Thoughts on wrestling with lesson prep, the manual, and teaching the teachers.

Over at FaithPromotingRumor, TT analyzes a collection of statements from various manuals about using “outside” materials in  preparing lessons.

That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, because I’ve  suspected that Church materials  are not entirely consistent with their directives about this. At one extreme is the unsigned Church News article (the authority of which can be debated), which more or less states that you can’t even use uncorrelated materials to prepare a lesson and that “Everything you need — and more — is in your manual.”
(TT points out that to some extent, there’s no such thing as inside or outside information, since “inside” sources like the Bible Dictionary or Institute manuals were prepared from “outside” sources.)

On the other hand, Elder Perry spoke laudably of his mother, who “was diligent and thorough in her preparation. I have distinct memories of the days preceding her lessons. The dining room table would be covered with reference materials and the notes she was preparing for her lesson. There was so much material prepared that I’m sure only a small portion of it was ever used during the class, but I’m just as sure that none of her preparation was ever wasted.” This is an Apostle in General Conference. Should we use his praised mother as a positive and normative model to follow? She certainly wasn’t just using the manual. Moreover, other Apostles cite from all kinds of non-correlated material in General Conference. Should that be taken as normative or does a different standard apply?

In short, there doesn’t seem to be tight agreement in official LDS discourse about the value and proper integration or rejection of these things into one’s preparation for a lesson.

Can we make safe assumptions about the motive for these limitations? Is there a specific target?

Is “weird doctrine” the target? Or “academic” approaches which may provide more complicated answers the Powers That Be would like to avoid? What constitutes an “academic” approach varies widely, seemingly based on  education, experiences, and biases. Other motives/targets are possible, of course.

I don’t think anyone wants Sister Smith or Brother Johnson to turn Isaiah into a political commentary on Obama, nor, on the other hand, to focus on Assyrian pottery typology or the semi-ergative nature of the Hebrew particle ‘et. But most class members want the scriptures to make sense, which is particularly difficult for a teacher when the reading is limited to the manual and the KJV OT. Indeed, I think a teacher is more likely to go off on an unrelated tangent *because* they don’t understand the scriptures.

Moreover, how should one deal with the manual when it makes clear errors of fact or interpretation?

These issues are very real dilemma for me, and I’ve talked to lots of different people about it over the years:  various family members, teachers, Stake Presidents, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching as well as formal academic scripture study and sometimes have to wrestle with how to approach things in class. (I treat Institute very differently than Gospel Doctrine.) My ultimate goal is to teach the scriptures and Gospel in an edifying way, which I’m sure no on could quibble with, but we may disagree on whether I’m succeeding and the proper way to  accomplish that goal.

My immediate problem is that I’m the Sunday School President and about to start a teacher training course. I was hoping to raise some of these issues about inconsistent message and the role of the manual and preparation. I think my ward does a good job teaching  within acceptable boundaries, but I’ve been loosely instructed to emphasize teaching from the manual. I haven’t observed that to be a problem, but then, I’m not in charge.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to teach from the manual. At what point has one deviated from the manual? When you ask a question not listed? When you take a topic in a different direction than intended? Or as long as you cover the scriptural passage in question and everyone is edified, is that acceptable?

I have similar philosophical issues with “keeping the doctrine pure.” Whose doctrine? Whose interpretation of doctrine? That of the manual? That of the scripture in question? That of this or that general authority? It seems that keeping the doctrine pure assumes that there is clear detailed doctrine somewhere, that all these sources harmonize easily and neatly, which isn’t the case. As one of my BYU profs said, you can have it all or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.

I’d love to see John Welch’s Becoming a Gospel Scholar published in the Ensign, or at least some statement to the effect that there is lots of good useful reading to be found outside of correlated sources. I’ll wait long, I expect.

  • Alex T. Valencic

    It is interesting to see you bring this up at this time. I found a rather old book sitting on my shelf and decided to read it. It is entitled “A Reader for the Teacher: An anthology of ideas and teaching helps taken from ‘The Instructor’–The teachers’ magazine of the Church” compiled by A. Hamer Reiser and published by Deseret Book in 1960.

    Now, I recognise that this was written before the day of correlated lesson material, and that “The Instructor” has been out of print for some time, but I have been quite pleased with the quality of education expected of the teachers in the Church. One of the things that has struck me the most is the directive for teachers to compile their own personal gospel libraries to share in the teaching, and to use the manuals as a guide for their lessons. This quote I found most intriguing:

    A recognition of the limitations of the manual might help the teacher to recognize his responsibilities in using the manual as a basis for his planning and preparation rather than an end-product (see “The Use of Manuals” by Edith Bauer in “The Instructor, Vol. 86, Sep. 1951, p.278).

    This seems to be at complete odds with the current idea that the manual is the end-product of our instruction. However, I can’t help but feel our gospel learning would be much more fruitful if we did do more than just read the manuals to our classes.

  • bhodges

    Great questions, Ben. No matter what you do there will always be a member in your class who will have read the manual, or who has the manual on their lap, and who looks at you like the evil apostate you are for not following it line by line!

    The question that really hit home most to me is what to do when the manual says something you think is entirely incorrect? A tough one.

  • Julie M. Smith

    Just to put a little more fuel on your fire, I like this statement from Elder Oaks:

    “Latter‑day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution. Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food.”

  • psychochemiker

    Hi Julie,

    I fully agree with Elder Oaks comment but don’t think Elder Oaks comment disagrees with Ben’s post. I don’t think Ben ever suggested replacing the scriptures with commentaries, rather to supplement. I know that that isn’t where you were going, I just kind of don’t think Elder Oaks statement supports the judgemental “gospel watcher’s” philosphies…

    I do worry though about certain academic teachers (within the church) who knowingly misrepresent plain scriptural teachings because they misinterpret, misunderstand, or otherwise misuse contextual clarifications. One example I have seen quite consistently at blogs like BCC, is claiming that the Sodom story is ONLY about inhospitality, and nothing about homosexuality. While it is certainly useful to recognize the genre of etiology, and the context of the inhospitality, the word abomination is used in wrt Sodom referring to it’s great acts of wickedness. And just as some simple-minded LDS folk are apt to forget the inhospitality (and are wrong in doing so), so the scholars do severe damage to their own reputations by ignoring the abomination aspect, just because they have bought into the false politcally-correct viewpoint that there’s nothing wrong with sexual transgressions. So I see clearly how Elder Oaks can mean caution. Remember everyone writing has a bias, and often scholars try to remove God from the text altogether (see James Kugels introduction to How to Read the Bible where he suggests we read the scholars but keep our eye (and our faith) on the text and on God). I am very wary of all of the scholars…

  • emilyu

    “Or as long as you cover the scriptural passage in question and everyone is edified, is that acceptable?”

    I think the answer is a resounding yes.

  • Erin

    What about from the student perspective? What’s a good way to handle things if you think the teacher is way off topic or worse, preaching false doctrine?

  • psychochemiker


    I really enjoyed your last comment about opening the floodgates with that quote from the teaching manual over at FPR. Thanks for adding that.

  • Ben Spackman

    “What’s a good way to handle things if you think the teacher is way off topic or worse, preaching false doctrine?”

    I tend to let a lot of things go, but when it matters, I tend to call them on it in the most direct but charitable way possible. “I’m not sure that’s true, or at least, I haven’t seen any support for it in official Church sources.” Or “I don’t believe that, and it’s certainly not something that is clearly taught in the scriptures. But it’s something each of us is entitled to an opinion on, as long as we realize the Church doesn’t have a position on it and we’re not putting forth our opinion as Church Doctrine.”

    Or, ask a question that’s more on-topic, and steer it back. Particularly since the Church likes to characterize the teacher as leading a group discussion, if the teacher gets off, then the group can steer him/her back on.

    If you’re in a doctrinal watchdog position over the class (i.e. Bishop, RS/EQ Pres, SS Pres), then I think you’re more compelled to speak up. Elder Bednar said soemthing quite good about that in a recent training meeting, but I don’t have access to my notes at the moment.

  • Ben Spackman

    Found it.

    BROTHER RALPH CHRISTENSEN: … As you were talking, a scripture came to mind. I’m reminded of
    Enos, who said that he had been taught by his father in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. In general, my
    sense is that we are pretty good at nurturing. I’d be interested in any of your thoughts on the appropriate ways to give admonition, and that’s the hard part of this question on performance.

    ELDER BEDNAR: OK. Two things come to my mind. Number one, a principle that is hard to hear but resonates as
    true: when we fail to give needed correction or counsel, it’s because we’re thinking of ourselves. We normally think,
    “Well, you know, I don’t want to hurt this person’s feelings.” No, that’s really not true; you just want to be liked. And the reason I’m not going to tell you what really needs to be said is because I don’t want to be viewed negatively or fall into disfavor.
    It is far more loving to appropriately provide correction and counsel than it is to duck the issue.

    That was a really interesting interview to watch. I prefer lengthier engagements like that.

  • Gdub


    these are questions I’ve asked myself very frequently. Although I’m a young single adult, I’ve spent a majority of my church callings teaching, even in the Aaronic Priesthood.

    An experience from my mission comes to mind. I had read the entire missionary Library several times (I believe it was three times for Jesus The Christ). I’d read all the scriptures multiple times, and was itching to read some other books, such as Lectures on Faith and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I was at the mission office one day while my companion was helping the senior missionaries with computer issues and asked my mission president if it would be alright for me to read those things.

    I didn’t expect to get permission, but I wanted to know and was desperate. He told me, “Elder, you can read anything you want. In this mission we have our rules so that the very weakest of us can be protected. I know you and know you study hard, and I know you wouldn’t study anything you shouldn’t. Other missionaries could not handle that freedom; they’d start reading Harry Potter and romance novels.”

    It’s dangerous to consider ourselves exceptions to the rules, but we know when we’re straying, and our leaders are aware of this as well. I’ve used outside sources in my teaching, but I must admit that generally, the most important things are found in the manual, the scriptures, and the words of modern-day church leaders. There are, however, other teachers that could not handle this liberty and would teach nothing of value, if only to appear wise and learned.

    Does that make any sense?

  • Ben Spackman

    Hey Gdub, nice to see you around. I went hunting for your old blog the other day ;)

    I’ve actually got a whole post in the works about conflicting rhetoric in the Church that addresses that exact thing you bring up. I have exactly the same experience.

    I talk about lots of things found outside the manual, but my feedback, including from Institute supervisors, Bishops, Stake Presidents, etc., has tended to be quite positive over the years. That said, I feel like my teaching isn’t in line with lots of the rhetoric we hear, so I sometimes feel conflicted about it. Ultimately, I feel that a lesson that edifies people serves God’s purposes better than a ritual reenactment and performance of the manual. And honestly, because I don’t know any other way to teach.

  • CS

    Aw. I’ve been aching to hear about pottery typology in church.

    Nice discussion. I think Emily U’s note ideally describes how I would prepare, “as directed by the spirit”; sadly, that assumes I give myself adequate time to prepare.