference to Bro. Sky’s comment of, “it’s designed to appeal to mainstream members who aren’t looking for much more than to have their beliefs confirmed by what is taught.”

    I think I would have to agree and this makes me think as to why I find them so boring now. I think because there is no challenge. Not trying to brag as many others had this occur at a much younger age, but I have reached a point in my life where I am deeply challenging myself. Not by running double marathons (you would know that if you saw me), but really asking myself questions about if I am racist, do I treat my wife as good as I could, do I equally respect my co-workers. It has been a hard but rewarding exercise to stare into the mirror long and hard and admit just how racist I am, just how often I am less than I want to be with my wife, just how often I play corporate politics. I am fairly sure I am a better person for confronting these issues that I have and I don’t feel I get anything like that from gospel doctrine. Instead I hear of a church that will not apologize for any mistakes of the past that it made. I want to say, “Grow up church!”

  60. I’m also reminded of a comment from Relief Society that my mom shared with me one time she was visiting. A member approaching her year mark of membership shared that she always felt dumb when teachers in church say “We all know the story of , so we’re not going to spend time going over it, but it helps us understand .”, and she didn’t know blah.

  61. Sidebottom says:

    The “Revelations in Context” materials that supplement the Gospel Doctrine manual are a deliberate step in the right direction, but they don’t appear to be widely used. When I’ve used them in my own lessons it has made some class members visibly uncomfortable, despite the Church stamp of approval. I’ve been using them for supplementary study for years, back when they were tucked away on

    The new(ish) NT Seminary manuals are a step in both directions. On the one hand, they eschew harmonization and let individual gospels speak for themselves. This is the first time I’ve seen any curriculum materials not only acknowledge but embrace inconsistency within the scriptures. On the other hand, they misuse this information to make marketing points – e.g. “there are three inconsistent accounts of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts. Make sure to bring this up when your friends mention inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s differing accounts of the First Vision.”

  62. I’ve tried to use material from ‘The First Fifty Years of Relief Society’ and ‘At the Pulpit’ in Relief Society, and that went over like a lead balloon.

  63. I’m coming at this from a slightly different perspective because I’ve been in seminary where the goal is to use the scriptures as the text, starting on page one and working your way through chronologically. Over the past four years the Church has rolled out four new manuals and I think there have been some good things happening. I had a hard time, though, with the course of study that in my day was called Church History but is now Doctrine and Covenants because – and this is where I’m differing from the opinions in some of the previous comments – most of the historical context is gone, and I want it back. In all fairness, some of it is still there; for instance, there’s now a lesson on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (which made for an interesting morning) but for the most part, we’ve been left with only the barest of historical bones. Without the background it felt like morning after morning we were looking at priesthood structure/priesthood organization/priesthood responsibility/priesthood organization again. That’s fine if you’re only doing it once in a while, but when it’s constant, it’s hard to find something the girls can connect to, whereas if there had been attention paid to the women of the time, that problem could have been alleviated. (This was following a year when my class commented several times that you really can’t find a female Nephi in the Book of Mormon.)

    When I was younger, there used to be an address in the back of each manual to which you could write with comments and suggestions. I penned what I thought was a thoughtful and respectful letter addressing my concerns, but when I went to the manual – no address. I can only assume input is no longer wanted.

  64. Sidebottom, I agree with you about the Revelations in Context. Unfortunately, some of our local leadership doesn’t.

  65. Aaron Brown, just a heads up, it seems that Prudence McPrude is commenting under your name.

  66. Angela C says:

    “you really can’t find a female Nephi in the Book of Mormon” And you almost can’t find a female full stop.

  67. Last time I taught Relief Society, I tried to introduce the topic as briefly as possible, and then have questions to get and keep the conversation going in class. It was great! Or I thought so until the Relief Society President came to my house and told me the sisters wanted to be comforted, not challenged. I understood her point, but had trouble changing my ways, and was released a couple of months later. I know some people enjoy being challenged rather than bored (I’m one of them), but I guess we can get our spiritual/intellectual challenges online rather than in church. I’m Primary accompanist, so haven’t attended Sunday School or Relief Society for several years, and likely won’t go after I’m eventually released. Learning to tolerate boredom stood me well in school and professionally, but I’m not willing to do it voluntarily anymore.

