Informal Gospel Study Groups

sarah-noltner-749896-unsplash

“Do you have Priesthood approval for that gathering?”

It’s a question I’ve heard numerous times, and it’s always bothered me.

Over the years, across the country and even the world, I’ve participated in many informal gospel study groups.   They’ve often sat at the core of my social circles and been the site of some of my powerful spiritual insights.These groups have included:

  • Book clubs, where we read and discuss recent “Mormon Studies” publications;
    • i.e. Rough Stone Rolling; Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet; The Mormon Menace; Mormon Feminism
  • Discussion groups, where we pick a monthly leader who prepares remarks and assigns readings related to niche religious topics;
    • i.e. LDS Gospel Topics Essays, Biblical translations, Christian economics, history of the welfare program, religious freedom, Heavenly Mother
  • Rogue Sunday schools, where we skip boring lessons and whisper about our current faith dilemmas in chapel corners instead;
  • BYUtv watch parties, where we gather at the closest house with cable to watch General Conference or YSA firesides, followed by food and lengthy conversations;
  • LGBT firesides, where we assemble to hear Mormon-LGBT stories and discuss how to be supportive allies;
  • Private listservs and social media groups, where we feel safe to post various doctrinal musings.

I learned over time, however, that some of these groups needed to meet by-trusted-invitation only.  For mixed-gender adult gatherings, I’ve heard warnings that any gospel discussion without the formal blessing of leadership risks being labeled apostate.  When sisters, in particular, put together social book clubs, I’ve occasionally seen intense scrutiny.  No matter how “informal,” I’ve heard of Bishops shutting sisters down, insisting they could only meet with priesthood attendance or authorization, or requiring them to submit reading lists for pre-approval.  Once, after I gushed about a particularly spirit-filled and insightful discussion from the night before, a friend strongly expressed her disapproval that I had participated in an unauthorized (and thus presumptively heretical) activity.

None of this made sense to me.  As a church, we emphasize personal scripture study, personal revelation, personal prayer, and seeking learning by study and faith from all of the best books of wisdom.  Until my friends and fellow saints repeatedly objected, it never occurred to me that honest and robust small group discussion of the same materials I read on my own could somehow be heretical.  I still don’t know where this widespread line of thought came from — was there some period of time in the 1980s or 1990s when study groups were expressly condemned?

Every time I heard those condemnations, I thought of Anne Hutchinson during the 1630s.  Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan mother who held after-Sunday-sermon luncheons in her Massachusetts home.  Overtime, these informal gatherings grew into robust discussions of faith, theology, and the Bible.  For the audacity to be a woman who led an unauthorized spiritual discussion, Anne was excommunicated as a heretic, banished from Massachusetts as unfit for civil society, and forced to flee to Rhode Island.  The Governor of Massachusetts proclaimed her a “hell-spawned agent of destructive anarchy.”

I’ve always found Anne inspirational.  It’s not 1630 anymore.  No church or civil authority can dictate my social conversations about my faith!  So I’ve chosen to roll my eyes, ignore the skeptics, and be more discrete.

But now I’m rejoicing!  Thank you October 2018 General Conference.  Due to the new two-hour block and emphasis on home-centered scripture study, informal study groups are in vogue!  With Elder Quentin L. Cook’s endorsement, I hope to never hear the question of Priesthood authorization again.  Or at least I’ll be able to pull out this quote:

“[I]t would be completely appropriate for young singles, single adults, single parents, part-member families, new members, and others to gather in groups outside the normal Sunday worship services to enjoy gospel sociality and be strengthened by studying together the home-centered, Church-supported resource.  This would be accomplished informally by those who so desire.”

I’m excited to watch these groups develop.  If anyone needs thematic ideas or supplemental resources to Come Follow Me, there are groups of us all over the world who have been assembling and studying them for years.  At least for me, my discussion groups have always had the intent to build a Zion community and grow closer to Christ.  As Elder Cook reiterated:

 “The aim of all gospel learning and teaching is to deepen our conversion and help us become more like Jesus Christ. … This means relying on Christ to change our hearts.”

*Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

Comments

  1. the Other Brother Jones says:

    Yes.Yes.Yes!
    I have not heard of the problems you have had, but I really like the idea of taking responsibility for your own testimony and doing stuff like this on your own. But some of your experiences just boggle my mind!

  2. I was also relieved to see informal study groups given the okay, especially considering how useful such groups could be to single adults who might miss the extra hour of interaction at church. I do wonder how many folks will go to the trouble of setting them up.

