Taking Control of Your Gospel Doctrine Class… Because You’re the Teacher

I’ve wondered how much blame for  “uninformative” (Pres. Kimball’s description) or “uninspiring” (Elder Holland’s paraphrase) teaching in Gospel Doctrine comes from collective failure. Yes, a good teacher can do wonders, but if many classes don’t really talk about the scriptures in question, it’s because virtually no one but the teacher has read them. If the teacher feels compelled to be merely a “discussion leader” instead of, you know, the Gospel Doctrine TEACHER, and no one is actually prepared to discuss Ezekiel or Daniel, then the class discussion is going to wander to other things, like food storage, random evils of The World™  or stories from the mission, that relate only in the vaguest of ways to the two verses of Daniel we read out loud. Even worse is when we conclude afterwards that the passage in question really was speaking prophetically about whatever random topic we’ve hit on (see my old post here.) Getting people to read is its own bucket of issues, and I’d be interested in suggestions on that.

But I, at least, as teacher, don’t feel compelled to turn over the discussion to people who aren’t prepared to contribute to it in a substantial way. I know Gospel Doctrine is not and shouldn’t be grad school, and I don’t expect it to be, but if I were a professor and all my students came to a seminar not having done any work at all to prepare, I’d be beyond angry. As is, I’m merely frustrated and sad at the missed opportunities for good inspiring edification through collective sharing of knowledge, and the people we lose through boredom and lack of interest.

I did not consider my teaching philosophy unusual until I had this recent conversation with someone teaching Daniel 2 this week, in response to my post.

(Slightly edited)

Q- Do you think it’d be fruitful to discuss Mormon millennialism and its decline and our assimilation in American culture? I can just imagine a lot of pushback. (Ben says, I talked about millennialism in my post.)

Ben-  Maybe a 20 second aside, on something like D&C 130:14-17 as an example. (Wherein Joseph prays very earnestly to know just how soon the Second  Coming will be).

Q- It just seems like it might get weird if I go there.

Ben-I just don’t give people opportunity to talk until I get through my entire spiel, which provides necessary context and steers things in the right direction.

Q-Lol. I like your style. But then my wife says, “You need to ask more questions.”

Ben– I prefaced last week with “I think discussions about scripture work best when everyone has recently read the scriptures in question. Most of the time though, that doesn’t happen. So I’ve prepared a mix of 80% lecture and 20% discussion… unless my assumption about no one reading is wrong. So how many people read Ezekiel 43,44,47 by a show of hands? Huh, well, while I wish we had disproved my assumption, I’m prepared to do most of the talking. Read for next week.”

Q-That’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard a GD teacher say to the class.


My interlocutor’s response surprised me. I’m as appreciative of validation/ flattery as anyone (maybe more, given my professional failures), but doesn’t everybody do this?  If not, why not? I can think of some reasons, perhaps, but I’m interested in other thoughts.

How do we get Gospel Doctrine classes to read? How should we teach when they haven’t read?

(If you are not the teacher, however, and the teacher is doing a “less effective” job, see my post here for how Teaching: No Greater Call authorizes you to help.)

68 comments for “Taking Control of Your Gospel Doctrine Class… Because You’re the Teacher

  1. Ben. I will take a class from you any day (and I won’t open whatever religious book I have on hand during the class either). Here’s something though. I do talk radio and have for 20 years. I occasionally host a call-in show and those who’ve listened are kind enough to let me know they like it when I’m able to be on. Naturally, I have a great interest in talk radio myself and i do enjoy listening to Rush Limbaugh in particular. Now, before many of you turn me off, let me say that, agree with his politics or not, Rush is THE top talk radio host in history. No one else is even close! One day, Rush was talking about his secret. Normally, his schtick is one of arrogance and ego, but in this instance he was very matter-of-fact. Here it is . . . ITS ALL ABOUT THE HOST.

    This principle translates to the GD class. ITS ABOUT WHAT INTERESTS AND MOTIVATES THE TEACHER. (ME). I have found that when I’m passionate and interested in the material, its easier to get the class excited too. Its not a graduate seminar, of course, but I want them to leave their comfort zone. If I’m entertained, they usually are too. IMPORTANT CAVEAT: As the GDT, I’ve been set apart and I DO try to follow the spirit as I’m “making it about me and my interests”. I’ve found that I’m often inspired in this way. I also find that, no matter how hard I study, I can never be as clear as when I’m set apart to the task. My goal is to get them to read when they go home. That’s why the GD format is unfortunate and why team-teaching or co-teaching isn’t as effective. I’d love to follow up the next week with questions about what they did go home and read.

    When we put more of our personality into the lesson, the class will be more responsive. By that, I’m NOT advocating the kind of superficial nonsense that used to be recommended to keep people’s attention. I’m talking about an actual passion for the material.

  2. When students mostly haven’t read, I tend to hone in on just a handful or two of key verses that address really interesting and important topics. Then I ask questions and when class members start reading the scripture in proof-texting ways, I come back to the verse in question and show how the verse actually says something quite different than what they are trying to say.

    I usually try to do this in a pretty friendly way, but I look for opportunities to point out proof-texting tendiencies: “Hmm, well the verse actually says X, Y and Z, which seems to suggest–at least on my thinking–A, B, and C. And, isn’t that funny, even though I have thought something similar to what Brother Jones was just saying, it seems the scripture is actually saying something very different.”

  3. (Also, for each of the key verses I plan to focus on in a lesson, I carefully prepare background/contextual material so that everyone is on a somewhat equal footing for participating in the discussion. This way I avoid letting certain know-it-alls from dominating the discussion. And this gives everyone a chance to read a handful of key verses each week very carefully and thoughtfully, and with sufficient background information so that they should be able to catch themselves when they start to make interpretive mistakes or overly heroic/bad interpretive turns, etc.)

