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A Lecture I Know I’ll Have to Give

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 28, 2011

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.



23 Comments »

  1. I find you post interesting. I’ve lived on two different continents and I’ve been a member in several different wards and branches. I’ve only heard one member degrade another church during a meeting, and he was gently rebuked following his comment. I would think that if this is a regular occurrence within your ward that it is past time for the Bishop to intervene.

    Comment by Porterfield — April 28, 2011 @ 7:32 am

  2. Whenever I teach, whatever the theme from the manual, which I do respect and follow, I still try to steer the lesson towards basic principles (atonement, judgment, faith, repentance, baptism(& other ordinances, i.e. Temple), and following the Holy Ghost until the end. If I can somehow declare repentance to myself and others, I feel like I have done my duty.

    I would like to be in your class when you give that speech.

    Comment by Grant — April 28, 2011 @ 8:29 am

  3. You just had your boundaries adjusted and there are SIX HUNDRED ACTIVE? Holy moly. Our ward is one of the biggest in our stake and I’m not sure if we ever get 150 to show up to sacrament meeting.

    I like when we discuss “why?” and “so what?” questions about the text, rather than just skimming through the manual.

    Comment by HokieKate — April 28, 2011 @ 8:33 am

  4. Slightly off your main discussion point, I hope you don’t mind me asking – Never having been in a ward with more than one gospel doctrine class, I’m curious how multiple classes are managed. Are ward members “assigned” to go to a particular class to ensure that none are overfull? Do they simply rotate where they feel needed? Are they assigned by organization? Husband and Wife kept in the same class, I assume? If there is some methodical way of assigning class members, which group is assigned to your class?

    Comment by Dustin — April 28, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  5. I’d like to be in your class anytime. I’m so glad you’re back to teaching. I didn’t comment last week on your “state of the blog” but my favorites posts were always your lesson preparation. You do ask wonderful questions.

    I prefer to take my guide from the Title of the lesson rather than the Purpose. My “perfect pattern” of a Sunday School discussion is when we can liken ourselves to every aspect of a scriptural discussion; put ourselves in their shoes. Realize that everyone in the story is a person dealing with life the best way they can, doing all the mundane daily tasks with a lot less comfort than we have, loving their families, etc. Wondering about the point of view of the writer, their possible motivations, hopes, or intentions for writing this particular piece. This usually requires some historical perspective and scholarly views of the text. Then we can come back around to what does it mean to us. Then I always like to close with, “now go home and read it all again to decide for yourselves what it says to you and if I told the truth.”

    I was fortunate to teach in a “newly wed and nearly dead” ward. Luckily, I didn’t know at the time how many members of the class were former bishops and stake presidents and wives with extensive leadership backgrounds. My favorite complement was always, “I’ve never heard it taught that way.”

    Comment by charlene — April 28, 2011 @ 9:34 am

  6. Thanks for your comments so far.

    It’s an interesting ward for a number of reasons, but remember that it’s a brand new ward, too. There will no doubt be adjustments of many kinds, both in how a ward this size is managed and in the people filling various callings.

    I want to stress that the particular tendency I address in this mini-lecture has appeared only in one of the gospel doctrine classes I’ve attended, and was engaged in by members of both “old” parts that make up our new ward. It wasn’t a tendency in my “old” part of the ward, and may not have been a tendency in the other, really. But since it was indulged in by the class members in the room where I’ll be teaching, it’s something I’ll have to watch for and head off if it crops up in that same group of people another time. Maybe it won’t. I think it will, but maybe it won’t.

    The RS president has asked sisters to attend the four Relief Society classes divided according to birth month. She even worked to be sure that the class sizes would be approximately equal by not saying “Jan. Feb. and Mar. go here; Apr. May and June go there,” but by pairing March (a big birth month) with June. I appreciated that far, far more than if the sisters had been divided according to geography, age, or marital status.

    Both “old” parts of our ward had previously had multiple gospel doctrine classes (two in our case; I don’t know about the other part), and members just went where they wanted to. In our case, members tended to sort themselves by age, with the older folks coming to the class I co-taught, and the newlyweds going to the other. It wasn’t absolutely divided along those lines, but generally — people seemed to feel more comfortable in discussions where examples were offered from class members in generally the same life stage. But I stress that that division was purely voluntary.

