Teaching Gospel Doctrine

Any other GD teachers out there? I’ve been in this calling for just over two years now, and it’s the second-favorite calling I’ve had in the Church. (I love teaching, but nothing compares to working with the youth.) I’ve been reflecting lately on what works, and what doesn’t, in my Gospel Doctrine class.

First, some background: I am the only GD teacher in a ward that has seen some significant revitalization in the five years I’ve lived here. When I came, the ward seemed to be struggling in many ways through internal divisions. (Apparently, the contention was so severe that the ward was actually ceremonially rededicated around 1997, and placed in a new stake for a fresh start. Last year we returned to the stake that makes more sense geographically, since the problems have been resolved.)

We used to have an abysmal retention rate and very low attendance. In the last three years or so, we’ve grown numerically and spiritually, I think mostly due to outstanding leadership on the part of the bishop and the efforts of an amazing missionary couple who helped to reactivate some longtime members. Going to church has become the highlight of my week.

One of the things that I have learned in teaching GD in this setting is that liberal Mormons (myself included) can be far too critical of the lesson manual. What I mean by this is that yes, of course the manual tends to be superficial and simplistic. But now that I am teaching in a ward which has a high percentage of people who never went to college and a high majority of converts, I understand it. I still only use the manual as a jumping-off place, but I find it to be generally on target in terms of what works with this audience.

One failing of the manual, though, is that it only fills half the purpose of the class. That is, it does a decent job of conveying “gospel doctrine” and teaches members the basics about what the Church believes about the scriptures. What it doesn’t do, though, is enhance community, which is a very important part of what goes on when I teach class. I’ve found that GD class comes alive when I am not a teacher so much as a facilitator, soliciting comments and directing discussions that are rich with people’s personal experiences of the gospel.

Some of the best GD lessons I’ve done have taken the principles and sought to apply them directly to people’s lives. Last year when we studied the New Testament, I did a few special lessons. When we studied the “members of the body” in 1 Corinthians, for example, I handed out slips of paper at the beginning of the lesson, each listing a part of the body: hand, eye, foot, head, etc. We built a “body” on the chalkboard by having people put their body part in the right place on the chalkboard. Then they turned to face a class that bombarded them with specific comments about the many ways that they were indispensable to the ward and to the body of Christ. I learned things about people in my ward that I never knew, and got a glimpse of the deep ties that bind this community of salt-and-light folks — some of whom have known each other half a century.

When we did Romans (where I entirely deviated from the manual, which suggests covering the whole letter in one week . . .excuse me? We took three.), we did a special lesson on Romans 14. We highlighted “gray areas of the gospel” — things that in our day are similar to Paul”s discourse on whether it was kosher for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. This resulted in a good discussion of the finer points of tithing (gross or net?), bikinis, decaf coffee, and playing sports on Sundays. I wanted to create a judgment-free zone where we could just list these contested issues and allow people to agree to disagree. It seems a little thing, but one guy came up afterward to say that it was the most helpful GD lesson he’d ever had. Go figure.

We’ve done other cool things in class. Last year we followed the example of the “kingdom assignment” (see the book by the same name) and I gave five members of the class $20 each to go out and do some good in the world. The next week they were to return and report. Several had pooled their money to help a new convert whose husband was serving in Iraq. She has four young kids to support. The missionaries had taken their money to Wal-mart to buy a space heater for an investigator with no heat. We tied these acts of service to several passages in the NT, especially the parable of the talents.

I think that for our next class project we will take the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on service and spend a class period filling shoe boxes of toys and things for kids. (I’m no fan of Franklin Graham, but Operation Christmas Child is a great thing.) So now I finally get to my question: what are some of the most memorable and powerful things you’ve discussed or done in GD classes? What are the worst experiences? Whether you are a teacher or a class member, what is your vision for what GD class could be?