  4. Ben, this is a great post for me because I’m a professional educator who loves to teach but most often am exhausted and out-of-time when it comes to preparing for GD. As a result, I use discussion to provide time, during class, for me to think through the ideas in whatever scripture we’ve read. That’s not an ideal strategy, though it seems a natural fallback for me.
    Plus, I’ve never liked much lecture, either as a student or as a teacher. My mind wanders in either role and I suspect the minds of others do as well. On occasion, it really works for someone. I get that. I also believe that’s not a sufficient outcome to justify the frequent use of lecture in a class setting. I lecture when I talk in Sacrament Meeting and during professional talks and frankly don’t enjoy either as much as the discussions, even when ad-hoc, from class. Summary: I discuss because it feels more fun to me and if I’m going to keep doing this each week, it absolutely has to be fun for me.

  5. I find that my most valuable teacher prep is a decision about what I want the end state to be. If I’ve done that well enough, then the lesson will flow. As far as reading goes, sometimes it helps to open class with 5 minutes or so of silent reading, then ask for questions, then move into “lesson” mode. The “quiet time” at the beginning helps people separate themselves from”life” and prepare for something transcendent. It also demonstrates the value of reading.

  6. I always have an “end state” in mind, too. I like discussion and class participation, but questions calling for that have to be very carefully planned — you don’t ask questions that make class members guess what you want them to say, but you do have to ask questions that are not so open-ended that discussion takes off on a tangent that you can’t rein in.

    I’ve given up on expecting or coaxing or even planning that class members will have read anything. It’s obvious too often that even other teachers haven’t read the scripture, but are relying on a quick glance at the manual and their supposed familiarity with doctrine after a lifetime of church attendance in order to carry a lesson. (I entered a classroom early almost four years ago and caught a teacher obviously opening his manual for the first time. It was the NT lesson centered on Matt 11:30 — “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”; it wasn’t AT ALL the point of the lesson, but he zeroed in on the Savior having plucked corn on the Sabbath and then grasped for everything he could think of about the Sabbath — that LDS meet on Friday or Saturday in countries where one of those is the traditional day of worship, a diatribe against Seventh Day Adventists, compiling a list of activities suitable or not for the Sabbath. When *teachers* do that, it’s no wonder that *class members* do, too!)

    Anyway, I suppose my default for handling that is to have us read passages aloud, discussing as we go, and leading toward the conclusion/purpose of the lesson. Then the hard thing is to get class members to respond to questions according to what is right there on the page, and not regurgitate proof-texting from past decades. My class is mixed young couples and 65+ with little in between. The younger ones are far more able and willing to discuss as we read; the older ones seem less able to escape the programming of previous proof-texting.

    But in neither case do more than two or three class members read the passage before coming to Sunday School. I have no idea how to change that.

  7. I quit expecting members to read as well, so my objective shifted towards getting members interested in reading the scriptures on their own. In line with Terry H’s comment above, I’ve found that my own passion and interest in the scriptures created the most fulfilling classes, or at least it seemed to me. The scriptures are absolutely fascinating (some more than others), and I personally get inspired when I learn something new about them (either context, literary allusions, intertextuality, etc., and obviously most importantly what the Spirit teaches me – usually about the Savior’s love and the atonement and plan of redemption).
    I’m not willing to abandon the manual altogether, even if I can’t get excited about every lesson, so I usually pick one or two topics that interest me most, and then try to supplement the lessons with a heavy dose of commentary (from both Prophets and scholars) to better understand the context and the doctrine/principles.
    As far as discussions, I’ve found that the classes seemed to be more fruitful with discussion, but only so long as we kept focus on the topic(s) at hand. I personally prefer a good teacher who can bring interesting insight and spiritually uplifting testimony rather than a broad discussion – which I generally loathe, because zero new insight is brought to anything. As Ardis indicates above – those with a lifetime of church attendance bring their familiarity with doctrine – which inevitably results in the same boring lesson over and over. If the class members haven’t read the scriptures, I don’t expect them to bring anything to the table that we haven’t all heard a million times already. In other words, if members haven’t read, perhaps the last thing I’m interested in is the discussion. If by chance they have read – then let’s discuss!
    When the latter happens, I’ll be elated…until then, I’ve always got two other books that I’ll peruse during class.

  8. I see the same struggle in Relief Society, too. In my ward a couple of our teachers send out the direct link to the lesson, I know they hope we will take time and read it. We don’t. If we recognize we say, “Ah, yes Elder So and So. I liked it.” When Sunday arrives each teacher asks a leading question such as, “What was the hymn that prompted Elder So and So to this talk.” None of know, we didn’t read it. But ask us about families and we know the answer The Proclamation.

    I do not jest.

    On the other hand as a class participant I have had the reverse, where I bring up something such as my favorite Old Testament story is Ruth. What I received as a response from life time LDS man, former Bishop and Mission President was, “Oh yeah the girl that took care of Mother in law.” I now skip class, I can read/study the lesson or my scriptures in the car, or I can offer my service somewhere else during the hour.

    It’s the struggle of a lay ministry.

  9. Sorry to poop on the parade here, but in all my life, I’ve never read anything to prepare for a church class. I am doing well to drag myself and my family to church and not fall asleep from sheer exhaustion during Sacrament meeting. I tell ya, we close our eyes for the Sacrament prayers and it is 50/50 if we open them again before the closing prayer. I figure the Lord knows we are doing our best with the hand He dealt us, so there.
    We get points for being Mormon and bonus points for being active.
    In Sunday School, assume I haven’t done jack to prepare other than be there with an open mind. Pour in whatever you want, I mostly likely will be too tired to object.
    If the teacher does say something over the top stupid, I use it for discussion on the Bloggernacle and that is it’s own reward.
    Don’t hold it against me for not studying ahead of time and I won’t hold it against you if your lesson is boring beyond belief.

  10. Several years ago I was a Sunday School President in a BYU singles ward. The bishop of that ward placed a high priority on the quality of the four Sunday School classes–the eight teachers were carefully selected. Cream of the crop types.

    Because of the high turnover rate, we were constantly searching for new teachers. I had no idea at that time how lucky we were–we had a great pool to pick from. We’d ask potential teachers to substitute (essentially a tryout, except that the substitute teacher didn’t know it was a tryout). I recall one substitute teacher who gave a good lesson. She was well prepared, she was obviously well-versed in the scriptures, she provided interesting background information. In the ward I’m currently in, I’d be thrilled to have a Sunday School teacher like her. But she didn’t involve the class much. She didn’t ask many questions. It was pretty much a (well-presented) lecture. She didn’t make the cut.