    It’s purely voluntary in the current redrawn ward, too. That’s why I have been able to float around and sample so many different teachers’ styles. I suppose there is a risk of a popularity contest, perhaps, but with teachers’ turns coming at such wide intervals I think that’s a minor risk. Rather, I think it’s more likely that once people have sampled a few teachers, they will settle down into one room and go to class there regardless of who’s teaching. We’re such creatures of habit, and that’s the easiest habit to fall into (much easier than trying to remember whether this is the week your favorite teacher is teaching, or whether he taught last week while you were out of town).

    HokieKate, I think that even the most familiar topics can be discussed with interest with skillful questions — usually the “why” and “so what?” kind and seldom the “who” and “when” and “what” questions that can be answered by rote. Most of the manual questions are the ones with rote answers; it takes thought and a direction for the lesson to ask the “why” questions — that’s the biggest reason, I think, why teachers who don’t open a manual until the first hour end up with boring, unhelpful lessons. After all, we all pretty much know the doctrine as well as anybody else; it’s questions that make us consider the doctrine in a new light or a new circumstance that make for a lively discussion.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 28, 2011 @ 9:38 am

  7. charlene, we were writing at the same time –

    Now I have a clue as to why you’re a Keepa reader — you can read a story, including a scriptural one, and see it as something that really happened to real people with the same human feelings and traits as the people you know in real life, and not just a recital of facts! That goes a long way toward making the scriptures (or the newspaper or a textbook) interesting and applicable. And whether you take your cue from the lesson title or the purpose statement, you have an organizing principle and aren’t just filling time with whatever occurs next.

    And I’m going to steal your “now go home …” assignment. I think that is a brilliant way to wrap up and put the responsibility in the hands of class members.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 28, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  8. Amen. This is great, Ardis, and welcome back to the teaching fold.

    I don’t have much time to give a long comment–I never seem to nowadays–but I definitely have ideas along these lines after teaching a GD lesson almost every sunday for the last three years in some drastically different wards. (One ward was barely large enough to be a ward, was comprised mostly of first generation members, etc.; my current ward is in an established university town with lots of life-long, intellectually oriented members plus a general authority.)

    I’ve learned that my best lessons come when I’ve put in enough preparation to have an overarching narrative and thematic arc that spans the entire lesson, introducing the theme at the beginning and then emphasizing it at the end. Lately, the theme has mostly had to do with the contrast between the mindsets we all currently have (about scripture, about service, about doctrine) and what the ideal is. I’ve also tried to emphasize over and over again that “the world” in most cases is referring to our own temptations and misgivings, not other religions’, as you eloquently expressed in your post.

    Comment by Ben Park — April 28, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  9. I’m so flattered that I have something you find worth stealing! My stake was also rearranged a couple of years ago and 7 wards blended into 5. Some of the older folks are still having a difficult time blending, especially since with the larger numbers there is less opportunity to mingle with their familiar friends. I admit to being less involved also and still don’t know a lot of folks.

    My most memorable experience of a Sunday School class deteriorating into a discussion of “them” was when the teacher started it. He brought up how bad the Baptists in the South were about something. That day I’d brought to church a fellow that I was dating, who coincidentally was a Baptist from the South. He quickly but gently corrected the implication. The teacher hardly startled, but at least he didn’t continue along that topic.

    Whenever such a comment came up in my class, I reminded that when finger-pointing at someone, 3 fingers are pointing back at me. So, what is my responsibility in the situation? Do I have the correct knowledge or attitude?

    Comment by charlene — April 28, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  10. Ardis, I’m so glad that you got a Gospel Doctrine teaching gig again.

    My wife is a junior high math teacher and coach for the other teachers in her building, charged with improving teaching effectiveness for the whole department. She was talking about collaboration last night, which is a big deal in her school district, especially in planning. But she had also brought up the idea of collaboration by way of the teachers reviewing a lesson after it has taken place, with asking some simple questions, which might work well in a ward like yours with multiple teachers and classes.

    The questions go like this:

    1. What worked?
    2. What seemed to engage the kids most?
    3. What parts did they not seem to understand quickly?
    4. Did some students find different ways to solve a problem than others?

    That’s my best recollection, but I can see something like this being done by the Sunday School president in a brief, once a month meeting with the teachers.

    But the one thing that my wife insists is really important, is that if you ask a question, you really need to wait until someone answers it, and not just answer it for them after a few seconds. Not a problem with the easy questions, but you do need to be patient and brave and wait out the tough ones, perhaps by rephrasing it. Don’t let the class off the hook by answering a question you’ve asked, just because you don’t like the silence.

