Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Radically New Sunday School Lesson Schedule (hypothetical)

Posted by BrianJ on February 3, 2008

It’s a Saturday afternoon. You get a phone call from the 801 area code. You have been asked to serve on a church committee that will make a new set of Sunday School manuals.*** You are specifically assigned the task of developing the new reading schedule. How would you do it?

I’ve been thinking for a while about the challenge of making Sunday School lesson schedules. Obviously, there will never be enough time to “cover everything,” so there will always be a problem deciding what to cover and what to skip. I sympathize with the committees that made our current manuals even as I curse (lovingly, of course!) them for giving Romans only a single week every four years.

But what if you could make you own lesson schedule? How would you divide the reading? Maybe it’s not for the whole church: maybe it’s just for your ward (and your bishop asked you to do it).

For example, Joe has mentioned that when asked to teach seminary, he decided to make it an “honors seminary” by only covering Genesis, Job, and Isaiah.

Why do I ask? My question is not totally academic. Like Joe, I have a bishopric who gives me a lot of leeway in class. I often switch up the schedule a little here and there: didn’t get enough time to talk about lesson 17? Fine, we’ll just talk about it again next week and skip over lesson 18. Most recently, I decided that we would spend 2 extra weeks covering 2 Nephi (I would have added 5 extra weeks if it weren’t for conferences and my imminent move). So I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on how they would or have changed their lesson schedules to benefit their classes.

Here’s my proposal: The current schedule covers one book each year: OT, NT, BoM, D&C. I propose a “floating two year study.” Here’s how it would look:

2008 BoM
2009 BoM
2010 D&C
2011 OT
2012 NT
2013 NT
2014 BoM
2015 D&C
2016 OT
2017 OT

By covering individual books over a two year period, a class could spend twice as much time on each of the current lessons. Alternatively (and I think that this is even more exciting), particularly important chapters could be given far more time. I mentioned Romans above: what if we could keep most of our NT study how it is, but spend 2 months on Romans? Or 3 months on Isaiah? Or split BoM lesson 5 into three separate lessons, instead of trying to cover 7 chapters all at once?

The reason I would make it a “floating two” as opposed to simply giving every book 2 years all the time, is to prevent too much time from elapsing between studying each book. In other words, currently 3 years pass between every BoM study year; under my proposal, 4 years would pass.

Okay, so I can see how a lot of teachers would freak out if they had to teach the OT for two whole years. Still, a boy can dream.

*** Note:

  1. I know of no plans to remake the lesson manuals. And I wouldn’t know either; I have no “inside connections.”
  2. I’m not questioning the inspiration, dedication, or hard work of those who created our manuals. If that wasn’t clear above, let it be clear now.
  3. The title of the post suggests that your idea must be “radical.” If you’re going to play the game (and it is a game), think big—and have fun!

63 Responses to “Radically New Sunday School Lesson Schedule (hypothetical)”

  1. brianj said

    I confess that another reason I wanted to post this is so that I could ask Joe this question: In your honors seminary class, why oh why are you not covering Exodus??!! {seriously, but with a wink}

  2. 2008–BoM
    2009–OT history
    2010–D&C
    2011–scriptural theology
    2012–BoM
    2013–Isaiah
    2014–NT (focus heavily on gospels)
    2015–scriptural poetry
    2016–scriptural prophecy (esp Daniel, Revelation)

    BoM covered every 5 years. Leave out Isaiah passages and cover them during the Isaiah year. Heavy emphasis on Paul during scriptural theology year.

  3. Sally said

    BiV – I would love to sit in a SS class on the schedule you have outlined – but only if taught by a teacher knowledgeable in the subject matter. And unfortunately, those are hard to come by in an average ward. Between work, kids and callings, I don’t have time to study these subjects on my own and would love so much to learn them at church. But I think most people find themselves in my situation, which leaves us without adequate teachers for indepth study. So how can we get more trained teachers?

  4. We will never get more trained teachers in this Church if we don’t expect more out of them! I find that people all over the world are willing to spend hours preparing SS lessons!! If we provide them more and better material I believe they will rise to the challenge!!! I would love to see SS lesson manuals which take a good look at what the scriptures actually say rather than just assigning each block a “topic” and then discussing in generalities. It would be fantastic to include a bibliography for each lesson for further study for interested teachers and class members. There are soooooo many things that could be done to train teachers. It obviously is not a priority (speaking of the Church generally and not individually.)

    btw, I agree that people need to be grounded in the basics. But statistically, how many members already have an excellent grasp of the basics and need to be taken to the next level? How can we continue to ignore this demographic year after year???? /rant.

  5. Gary said

    Let us not forget that it isn’t scripture study we are talking here. It is called Gospel (Church) Doctrine. No one would consider 45 minutes devoted to Romans or any book or letter, let alone groups of letters, to be scripture study.

    In my area, there is a little church that believes in the Book of Mormon. They get together on Wednesday evening to study it. This they do by reading verse by verse and commenting as they go…everybody. When time expires, they mark where they left off. The next week they start up from there. It could take them years to study the Book of Mormon.

    That is scripture study.

    Furthermore, we don’t need trained teachers, we need converted, inspired teachers.

  6. Jim F. said

    BiV: “Statistically, how many members already have an excellent grasp of the basics and need to be taken to the next level?”

    I hate to say it, but whatever the number is, I bet it is pretty small. Not only are there huge numbers of converts joining the Church every year, my experience teaching Gospel Doctrine class for ten years or so makes me think that there are large numbers of people who’ve been in the Church a long time and still don’t really understand the basics.

    I’m also skeptical that the majority of our teachers are presently willing to spend hours preparing lessons. There are a reasonable number who are, and thank goodness for them. However, a great many lessons are prepared the evening before or the morning of by quickly reading through the manual to see “what I’m supposed to say.”

    For whatever reasons, we’ve developed a culture in which we do not expect teachers to prepare well. I think part of the reason is that. at least in the English-speaking church, we have developed an assumption that there are experts on the scriptures who know these things, but we aren’t among them, that knowing more than we find in the manual requires having a Ph.D. or some other special training. Turning that around is going to be difficult, but until we do I don’t think that a new set of manuals is likely to make much difference.