    The other teachers asked good questions. If the answers got off topic, they quickly brought the conversation back. The questions weren’t so much a review of what we were reading in class–they were mainly application questions. How to apply what we were reading about to our own situations. The questions were well thought out. It was clear that the teacher had spent serious time thinking of good questions to ask. The point was to get the class members actually thinking about the lesson and about how to apply what they were learning in their own lives. They weren’t “read the teacher’s mind” questions or “repeat what I just said” questions.

    Obviously, a well-prepared lecture beats a last-minute “discussion” any day. But I’m convinced that the very best Sunday School (and RS/PH) lessons involve good questions and thoughtful answers.

  11. Discussion works pretty well in my ward generally, and as a student those are the classes I love. Last week we had a trained teacher stand in for the usual teacher, and I didn’t enjoy it as much, finding it over-structured. I’ve experienced a few teaching styles over the years, but the worst was really heavily choreographed with lots of advance assignments for students to do this that and the other ( a ward I was visiting). I guess the ward I’m in class members do read, and are familiar with the text in advance.

  12. I’ve agonized over this for many years. Lately what I find myself doing is giving a brief introduction to the book we’re going to be talking about (for tomorrow’s class it will be Daniel), in which I’ll convey for instance some of your stuff from Benjamin the Scribe. Then we will actually do some reading together as a class. I act as voice so I can control things, but where verses are unclear we explain the meaning, give interesting background, explain obscure words, etc. We might make it through the first two chapters tomorrow. That’s not the whole reading assignment, but that will end up being two chapters more than anyone has read, and by modeling close reading with a focus on comprehension skills, and trying to intrigue them, I hope that some of them might actually start picking up the scriptures on their own from time to time. (A hope in vain, I suspect, but a teacher can dream.)

    I also like to bring pop culture into my lessons. Last week in the Esther lesson I talked about how King Ahasuerus = Xerxes I, the guy who was portrayed as 8 feet tall in the movie 300, and how he had a real hang up about wanting everyone to bow to him, which mirrors Haman in the Esther story. Tomorrow when I talk about how Nebuchadnezzar wanted his wise men to tell him the dream, not only the interpretation, it reminded me of a scene from Exodus: Gods and Kings that I saw this morning, involving suspicion that a priestess examining the entrails of an animal was putting them on and couldn’t really predict the future.

    Just reading a chapter of text slowly, with explanations, with actual comprehension, is a new experience for many students. They seem to like it. And at that point we’re prepared to have some actual discussion about said text.

  13. Great Post Ben. My experience over the last 2 years of teaching GD is that I need to be prepared to carry ALL the water in a lesson. If I get some help from the class, great, but if I’m not 100% prepared to carry the hour, it’s an absolute epic fail.

    I send out a weekly email inviting the class to read, some things to think about, etc. in the hope that they’ll crack open their scriptures and actually do it. My experience is mixed in that regard. Some times people focus on the assignment, others not so much. I’ll admit, I’m more of a lecturer than a discussion leader, but it seems no matter how I phrase questions, nobody is really ready to answer them, so we get really long periods of silence, which I’m cool with, but makes some people nervous…then we get off track because the answers tend to get strange. I prepare a lesson with significant time and more material than we can ever cover with help from you, Ardis and a few others on the web, as well as various texts at my desk, and then hope for the best while imploring our Heavenly Father for help when I’m at the board. Some weeks are better than others.

    I do not think that reading 75 verses of scripture aloud for 45 minutes will improve reading performance ahead of class. I think we have to wet some appetites and in some cases wet them repeatedly. For some people, reading is pretty darn hard, for others it’s second nature.

    I feel like if I’ve inspired my class to want to study more of the lesson material that has been presented, even if it’s after it’s been presented, then I’ve done my job. Old Testament can’t be learned in 40 minutes a week, it’s impossible. No set of scripture can, but especially not OT. As others have said, I am wary of proof-texters who are skimming the material (while I’m teaching) to quickly come up with a supposed slam dunk response as a show-off to the rest of the herd. I am also plagued by a few who feel they’d rather read the instructor’s manual than the scriptures presented. I’ve cautioned against that as it doesn’t help them actually think, glean knowledge/truth from the scriptures and distill the gospel of Christ into their lives.

    I have found if I try to relate concepts from the OT to things we see today, it helps. Last week for instance, we discussed Daniel being taken from Israel to Babylon is not too different from the US & USSR harvesting smart scientists from Germany in 1945-1946. We talked about how no matter who you are or where you live, it’s a benefit to your society to have smart people living among you. The spoils of war aren’t always shiny and golden, sometimes they are smart people who can help your side get smarter.

    Time for bed, tomorrow, we finish up the Esther lesson and try to work Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about big rocks and stuff.

  14. When I teach, I find it goes best when I am neither over-prepared nor under-prepared. When I prep too little, the discussion gets overlong and off-topic. But, if I have too much that I want to cover, I find that I end up lecturing more, the class tunes out, and the lesson is less successful.

    My best lessons happen when I have two or three main points I want to hit and a series of questions that leads the class through the material and toward those points. If I can get the class to comment in the direction I am going, then things go well. Ideally, someone else makes my main points for me, and I just reiterate and underscore. If we start to drift off topic, I rein it in and redirect. I feel like my primary role is to engage and facilitate. Maximum participation is my primary goal; imparting any particular scriptural knowledge is secondary. These are the types of lessons I most prefer as both instructor and student; so long as the instructor has prepared enough to have a couple meaningful takeaways for us to focus on.

  15. I have found it best to focus far more on preparing people to apply something in the material to changing their lives: making them think about even just one thing, rather than to try to cover the material. If we have been adult members of the church even eight years, chances are high we have thoroughly “covered material” many times.

    But if we can extract one single thought from the material which inspires them to trust God, turn to Him, and try to become like Him just a little more, the time is well spent.