27 comments for “Teaching Gospel Doctrine

  1. Jana,

    I already bored you with my feelings as a GD teacher at Sunstone this year, so you know I have a lot of opinions on the topic :)

    I’ve found that the worst experiences usually come when the culture wars are brought up in class. Gay marriage, school prayer, public display of the Ten Commandments, etc., are surefire ways to drive the spirit out of the room. A man in my class who’s a Church employee and a pretty straight arrow expressed his displeasure when gay marriage was brought up. He wondered what on earth it could contribute to the discussion since we all are very clear on where the Church stands on the issue. These sort of “lets all pat ourselves on the back because of our righeousness” comments don’t work well.

    Some rules I’ve established for myself as a teacher that seems to have helped are:

    *No bringing up obscure or “controversial” things unless they can truly be helpful and relate to the lesson. I’m not there to wow or shock people – I’m there to help facillitate some spiritual feelings.

    *Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for the saints. At least part of the lesson has to deal with how we can be better Christians to our fellow brothers and sisters (not just a discussion of 101 Ways to Walk Out of a Movie with Bad Language).

    In general, the best classes are when members feel like they can share their personal journey, even if it doesn’t fit the standard. I love hearing those personal stories and I think they contribute to a warm environment and a spiritual richness that is lacking when I just drone on and on.

    I frequently utilize Jim F.’s questions he posts each week here on T&S – they’re a terrific way to rethink passages of scripture. I like your creative ideas and would love to hear more (from you and others) for more activity-based lessons. I’d especially like to get more people involved, instead of just having the same five or six people (inevitably the most conservative people in the ward) making the comments week in and week out.

  2. One challenge I find as a GD teacher is the diversity of understanding the scriptures, and the diversity of living the scriptures.

    I always like to have the discussions focus on how the scriptures we are studying today apply to us now. But I also like to bring up one or two points that will make everyone think.

    Examples from this last week: Why does the Semon at Bountiful so closely “quote” Mathew? Why is the Lord’s prayer different in 3Ne, Mathew, and JS Mathew? No long discussions, we took about 5-7 minutes, got people thinking and then challenged them to compare and study in more depth.

    I find if I keep too close to the manual, asking those questions I bore the class. I thrive on questions that get the class involved with application of these scriptures in their lives today.

  3. I’m not a Gospel Doctrine teacher — my wife is, and I’m in the stake Sunday School presidency. I had the opportunity of teaching my wife’s class this past Sunday, and I noticed the following:

    Our ward’s GD class is large for our area (about 75-80 people) which creates a problem for establishing the sense of community that you refer to. With so many people, it’s difficult to feel like everyone is actively involved, and impossible to allow everyone to comment if they so wished. One idea I had was to sing a hymn in the middle of the lesson that related to the discussion — singing in the church is actively participatory, and if there is a context for understanding the words of the hymn, it can become a powerful teaching experience as well. I didn’t actually do this, as the discussion was rolling along and I didn’t want to break the flow, but it’s an idea.

    One of the biggest failures of GD classes generally, I think, is that too few of us take the time to come prepared to the lesson. If everyone took the time to read the material and ponder on it before the class, the actual time spent in class could be much more productive than it generally is. Our ward SS president sends out an email reminder in the middle of the week, which is simple to do, and somewhat effective for me, at least.

  4. I am the part to full-time Gospel Essentials teacher in my ward. I haven’t attended Gospel Doctrine class in years, except on the rare occasions when the teacher fails to show and I end up teaching both classes together.

    “What are some of the most memorable and powerful things you’ve discussed or done in GD classes? What are the worst experiences?�

    It’s hard to resist answering this question, but I think I will. J

    “What is your vision for what GD class could be?

