Ward boundaries throughout our stake were redrawn a few months ago. My ward lost a number of members living on the east side of our core geography and gained an enormous number of members living on the west side of that core. Everyone in ward positions throughout the stake, with the exception of our ward’s elders’ quorum president (the new chunk of our ward is so extraordinary that all the men are high priests, so there was no elders’ quorum there), was released en masse. That included me, released from teaching Gospel Doctrine in Sunday School.
It has taken a while, as you might imagine, to reorganize and restaff our ward from the ground up. A chunk of time in every Sacrament Meeting for the first few weeks was occupied by sustaining dozens of members in dozens of callings. At first those tended to be presidencies of auxiliaries, clerks, music people, and enough teachers to run programs for the first few weeks. Next they filled in with more teachers and secretaries and visiting teaching coordinators and representatives for this and that special programs (singles program, family history people, staff to serve a mini Sacrament Meeting held for very elderly residents of an apartment building). Finally they called bunches of people to the more creative – that is, made-up – positions (members of the birthday card committee, people to set up rooms for the four Relief Societies we have been divided into, or what have you). When you have 600 active ward members, committed enough to be something like 80% high priests and their wives or widows, that’s a lot of people expecting callings. It has been largely accomplished now, and sustainings have slowed to a trickle of two or three in recent weeks.
But even with all those sustainings, even with needing four times as many Relief Society teachers as a normal ward, there was nothing for me. I wasn’t even needed as a visiting teacher, if you can imagine that. How that made me feel is another post (one that will probably never be written). That finally changed this week as they scrounged together a visiting teaching route for me and called me to teach Gospel Doctrine again.
Maybe this time in limbo, though, has been useful to a degree. We have four Gospel Doctrine classes in the ward, with three or four teachers assigned to each one (my own calling, however, is explicitly to teach every second week, not every third or fourth week). I’ve sampled a lot of other classroom styles lately, and haven’t sat in the same teacher’s class twice. This has helped to solidify my ideas of the purpose of Sunday School, and exposed me to the culture of the new ward.
Every ward, every group of people, has its individual culture, of course, regardless of how similar the overall structure is and how orthodox (even homogenous) the behavior and beliefs of the people are. In many ways our ward culture is as good as a Sunday School teacher can hope for: Every class has numerous people who have practically memorized the Standard Works, so there is no shortage of people who can read scripture aloud well, and who can be counted on to chime in with a relevant point from somewhere outside the chapters being specifically discussed. An exceedingly large number of class members can contribute illustrative personal experiences from their time serving as mission presidents, or general board members, or as members of the Tabernacle Choir. All good.
Other parts of the culture are fertile grounds for a teacher to work on changing. I hope to be able to steer my class into more productive paths through skill in questioning, and in guiding class discussion toward meeting the purpose identified for that lesson. But if I can’t, if the local culture is too entrenched, sooner or later – sooner – class members will hear me break out of the planned lesson and into a short lecture that will go something like this:
Brothers and sisters, we have 40 minutes a week in this small group setting to discuss the scriptures and the doctrines of the Kingdom. Some of you may have other opportunities through the week to do that, but for others of us, these 40 minutes are all we have to discuss what we believe, to testify to each other of what we know and what we hope, and to be inspired by each other’s efforts to overcome trials and live the gospel.
Knowing how short and how important this time is for some of us, I am going to ask for your total cooperation – insist on it, if I have to – in keeping our discussion focused on those ends.
We will discuss what we know and believe, not how foolish and ignorant we think other churches are; we will try to understand how revelation works and how we can know that God speaks, not how hypocritical we think the ministers of other churches are.
When we talk about the challenges of life and about sins and temptations, we will discuss those that affect us. Unless you have personal experience and can testify to your personal overcoming of such challenges, we will not talk about sinners as being “drug dealers and homosexuals and [people of other political ideologies]”; instead, we will talk about sins and temptations that are problems for active Latter-day Saints like ourselves and our families, and how we can change ourselves.
Please testify to us of your knowledge and your personal experience, and please be understanding when I signal that other kinds of comments are best saved for time outside of Sunday School.
Now, as we were saying about Jesus’s statement that he is the light of the world …
If you could design the perfect pattern of Sunday School discussion, what would you include? Let’s try not to dump all our frustrations with whatever bad experiences we have had (some of that will be inevitable to explain our needs; I understand that), and instead focus on what elements are part of a good class, and even how we might encourage those elements.