  3. I definitely remember hear my parents speak about the ills of study groups in the 80’s. People getting together to study “mysteries” and “deep doctrine”, which was followed by affairs, entering into polygamy, and secret temple ceremonies held in stake centers by rogue stake presidents. For them it was right up there with playing Dungeons and Dragons in terms of evilness. Lol! The 80’s were awesome!

  4. Study groups were my favorite part of religious practice in the ’90s when, yes, there was a dictum sent down that all such groups be disbanded, unless organized by Priesthood authority. The explanation given was that without official guidance these groups were too likely to veer into false doctrines and lead people astray. I disliked the stance then, and I’m so glad to see this return to trusting the members with our own spiritual walk. Like you said, the validity of individual spiritual knowledge, gained independent of official statements, has always been an important part of our theology.

  5. It’s always been delightful to be unable to hold a meeting about single adult activities without a high counselor/married man there, because clearly we can’t be trusted to hold a meeting about upcoming activities. Plus it’s additionally galling when that high counselor is a complete twit. And yet, other churches manage to hold meetings and even actually help people without being controlled by this magical ‘priesthood’ which really doesn’t actually do much outside of blessings…

  6. @Adam: Do you have a source for that 1990s dictate? I read something about it on another blog but I haven’t seen a primary source.

    I am sympathetic to the concerns of fundamentalist/secret/mysterious/gnostic teachings. Those have a 2000-year-old tradition of being condemned as heretical in Christianity. But I’d much rather err on the side of letting those slip by in favor of building deeper, more interpersonal, more honest communities.

  7. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Talon: in the ’80s, the wife of my stake president in the Denver suburbs was the leader of a circle studying…Dianetics. You want to talk about false doctrine?

    So while a dictum forbidding informal study groups seems like classic Boyd K. Packer authoritarianism (and that’s exactly who I’d have expect to have pushed for such a ban), it wasn’t completely unjustified paranoia.

  8. The 90’s were a wild time for small study groups. My friend’s aunt joined a small study group in the 90’s and ended up in a polygamous cult inspired by the Da Vinci Code. It’s a slippery slope, people!

  9. In California a Stake I moved in was reeling from one such group that got out of hand, by a well loved ex-seminary teacher. I moved in months after it all blew up, but it caused a lot of pain. It began as extended group scripture study. No one had a problem with it, until certain kids were “priveleged” to the teachers visions about being Christ’s mother at the second coming. They were sworn to secrecy. She kept sharing “more details”. Then one of the kids spoke to their parents and well, it got ugly.

    So yeah, I do get it. In my family “Rough Stone Rolling” is off limits. And I love my family.

  10. Ryan Mullen says:

    I am skeptical the church is giving the green light to study groups with no oversight. Reading Elder Cook’s words again:

    “and be strengthened by studying together the home-centered, Church-supported resource.”

    he restricts such groups to studying Come Follow Me.

  11. But Come Follow Me has a lot of personalized and expanded options — it’s not a strict “follow the manual.”

  12. I think then-Elder Oaks’s oft-quoted 1989 talk on “alternate voices” is the source of most condemnations of gatherings outside officially sponsored meetings. There’s also the Church statement on symposia that got folded into the whole alternate voices thing.

    So who wants to form a scripture study group within walking distance of my apartment in downtown SLC?

  13. Chompers,
    Most stakes have high councilors assigned to various stake committees by the stake president: Young Single Adults, Stake Public Affairs, and Single Adults are three committees that I’ve been part of (as a commitee member, not a high councilor). In all three cases the assigned individuals were supportive and non-intrusive, as they are expected to be. Sorry you feel like you’ve got one assigned to your committee who makes you feel unsupported and thwarted. If he is unsupportive or thwarting or domineering, he’s doing it all wrong. I hope your next one is better.

  14. @Carolyn, I think it was in a First Presidency letter. I know it was in the late 1990s because it was a little before I entered the mission field, but beyond that I can’t help. As far as I know, the online repository of First Presidency letters is only available to stake presidents which is, well, not me.

  15. From mid 1970s to the turn of the century there were a number of groups started that some members, including a few of my friends, got involved in, got excited about, and encouraged others to join. Some of those groups still exist. These groups generally were categorized as “self-awareness” groups and included discussions, lectures and group activities with a charismatic leader, often going late into the night and claimed to help people develop self-awareness, confidence, spirituality, vision, self-empowerment, etc. etc.. Some members picked up on the idea of these groups and created their own latter-day saint versions, either small ones that the called “study groups” or creating larger ones using a business model. The First Presidency issued a statement about participation in such groups in 2001. You can find the text of that one, and a subsequent 2010 letter on the same subject on Brad Pack’s blog.
    http://www.bradpack.com/2011/01/30/first-presidency-letters-self-awareness-groups-october-13-2010-and-2001/
    That letter may be the one that Adam is thinking about. It does not prohibit members from forming study groups but it does list a number of study group activities or methods that members should be wary of and avoid.
    I’ve been part of study groups off and on from the 80s on in four states. Never had a priesthood leader require permission. Maybe it is a local thing.