    With John H, I think the most important function of the class is to provide an environment where people can ask honest questions and explore their concerns forthrightly, without having to worry about whether they come off as sufficiently righteous. Creating a climate where everyone feels their participation is valued is crucial to creating the types of classroom experiences that will keep new members coming back for more. “Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for the saints.� It’s been said a thousand times, but it’s always worth repeating. I feel fortunate because I’m in a ward where there is no clique of members who appear to hold themselves out as the paragons of righteousness or orthodoxy. My ward is also interesting in that it doesn’t appear to have a contingent of strident, ultra-conservative voices. It is fairly apolitical, and beneath the surface, I think there are even some wild and crazy liberal heresies abounding! (But of the economic, not necessarily “intellectual�, variety). Such is life in a Los Angeles ward.

    Aaron B

  5. Our stake presidency recently asked us to have a microphone set up for our gospel doctrine and priesthood lessons. It’s taken some getting used to but when the classroom is large or there’s a lot of people in the room, it really does make a difference. No one has to strain to hear that way. The stake provides a microphone system that’s built into a portable stand… so it’s not one of those deals where the teacher carries a mike … instead the teacher has to get used to standing behind the little podium. Some teachers like to roam a little so we’re probably going to have to get one of those little microphones that attaches to a tie.

  6. Jana, it seems to me that you are teaching from the manual. It says:

    Review each lesson at least a week in advance. When you study the reading assignment and the lesson material early, you will receive thoughts and impressions during the week that will help you teach the lesson. As you ponder the lesson during the week, pray for the Spirit to guide you. Have faith that the Lord will bless you.

    Each lesson in this manual contains more information than you will probably be able to teach in one class period. Seek the Spirit of the Lord in selecting the scripture accounts, questions, and other lesson material that will best meet the needs of class members.

    That is what you are doing.

  7. Bryce, a suggestion if I may, and since you’re in the Stake SS presidency you actually have some juice to make it work.

    Ask your ward Sunday School president to consider calling a second Gospel Doctrine teacher and establishing a second Gospel Doctrine class. This is more involved than it sounds as which-class-to-attend should be made by assignment, not pick-and-choose or else people fall through the cracks.

    Certainly if the class is that big there’s another potential teacher in the mix somewhere. Classes as large as you say lose the give-and-take of smaller ones and start to take on characteristics of an audience rather than a class.

  8. Full agreement here, Jana. Teaching Gospel Doctrine was the most immediately rewarding calling I’ve ever had. You approach sounds just about right to me. Worst experiences? Well, for people in my classes, any lesson from the first six months probably qualifies, and then there were some real stinkers towards the end, and a few here and there in the middle….

    And what Chad Too says, too. In our previous, young-family heavy ward, my greatest frustration towards the end was having not enough room in the RS room, but teaching in the chapel was abysmal and we went back. A few years ago, they called a new Gospel Doctrine teacher for the “loud class,” where parents of pre-nursery children could enjoy a lesson without taking dirty looks from the rest of the class.

  9. If ever there are two gospel doctrine classes in your ward, go to the one one less attended. It was in a second smaller GD class relegated to an obscure part of the chapel that I relished the most glorious GD lessons ever delivered. Bill Hamblin was the teacher.

  10. Chad —

    We have space issues in our ward, so I’m not sure that we could get another Gospel Doctrine class in. Also, stake Sunday School presidencies have shockingly little authority and responsibility for a stake-level calling.

    I agree with the “go to the smaller class” sentiment expressed by Jack. When I visit other wards, if there’s a smaller class, I sit in on it.

  11. (1) We recently got a ‘baby class’ and I hear only positive things about it.

    (2) My worst moment: asking the Berkeley Ward for examples of secret combinations. Ouch.

    (3) General rule: any question that someone can answer without some time spent pondering isn’t worth asking.

  12. Too true, Julie. I now know that the Gospel Doctrine teacher absolutely has to ask the “what are secret combinations today?” question without really saying, “here’s your chance to denounce any group you don’t like as children of Satan!”