    Fortunately, that doesn’t require them to do homework. It does, however, require a teacher prepared to lead discussion and thought. There is nothing “mere” about that. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a good “teacher” miss a chance to teach by the Spirit when a classroom has caught fire in discussion and they have cut the Spirit-led discussion short in order to “cover the material.”

    A well-prepared and tuned-in teacher can demonstrate how to find answers to whatever topic has caught the attention of class members in and around the scriptural material. That is incredibly difficult, but very powerful. I have been in classes where the teacher managed to do that, and all were edified…even the teacher.

  16. In my teaching experiences of the past few years I have been leaning on technology to help grab people’s attention, and then holding their attention by asking discussion questions that purposefully go one or two steps beyond the typical questions asked about the texts.

    Since I’ve been in YSA wards they I typically have projectors, so I’ve often used multimedia presentations heavily. If we have a section of scripture to read aloud, I give the reference, but I also show the actual passages as a part of the presentation so they can read out of their scriptures or off of the screen. I will also try to integrate something else into the presentation, like art depicting the events in the section of scripture, or videos, or music.

    For example when I taught Book of Mormon a few years ago I used the arrangement of “The Iron Rod” from the October 2005 conference and showed the lyrics on the screen. For those unfamiliar, this arrangement was very different from the one in our hymnbook – rearranging the verses and using the music from Gustav Holst’s “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. As a result of the changes it more fully emphasizes the message of the song and got people to think about it in a different way.

    The very next lesson is on Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life and there I focuses half of the lesson on verses that show the Holy Ghost inspiring and guiding those outside of the Covenant (IE not church members). I then used that as a discussion point to talk about how we have seen others outside of the Church be influenced and inspired not to join the Church but to still do good and do God’s will anyway.

  17. Just because no one has read in the past week doesn’t mean that we haven’t read it multiple times before, nor have we never been in this exact lesson multiple times before.

  18. I am not suggesting this would work for everyone, but this is what my overachieving mother did to encourage her GD class to do the reading. At the beginning of the year, she promised her class that anyone who did all of the reading throughout the year would be invited to a dinner at her house at the end of the year. The first year she did this, she ended up having a few people over for dinner in December; however, word got out that it was a pretty cool dinner. The next year she had enough people over that we had to move the dinner to our basement. The next year so many people read that we had to have the dinner at our church. Whether people really did their reading was, of course, on the honor system, but my mom did notice a definite uptick in class discussion. But, more than that, there just seemed to be more excitement about the scriptures in general. So, I guess the lesson here is that people respond to incentives to get them started until they can sustain the enthusiasm for scripture reading on their own.

  19. What to do when the teacher is a frequent SS teacher substitute, and an stake high priest leader who endulges in promoting his political views? Seriously, last Sunday I walked out because I could not see the relevancy of Mitt Romneys comments on his candidacy and Daniel 6. Whether we prepare or not the fact remains we still have SS teachers using the forum for personal ideological indulgences tha have nothing to do with the lesson.
    The answer to my rhetorical question remains a dilemma for me.

  20. I have not attended Sunday School in years. But I take gospel study and good teaching seriously. The gospel doctrine class in my ward was so ideological and silly that I was getting physically ill each Sunday just listening. I stopped going to Sunday School and now I am happy and healthy each Sunday.
    For me, attending Sunday School is a violation of the Word of Wisdom.

  21. That’s a great story about your mother, LilyTiger.

    I’ll kind of echo LivingInZion’s comment. Why don’t I read the lesson? Because out of the 101 things on my to-do list each week, reading the Sunday School lesson is probably around 95. (If I was attending Gospel Doctrine it might move up into the 70s or 80s.)

    My mother is an excellent teacher and has a similar theory to those mentioned above about dividing the class into lecture and discussion: start the class with a well-prepared, relevant lecture, using interesting personal stories to illustrate scriptural points and use around half of the class covering the material, then spend the remainder in discussion, and end on time.

    The teacher should never encroach on the discussion time. In fact, it needs to be preserved as sacred.


    Because it is a scriptural mandate. “Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege.” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:122)

    One more point: it is important to develop teaching skills and to facilitate good discussion and to include interesting content, but more important than all that is the commandment in Doctrine and Covenants 42:14: “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.” If every teacher in the church could figure out what that meant, our meetings could be invigorated by the spirit, and we could all learn and rejoice together about the good news of the gospel.

  22. #21 – Amy,
    I appreciate your comment and especially quoting Doctrine and Covenants 88:122. I’ve never thought of that scripture in the context of teaching a class. When I was a kid, my parents used that scripture to lecture us kids about arguing and fighting.

  23. I have enjoyed professor Thomas Wayment’s teaching style dozens of times at BYU Education Week and at other BYU Conferences. If I were ever called to be a Gospel Doctrine Teacher I would often use the same technique with some adaption for the class. He doesn’t do this all the time but often he will project scriptures on the screen and just start reading and analyzing phrase by phrase, verse by verse without ever being overly definite about any one interpretation. An example had to do with a one week class from the Book of Mormon, 1st Nephi which is a bit out of his usual field (New Testament). He would start reading a passage line by line and would analyze something like this: “this” is what Nephi seems to be saying, but given what he has said about it before, perhaps this is what he is really saying…on the other hand, given the context of his time and place he perhaps was alluding to this…however, this is what I think the passage probably means and differs a bit from what _____________ has said about it…People in his audience loved the technique and it has certainly assisted my reading of scripture, very carefully, and looking at it from different angles as I go. This may be a way to study the scriptures in class when people may or may not have read them and to learn how to read scripture and what one can extract with a careful reading at home.

  24. Teachers can play a crucial part in educating people about the scriptures. But I’m cynical. I think that if real change is to happen, it can only happen by changing the correlated curriculum. For starters, I think it would be nice to stop including 1 Samuel 15 as a lesson on obedience. I don’t care if the prophet Samuel said God commanded him to tell Saul to kill all of the Amalekite women and children, when has it ever been a moral choice to kill children?