  68. The confines of correlation are responsible, in part, for the rise of the bloggernacle and, more recently, facebook discussion groups where “meat” is discussed. While the blogs are likely well known to readers here, there are several facebook groups that could be of interest to inquiring minds:

    (1) “LDS Students of the Ancient Near East,” which often has good discussions about Old Testament, Ancient Near Eastern, and Book of Mormon topics.

    (2) “Mormon Sunday School Discussion” – a thriving group that includes links to podcasts related to current Sunday School topics.

    (3) “Mormons Talk | NT Bible Scholarship” – A facebook group I created to discuss the scholarly side of the New Testament. We are currently working our way through a standard academic textbook on the New Testament, written by the catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson.

    (4) “Mormons Talk | Science, Evolution, & LDS Faith” – Another facebook group I created to discuss issues in evolution, Genesis, science, and other matters. You better accept evolution before you join!

    There are also several groups that touch on church history, often with a more critical stance. And if none of these groups suit you, you can always create your own!

  69. Left Field says:

    Cate, I don’t know about the printed Seminary manual, but the online version does have an address for “comments and corrections.”

  70. I’ve been in an RS presidency for 6.5 of the past 7 years. I kind of can’t believe that people still want me, but about 3 years ago I got to a point where anytime I teach a Fast Sunday lesson (presidency member picks the topic), my basic thesis is “Jesus loves everyone” and make sure to explicitly mention that he loves women, men, LGBT people, Ordain Women supporters, Republicans and Democrats. I have latitude to choose materials and I use it. However, I don’t use outside sources when I substitute for a lesson from the manual, but I always try for a nuanced perpective. (For the tithing lesson, I shared about the time where I paid it, went into overdraft because of it, and then didn’t receive an anonymous $500 check in the mail the next day…crazy right? That one definitely made people squirm.) Anyway, my philosophy for any lesson is to share love, relate personal experiences and ideas, and only check the “suggestions for teaching” as a very last resort. People seem to resonate with it. Honestly, if I was asked to change, I would just quit my calling. Straight-from-the-manual lessons are so hard…

  71. I just subbed for the older teen class. I opened the lesson by saying, “open your eyes. There is meaning everywhere!” Then went on to excoriate the lesson, “Women and the priesthood.” I pointed out that there was no parallelism here, should have been “women and men” or “fathers and mothers.”I went on to point out that everyone had the gifts of the spirit, men and women. That priesthood was like upper body strength in males, useful when needed. Priesthood, like muscles, is a family utility. I pointed out that priesthood holders were not special but should use their special talents with care and wisely.

    The class was riveted. No talking. No one had ever laid it out so clearly. I am sure the correlation committee must have felt a shift in the force that Sunday,

    I have got the bishop’s permission to start a memoir writing class. I spoke on memoir writing a few Sundays back in Sacrament Meeting and now we are starting the class. The first one was extraordinarily interesting. No one was bored.

    I have been in charge of the teacher council for the last while. I have had such a good time because it is meta material. We have generally had really good discussions about teaching and how to interest people. One lesson was on the essays published by the Church on the “difficult” topics. I would have gone on longer on this subject but that might have proved difficult for some of the class members. I did leave with the idea that we should not leave our students unprepared for the difficult subjects.

    So I say, “open your eyes! There is meaning everywhere!”