  13. One of my favorite questions is (after reading a carefully chosen passage) “What do you notice here?” or “What stands out to you.” And if a class knows me well–if we have a good rapport, I’ll ask them NOT to say things about the passage that they are used to saying about it, and I’ll try to do the same myself. Helps get us out of ruts and looking anew.

  14. Unlike some of the previous posters, my ideal GD class would adopt a more scholarly focus on the scriptures (and context, and commentary, and doctrine), leaving the “application” lessons to RS and Priesthood, where, gender-segregated, we seem better able to discuss personal application anyway. And I’m not crazy about lots of discussion, either–I know it’s intended to be stimulating and inclusive, but I find it usually to be rather boring and repetitive. I prefer a higher lecture-to-discussion ratio, assuming of course that the teacher is dynamic, with plenty of close reading and contextualization thrown into the equation.

  15. I alternate weeks with another teacher, which turns out pretty well. Besides giving each of us more flexibility for travel schedules, it gives the class two different approaches to the material. Plus, this way I don’t run out of stories as early in the year!

    I find that the two most effective components of GD teaching are knowing the material well enough to respond to the interests of the particular class, and pointing out important details that are often overlooked. I walk in assuming the class has read the material. Even though I know most of them have not read it recently, almost everyone has read it at least once in the past. I start each class with a list of topics on the side of the board that I intend to cover, so everyone has a roadmap for the lesson, but we don’t always get through it. Instead, we respond to the comments that are made during the class. We are fortunate enough to have a lot of participation, which I think is generated by dicsussion about practical application rather than “what does this mean” questions.

    I notice that the whole class pays attention when I relate a personal story or relevant current event. Once I read from a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion, which provoked some good discussion. Sometimes I bring in physical objects to make a point, such as a sword, ancient coins, or food for passover.

    Overall, the class seems to enjoy talking about the joy of the gospel more than anything else, and how the gospel can remedy the various hurts and problems people face.

  16. Hooray! I’m not the only one! I’m with Rosalynde in thinking that most of the discussion in GD is not particularly informative. The fact is that we are generally so spectacularly uninformed about the scriptures that we mostly don’t have anything new or interesting to say about them, and so the discussion turns into either a catechistic call and response or group therapy loosely based on 1 or 2 verses. Assuming that the teacher is good, I think mostly lecture is the way to go. Moreover, since the actual Sunday School lesson time often ends up being only 20 minutes, there really isn’t time for a decent discussion anyway.

  17. Jack,

    Having been friends with Bill Hamblin when his greatest interest seems to have been constructing a electric remote-controlled bottle rocket launching pad on the hillside behind his house, I’m still amazed to see what he’s up to today.

  18. Rosalynde and Kristine,

    I see what you’re saying, and I think I agree with you, granting your assumption that the teacher is competent and informed enough to provide a substantive lecture. But alas, your assumption usually isn’t true, which means we’re left with the alternatives of a lecture by a teacher who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and a discussion led by the same teacher, but driven by potentially substantive insights from the audience. Given that choice, I’ll take the latter.

    Aaron B

  19. When I taught Gospel Doctrine, I felt like my class as a group knew much more and had much more experience with the Gospel than I did, and my job, I thought, was to draw out class members’ insights through discussion. Asking good questions is absolutely essential. I always feel like throttling teachers who ask for mechanical responses (“What’s the official name of the church?”), and when I was the teacher who asked them, I felt like throttling myself. Likewise, asking people to share their most personal spiritual experiences with no advance warning will always fail. But lecture without discussion appeals to me as much as toast without jam. Even if Sunday School isn’t as oriented towards practical application as Relief Society or Priesthoo, there still needs to be a clear relevance of the message to the here and now.

    Rosalynde, the things you mention (context, commentary, doctrine) are all important, but they aren’t necessarily simple. Perhaps you have something like Julie’s point in mind, that understanding a verse requires you to look at the chapter around it, and I would agree. Historical context is trickier, however: while it’s probably possible to establish historical context for many sections in the D&C (but see Nate Oman’s recent post), we just don’t know much about the historical context of the other standard works. We have beliefs we’ve borrowed or inherited from traditional Christianity, or the findings of 19th-century scholars, or the results of more recent research who are largely skeptical of biblical truth. I’d hesitate to treat any of those things as extra-textual context in a Gospel Doctrine class without some explanation. As for the Book of Mormon, I don’t think our understanding of the pre-Columbian Americas or of BofM history is sufficient to let us say much about historical context. Or rather, I would be hesitant to put the authority of a lecture behind it, although there are many points that might be raised in the context of a discussion.

  20. Jonathan, I disagree with you about the availability of historical contextual material. The Book of Mormon is a special case among the standard works, of course, not yet being reliably situated in time and space. Still, it’s possible to (partially) reconstruct from internal evidence ecclesiastical, legal, cultural, philosophical, political, and economic contexts for BoM episodes, and this exercise often yields fruitful exegetical results; and as you say, the immediate rhetorical context of a specific verse should be considered as well.

    As for Biblical contextualization, I must defer to more expert witnesses, but I can scarcely believe there are no believing, current Biblical commentaries available; as a matter of fact, I just picked up a commentary on Revelation by Don Parry from Deseret Book the other day. (Of course, the Revelation is a special case, as well, since it also exists textually out of context; still, Parry’s explication of symbolism included a few useful historical referents.)

  21. I have no idea whether any of these are in any way useful to the class members, but some elements of how I try to approach teaching Gospel Doctrine are:

    (1) Share my own insights from my efforts to read the assigned text closely. Another post here at T&S is discussing how enlightening biblical study can be when led by someone drawing from the rabbinical tradition of very close and careful reading of the scripture. Even without a lot of extraneous knowledge, I am finding that there is a lot in the texts besides the traditional seminary class / basic missionary interpretations. Not that those interpretations are incorrect, but adult GD class should be able to bring out adult understandings in addition to those appreciable by teenagers.

    (2) Use applications to current events. I know that this can be annoying and has the danger of being contentious if mishandled, but I believe that full respect for the scriptures requires that we wrestle with their relevance to our times (especially when like the BoM and D&C they explicitly state that they are for our times). And for those who dislike this approach because it brings out the far right-wingers, the antidote is not to ignore it, but rather to focus on the social justice message which abounds in the modern scriptures.

    (3) I try to remember that the scriptures are story. People learn more from a good story than doctrinal exposition (e.g. Jesus’ parables). We have thousands of pages of scripture rather than just the Gospel Essentials manual because we learn more powerfully from seeing real-life experience than hearing abstract propositions. So, I try to convey that these are exciting real flesh and blood happenings. Everyone loves a good story.

    (4) Group theray isn’t always bad. We would hope that GD class conveys some good info, but there isn’t enough time for it to compete with a college or Institute religion class. In the end, SS is supposed to help people change their lives, and sometimes a good discussion of personal application which is relevant to the class members is the best way to do that. I understand the posts which complain about one or two verses serving as a springboard for group therapy, and the teacher is failing if that’s what happens every week (or worse, relies on that happening every week in order to avoid substantive preparation). However, in my experience sometimes that’s what Dr. Holy Spirit orders.

  22. I just wanted to add to this that any Gospel Doctrine teacher who hands out twenty-dollar bills, on any occasion, for any reason, would earn my full attention and perhaps my ongoing faithful class attendance as well.

  23. Rosalynde, I agree that there is material available. But reconstructions of historical setting from internal evidence, while interesting and possibily illuminating, are always tentative and open to revision. For the Bible, consider Pontius Pilate and Moses, two important figures with no attestation in historical documents. In various Christian traditions, Pilate turns up as everything from spawn of Satan to a saint. Some scholars doubt Moses ever existed. I’d be hesitant to say anything too specific in the context of a Gospel Doctine lecture without explaining the diversity of opinion concerning historical context. I wouldn’t want to say something like, “We now know that when Moses lived, X was the case,” or “Pilate really meant X when he said Y,” for example. I’m probably not diasgreeing with your teaching style at all, but rather with that of my own past teachers.

  24. Fair enough, Jonathan. As you say, I think we’re talking about two different enterprises, both inconveniently called “contextualization.” Although I must say I would be thrilled if my GD teacher briefly summarized some of the “diversity of opinion concerning historical context” in class, since I am embarrassingly unlearned in ancient scripture. I readily concede that I am hopelessly bookish, though, and not representative of the class as a whole.

  25. I try to follow the golden rule and teach a class that I would find interesting and engaging. Of course, I have more intellectual curiousity than the average Saint, so that tends to skew things a certain direction. I figure that if the powers that be don’t like the way I teach, they can always go a different direction. I like to convey actual information to the class (I dislike sitting through a class where no one actually learns anything), so whenever possible I pass out handouts I have created summarizing useful information about the reading assignment.

    I probably tend to lecture somewhat more than most teachers do. I like group discussion, but I refuse to put anyone on the spot, so it only happens when people volunteer (and I make it clear to the class that I encourage their participation, but I will never call on someone who doesn’t volunteer).

    When I do “do discussion,” I usually get it going by asking Jim/Julie type questions I constantly have to remind the class that I do not ask “catechism” questions (a practice I personally loathe), and that I am looking for their own thoughtful responses, not for some boilerplate answer in the lesson manual. Once people figure that out, the discussion usually starts to cook and gets a lot more interesting.

  26. While I understand what many of you are getting at, Gospel Doctrine is not intended to be an intellectual exercise in the way that a college religion course is designed to be. As stated in the manual, a Gospel Doctrine teacher’s responsibility is “to help class members understnad etermal precepts and strengthen their testimonies of Jesus Christ, His gospel, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mission.” While a well-planned, on-topic, short lecture will surely invite the Spirit, nothing invites the Spirit like inviting the class members themselves to share their testimonies and experiences. Of course, every lesson should have both lecture components and discussion components, but I’ve found it much safer to err on the side of discussion rather than lecture. That may change depending on the audience, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have an audience for the past year and a half that is full of wonderful experience and which never seems to stray off topic. If these reasons aren’t enough…see page viii of the lesson manual, just under “Encouraging Class Discussion”:


    While it’s all well and good to walk away from a Gospel Doctrine class with new insights into theories about Nephite architecture or Hebrew grammar, it’s much more uplifting to leave having heard and felt the power of personal testimonies shared by the teacher and others in the class. That is what Gospel Doctrine class is for, the “perfecting of the saints” not the “intellectualization fo the saints.” I love the intellectual stimulation and the mysteries as much as anyone, and I’m only a few months away from getting a doctoral degree, but Gospel Doctrine class is neither the time nor place for that.

    As far as the manual goes, I love it. You can follow it without sounding like you’re teaching primary. It is, as was pointed out above, a guide. It just has to be used correctly. Though we’ve never been told to follow it word-for-word, I think you can compare it to the missionary discussions before they changed them. When a missionary knew them by heart, and taught by the Spirit, they were extremely powerful – unfortunately, not all missionaries could figure out how to both teach memorized phrases and teach with power and with the Spirit – so I imagine that had something to do with why things were changed. I’m sure many of you agree with my comments. I’d love to hear back from you.

  27. I have to totally agree with what Aaron just said. As a teacher and a student of many years myself, when a teacher goes off on how much they know about the doctrine that some of you are talking about, I lose all interest. It is not that the information is not interesting I believe it is because the spirit leaves. People do not come to Gospel Doctrine to find out how intelligent YOU are. They come to feel the spirit and hopefully gain a desire to search the scriptures more for themselves. Its really that simple. Don’t over complicate it.

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