  16. I found that one and wondered, but I don’t think that was it. It may have been local, but I remember it affecting groups in multiple stakes, so it wasn’t too local. And it was definitely before 2001, because it was pre-mission for me.

  17. Ardis, I wish “walking distance” worked.

    We will probably organize a local group, but I’m afraid it’s not in walking distance (of anybody). I’m working through some concerns about participation and cliques.

    Regarding leadership approval and participation, I have organized a number of groups in the past, including participation by our then Stake President and others with notable callings. I have found it valuable, for everyone, to play down every sense of rank or privilege. We always wanted to focus on ideas and personal experience, not authority.

  18. Back when I was on the faculty at Texas, there was an Institute across the street. The director recruited the L*S faculty at the university for a lunch hour study group. I was a lowly post-doc but everyone treated me as an equal and we got into all sorts of stuff. Of course compared to the material out there now, we were wearing blinders but it was still great. Three of us ended up in our ward bishopric for a couple of years until my fellowship expired and I moved on to an assistant prof job. I still think of that group.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Elder Cook seemed to assume such study groups would focus on the official resource. But the official guidance from the First Presidency doesn’t contain such a limitation. The enclosure to their letter reads: “informally, and as organized by those who so desire, young single adults, single adults, single parents, part-member families, new members, and others can gather to enjoy sociality and to strengthen one another through gospel study.”

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    For my exrience with such a group, see this:https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/02/16/gospel-discussion-group/

  21. It’s almost like we’re children who can’t be unsupervised by priesthood grownups. Do you ever feel like our religion infantilizes us?

  22. This is one of my favorite changes! Our ladies book club went underground after the Bishop wanted to get involved because he was worried about our book choices. We explained that it wasn’t a church activity. He stopped asking. We also had an informal Bible study group, but when we started reading other translations to assist our understanding of nuances in the New Testament, that got shut down. Now it looks like we can start up again! So exciting!!

  23. Ardis I would kill to be in your study group. If only I didn’t live out of state… Carolyn, any resources you have would be wonderful. I also wonder if there will be many in most wards that would want to do the work of organizing and facilitating the groups. My ward is wonderful, but judging from Sunday school, there doesn’t seem to be many who enjoy deeper study with other resources. I would love to be in a group but afraid it would just be basic Sunday school discussion. It would be great to have online study groups for those who are looking for more

  24. I suspect that you want to be discreet rather than discrete. But so long as you let no spirit of discretion overcome you you’ll probably be all right.

  25. I’ve never heard of needing Priesthood approval, and that would bother me too.
    If church leaders are dealing with problems of gospel study groups forming secret combinations, I hope that they’re willing to teach us the warning signs that a study group as gone awry instead of shutting them all down.

  26. Mark B., Still amused and wondering whether “spirit of discretion” was intentional. I expect so, but we digress.

  27. I have participated in, and helped found, a “study group” that has operated for about 20 years. We have met monthly and most recently more or less quarterly. We have changed the informal name of our group, mostly in response to Elder Oaks’ words cited above.

    I have needed this group. I have needed a grounded discussion of gospel topics that is different (not necessarily deeper, but in fact it usually has been deeper) than what I get at church.

    We have discussed many things:
    How do we have better FHEs?
    What do we tell our children about men’s and women’s roles?
    How do we celebrate Christmas?
    What kind of music do we listen to?
    LGBTQ+ issues
    Women and the priesthood, women and church callings.
    Church habits, protocols, practices, and traditions, and how they relate to belief
    We have read the Gospel of Mark
    Education
    The role of our belief in our political activity

    No one has (yet) left the church. No one has “gone off the deep end”. In fact our group of about 15 has produced several primary presidents, a slew of ward/stake YM/YW leaders, a stake president, several stake presidency members, five bishops, three RS Presidents, and many others.

    Such groups ought to exist, of course they do exist, and can play a very positive role in our spiritual development. Many of us need to discuss things outside of an environment where someone must represent “The Church”. We have helped each other through hard times and highs/lows. Any attempt to paint our actions as rebellious, wayward, faith-denying, or simply inappropriate would be deeply wrong.

    Our biggest concern or problem has always been whether to try to “grow” the group, or who to invite, and how to invite.

  28. I definitely remember hear my parents speak about the ills of study groups in the 80’s. People getting together to study “mysteries” and “deep doctrine”, which was followed by affairs, entering into polygamy, and secret temple ceremonies held in stake centers by rogue stake presidents. For them it was right up there with playing Dungeons and Dragons in terms of evilness. Lol! The 80’s were awesome!

    My parents told me the exact same stuff! Except for the part about about Dungeons and Dragons because my parents were both freelance science fiction and fantasy illustrators so RPGs were sort of our bread and butter…

  29. @Carolyn and @Kevin Barney, I would love to hear either some of the topics you discussed and some of your best practices.

    I would love to have something like that where I live, but my thoughts also went to Christian’s concerns about participation and cliques.

  30. In much of the Evangelical Protestant world, study groups (usually referred to as “small groups” or “discipleship groups” or something similar) have replaced traditional Sunday School almost entirely.

  31. When I was a kid my parents used to have a monthly book club with 4 or 5 other couples in the ward, and our families would all get together after every general conference to talk about what talks we liked. Our families would even go camping together sometimes, and to this day we’re all pretty good friends.

  32. HokieKate says:

    Didn’t we try small study groups when “homemaking” was killed 15 years ago? I agree that the pushy oversight kept it from really getting established.

  33. There is an institute class available through the gospel library app called Foundations of the Restoration, which would be a great basis for such a study group. It doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, yet is an “approved” resource.

  34. My wife and several ladies in our ward have played volleyball at our ward building for many years. It ends up being fairly late at night, after families are taken care of. It has been largely unscathed, but at times there will be men who make remarks about them having an activity with no priesthood. Sometimes the rotating responsibility to lock the church and turn off the lights will fall on a brother who thinks it is his responsibility to either tell them to leave or less intrusively wait out in the hall patiently for them. This is in spite of their being very willing and able to lock the doors and turn off the lights themselves.

  35. Don, I thought it was literally the assignment for that person to make sure everybody is out and the building is locked by a certain time. Is that not the case?

  36. I was part of an “Empty Nesters” FHE group for a while. We got very close, and even took vacations together. When other members complained to our branch president, he told them to start their own group!

  37. I’ve participated in both scripture-study and more lecture-style groups and had fantastic experiences. I also know of groups that have led directly to serious loss of faith (recently, from a friend who was involved) or apostasy for many of those involved. The TLC break-off in Manti, for example, had its Genesis in a study-group.

    I think there are a lot of different factors. As Chris Kimball pointed out, how do you manage inclusivity with size, openness and social issues; how mature are the people involved, or at least, the organizers, in terms of their knowledge and experience? What is the topic or area to be covered?

  38. Bro. Jones says:

    Man, those 90s study groups sound exciting. Once again I regret that I was born too late, and this time it’s because I missed these free-wheeling polygamous deep doctrine clubs. :)

  39. Study Study Study says:

    I’m not going back to formal LDS worship (can’t do eternal patriarchy theologies) but would totally join a group studying the Quran, Gnostic Gospels, Apocryphal OT-and-NT and so forth. If it is believed there is more scripture out there, why are these not seriously studied by the church’s theologians (wait, does the church HAVE theologians?) and potentially added to the store of knowledge? Conference talks are poor substitutes.

  40. In all candor, I consider BCC to be my study group. In Sunday School last week, people were fawning over all the recent “revelations”, so I excused myself seven minutes early.

  41. The fact is, with the internet, you don’t need to physically sit around a living room to be a study group. I think it is a good move to de-stigmatize these. Sometimes bad things happen in study groups, but that is true whether they happen in person or not. I am for more freedom from correlation.

  42. Evangelina Voz says:

    Oh…freedom from correlation…oh my yes.

    And yes, yes, yes, I agree soooo whole heartedly with Ari: “It’s almost like we’re children who can’t be unsupervised by priesthood grownups. Do you ever feel like our religion infantilizes us?”.

    Yes! I do! Spiritual micro-managing is not our doctrine, but is becoming more and more our practice in countless ways.
    I was pleasantly surprised at the study group announcement. It is the opposite of the ever growing grip-tightening the brethren have been, and are practicing, in reaction to members critical thinking development from Internet access.

  43. FWIW, the bible in the picture at the top of this post is the English Standard Version, which is the favorite of contemporary Calvinists and associated with hardcore gender-complementarian positions within Protestant churches.

  44. GOD is powerful.

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