    Comment by kevinf — April 28, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  11. Sounds like your new bishop needs to call about 30 (or 50) couples on senior missions and get that wisdom, experience, and testimony out into areas of the world where it would be greatly valued. (It’s all about finding balance between the wild and tame branches in Zenos’ olive orchard…)

    As far as teaching style, my favorite insight is from F. Enzio Busche’s biography, where he talks about going to testimony meeting in Romania where everyone was excited to share how God had interacted with them over the past month. Second priority is learning new doctrine.

    Comment by Clark — April 28, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  12. reeling too much at the stats and the need for a ‘birthday card committee’ to provide any coherent comment, sorry- but you’ll be great!.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 28, 2011 @ 11:54 am

  13. Firstly, that’s a great preface to any gospel lesson. I generally make a similar statement at the beginning of my classes.

    Something I developed were classroom rules. I got them from my own experience of being a student, rather than teacher, so I know their value and merit.

    1) Prepare

    The students who will simply skim the verses prior to class always get more. Imagine if they did their own in-depth study? Sometimes, I will text/email/facebook a question to several class members to get them thinking about the subject the week before the lesson. I make it individual, and ask them to come prepared to share their thoughts.

    2) Pray

    I ask my students to pray for themselves and for me. It’s astounding every time I make this request, because I can feel the immediate and simple prayers offered up by class members. When I do this in class, or during a talk, I always obtain more.

    3) Participate

    I always let my students know that I’m not going to stand there lecturing, but rather, will be asking lots of questions and expecting answers. But, participation doesn’t simply come down to answering questions: even volunteering to read brings the spirit more fully into your heart. I ask, as well, that when we read the scriptures, we read them with enthusiasm and feeling. I find that, as we honor and respect those words, the spirit is stronger.

    4) Practice

    I always promise those students who follow these rules that they will receive inspiration from the Holy Ghost. Not just warm-fuzzies, but guidance on how to live as disciples; things either to do or quit. As they look for them, and then make goals to put them into immediate practice, I’ve had amazing feedback from class members who’ve experienced great gospel growth.

    Conculsion:

    I like to help my glasses bring gospel principals out of the abstract and put them into practice. I see Gospel Doctrine less as a fact-gaining exercise, and more of a discovery of gospel-living.

    For me, the above approach makes a huge difference, and it’s a testimony to the power of the spirit as a teacher, and not my own charisma, that seasoned and valiant church members who are far better people than myself have often remarked that my classes have been the best they’ve ever had. I believe this happens because of the opportunity to follow the spirit.

    Comment by Gdub — April 28, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

  14. Reading these comments is giving me ideas. Clearly I’m going to have to write posts that elicit more of this kind of response — despite the often lackluster lessons we all must have been subjected to, it’s obvious that there is also some amazing teaching going on, and that our pattern of lay teaching *can* work.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 28, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  15. Ardis, wonderful post. I’d love to sit in your class (and maybe I’d be bold enough to participate!).

    One of the best Sunday School classes I’ve ever attended was in a brach I visited last year in Shanghai. I’m trying to think if it’s because it was so recent that it seems best or if it really is best. But the thing that I really appreciated was our instructor’s (one of two I heard there) extensive preparation — far more than she ever presented — and her thoughtful approach in what she presented and in how she guided the discussion. There was no comment that she did not weave back into her path. And her path was so carefully laid out I wanted desperately to stay on it with her.

    While I appreciate likening the scriptures unto me, I don’t particularly like it when teachers put themselves into scripture stories as if they knew what Abraham or Peter were thinking. I crave teachers who teach the scriptures and not just about them. And I appreciate comments from class members that do the same. (One of my favorite classmates was with me in a ward 20 years ago. Any time somone said, “There’s a verse somewhere — I can’t remember where — that says…” he would then pipe up and cite the reference and quote it exactly. (Well, not every time — he wasn’t obnoxious about it, but he was a lot of fun to have in class!))

    I have taught in two wards with two gospel doctrine classes. In both, students could choose their own class. In one — a newly-wed and nearly-dead ward, I taught in the RS room with soft chairs, so I got mostly older students (most of whome worked in the temple) while the newly weds attended with their small children in the gym.

    Good luck in your new calling. (And in your new ward!)

    Comment by Paul — April 28, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  16. @Porterfield (#1): You have been lucky. Way lucky. (Or else you’ve spent a lot of time as ward clerk, and so have had important <ahem /> work to do during Sunday school.