  72. I am always sorry to comment late on a compelling post because it seems everyone is done reading the comments. This post and discussion brought to mind two thoughts: While in a stake calling and meeting regularly with a member of the Stake Presidency I discussed with him the frustrations I had with Gospel Doctrine not meeting my needs. There never seemed to be time and support to discuss questions that were plaguing me — the source of the Book of Abraham, Book of Isaiah sections included in the BoM that were written after Lehi left Jerusalem and many church history inconsistencies I was learning about. He was not familiar with a single issue that I had. He was dumbfounded with the lengthy list I had and where I had learned about these issues. I loved this man as a leader — he was wonderful. But I realized that he had no curiosity about anything beyond the standard oft repeated messages of the church. My second thought was remembering the times, when I was teaching GD, that people would come up afterwards and tell my “you can’t say that”. They did not want their knowledge challenged. I was trying to present the scriptures according to what the scriptures really said. An example: in the birth narrative of the angels appearing to the shepherds, the scriptures state: “… a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and SAYING, Glory to God in the highest . . ” One sister strongly protested — my angels sang!
    I’ve loved reading everyone’s comments.

  73. If anyone’s kids don’t know the story of the loaves and fishes it’s on the parents heads. Obviously, not too young kids…

    “Of course, that makes me wonder why then do we go to church? ”

    The church provides the priesthood ordinances necessary for and programs to teach the principles of exaltation.

    That lesson on modesty we all love, can and should be linked back to Christ in a meaningful way, but also directly connected to exaltation, because that’s what his work was for. That’s what we’re hear for.

    I’m hard pressed to think of a topic in church which I can’t link back to the atonement, and it’s ultimate purpose to make the exaltation of God’s children possible.

    Correlation of lessons and materials does a good job of distilling down various principles of godliness with messages and stories and supporting scriptures and authoritative quotes. Sometimes it doesn’t reiterate over and over the ultimate purpose of those principles and stories and scriptures.

    But equally, when we tie our shoes every day and when we teach our kids to tie their own, we don’t constantly remind them of the ultimate purpose of that activity either.

    Sometimes we have to learn to paint the fence, before grasping how it expands our other skills.

  74. Wow. I thought I was the only one who went to church for 3 hours hungering for some spiritual nourishment only to come home, more often than not, hungry still. I study on my own and have learned a great deal. But even though I’ve become a really good cook, it’s awfully nice to be served a tasty meal at a restaurant now and then.

  75. Consider a continuum of people wanting to be challenged on one end and people wanting to be comforted/bored on the other, for most of the church, not just this blog.
    Consider a continuum of people paying tithing and people paying less or nothing.
    Do a Pearson’s correlation statistical test. (Is that the right test?)
    My hypothesis: You will find the reason for the state of affairs.
    It is a corporate church driven by market forces and analysis. These are not bumpkins leading us.

  76. The text is not the teacher ….

  77. In teaching Gospel Doctrine this year, I have found the online links to historical background very helpful — I do think that the powers that be are making some effort push us away from some historical misunderstandings and find new ways to deal with the lessons of history. I haven’t decided yet how I’ll handle some of the most controversial topics — polygamy in particular is coming up in a few weeks — but now at least I don’t feel I’m compelled to ignore some of the most troublesome aspects of our past.

    I think one of the biggest areas where we fall short is that we don’t interact with the scriptural text, often instead using the scriptures as a prooftext rather than a testimony of how ancient people handled the same sorts of issues we face today. Once, I asked during a lesson on the Old Testament: So what do you all think is the best way to understand this genocide? All I got was blank stares; apparently no one in the class had thought of the violence in those terms. For better or worse, I dropped the subject.

  78. I am one of those who finds SS & PM boring 99% of the time and SM boring about 75% of the time. Today we had a sacrament meeting that was anything but boring, and perhaps offers a different perspective.

    Three people were asked to speak on the topic of dealing with trials. The last had only 3 minutes and I will skip his talk.The first was typical of so many of our young transient people who graduate from college, often BYU and come here for a first job or grad school, either single or newly wed maybe with a small child. He stated he didn’t really have any severe trials except then his apartment flooded and he had to move across the hall. He blabbered around about Job demonstrating that he really doesn’t understand the material except at the fluffiest level. I fell asleep and my wife reported I missed nothing.