    I used to teach the gospel doctrine class and remember that no matter the preparation I put into the lessons and no matter how much I tried to disabuse members of fallacious thinking about x scripture, the same people would end up engaging in the same fallacious reasoning and black and white thinking year after year. It was the same old proof-texting, the same old literalism, the same old faith-promoting stories. If anyone is to truly learn anything about the OT and NT, it is not in Sunday School. The teacher has to have full control of the curriculum, and the students have to be willing to actually learn, not just tout the same old narrative that they are so in love with. The teachers need to have the ability to vigorously shoot people’s bad arguments and comments down when necessary. I feel like there is this sort of kumbaya, it’s all good and true sort of attitude in Sunday School where no one dares actually engage in true critical thinking for fear of appearing as the black sheep or offending another member’s oh so delicate sensitivities (how dare we question their bad analysis lest we hurt their fragile little testimonies).

    So I’ve given up on SS. I don’t attend, and I don’t support the correlated approach. I’m done with the doctrinaire enforcers of correlation in each ward who are told by the stake to tell the teachers to stick to the manual. There is nothing to be learned in SS, and in fact most of what we ‘learn’ there needs to be unlearned.

  25. I teach pretty much as Kevin describes in #12. We get a mix of discussion but I’m always prepared to carry the discussion or lecture as required. On one rare day where I was completely unprepared and low on sleep, I taught straight out of the manual and it was an utter wreck. Telling a story and/or providing some background, reading some scriptures, and asking both for critical analysis and practical application usually leads to some good discussion.

    Not only has nobody called me out on it or insisted I follow the manual, reportedly the late stake president was trying to get me to do some teacher training. As a good friend of mine once said, “You can never get in trouble if you teach from the scriptures.” So that’s what I do. If that takes us someplace the manual doesn’t, I have no problem with that.

  26. “Seriously, last Sunday I walked out because I could not see the relevancy of Mitt Romneys comments on his candidacy and Daniel 6.”

    Amen. But I guess that is about all you can do. It would be nice if more people raised their hands and called people out on zany ideas and political agendas. But no one wants to be the ward outcast or weirdo, so they just suffer in silence. I think that the crazy comes out most in SS during the Old Testament year. Too many people take that book way too literally or at least think that we are supposed to take it literally. They also think that much of the texts is literally talking about our days and try to match current events with the scriptures. But alas, that trend is attributable to the LDS church leaders themselves. It wasn’t just something that emerged from the bottom-up in the culture. To break such a trend would require repudiating the words of many past, widely respected leaders.

  27. Steve Smith (25). I will be out in the foyer, too. I will save you a seat on the couch. Sure we don’t attend the same ward or maybe even live in the same area, but I will be on the couch in my ward happily knowing you are on your couch in your ward.

  28. I’m currently a GDT and was surprised to receive the following in an email from our ward SS president on sunday:

    “Sunday School Teachers: Please use the ‘Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual’ and ‘Old Testament Class Member Study Guide’ to conduct your classes, and follow those documents faithfully throughout your presentations.

    Do not deviate from the content contained in those documents. Avoid using examples in your discussions that do not conform to the Church’s doctrines, teachings, or policies or examples that convey attitudes, sources or points of view inconsistent with the Church’s doctrines, teachings, or policies.

    If there any questions on Church’s doctrines, teachings, or policies please contact the Sunday School Presidency or the Bishopric for guidance.”

    I have no idea what prompted this message, and have heard no reports of a teacher going off the rails, but think it would be better to join those out in the foyer than to teach directly from those manuals without “deviating from the content” contained therein.

  29. Just finished up a four year stint as Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward. I decided pretty early on that if the students weren’t going to read the assignment before class – which of course they didn’t – then we would read it during class. Which we did. The first fifteen minutes of class were generally devoted to giving a general overview of the setting and then reading 30-40 verses of the story, then to going back over them and discussing them.

    I had of course spent the previous week learning everything I could about the cultural and historical setting of the material, various scholars – LDS and non – interpretations, looking at several different translations, and so on, so I had something to tell them that I knew they didn’t already know.

    People told me my classes were the best Sunday School classes they had ever had. Which is sad, really, because I was a one-trick pony.

    But it does illustrate the point: not only do we not tend to read the scriptures for Sunday School class, but in large part we don’t really read them at all, especially the Bible other than the four Gospels. Most active Mormons are fairly familiar with, maybe, 25 chapters out of the entire Old Testament. We condense Isaiah down to about six verses and Job down to two chapters.

  30. And, sadly, most of those verses we as LDS do read are merely proof-texting. This is something various publishers from Maxwell Institute (James Faulconer, Sam Brown, Adam Miller, Ben Spackman) to Kofford Books (Julie Smith, Mike Austin, Spencer Bradley) are trying to remedy (with some great success I might add). If we can just spread the word.

    PS Glen: There’s nothing wrong with being a one trick pony when that one trick is doing as good as yours.

  31. Thanks all for commenting! Lots of different experiences.

    If I can extract, it seems that an ideal teacher is (Robert C.) knowledgable and enthusiastic, which can light a spark in the audience; plans with the end in mind (Ardis and Moggett); mixes lecture with participation (multiple), and asks careful but thought-provoking questions.

    I’m a little jealous of JaredVDH and his AV club. I like having a projector, but rarely have access to one. The few times I have, it’s been a pain.

    LivinginZion and Amy T make a good point, that given extremely busy lives, reading for Gospel Doctrine is not high on the list… which places even more responsibility on the Gospel Doctrine teacher, I think, to prepare well with the class needs in mind, and model the value of scripture study.

    “Just because no one has read in the past week doesn’t mean that we haven’t read it multiple times before, nor have we never been in this exact lesson multiple times before.”

    While true, oftentimes the important aspects are in the details that no one recalls or has noticed. (How many of your Jonah lessons focused on the whale, instead of the last few verses of the last chapter?) Relying on prior knowledge or lesson experience is more likely to contribute to a poor experience than a good one, since it means we’ll be rehashing generalities, instead of exploring anew with detail.

    Stephen W.- Sounds like Wayment is a good model both for not being overly dogmatic and also close contextual reading. Wish we had more of that.