    Anyway, on to the main topic at hand.

    The best gospel doctrine class situation i have ever been a part of was the year i graduated from college. There were two classes, and people got to pick which one to go to. One was pretty much straight from the manual, and the other was a really intense, slow pass working through the scriptures. The “regular” class was much bigger, in terms of attendance; i went to the slower one. We were doing the Old Testament that year, and by the time i left for grad school (in August), the class i was in had almost gotten to the ten commandments. (I found out later that they picked up the pace quite a bit after that, and ended the year somewhere in Deuteronomy.) I learned more really cool and esoteric—and, believe it or not, useful in a living-the-gospel way—stuff about the Law of Moses (and Babylonian creation myths, and historical concepts of family, and historical Holy Land geography, and…) in that class than anytime else in my life.

    Of course, that was an interesting ward in a lot of different ways. (Arguably the most socially progressive set of church members in a single unit i’ve ever met in this country, to begin with.)

    Fast-forward to this century…

    Starting a few years ago, Jeanne (my wife) and i started going to the gospel essentials (principles?—i can never remember which one it’s called anymore) class instead of gospel doctrine. It started more or less by accident—there weren’t any seats left, so we wandered down the hall—but we quickly found that the discussions in gospel essentials bzw. principles were actually more interesting and generally required more actual thought on our parts than those in gospel doctrine. (Extra bonus: Meeting those investigating the church before most anybody else does.)

    Comment by David B — April 28, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  17. Wow! I cannot imagine your ward dynamics, in such a large ward. But to your point — thanks — we don’t need to teach in Sunday School (or anywhere else) how others are wrong — let’s just teach the scriptures and the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Comment by ji — April 28, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

  18. I am soglad hat you are blessed to have a teaching calling again. With such a huge ward,all I can say is “Good luck” learning all those names

    I have found that to be effective is to pray prepare and love your class.

    Comment by K.H. — April 28, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

  19. Ardis, I think that your last part of comment 6, is the real key. Asking engaging questions and then pushing the class beyond the easy answer (or asking questions with no easy answer). Golden.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 28, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

  20. Wait, so does this mean talking about beating up homosexuals and Democrats having invisible triple 6s on their foreheads is off limits? Because that would really truncate Sunday School in some of the wards I’ve been in–oi! I’m sure your admirable efforts to gently but firmly guide discussion away from Crazytown and back to Cogent Falls are appreciated. Keepa up the good work.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — April 28, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  21. When I taught GD, I tried to end every lesson with five minutes asking the questions “So what? Who cares?”, with the hope that everyone could answer the latter with “I do!” and the former with some part of the lesson that was personally relevant to them.

    (I like to claim that the reason I only lasted in the calling for three weeks was that the bishop walked in as I was asking “so what? Who cares?”)

    We currently have two GD classes, nominally divided alphabetically by last name. Each class has two teachers that trade off. I’ve thought I should check out the other class sometime (I’m kind of on the dividing line anyway, as an “L”), but I’m also a creature of habit.

    One of the teachers in my class is great at bringing in cultural and geographical background, which has helped a lot — lots of photos, maps, artwork, etc. The other is better at relating the lesson to his personal experiences. Both approaches are useful, IMHO.

    Comment by lindberg — April 28, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

  22. @lindberg (#21): Back when i was in grad school (in linguistics), in a couple conference presentations i showed a slide reading, in large letters, “So what?” right before the conclusions section. It was a good laugh line, but then when i gave a presentation and didn’t include that slide, i had a couple people come up to me afterward and say they missed it—so now i include it in every single presentation i give, and i’ve started using it when i substitute teach church classes, too.

    Which is a long way of saying you’re not alone in your approach.

    Comment by David B — April 28, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

  23. Thanks so much for this. It was such an eye-opener to see how things might be different elsewhere.

    It’s hard to wrap my brain around the idea of a ward with that many active people. Not to mention class members speaking from their experience “from their time serving as mission presidents, or general board members, or as members of the Tabernacle Choir.” Amazing.

    The last time I taught Gospel Doctrine, there were two non-members in the class. We told them about Gospel Essentials class, but it happened that we were in the bible, and that’s what they wanted to study. So meeting their needs and those of the more mature members was a challenge.

    I felt like a big part of my calling was praying for the class members, asking to know what they needed to learn. That would be harder with a larger class and folks moving in and out.

    Comment by Naismith — April 29, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

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