    Then Sis L. stood. We have known her for over 20 years and our children were about the same ages. Her first words perfectly set the stage; she said with a knowing, wise smile to the first speaker, “Oh, you are going to experience trials in this life.” Our bishop is new in the ward and may or may not have know much of her history and started to squirm but settled down eventually.

    Sis .L. quietly, humbly and with brutal honesty told her life story and it was not pretty. Raised in the rural South, poverty, parents bitter marriage ended in divorce, death of her mother and being bounced around raised by extended family, activity in the Baptist faith but then a faith crisis and left, wandered aimlessly for a few years. She married and had 4 boys and went through a bitter divorce that devastated her and left her hopeless.

    She met our missionaries and converted but not with the typical over-powering spiritual experience. She described a cost-benefit analysis and how the hope for a stable family in heaven, being with her mother made whole again and not having to give up basic faith and redemption by the blood of Christ outweighed the anti-Mormon arguments. She needed a social network and our tribal tendencies provided it.She loved the temple because it reminded her of this hope for an eternal family in the next life

    She met her second husband who was divorced with 4 boys and they married, mostly because he lived only 3 miles from the temple, she joked. She was not the perfect mother to all these sons in the new blended family and they did not get along in the church.Children of divorced parents are second class citizens in the church and the message of eternal families is confusing to them. She skipped some details from here but these boys are all a bunch of bums; some on drugs or jail, etc. A couple of decades with teenagers raising hell in the YM’s program were not easy. She loves them all, as only a mother does, in spite of everything.

    They had two more children, the last finally being the little girl she always wanted. Her last son was one of these truly lovable and intelligent but impossibly difficult people. I taught and worked with him growing up in the ward and he was a real mess, terribly good and bad all at once. Kept his mother on her knees praying for him almost all the time. He has near genius IQ and flunked or was kicked out of 3 high schools but did go on a mission. He was sent home for health reasons, although he got beat up once. We joked, if a missionary needs to be beaten every so often, he was the perfect candidate for it.

    This last son had to have a tumor and several vertebra removed from his spine and was sentenced to bed rest for weeks. During this time his father had a massive heart attack. The son got out of bed and tried to do vigorous CPR to save his father and really screwed up his back. He was supposed to still be in bed during the funeral but he got loaded up on narcotics, favored us with a surprize appearance at his father’s funeral and made a real ass out of himself. He incurred permanent damage to his back with lifelong pain and eventual lower limb paralysis along with a narcotic addiction.

    He managed to convince a very nice girl, not very attractive physically, to marry him after a short courtship. The non-temple wedding he refused to let his mother help plan was so disorganized that our former bishop had to step in and take control of it and marry them. He kissed his new bride and then tuned and announced, does anyone else want to take a turn with her? Part of the spinal problem resulted in high blood pressure which he ignored. Two months after the wedding he was dead of a massive stroke at age 24. No, he was not using cocaine as was muttered around the ward. They were sealed in the temple a year after his death and his wife remains one of Sis.L.’s greatest comforts because they both share a dream of eternal marriage in the eternities to a father and son.

    Sis. L.’s daughter was a pretty but difficult child, having to deal with 9 older crazy brothers was not pleasant. But she did stay in the church and make it through college and developed a lot of sass. She had a really nice, wealthy, smart non-LDS boyfriend and a rather geeky, unambitious LDS boyfriend far below her in popularity and she finally married the second one in the temple. He fell off a motorcycle and suffered a head injury with a permanent disability that will not allow him to do anything but the most menial jobs and she will have to support him and their future family, if they have one, indefinitely.

    Sis.L. is financially not secure, has to work full time (no college education) even though she is beyond retirement age. Her 9 children and partners/spouses/ex-s and grandchildren are a constant source of drama and strain as she grows older and less capable to help with these impossible situations.

    She was near tears describing the hardest times and white-washed some but not all of this history. She still managed to paint a piercingly accurate picture of the trials of her life. Through it all she retains a remission of her sins which she acquired as a youth while a Baptist and hangs onto a hope for an eternal and whole family in the eternities, which she nourishes in the LDS temple. Her final thought was we should try and stand in holy places in spite of our trials and when feeling hopeless to stand with holy people.