    I hope that the Feast Upon the Word wiki will help people feel more comfortable talking about the scriptures themselves, though it always runs the danger of reinforcing the assumption about experts by becoming difficult for or even inaccessible to the average person. That’s a danger that we who participate contribute to the wiki or who participate regularly on the blog have to be aware of.

  7. robf said

    I had to cover sharing time for the Senior Primary this week while the Primary presidency and teachers were in an annual Visiting Teaching Conference. Instead of playing games I had the three classes dig into the Title Page of the Book of Mormon. We looked at words the kids didn’t know and talked about what they mean.

    These kids have been in Primary for five to nine years and none of them knew what “Christ” meant. I had them look up “Jesus” and “Christ” in the Bible Dictionary. We then had to talk about what it meant to be anointed, the connection to priests and kings. We talked about what revelation is, and prophecy. We only had 20 minutes but the kids really got into it.

    I’m afraid that our current system of moving through the Standard Works each year (and remember, it starts down in Primary) moves us so quickly that, again starting with Primary kids, we get a very superficial view of the scriptures. In Primary it becomes just a bunch of stories (mingled with games) and little how to “apply it into our daily lives” messages. While that may be fine, if we never raise above that level, if we don’t let the scriptures challenge our understanding of those stories, as well as how we view the world, I’m afraid that the gospel won’t really sink down into our hearts (as Elder Eyring mentioned in President Hinckley’s funeral).

    Since the gospel is holographic, and the whole can be contained or reached from any verse, perhaps rather than worry that the whole church is on the same schedule, each unit should be allowed to work its way through the standard works at their own pace, a la Gary(#5) above. I would be less upset to visit another ward and find them reading in a completely different part of the standard works, than I am when I visit a ward that is off a week or two from my own ward reading schedule and I hear the same few verses of scripture talked about in the same superficial ways.

    So my ideal schedule? No schedule. Just as my Primary activity led us from the BoM Title Page to Amos and 1 Nephi 1 (what is a prophecy? what is a prophet? what is the secret/council of the LORD?), we could work through the standard works one word/verse/passage at a time–and during the lesson jump from there to wherever else the scriptures lead us.

  8. RuthS said

    I would divide the Book of Mormon into two parts a year for each part. In the OT, I would leave out Esther. I would include some of Chronicles. I would include the story of Deborah Judges and the daughters of Zelophehad in Dueteromony. I change the manual to emphasize something different than the same subjects or themes that they have covered since the manual was copywrited in 1999. Would like to see the emphasis more on giving the readers the tools they need to interpret what they read for themselves.

    I’m not convinced very many people attending Sunday School class really want to be challenged to think. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

  9. Rob, Amen!
    Jim F–I don’t agree. Even here in Saudi Arabia every member of our SS class has been a member of the church at least 5-10 years and has a good understanding of basics. There is a hunger to discuss the difficult doctrines of (for example, it came up last Sabbath) foreordination vs predestination, and many others. Don’t you just see the class light up when the teacher starts to dig into the scriptures?? I’ve seen the exact same thing in Seminary and even in Primary, as Rob mentioned.

  10. btw, I would love to see small scripture study groups in the Church. This would be a great alternative way to train scripturally mature teachers. I have attempted to start scripture study groups in several wards I have been in and have been shot down by the Bishop. It is discouraging that this is not allowed. I see less danger that members will go astray in these groups than the problem that vast numbers of members have no serious grounding in the scriptures.

  11. joespencer said

    Exodus!?!? That’s in the part of the scriptures that was done away with!!! Who wants to read that!?!? :) I chose the three books I chose because I wanted to give the kids a taste of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I chosen Genesis over Exodus for two primary reasons: (1) the “most important” themes in Exodus (I find) cannot be taught well without a good understanding of the priesthood and covenant themes of Genesis; (2) Second Isaiah will give me some opportunity to articulate the “most important” themes of Exodus. If I had my way, I would follow up with a summer course that meets for two hours every day in which we cover Exodus, Malachi, and Ecclesiastes (a month and a week or two on Exodus and then a month on Malachi and Ecclesiastes). But alas!

    Now, as to the remainder of this discussion…

    I think a great deal about these kinds of things. I agree with Jim entirely: though I’m admittedly quite a bit younger than Jim, my (limited) teaching experience represents at least two cultures in four different parts of the United States (I can’t at all speak for those outside the U.S.), and in a number of settings (teacher improvement courses, gospel doctrine, elders quorum, the teachers quorum, the priests quorum, early morning seminary, released-time seminary—this latter both in and out of Utah—as well as opportunities to speak at firesides and other events ranging from stake high priest socials to single adult and young single adult firesides, etc., etc., etc.), and I have universally found that maybe half of the relatively active saints are generally uninformed about “Church doctrine” and almost totally ignorant of the scriptures beyond a few isolated themes and proof texts. The “blanket of ignorance and stupidity” of which Joseph spake has not, in my humble opinion, ever been lifted.

    But let me be quite clear about my “theory” of teaching: I think it is far more important that we have teachers of profound inspiration and radical fidelity than that we have learned scriptural exegetes. But let that not be misunderstood in the other direction either: “profound inspiration” is a question of interpretation of texts, and radical fidelity is a shocking faithfulness to texts. In other words: I don’t think that what we need primarily is a collection of OT scholars (we’ve got a collection of those in the JSB at BYU and—if I can be permitted a very personal confession of doubt—they’re not turning out too much to get excited about). What we need is people whose lives are so intertwined with the texts (figures like Joseph and Brigham come immediately to mind, as well as President Hinckley and President Monson) that they not only teach the texts but generate in their teaching texts that are as profound and marvelous as the “originals.” That, I think, is teaching.

    So, as a teacher, I dream with Brian. But as an observer of the Church, I think that a change of the teaching schedule would change very little in the Church.

  12. brianj said

    BiV: I’m intrigued by your proposed plan, but I confess that even I feel a bit overwhelmed at the thought of teaching scriptural theology. Perhaps with good manuals it would not seem so daunting.

    Gary: “we don’t need trained teachers…” I trust that what you meant is along the lines of Joe’s #11: namely, that training is not a substitute for “converted, inspired teachers,” as opposed to doing away with teacher training altogether.

    RuthS: Perhaps a workable solution would be to keep the Primary manuals more or less how they are now, but introduce new topics to teenagers and adults? That might work, but I would fear for the adult convert who misses the “foundational stories.” Still, I think your point about merely changing the topics is good. In fact, as I went through the OT with my class, I frequently purposefully chose to talk about lesser-known stories to illustrate that there is much more in the OT than is often appreciated (by LDS).

    Joe: “Exodus!?!? That’s in the part of the scriptures that was done away with!!! Who wants to read that?” If anyone is wondering why Joe will not be posting for a while, it is because he is not feeling well. I had nothing to do with it.

    Okay, Joe, your explanation is good: Law, Prophets, Writings. Put that way, I agree with you. And I wouldn’t ever dream of teaching Exodus if it meant excluding Genesis. I was just surprised because Exodus is, well, the revelation of both the Law and the Temple, and what in the OT makes sense if not in terms of Law and Temple? And what in the NT or BoM makes sense if not in terms of the OT? For what it’s worth, most weeks as I taught NT and now the BoM, I began class with some reference to Genesis or Exodus. Now when I start class by asking, “We’re in 1 Nephi 11 today, but to understand what is going on, where should we turn?” my class already groans the answer: “Uh, gee, maybe the OT?”

  13. joespencer said

    I agree, Brian. Though you can bet that we’ve covered a good deal of Exodus as we’ve gone along…

  14. nhilton said

    “Furthermore, we don’t need trained teachers, we need converted, inspired teachers.” (Gary #5)

    I don’t think it’s ‘teachers’ who need the conversion or inspiration, but rather the students.

    If every student in the classroom was a potential teacher (WHICH THEY ARE!) then they would come to class prepared and willing to engage in the lesson material, whatever the lesson was. I think this is the point of the new teacher training effort.

    Instead of their eyes glazing over when a real question was asked & they felt challenged by it and disengaged due to being unpreparred or inexperienced in thinking/answering the question they would come primed, sitting on the edge of their seat awaiting the most exciting scriptural experience: group scripture study! They might even initiate a wonderful question! The teacher might even be able to begin class by saying, “Does anyone have a question?”

    The ONLY way to have group scripture study is for everyone to be scriptorians.

    Pres. Kimball said, “I stress again the deep need each woman has to study the scriptures. We want our homes to be blessed with sister scriptorians–whether you are single or married, young or old, widowed or living in a family…become scholars of the scriptures–not to put others down, but to life them up!” [Ensign Nov. ’79]

    I took this counsel to heart years ago when I realized I couldn’t expect the GD teacher to feed me spiritually once a week, on Sunday. Being personally responsible for my own scripture study/learning has immensely blessed my life and I guess ‘qualified’ me to teach others. NOT THAT I’M PARTICULARLY QUALIFIED, but unfortuneately just one of the few in the ward who actually STUDIES the scriptures & is interested in engaging in group thought about them.

    Pres. Kimball’s instruction it isn’t just for women–tho I am one and it is true that many women delegate the study and teaching of scripture to men for whatever reason I can’t imagine. Perhaps cultural carry-over from the “don’t educate a woman” era? In fact, I heard on the BYU channel some erudite male repeat that his wife gave him the excuse that she wasn’t as well-versed in the scriptures being that she had been spending all her time raising their several children. He actually bought that excuse! Go figure! I can’t imagine anything a husband would rather have his wife educated about than the scriptures if he intended to have a happy family/children.

    Group scripture study used to be the norm, with small neighborhood groups meeting weekly. I am told that was discouraged church-wide with the excuse that uncontrolled learning/teaching was occuring (I guess). Is that true?

    We had a group scripture study going on here as part of the new RS “enrichment activities” & in fact it was stopped for a time as the bishop investigated to be sure nothing incorrect was being taught/discussed. Can you imagine?! It was commical! Once he was sure everything was running smoothly (no apostates pontificating) he gave his o.k. to continue. It was inconceivable to me that the Bishop would interfere with a “neighborhood scripture group” and that anyone within the group would go complaining to him about what was being said. Once the group was reinstated it never gained momentum again because people were too warry of being open & saying the “wrong thing.”

    I think the clue for studying the scriptures, no matter what the course schedule, is the ASK QUESTIONS of the text. Too many church members are afraid of doing this, that perhaps their testimony will be shattered with doubt. This is where we fail one another, acting so complacent & unengaged about the scriptures/our religion. There should be energy in the air during every Sunday School class, making it irresistable to come. This can’t be accomplished simply by the teacher, but is also dependent upon the students being accepting of challenge and coming preparred to engage their minds and spirits.

    Brianj & others, Thanks for the moment on my soap box. :)

  15. RuthS said

    “Furthermore, we don’t need trained teachers, we need converted, inspired teachers.” (Gary #5)

    We need trained teachers who are converted and inspired. Now, when I mean trained teachers I don’t necessarily mean teachers who have been trained by professionals at college. There are other ways to get training. Doing can be very instructive when one is open to suggestion given to self evaluation on a regular basis.

    “I think the clue for studying the scriptures, no matter what the course schedule, is the ASK QUESTIONS of the text. Too many church members are afraid of doing this, that perhaps their testimony will be shattered with doubt. This is where we fail one another, acting so complacent & unengaged about the scriptures/our religion. There should be energy in the air during every Sunday School class, making it irresistible to come. This can’t be accomplished simply by the teacher, but is also dependent upon the students being accepting of challenge and coming prepared to engage their minds and spirits.” I absolutely agree.

    One of the things I tried at the first of this year, was to dedicate part of the first lesson to the topic of how to read a book and find out what it is the book itself is trying to teach. I think it was quite helpful. At least it made a difference to the way my man had been studying.

  16. NathanG said

    nhilton. I liked your comments. I agree part of the problem is the students. There does seems to be an odd preference for men to be the scriptorians. While I was at Ricks College I noticed what I think is part of the problem (for both students and the male scriptorion). It’s returned missionaries. Before my mission I can’t count the number of times I heard a Sunday School teacher, bishop, devotional speaker say “You returned missionaries will already know this…” or “where’s my returned missionaries to answer this question?” We created this little culture of imagining that only returned missionaries knew anything about the gospel (I was one of the oddballs that had read the standard works before my mission (which doesn’t equal understanding by any stretch of the imagination) and I was always bothered by not being in the “knowing” group. So a missionary gets home from a spiritual high and people talk to him as though he knows everything which leads him to think he does know everything, which leads him to think Sunday School has nothing to offer. We produce dis-interested members of the church. Add to this the woes of the curriculum that have been identified on this thread and a paucity of inspiring teachers, and we’re left with a program that I’ve heard people talk about getting rid of altogether.

    Fortunately we get occasional wards where there is a teacher who chooses to break the mold and begin challenging the class to rethink the scriptures. When I finally had the opportunity to experience this (after five years of being a know-it-all returned missionary myself), I began to enjoy Sunday School (although I always liked attending, just didn’t really get into it), I began pre-reading the lessons. I was excited about what I would learn the next week. Sunday school became a high point at church rather than a time filler for the bishop to do interviews and relief society and quorum presidents to make copies and finish up their lessons.

  17. robf said

    NathanG, don’t even get me started on quorum and auxiliary presidencies skipping Sunday School for presidency meetings!

  18. betty said

    To My Friends of Faith,

    Recently a friend at our church brought this “film” to my attention.
    Her son apparently was sent this web link from someone.

    It’s a movie clip (that has been recently released, or is about to,,, I’m not sure),,
    anyway, it depicts Mormons as flesh eating ghouls, and it is just awful. http://www.thebookofzombie.com

    On behalf of myself and my husband, and our Mormon friends,
    I would like to make sure that young people are NOT subjected to this terrible conception of our faith.

    please let me know if you are able to help.

    regards, Betty Toms

  19. Jim F. said

    BiV: A lot of comments have been posted since I put mine up this morning, so this response to your response may now be beside the point.

    However, I think we disagree less than you might think. I agree completely that the class lights up when the teacher digs into the scriptures with them. I disagree that means talking about abstract theological / doctrinal issues. I think it means talking about the scriptures themselves, “likening them unto ourselves,” not just be seeing what surface parallels we might find between something Nephi did and something we do, but by genuinely asking what the scriptures are saying and teaching, which means asking what questions they address to us.

    That is something that is effective regardless of how much “doctrine” the students know or don’t know.

  20. phdinhistory said

    I think Jim F. had a good point in #6. As I have moved around, I have noticed a lot of difference in the types of teaching from one ward to the next. In some places teachers come across as experts while others do not even aspire. I tend to think that this correlates with the socio-economic demographics within the various ward boundaries. In fact, I have wondered what would the results would be if BCC or T&S invited all of its users to anonymously type their zip codes into an online survey that could display the results on a map. I imagine the Mormon bloggers would come from certain clusters within urban areas and that entire swaths of the country, and wards in economically depressed areas, would be hardly represented. I tend to think that more successful Mormons spend virtually of their time attending wards in good neighborhoods while the less successful Mormons are pretty much stuck in their own kind of wards. This creates an impression among the successful Mormons that students in Gospel Doctrine classes across the church are chewing at the bit for more meaty lessons. In the other kind of wards, the people who attend Gospel Doctrine seem much like what Jim F. describes, they do not seem themselves as experts and they don’t feel qualified, or that it is even necessary, to go beyond what they see in the manual. I wonder what would happen if we had more socio-economically diverse wards, where the haves and have nots were put together in the same Gospel Doctrine classes. Would the differences between experts and amateurs persist or would they break down?

  21. nhilton said

    #20, Your point is interesting. However, my ward is quite diverse. My stake is extremely diverse encompassing some of the poorest areas of the city. Ironically, it seems that a lot of the time those who have experienced less prosperity in their lives spend a great deal of time in “Gospel Essentials” and sometimes don’t make it into “Gospel Doctrine.” So, I wonder how effective your survey would actually be. As a “Gospel Doctrine” teacher I always hope and pray for that new member to “graduate” from “Gospel Essentials” and come into “Gospel Doctrine” because I want to light their fire about really studying the scriptures. Sometimes, however, these students are highly challenged in their ability to simply read the scriptures, not to mention find a specific passage.

    We must just keep trying. Beginning in Primary is essential.

  22. Cyril Miller said

    Wow! Referring to #10, I can’t believe you have Bishops who would interfere in private gatherings of members meeting to study the scriptures. You tolerate that? What does the Bishop have to do with it? We’ve been doing it for years here. One year we spent the entire year on Isaiah. Then an entire year on Revelation. All it takes is members willing to meet and study together. As a Bishop, I hightly encourage members to feast upon the word whenever and however they can.

  23. nhilton said

    “you tolerate that?” #22, how do you NOT tolerate it? Would you argue with your bishop when he feels that he is simply doing his job?

    The group was began under the mantel of Relief Society as an Enrichment Activity, thus the Bishop felt he had stewardship for it. So, when a member of the group complained about something being discussed he rallied to see if the complaint was valid & he should intervene.

    I think the only way around this is to have NOTHING to do with the ward in the advertisement or organization of the study group & this is really hard when you’re trying to enlist ward members to participate.

    If you have ideas on how to get an independent group going, speak up!

  24. Cyril Miller said

    Dear nhilton. Of course I would argue with the Bishop. Bishops need members to “argue” with them. I do it all the time. I am currently a Bishop. Forgive me for not reading in #10 that this was an Enrichment Activity. Naturally, that changes the situation. I did not interpret “scripture study group” as a Relief Society sponsored event. On how to get an independent group going, you just decide when and where to meet. Choose someone’s home. Make it a regular gathering. Bring your scriptures and get to work.

  25. nhilton said

    I’m sure my bishop argues with himself regularly, too, Bishop Miller. Thanks for your advice.

  26. mjberkey said

    Cyril #22, we actually did a youth scripture study group that met once a week at Joe’s house. Until we all went our separate ways (to college). You might be interested in listening to a recording of what I think was the culmination of that excellent group. Here’s the link – http://teachyediligently.mypodcast.com/2007/09/2_Nephi_31-45052.html

  27. I don’t know what nhilton is talking about, but the scripture study I was referencing in my comment #10 started as a private one I was organizing in my home. The RS found out about it and encouraged my plans and announced it to the sisters. No one complained to the Bishop, he just happened to be in the hall and heard it announced, then talked to me and told me I was not to do it.

    I did discuss this quite fervently with the Bishop and later with one of his counselors. This was probably a mistake. If I hadn’t pressed my case so strongly I might have been able to let it drop and then later just get some friends together and have a study. But after his unequivocal decision that we were not to do it, we would have found ourselves in opposition to a directive from a Church leader, and thus in apostasy.

    I am glad to hear that there are groups which meet together to study scripture, but in my experience in many areas of the Church this is discouraged.

  28. Robert C. said

    BiV #27, I’m pretty curious about this attitude. A while ago I tried looking for any “official” quotes to this effect—here are my rather meager findings. Elder Oaks’ talk on “Alternate Voices” (click on previous link for access) seems not to discourage study groups per se, but . I have, however, heard (2nd hand) that there was a 1st presidency letter sent around in the early 90s discouraging study groups. I’d be curious as to what the contents of this alleged letter were, and whether or not there is anything else out there (say, in the General Handbook?) that discourages study groups. Although I sense that many blogs and study groups often enter into discussion that takes a rather skeptical view of the scriptures and Church leader inspiration, my hope and experience with at least this blog has been very positive, helping me study the scriptures much more diligently and faithfully. I suppose that if a Church leader discouraged me from engaging in group study, I would try to (non-belligerently!) ask the source and reasoning of such counsel since it seems to me that we are actually commanded to study diligently (e.g., “out of the best books”), and it’s very hard for me to imagine a better way to fulfill this command than to do so via group study—though I agree w/ Elder Oaks’ comments that one must exercise discernment regarding the spirit and direction of such groups….

  29. joespencer said

    I too looked around some time ago for any “official” information on this and came up with nothing but an official word about avoiding controversial self-help groups and symposia that call the doctrines of the Church into question (I take it this has reference to things like the Sunstone symposium?). So I contacted a friend in the BYU religion department who asked around and came up with nothing. I then asked my father-in-law, who was/is a bishop, to see what he could come up with: nothing. He then went to a retired CES guy who apparently has a whole room filled with files of the Brethren’s statements on everything (a self-styled expert on what the Brethren say officially about everything): nothing. I was doing all of this because a youth (mjberkey above, in fact) had mentioned to me that he was going to start up a study group, and I had told him that it was officially discouraged, and he asked for documentation.

    After all of this, I was becoming convinced that nothing official had ever been said about this, that the word about self-help groups and questionable symposia had popularly been interpreted to exclude study groups, and so I started going about setting up a study group in our ward with a few other couples. One woman in particular was very concerned that we were suggesting the idea, since she had heard—as we all had—that there was an official policy about it. So I decided to ask the stake president what he knew about the policy (I didn’t go to my bishop: in part because he was the sort of person who proceeds according to simple hearsay and so would probably be of the opinion that it was officially discouraged, and in part because he was the sort of person who is convinced that there is little more to learn than what “everyone already knows” and so I expected little support from him).

    I was careful about how I worded things with the stake president: “My wife and I were talking to a few other couples in our ward about getting together once a month or so to study the scriptures together, but one spouse was concerned that there is an official Church policy against doing that. I’ve not been able to find anything official that says that. Do you know if there is any such policy.” He answered with a smile: “There’s no policy.” So I asked: “Would you feel good us getting together to study the scriptures?” “I’d be very pleased to see people doing more with the scriptures.” That simple.

    Unfortunately, the several couples all decided they were too busy after all, but the youth mentioned above went about setting up a youth scripture study at my house and that continued for months.

    Needless to say, now that we’ve moved, we’re in the process of establishing another scripture study group here.

  30. Thanks for the comments and info. This attitude is very widespread in the Church, and it is interesting that there is nothing official about limiting scripture study groups. I wish I had known that when talking to my Bishop. I liked how you handled your SP, Joe.

  31. Lynn W. said

    I just ran across your web site when I accessed an official news line in my ward and stake site, about keeping to the official stake schedule of Sunday school lessons. It looks interesting.

    I don’t know about group study, but my daughter and I are really enjoying studying the scriptures together on the phone (I’m in the Southern Baptist Bible Belt, and she’s out West in Mormon territory, and we are the only active LDS in our family). We decided to study the New Testament, and are currently in Matthew. We pray before we read, and we are getting so much insight from being able to discuss things together, and liken the scriptures to our lives. As commentary, I also read from the Institute Manual I got years ago in VA, “The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles. It really adds to our understanding and appreciation of our Savior.

    Another great source I’ve found here on the web is http://www.readthescriptures.com The only problem is you can put too much on your plate, in the idea of feasting on the scriptures, and end up being unable to finish on schedule. At least that’s what I did, by trying to read Book of Mormon, New Testament, D&C and Ensign all at the same time. It just didn’t work, with having to have a life outside the Internet, working, family, church, etc.

  32. Rebecca L said

    I proposed a series of “break-out firesides” to our SS Presidency and Bishopric. They liked the idea of continuing SS in people’s homes. I suggest “reading assignments” and people sign up to host or present on 10-20 page articles/ or short scriptural passages. A number of people might present at one fireside and everyone has the reading in advance.

    I think the key thing is publicity and the fact that everyone is invited. IMO What irks people about study groups is the way they can become (or be seen as) priveleged, insular, or even secretive forums for the development of unique doctrines.

  33. brianj said

    Lynn W: Let me get this straight—this blog was linked to on your stake’s web site? Let me also be clear about something: my bishop knows about—and encourages—my schedule changes. If he asked me to stick to the lesson manual schedule, then I would discuss the matter with him and if he still wanted me to, then I surely would.

  34. kentm said

    I have followed the Sunday school lesson treatments in this blog for a few years now, and this is my first contribution to the communal discussion. I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge, intellect and spirituality of the contributors, as well as your commitment to the gospel and to the charge to teach. Thanks you all for your efforts.

    Regarding the teaching schedule: It is hard to teach a comprehensive lesson in 40 minutes once a week. We can take more time on specific lessons (which I will do when I feel it is important for my class) but the fundamental limitations do not change. I think those limitations include working with lesson manuals that must be “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.”(D&C 89:3) In that regard I do not have a problem with the 4 year schedule for the Church.

    What I have a problem with is that the manuals tend towards repetition rather than exploration. Definitive statements are made more frequently than honest questions are asked. While it is essential for me as a teacher to have information and facts available, it is more important to be able to cultivate class participation and a sense that every student (regardless of age group or experience in the Church) can contribute to the discussion without fear of being judged, of being wrong, of being stupid, of being… Everyone in our class knows that it is OK to ask questions and to not have all the answers. Everyone in the class knows that together we know more than any one of us knows individually.

    As do most of you who contribute your Sunday lessons to the blog,I use the manuals as a point of departure for the lessons. I let the class know that I assume they will read the material for each week, and I try to add interesting information to the discussion. The result is that more class members – though not all – actually read the material each week, and many contribute thoughtful responses to the class discussion. Most of the class comes away wanting more, which is good because that motivates them to continue searching, reading, studying, questioning, and isn’t that what we want to encourage?

    Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have a scholar factory going on in our ward, but a change takes place in the way (some) people think about the Sunday School material, and that is a measure of success.

    The various ideal formats that have been suggested here for improving the Sunday School experience for the entire membership of the Church are intriguing. Would they be better or just different? I don’t know. What I’d really like to see is another 10 minutes of class time. And I would like to see manuals that include more questions that can be asked of the class in forms that do not shut down thought. And references to easily accessible enrichment materials (such as this blog). It might actually help the members of the Church become excited about reading the scriptures. They might even study them.

  35. robf said

    Amen on another 10 minutes of class time!

  36. Jim F. said

    kentm: Amen to all of your suggestions.

  37. Lynn W. said

    brianj: Oh, sorry, I guess I wasn’t too clear. What happened was that I had received a notice in my e-mail from the Stake, and was referred to the official Stake web site. When I got there, I printed out the official Sunday school schedule. Then I tried to get back in to check on something else, but when I put in the words “Sunday school schedule”, on the search button, a whole block of links showed up in Yahoo. I got curious, and noticed a link to this site. I figured something called “feast upon the word” had to be LDS. So, here I am. I hope I can add something of value to the discussions here.

    As for all the talk about schedule changes, I hope nobody has been offended by what I said about sticking to the official schedule. That’s what we’ve been told by our Stake, that there is no schedule for the whole church, and that the schedules are set up by the Stakes, and are to be followed strictly. That’s what the letter said on my Stake web site, anyway. It makes sense to me, because I’m sure the Stake presidencies take into account the demographics of their areas, as well as following inspiration. It may be that things are different in the Southern mission field, than in Utah and other areas that have a greater LDS population.

    Even so, this is an interesting discussion. One thing I would like to see in Gospel Doctrine, is an in depth study of the Pearl of Great Price. There is so much in there that could lead to some interesting insights, and might even help people prepare more for the temple. It might even be good to tie it in with the OT sections about temple worship.

    I also wish the student manuals were bigger. Those little booklets just don’t do much for me. I like the Seminary and Institute size manuals much better, with the commentaries from the General Authorities, etc.

  38. cherylem said

    Speaking of schedules, as usual, I will do an Easter lesson on Easter . . .

  39. robf said

    Lynn W.
    Have you read Hugh Nibley’s lectures on the Pearl of Great Price (video here)(or the Book of Mormon, for that matter)? Reading them you can have practically the same experience that Honors students had at BYU back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sadly, probably not a lot has changed in BoM or PoGP studies since then, and though Nibley’s treatments are a certainly a bit idiosyncratic, they offer a lot to think about–more than you might find in the official manuals or in your typical GD class.

  40. brianj said

    kentm—the atmosphere in your class (safety in asking questions) is wonderful. Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn—no offense taken by me; thanks for the clarification anyway. I’m in NY, by the way. Would changes be “better or just different?” I don’t know, but I think that in some ways different in and of itself would be better, if only because it gives people a chance to get out of mental ruts.

    Cheryl—I am jealous: my ward is only having sacrament meeting on Easter so that “we can all spend more time with our families.” There goes my already-planned Easter lesson (based out of 2 Nephi 11-24). You should have seen the icy daggers shooting from my eyes toward the bishopric when they announced that yesterday. Mine must be the only church in my city that plans less church on the “most Christian day of the year.” (Oh well: we’re considering making this an opportunity to visit some other Christian church in our area.)

  41. kentm said

    cherylem: That sounds interesting, and displays a healthy attitude toward the schedule. After all, “the Sabbath was made for man…” How will you approach it? Will you consider how Easter might have developed among the Nephites? (It would obviously be speculation, but they had the same Mosaic traditions, they had those cataclysmic events at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection, and they had the Lord’s subsequent visit to them as a capstone. Just wondering how the Nephites might have celebrated Easter…)

    Lynn W.: I agree that the student manuals don’t do much more than help class members feel like they know where they should be in their individual scripture reading. If that is their intended limited function, then the student manuals are fine. Do you show your class the seminary/institute manuals so they can get them should they feel so inclined? Some of my class members have purchased them, and one of the other Gospel Doctrine teachers in our ward successfully and extensively uses those manuals to prepare her lessons.

    brianj: I think you have done us all a great service by raising this hypothetical question. One thing is certain — eventually the format for Sunday School will change. Discussions like this may have an influence upon that change. Given that much of the growth of the Church is outside the US and often takes place among the humblest of people, what kind of format will allow for the greatest support for those developing LDS communities? Can Sunday School have an impact upon the overall activity rates in the Church? What about with the youth that are dropping out of activity at an all too alarming rate? I think the Sunday School teachers that participate in this blog are the cream of the crop. If anyone might have insight into how to improve Sunday School it is this group.

  42. Lynn W. said

    kentm: Currently, I don’t have a teaching position, but I used to be a ward missionary, and Gospel Essentials teacher. Since I’m an adult convert, I never had the opportunity to attend Seminary, but a good friend in VA gave me some old seminary manuals, which I find very helpful for my own study. The institute manual I mentioned is one I had when I took an institute class on the New Testament, several years ago, in VA. My daughter and I find it to be a good source for our discussions during our scripture study.

  43. Lynn W. said

    I wonder if perhaps we need another adult Sunday school class. What if Gospel Essentials were split into two sections, one for the greenies (those who were investigating or newly baptized), and one for those who were about ready to graduate into Gospel Doctrine, but not quite there, sort of an intermediate class? Or, perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, the Gospel Doctrine class could be split into two sections, one for those who were still learning the basics, and one for those who had been through the temple, and wanted to have more in depth scripture study?

  44. NathanG said

    I was a ward missionary and attended a fantastic gosepl essential’s class. The gospel essential’s topics have potential for deep discussions. It may be interesting to rotate people out of gospel doctrine into a gospel essentials class where the purpose is to dig deeper into the scriptures to understand the scriptural basis of many of our fundamental doctrines.

  45. robf said

    I think you can “dig deeper into the scriptures to understand the scriptural basis of many of our fundamental doctrines” no matter what class you are in, from Primary to Gospel Doctrine. The problem isn’t the organization, but our easy acceptance of shallow thinking, weak teaching, and a whole litany of cultural issues that might be fun to delineate in a longer post!

  46. kentm said

    Lynn W: The Church produces a CD with all of the 18 student manuals used in the seminary and institute programs. It is available through Church Distribution or Deseret Book for $6. (Such a deal!) One of my favorite resources is the old GospeLink software (version 2001 or later). It has a potful of useful books. You can also get online access to the same material through gospelink.com. It has even more titles than the older CD version.

    NathanG: Sounds like a great class. My current Gospel Doctrine class grew out of a need for a Gospel Essentials class. The Bishop called some old timers and some members he felt needed a stronger foundation in the doctrines of the Church to attend, along with the one investigator who attended church. When we no longer had any investigators or newly baptized members we continued on as a GD class. We are still the designated class for investigators to attend. One of the great things about having investigators and new members in the class is that they don’t ask the same questions. They require us to rethink our use of “Mormonspeak”. (You know, it is interesting how much leeway bishops have in adapting the programs of the Church to the needs of their members. Maybe some of you current/former bishops have some insight about that. Another thread, perhaps?)

    robf #45: I agree. It seems that our collective default mode is to go along with what is easiest and most convenient. It is convenient to sit in a class and hear comfortable, familiar doctrine. It is easy to answer the same questions we were asked last week, especially when we know the teacher expects it of us. (Sometimes I think “Gospel Indoctrination” is more accurate than “Gospel Doctrine”.) I also agree that it would be very interesting to explore these issues more fully.

  47. robf said

    BTW, as Ward Sunday School President, I did a little teacher training with the Relief Society Board last week. Very interesting to hear how one of the big problems seems to be women who are afraid to speak up or give prayers during lessons. Apparently there is a fair number of folks who have so much anxiety about saying the wrong thing, or something, that they won’t participate. We talked about how some of the problem may stem from bad teaching that is just looking for the “right” answer to a canned question. We spent over an hour talking about how to teach by using questions, using as a starting point this article from the January 2008 Ensign. Of course, I spent the whole hour asking questions of the Relief Society Board, and learned a ton about teaching in RS, including some of the unintended consequences of business as usual teaching styles.

  48. Jim F. said

    robf (#45), I couldn’t agree more.

  49. brianj said

    I think that Nathan’s point is that the Gospel Essentials class is set up with topics in mind whereas Gospel Doctrine is set up with specific chapters in mind. Yes, we are free in any class to go more or less wherever we like, but the structure of the Gospel Essentials class—with its focus on the most “basic” aspects of our faith—makes it that much easier (or more natural) to focus on a particular doctrine.

    I don’t think that anyone is arguing that the structure of the class dictates everything—just how the structure facilitates or emphasizes discussion of different things.

  50. robf said

    But even the GD classes, as outlined in the official manuals, really just cherry-pick a few themes from the specific chapters. One way to dig deeper would be to really go at those suggested themes with the same intensity you could go at a Gospel Essentials topic.

    Again, lesson manuals don’t teach themselves, let alone “facilitate or emphasize discussions.” That happens between teachers and class members–and that’s where most of the real problems are, not in the manuals or course schedules.

  51. kentm said

    Back to brianj and his original proposal for considering an 8 year rather than a 4 year cycle: While the idea of deeper exploration of the scriptures is appealing, I think the 8 year cycle is too long. What I would really like to see is the option of a second approach to the annual study material. With Book of Mormon, for example, why not have two different manuals with distinctly different approaches to teaching the material? That way a teacher can use one or both of the manuals in a given year, alternate them every cycle, or stick to their tried and true. And since the Church recycles the manuals every four years anyway, there would be relatively little capital expended on authoring the new manuals. It would effectively doubling the viable usefulness of each manual between revisions. It would give teachers the option to tailor their teaching methods to their class, and possibly challenge them to stretch their thinking (a dangerous thing?) about how to go about teaching the doctrines of the kingdom.

  52. kentm said

    oops! I mis-remembered what brianj outlined above. I was thinking it was a straight 8 year cycle rather than the floating cycle he proposed. Sorry. Oh, well. The foibles of age…

  53. robf said

    I don’t think we need more manuals. We need more teachers and students who take the scriptures seriously enough to actually read, study, and discuss them. Better teacher training can help. But we also need to change our expectations of students.

    Fairly recently, teacher improvement in the wards was delegated to Sunday School presidents. In the past, the ward Sunday School president has been almost a blow-off calling–just make sure all your teachers show up each week, and you’re good to go.

    Perhaps if more stakes and wards were to take teaching seriously, the stake and ward Sunday School presidencies could come up with some good ways to really improve the way we teach, and learn, at church. It isn’t rocket science, but it does mean having local leaders holding teachers and students both accountable for the quality of the teaching/learning experience.

    As a ward Sunday School president, who only obtained a real testimony of Sunday School after accepting this calling, perhaps I’m just preaching to myself here. I definitely have more I can do to help the teachers (and we’re all teachers, right?) here in my ward.

  54. joespencer said

    Wow, a lot of discussion here while I’ve been sick these past few days. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone.

    Unsurprisingly, I agree with robf’s comments all the way down: it is the teacher that makes the difference. Changing programs, schedules, manuals, etc., will not solve the problem: we have got to begin to teach the scriptures with power and authority—that is, with the Spirit. Two of the fundamental questions this blog has tried to raise from its inception are these: What does such teaching look like? and How can the importance of such teaching be communicated in such a way that teachers generally begin to do it?

    They remain, I think, the most important questions we can ask about teaching in the Church.

  55. brianj said

    rob and joe: here’s the problem that I have with what you are both saying: this post is about lesson schedules, not about teaching per se. I agree with what you’ve said about teaching, but saying it in this context comes across as though you think that changing the lesson schedule would have no effect whatsoever. And maybe that is exactly what you mean to say, in which case I just don’t understand how you can make that argument. The most dedicated and talented teacher in the Church is never going to be able to do the Book of Romans (or the doctrines contained therein) justice, for example, because we only get one week to discuss it. The best hope is to have one smashingly wonderful Romans lesson that serves as a springboard for individual study. And Joe, it’s your switch-a-roo with the seminary lesson schedule that prompted this post in the first place.

    Maybe I missed where someone argued that “Changing programs, schedules, manuals, etc., [would] solve the problem,” but I don’t make that argument. I completely agree that there are more important questions to ask about teaching in the Church–more pressing problems, graver concerns. Nevertheless, I am asking this question about how changes in the teaching schedule (and manuals that go along with it) could help, because those Big Problems with teaching don’t plague every single teacher.

  56. robf said

    Brian, fair ’nuff. I think Joe’s seminary lessons have shown that taking it more slowly can be very productive in a class situation. I also remember how Hugh Nibley would spend weeks and weeks just getting started on the PoGP, and how great those classes were. Could it be great to go more slowly through the scriptures as a GD class? Sure. But unless we change our approach to teaching and learning, rather than just the lesson schedule, I can’t help but wonder if a more extended lesson schedule as proposed might not just get us 3-4 lame lessons from Romans, rather than just one?

    I see this discussion as posing several interesting questions about teaching in the Church:

    1) The Manuals–do they really encourage us to dig as deeply as they should? To feast rather than snack?
    2) The Schedule–is it moving too fast for us to really prepare and savor a feast?

    To which I think we’re also trying to ask:
    3) Are the teachers really preparing a feast each week, or just a snack tray?
    4) Are the students bringing their own carefully prepared potluck contribution to the feast, or merely a snack tray? Are they even bringing anything? What do they expect?

    Tucked away in all of this is perhaps a hidden question:
    5) Why a schedule at all? Is church-wide correlation keeping us from really feasting? Is keeping the whole church on the same schedule keeping us from really following the Spirit? At least subconsciously encouraging us to see Sunday School as just another program for us to run, rather than a real scriptural ward feast?

    I’m not sure I can (or want to) really answer this last set of questions. Maybe that’s why I was focusing on the middle questions, where I think I can at least personally really have an impact. So sorry if I’m not fully engaging your thought experiment here. It’s not that they aren’t interesting questions. Perhaps I’m just hesitant to take too strong a position on things outside of my purview here.

  57. brianj said

    robf: thanks for sensing my frustration {smile}. I can see how we were talking past each other: I wrote the post with myself in mind (how can I change my schedule for my class to improve my teaching?), but you were thinking of the whole Church. I think the “confusion” is my fault.

    Now, tucked away in my original question is something perhaps arrogant: I think that I’m already a pretty good teacher, that I try to prepare a feast and not a snack, and that many of my class members come ready to feast (although few bring any potluck of their own to share). So in many ways the concerns that you and I share for the Church as a whole are not the same concerns that I have for myself and my class. Make sense?

    I like the questions you pose and how you group them—I also do not want to get into #5, except to say that on some level a schedule is good because it keeps teachers like me from overstaying my welcome on certain topics; if not for a schedule, I’d spend 10 years in Exodus and I know that would not be right. One more commment—“Sunday School as another program to run…” Ouch, that describes the problem well.

    “I can’t help but wonder if a more extended lesson schedule as proposed might not just get us 3-4 lame lessons from Romans, rather than just one?” Yes, I see your point. Well hey, if a schedule change would make no difference for most teachers but a big difference for a few, why not make the change? {smile}

  58. Jim F. said

    The lesson schedule is necessary, I think, to keep some people from getting bogged down, as brianj points out. It is also necessary to help those who are new–the vast majority of the Church nowadays–feel like what they are doing as a Sunday School teacher is a manageable job. Imagine the Madagascarese convert of one year called last week to teach the Gospel Doctrine class in a French ward. She or he needs a lot of help (and the ward is unlikely to have enough depth to give that help fully). The manual is there to help.

    (Besides, in July and August the fact that the French ward is on approximately the same lesson as wards in Utah makes the visiting American tourists feel at home, feel like they can pipe up and offer one and all advice about how things ought really to be run.)

  59. robf said

    …And then come home from Madagascar and testify to their ward that the Church is “the same” every where you go!

  60. Kim M. said

    Jim, you keep stating that the membership of the Church is primarily composed of converts–do you have some sort of documentation for that? (I fully believe you–it makes logical sense–but I’d be interested to see the statistics.)

  61. robf said

    Kim, in 1980 there were 4,639,822 members. In 2006 there were 12,868,606 members. We haven’t had that many babies in 26 years! We probably haven’t had as many first generation members (percentage wise) since the first decades of the restoration. And as far as raw numbers of new converts, we’ve never had this many before, period.

  62. Jim F. said

    Thanks, Rob. I wasn’t operating from knowledge, just from my impression, but it is nice to find out that the statistics back up my impression.

  63. Stacie said

    I just discovered this site and am glad to read the concerns about scripture study groups outside the family and church. I thought it was also discouraged. In fact, I always attended other denomination’s study groups (on the Bible) at various friend’s homes. I did this for years in NY. But I was never concerned about the “supposed” directive because I felt many split-off religions were formed by just people studying scriptures and then deciding its interpretation. And I have no problem in any Bishop monitoring such study groups. My only concern came when we met for Sunday School, and comments came that “this is too deep” or “let’s not discuss this or that”— well, when can we get answers or clarification if we can’t get them in Sunday School? That Sunday School time can be indispensable, especially to someone that is just learning about the gospel.

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