    “You can never get in trouble if you teach from the scriptures.” With a little luck, yes. I retaught a scripture-based lesson on the temple that I originally caught some hot water for, a few years ago. But I prefaced it this time by pointing out how everything was straight from the OT. That said, every lesson, every presentation “straight from the scriptures” is an interpretation, involves personal judgment and understanding. Some years ago (here? on another blog?), we had a good conversation on how every lesson, post, talk, reading, is inherently “the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” because they’re impossible to disentangle. I wrote a post about the power of tradition in interpretation(“The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Monopoly” ), but that’s not the one I’m thinking of, which was much older.

    Steve Smith- I agree, in some sense, but I also think that in a ward where the teacher has the full support of local leadership and some social capital, it’s possible to do some of the things you mention. Alas that it’s so rare.

    Liesl- I wrote about my that kind of thing a bit here . I suspect “stick to the manual” doesn’t actually mean “strictly limit yourself to reading out of the manual” even though that’s implied. Rather, I think “stick to the manual” means “don’t bring up weird stuff, but I don’t want to delineate ‘weird’ so I’ll just say, stick to the manual.”

  32. Ben S said, “I retaught a scripture-based lesson on the temple that I originally caught some hot water for, a few years ago. But I prefaced it this time by pointing out how everything was straight from the OT.” Okay, that’s pretty darn hilarious. That’s even better than the time a Sunday School president chastised me for teaching with “random junk from the Internet” that were in fact printouts from LDS.org.

    When I taught Proverbs recently, I made sure to read Proverbs 3:8 out loud and talk about how awesome it is. Nobody blinked or complained, which I take as a testament to the level-headed character of the nice people in my ward.

    Who was it that posted a comment recently about how they opened a class by saying, “I’m about to show everyone a book that reveals, almost word for word, the secrets of the temple endowment,” and then took out a copy of the Bible?

  33. #30 Liesl, that made me nervous enough that I searched my email to ensure I had not received a similar message. (I haven’t.) If I were to receive such a message, I would ask to meet with my leaders and seek clarification.

  34. Bro Jones, that was me, I think. I used the line in my Ezekiel 43,44,47 lesson I taught, which differed from the one I wrote . That, funny enough, is also the rehash of the OT lesson I mentioned above, where the SP walked in, listened for about 30 seconds, and shut me down. (We’re friends now.)

    Not sure if/where I’ve posted it online, though.

    “When it comes to understanding the temple, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s a book out with about 80% of the symbolism, fairly explicit at times. It’s even church approved. The bad news is, you all own a copy. it’s the old testament.”

  35. “When it comes to understanding the temple, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s a book out with about 80% of the symbolism, fairly explicit at times. It’s even church approved. The bad news is, you all own a copy. it’s the old testament.”

    No wonder it took me years to fully stifle my reaction of What The Heck when I attended the temple. I can’t stand the OT. It is full of men treating women and children terribly in the name of God.
    The only OT books worth talking about are Ruth ( because she is fabulous) and the Songs of Solomon, the only book we will NEVER discuss in church because it is so obviously about sex.

    I can handle the temple now because it finally did away with 1000% ways to be killed and I have to stand up a lot less. Thank goodness.

  36. Bro. Jones, I’m intrigued with your experience that no one from the stake Sunday School presidency, or someone else in the ward, has emphatically told you to stick to the manual. I distinctly remember experiences in three different wards where some very serious person either came up to me personally or stated very outright in a meeting that we needed to not deviate from the manual in any way, shape, or form. I remember telling others about this, and they told of similar experiences. It seems like you have a fairly chill ward.

  37. #38: Steve, I have a wonderful ward. The harshest comments I’ve gotten in the past were the aforementioned condemnation of printouts from LDS.org, and once someone complained about me referring to the NIV to translate a particularly obnoxious verse in the KJV that is practically Medieval High German. (I forget which one, I think it was Job or Ezekiel.) I accepted the second criticism and while I might still refer in my own study to non-KJV renderings, in class I’ll just say “Hey, that scripture we just read was twisty and full of KingJames-ese. Can someone tell us what it means?”

    On further reflection, if someone told me to straight up read from the manual I might quite possibly ask to be released. I’ve only taught directly from the manual on limited occasions, and I can’t think of a single instance where I’d judge the classes to have been successful at any level (Primary, EQ, GD/GP).

  38. Clarification: both previous “harsh” comments were in other wards, not my current one. Roughest I’ve gotten it in this ward was gentle chastising for not attending an EQ social activity.

  39. Same. I tend to bring in all sorts of outside ideas and occasionally use different translations. It’s a fine line to walk, but in general I’ve found that if you come across as a sensible, faithful member, you can back up everything you say with the scriptures, and you can bear a strong testimony at the end, the rest is generally OK. Maybe it’s that my ward is laid back – which it is – but I don’t think so. Our Stake President is, by most accounts, several standard deviations to the right of the mean on going by the book, and even he appears to like my lessons.

    I think I would also ask to be released if I was told to read from the manuals. Quite a bit of the OT manual is such proof texting that IMHO it’s basically wrong, factually incorrect.

  40. If we let teachers stray from the manual they’ll start teaching that Daniel 6 is a revelation of Mitt Romney’s presidential run. How else to correct that than by saying that they should stick to the manual?

  41. Good point jader3rd. Correlation and teaching straight out of the manual does protect us from being subjected to the more bizarre interpretations of scripture.

  42. Livinginzion, it probably won’t surprise you that I think such a glib (though sincere!) summary of the OT is not entirely fair or accurate, any more than someone might summarize Mormonism as being about underwear, polygamy, and having your own planet ;)

  43. Ben S. – You are entirely right. My comment was snarky and uncalled for because I can see that you sincerely work to be an excellent GD teacher and I didn’t take that seriously.
    I apologize.
    PS. I will still silently despise the OT, probably because I’ve never had the pleasure of having a teacher as committed to teaching as you and others posting here. What I’ve been taught for 40 years is a gospel of the OT that no one should admire.

  44. LivingInZion and Amy,

    It really is more about a choice rather than exhaustion and time. I mean, you’re here, posting arbitrary comments on a blog. It could be substituted with a reading of a few chapters from the scriptures.

    So my thoughts are more in line with Ben’s–it’s too bad that people don’t take a few minutes during the week to prepare themselves for a worthwhile discussion in Sunday school. Church could be better…if we made it better.

  45. Whoa, Pierce. Thanks for mansplaining that. Who are you to criticize anyone’s use of their time, or to discount their exhaustion? I mean, you’re here chastising random blog readers when you could be indexing at FamilySearch or helping some widow in your ward.

    I’m a gospel doctrine teacher who would find my calling easier and more satisfactory if class members did come prepared to discuss their very recent reading of the assigned scriptures. But I’ve long ago learned a few people skills that — sometimes — prevent me from being a complete jerk about scolding my class members for not having read and telling them they should have turned off the TV to do it.

  46. Thanks, Ardis, and for pity’s sakes, Pierce, I do my own reading, I just find no motivation to follow the schedule for a class I don’t attend, or, if I didn’t have a conflicting calling in the ward and could attend, would receive exactly zero benefit from having bothered to do the reading.

  47. I don’t really care how people spend their time, so I’m not offering a criticism, Ardis. I don’t usually read the lesson scriptures before hand either, but it’s because I just choose to do or read other things instead.
    Honestly. I can always count on someone zealously defending mediocrity while chastising those who simply say: you have a choice to read the scriptures. Such is the way of internet commenting these days, it seems. You can say I’m a “jerk” and I’m “scolding” people, but you may want to consider your own tone.

    Amy, this post is about actually being in Gospel Doctrine class, so I would agree that there would be zero benefit in reading the lesson. If you don’t have motivation to follow the schedule for the class, then I hope you found this post beneficial. We can contribute to a much better Gospel Doctrine experience if we come ready with some knowledge, questions, or commentary.

  48. Interacting with people on a blog takes considerably less thought and energy than reading scriptures, which I take seriously.

    So I get it.

    I also don’t have any motivation to read for GD class, since I have read the material many times before, and it’s only going to be read in class again anyways. I find it much more beneficial to read where the Spirit, rather than correlation, directs. Sometimes the two overlap, but not often.

  49. Pierce, I should clarify that my “zero benefit” does not apply to a person not in Gospel Doctrine; I was thinking of the last time I attended Gospel Doctrine in my ward.

    Not only was there no chance for any class member to participate, if someone had tried to break into the teacher’s musings, it would have created a problem, so there was actually zero benefit to reading, and not much more benefit to attending. The teacher has since changed, but as I said, I’m elsewhere in the building now during that hour. Perhaps I’m calculating the equation wrong and there was some benefit in being there—learning patience and long-suffering, possibly—and perhaps the teacher needed to the support of having each class member there in the room. I don’t know.

    I did not mean my comment to be universally applicable; I meant to share my personal experience.

    The lack of skilled and participatory scriptural teaching and learning experiences is a real sorrow in my life. I know what I’m missing since I have had some excellent Gospel Doctrine teachers over the years, including my father and Frank Judd, who is now teaching at BYU. A skilled and passionate teacher, especially in conjunction with an involved class, can be a vital spiritual restorative.

    I try to ameliorate this deficiency by reading Ardis’s lessons on Keepapitchinin and Ben’s lessons on Patheos, and that does help, but it would be nice to have that experience at church.

  50. Once again, I agree with Amy T on this. I use this fine site and others on the Bloggernacle to teach me.

    For reasons that have nothing to do with mediocrity, I am unable to make reading for any church class my top priority in life. If Pierce would like a detailed explanation of why I am able to mindlessly blog but not study scriptures, I would be more than happy to have that discussion in email or on the phone. But be warned, it’s gonna take a good chunk of your life that you will never get back, to explain the multiple layers of complication that make up my life.
    Until then, be thankful I am a classy enough lady to keep my business to myself and try to keep your judgments to yourself. It’s not a flattering pose.

  51. So, are the two of us representative of the unwashed, unreading masses, Liz? Does being tired, busy, having complicated lives, and being outside the picture-perfect mainstream Mormon culture have anything to do with our sentiments here? Are there people who attend GD and read the lesson? What motivates them? If I was attending GD, what would have to change in my life to have me add the lesson into my routine? What would it displace? Is it possible that I’m too burned out after too many years of mediocre lessons to care much anymore?

  52. Numerous and excellent comments here…but I am wondering, if the Gospel Doctrine class lessons change to the format of “Come Follow Me” to the youth, might all of our discussion be a moot point? I have taught Course 14 now for almost 2 years and love it and so do the youth, it seems. For each lesson, multiple threads of presentation are given but generally I start with a few scriptures from one of them and then expand in a way that I feel, in my own humble way, “led.” I think it would be impossible, if I were teaching a class of adults, for any one of them to know if I was following the prescribed format or not. Bravo. I explain to each new class the first month that I cannot remember a single lesson given me in my youth if the teacher did not either feed me and give me a handout. I generally do both, and thus far no one, including parents, has complained. Maybe the adults would respond to that as well.

  53. “Are there people who attend GD and read the lesson?”

    Not a lot, which seems to be the point of this post, right? Everyone has reasons for not being familiar with what will be discussed in a GD lesson. In your mind, Amy, you have to be a picture perfect mainstream Mormon in order to read a few chapters in the scriptures a week. Livinginzion seems to feel the same way, despite being willing to email a detailed summary of her life to a stranger.

    The point is, and I’ll make it again in a way that I don’t think is very disputable, that we could make our Sunday School experiences much richer if we were familiar with what is being taught and came prepared with thoughts, questions, or commentary. And it is a matter of choice on whether or not we do that. And most people (including myself) do not. But until then, we will continue to have mediocre lessons.

  54. Well, no, Pierce, some of us — if I do have to say it myself; I’m only quoting my bishop and several ward members — manage to escape mediocre lessons even when no one in the class does read. The success of a lesson is not entirely dependent on class members — a major facet of this post is what good gospel doctrine teachers do to hold great sessions, despite lack of preparation on a class’s part. It would be better, certainly, if people came prepared with fresh familiarity with the scripture passages, but it isn’t a deal breaker when they don’t.

    I have occasionally gone to other teachers’ classes “prepared with thoughts, questions, or commentary,” not with speeches I intended to give but with insights gained, and notes made of scriptural references or quotations that I might be able to offer depending on the direction the lesson took. But in no case — not once — has my prior preparation “paid off” in the sense of my participation in class (personal learning, sure, but not public participation) There are too many ways a lesson can go, too many different directions a discussion can take, and unless a class member is bullishly determined to take over from a teacher, planned “thoughts, questions and commentary” are not useful.

    But then, that just may be moronic me. Godlike you, who can pass judgment on three women here whom you know nothing about, may have variable mileage.

  55. Ardis, first off, I’ve read your comments on the bloggernacle for years and have found them to be of the highest quality, generally. So I am surprised that you feel you have to stoop to the level of sarcasm that you have in order to defend the idea of not reading scriptures, of all things. I have not name called or degraded anyone. All I’ve said is that we each have a choice to make Sunday school better *if we want to.* We could read the assigned scriptures instead of arguing with online strangers *if we want to*. It doesn’t take a god to determine that. So please lighten up, I’ve said nothing offensive.

    That said, I don’t think that this is a deal breaker for a successful lesson either. But there’s no doubt in my mind that being familiar with the scriptures takes a lesson to the next level and improves the classroom dialogue. I would much rather start with the assumption that the class is familiar with the passages and talk more application, rather than read the scriptures in class and spend a majority of the time describing what’s going on.

  56. Can we all agree that
    a) classes would be probably be better if everyone read but
    b) there are very reasonable reasons to have not read?

    Heck, someone who showed up in my class having read all eight Ezekiel chapters last week would not have gotten much more out of my class than someone who did it. I suppose if teachers *could* assume a majority of the class had read, they (and I) would prepare differently. Collective culture is terribly hard to change. Perhaps the coming new Gospel Doctrine curriculum will shake everyone out of whatever pattern we’re collectively in.

  57. If only all OT teachers were Ben S. While the OT is a fascinating book to study, I must say that livinginzion’s attitude towards it (#37) resonates with me when looking at the OT as some sort of moral guide. It makes me think of what Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a medieval philosopher and physician in Baghdad, had to say about the Qur’an:

    “You claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Qur’an. You say: “Whoever denies it, let him produce a similar one.” Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter! …By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: “Produce something like it?!”

  58. I agree that not enough people read to prepare for lessons. To my shame, I’m one of them. I have reasons, as everyone does, but to be honest IN MY CASE ONLY, they come down to not caring enough to put the requisite time in, which is not good enough. I’ve improved some in recent days only because my wife teaches gospel doctrine and I want to support her. I’ve also gotten more out of the class since I’ve started doing that, so I am working to improve in that regard. I’ve found that the teacher matters much less than my individual preparation, though of course a good teacher is a wonderful help.

    Also, and it’s off topic here so I would love to see a post about this, but could we please eliminate the phrase “mansplaining” from the vernacular? It’s so overtly sexist and demeaning that the only way it’s ever excused is by responding that equally sexist and demeaning terms are frequently applied to women, which is both true and irrelevant at the same time. I despise and actively try to avoid that kind of language applied to either gender. It’s one of those terms that causes me to automatically discount anything else stated anywhere in proximity to it on any post or article on the internet. If that’s what you’re shooting for, well and good. I just don’t see the point.

  59. #58 – Ben S., do we have any official word on the adult curriculum shift? All links on LDS.org to 2015 curriculum just lead to the regular New Testament Gospel Doctrine Manual (published in 2002). I know earlier this year there was word from the General Sunday School Presidency about pilot programs that had been implemented on adult classes, but I haven’t heard much since then.

    I very much appreciate the post. I’m a newer GD teacher who leans naturally towards lecture style, emphasizing historical context. Luckily my co-teacher is more traditional (sticking to the manual and good class discussions of spiritual application). I think it’s good that the class gets a mix of approaches. With the craziness of daily life, we as members need different types of nourishment at different times. It’s difficult for me to change it up, but I’m trying. Funny enough, I’ve noticed my co-teacher bringing in more historical context lately, which is unusual for him. We’re both trying to improve as teachers in our own ways. As far as getting the class members to read, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s not gonna happen (at least on any sort of regular basis).

  60. I haven’t seen any official word either. I’m guessing we may actually have to wait three more years until they’re done translating it into all of the languages, we’re done with the current cycle in SS and we finish the presidents of the Church manuals in RS/PH.

  61. J Town, “mansplaining” refers to an existing phenomenon, Complaining about giving that phenomenon a label, and pretending it will no long exist if it isn’t named, makes about as much sense as complaining about using the nouns “cocaine” or “war” or “Ebola” and pretending those things will go away if they are unnamed. You want the word to go away? Don’t perpetuate the behavior.

  62. I guess it’s a “phenomenon” to suggest that it is probably possible to read scriptures instead of chatting on blogs to say that you don’t have time for it, and that we all have the choice to make church what we want it to be.
    Labeling a comment as a bit of ignorant, old-fashioned sexism actually doesn’t help or move anything forward.

  63. I was just called at GD teacher a few weeks ago.

    I had the brilliant idea that I could get more class participation if I invited class members ahead of time during the week to ponder a section of the lesson, read a scripture from that section, and share something that impressed them as they prepared for this during the week.

    Sounds good, right? Well, it backfired. People either forgot to do it, didn’t show up to class that week, never responded to my email then avoided eye contact during sacrament meeting, you get the picture. I thought it genuinely seemed like a good idea. I guess not right now in my current ward.

    I agree that my enthusiasm plays a large role in the classroom attitude.

    Would love to hear more ideas. I’m excited to move on from OT to NT soon!

  64. People do the best they can as far as being student teachers. It is perfectly acceptable to challenge in a kind and loving way parroted responses and bring thoughtfulness to the discussion as the moderator/facilitator/called gospel doctrine teacher. My experience was that if i could study the material, find the historical context, compare and contrast that with the current context of our lives today AND prayerfully select the questions in the manual that best fit OUR needs as a group, great pearls of wisdom would emerge. I have been through a lot since I taught gospel doctrine and couldn’t stay with the assigned reading for very good reasons. I am now back on track as a “student.” Take us where you find, don’t give up on us and remember that there are tender mercies even in gospel doctrine class.

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