    I am left with a new perspective because she is not alone. When I think about it, I know of several other older people in my ward who could tell a similar tale, only with different details. Perhaps we spend so much time sugar-coating everything that we forget the reality of the difficult lives of those around us and the difficulties we will all face one day. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden and we can’t pretend to go back there for very long. It is impossible for a correlation committee to be in touch and irrelevant when they are out of touch with the reality of our suffering, trials and tribulations and ultimately our death.

    What can we do during church to help lighten the burdens of the people like Sis. L in whose path we may all walk one day?

  79. I’ve been teaching gospel doctrine in my ward (in conservative Utah) for two years… I would love some revamped manuals along the lines described by the OP and other commenters. But FWIW, here are some thoughts on teaching with the manuals as is:

    – Elder Ballard’s recent address to seminary and institute teachers gave me a green light to use materials outside of the scriptures and general conference addresses when teaching Sunday School. He made a list of materials teachers should use to teach the gospel, and it included “the best scholarship”. Obviously that involves some discretion on a teacher’s part (there is no church maintained list of “best scholarship”). But I’ve used a lot of scholarly articles and/or books when crafting my lessons. When I quote scholars, I identify them at least as a “scholar” or by name. And when I quote general authorities, I use their names. People can decide what weight to give what.
    – People really do appreciate historical context. I understand the concern of making a Sunday school lesson into just a history lesson, but I have routinely have given five minutes or so of background (particularly in the New TEstament and Doctrine and Covenants lessons) without distracting from the more spiritual/theological/daily-life-applicable parts of the lesson.
    – I always stick to the assigned text and try to structure my lesson around the main headings in the manual (usually there are 3 or 4), but 75% or more of the questions I ask are of my own making. I understand moving away from the manuals, but I once had a Sunday School teacher who (in an effort to not just regurgitate the manual) taught a lesson on Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s when the lesson was supposed to be about Alma 34 (or some chapter thereabouts). So I’m trying to find that fine line of making old material fresh without leaving the assigned text/scriptures so far behind.
    – People engage more when you ask questions. If the church could do one thing to make Sunday School more meaningful, it would be to teach us more explicitly how to teach a concept through asking questions.
    – I try to be honest about my own questions and concerns as they may relate to a particular lesson or topic. I think that has helped on some lesson for others to feel safe and open up and talk about their questions or thoughts or concerns.
    – I try not to shy away from the hard stuff (whether acknowledging my own thoughts/concerns/questions or just controversial aspects of whatever the lesson might be), but I also realize that the tone with which it presented matters a lot on how comfortable people are with the lesson. I’ve covered portions of every gospel topic essay that relates to the doctrine and covenants lessons this year. I’ve even printed out study guides for my ward members for this year’s D&C lessons that include not only the assigned sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, but also the Revelations in Context essays and the Gospel Topic essays cited by the online version of the teacher’s manual. I do that to encourage people to maybe read them in their entirety outside of class (or more fundamentally, to know they even exist — I realize that most people don’t read for any class, but if they at least know those materials are there, it will help, right? Maybe?). But I’ve always tried to present the essays with a “here’s something the church has created for us to help us better understand x” attitude or with a reminder that we live in a time that requires a more nuanced faith.

    I’m sure my lessons aren’t perfect, but I have never been censored or even criticized by a ward member or by local leadership (and my ward is not full of bleeding heart liberals or academics or any of the people you might be suspicious of liking this style of teaching). People say they like my lessons (which I take with a huge grain of salt — we tend to be pretty nice to one another in an effort to be supportive), but I also note that there’s often more filled seats in the room on the week I teach than the weeks I don’t.

    All of this is to say, I have confidence members can tolerate or even want a more substantive Sunday School lesson. And I do hope that one day the manuals and curriculum supplied by the church will make it easier for any given teacher to teach that kind of lesson.

  80. To the person who took their kids to an evangelical Church. If your kids had never heard the story of the loves and the fishes that is on you.

%d bloggers like this: