Sunday School: A Love/Hate Letter

When I tell people that there are 13 high school sophomores in my Sunday School class, they often say, “Isn’t that hard?” And it is. But not because of the dozen plus teenagers and their accompanying hormones, neuroses, and attitude. I adore each and every one of them, even if the room smells like a mash up of Axe body spray, Dove dry shampoo, and Clearasil. No. The hard part is the manual.

Every month there is a single theme, broken into 4-5 brief outlines to use as teaching guides. The topics are fine: the Godhead, the Restoration, Plan of Salvation. But the teaching outlines from week to week tend to bleed together so that you feel like you are giving a single lesson, 4 weeks in a row. For example, March’s theme is the Atonement. Here are the lessons:

  1. How can I use the words of living prophets and apostles to strengthen my faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ?
  2. What can the scriptures teach me about the Atonement of Jesus Christ?
  3. How can the Book of Mormon help me strengthen my faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ?
  4. How can relying on the Savior’s grace help me become a better teacher?
  5. How can I use comparisons to teach others about the Atonement?

As each lesson guide refers you to conference talks, EVERY lesson focuses on #1. And 2 and 3? Hair splitting at best. To complicate matters, after our class ends they go to the third hour where the lessons are based on the exact same theme.

Often I am tempted to just follow the manual and phone it in, or to chuck it out the window and do what I want. But I am too invested in these kids to find an easy out. My daughter is in the class. And since we’ve lived here forever, I know these kids well. Between playgroups, carpools, and various church callings, I am connected not just to the kids, but their families too. As a result I probably spend more time each week planning my lesson than I do planning meals. In addition to the emotional and social connection I feel to my class, I also know how dangerous it is to gloss over tricky topics like polygamy, temple/priesthood ban of black members, Heavenly Mother, women and the priesthood. Once upon a time teachers could avoid the sticky wickets and hope for the best. But kids today need only go on the interwebs (or watch certain South Park episodes) and it’s all there. So if a hard topic gets raised, we go there. And I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t have a good answer,” or “This is what works for me, but it may not work for you.” And I believe it’s harder to write people off who you know are invested in you.

Some of my lessons have bombed. Like no one said a word and avoided eye contact (Apostasy—I’m looking at you!). But from time to time things click. By far the most successful lesson I’ve taught was on the oh so thrilling topic of priesthood councils. I decided the best thing to do would be to act out a ward council. So I created 14 different roles, and gave each person either an action item that they had to make sure got discussed, or they had a piece of information that could solve one of the problems raised. This meant everyone had to make sure they had a turn to speak, and they had to listen to find out where their unique info would be needed. Before I handed out their roles, we talked about the different ways men and women communicate in meetings and how women are often at a disadvantage. I shared highlights from a wonderful Sheryl Sandberg’s article and we brainstormed ways that both men and women could try to ensure that more female voices are heard in LDS mixed gender meetings, especially since almost all of said meetings are run by a man. I backed this up with D&C 88:122 which warns against manterrupting and mainsplaining: “Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto [their] sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every [one] may have an equal privilege.”

Next I randomly handed out the 14 slips of paper.* It turned out we a fair number of role reversals—a female bishop and a male RS president—which made the kids laugh at first but once we got started everyone seemed invested in their roles. Being the feminist I am I purposely included items in the ward council that I want the kids to be aware of. For example, one hypothetical is that an almost 8 year old girl needs her baptism interview with the bishop, and another council member know that this girl is uncomfortable being alone in the room with a man. The class was stumped on how to address this, and so I let them know that it is not violating any Church policy to request a parent go with them to an interview and they should feel free to do so. They had no idea this was an option.

Another item I inserted was that the RS president needed to know how to help a sister who had recently gotten married and wanted to keep her last name. That cued the Ward Clerk to inform the group that he is in charge of the membership records and can take care of that. It may not be easy, but I want them all to know that it’s fine for women to keep their last name, that there’s a mechanism in place for it, and who they would need to speak to in order to handle it.

The kids threw themselves into the activity. Our fake Ward Clerk commented after anyone spoke, saying, “I’ll follow that up with an email!” And our Sunday School president was determined to get all the hall stragglers into their appropriate classes and we brainstormed hilarious solutions. I was so proud of them. They are smart and good and want to make the world (and, I believe, the Church) a better place. Some may do it in traditional ways, and some may forge different paths. But whatever they do, I want them to know that their Heavenly Parents love them. And I care enough about them to pour through the maddening manual every week and glean what I can. Then I’ll pray and ruminate until I come up with a lesson that they deserve and I can live with. And if that’s not a sign of love, I don’t know what is.

*Here are the 14 roles I used. Could be condensed for a smaller class.

Mock Ward Council

Agenda=something they must bring up in meeting

Items in parentheses are to be brought up when that info can solve a problem

Bishop– run the meeting, make sure concerns are heard, come to decisions on ward matters(Sister Melanie having Word of Wisdom issues, which you cannot tell anyone about)

1st Counselor-support bishop, try to get important issues addressed (kitchen freezer has rice cakes in it)

2nd Counselor-support bishop, try to get important issues addressed (Megan S, 7 does not want to be alone with men)

Ward Clerk-support and input as needed, keeps minutes, keeps up to date records of all ward members (Manages all the wards members records, including name and address changes)

Executive Secretary-support, input, arrange bishop schedule, follow up with people on assignments. Agenda: when meeting is done, let people know you will contact them regarding their responsibilities

Ward Mission Leader-address missionary effort. Agenda item: new convert has celiac –can’t eat bread. (Elders need ways to serve)

Relief Society President-represents the sisters in the ward, but also their families as well. Agenda: A husband in the ward, Brother Bob, has cancer and most likely can’t attend high adventure, but doesn’t want to talk to the YM president about it. Also, sister Rodrigez uses her own last name, not that of her husband Brother Belcher. Can this be handled?

Young Women’s President-represents the yw. Agenda: needs a new secretary, wants to call Sister Melanie. (find ways for yw to serve)

Primary President-represents the kids. Agenda: needs to get bishop to set up meeting with kids for baptismal interviews, especially Megan S. (Could use another male teacher for a class-knows John W well & thinks he’s great)

High Priest group Leader-represents the High Priest. (you are retired and kicked butt in scouts and would love to get involved)

Elders Quorum President-represents the Elders. Agenda: new family the Bortons moving in and need help unloading truck on Saturday

Young Men’s President-represents the YM. Agenda: a youth, John W, hates class and often skips, but seemed happy when helping out with primary on Mothers’ Day. Could he go help in Primary? (find ways for boys to serve)

Sunday School President-in charge of Sunday school classes. Agenda: how to get people to class and not to talk in hall

Activities Committee: plan and help execute ward events. Agenda: Need people to set up chairs for the pioneer day party.

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15 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    Beautiful. I so want you to teach my kids when they are teenagers!

  2. Dani Addante says:

    I love how you taught about ward councils! That was perfect and also very creative!

  3. Libby says:

    Oh, how I love this!

  4. Debs says:

    Just beautiful. Your love for your class members shines through in your post. Lovely xxx

  5. aly says:

    This was such a joy to read, Heather! So grateful for teachers in the Church like you who are willing to teach important life lessons to the kids in creative ways!

  6. Star says:

    Keep on truckin. This is fantastic, and something from this will resonate and they will think of it someday when they are in a ward council. My teens are 18, 17 and 13, and they would all do well to get this kind of lesson, even in a YSA ward. Especially in a YSA ward? (the 18 year old).

  7. Linda says:

    Brilliant, innovative and a great intro into the inner workings of a ward! So glad you’re doing what you’re doing!

  8. Leonard R says:

    Great stuff.

  9. Andrew R. says:

    Great idea, get them thinking.

    FYI – there is no ward activities committee, and therefore no chairperson to attend ward council. The ward council is, in effect, the activities committee. Ad hoc committees should be formed for each event and be chaired by a member of the ward council.

    • Heather says:

      In our ward there is still an Activities Committee with a chair who attends ward council. Not every ward goes strictly by the book.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Great news – maybe they’ll start ordaining Young Women Deacons 😉

        And reducing tithing to 5% would be good too.

        Book? There’s a book? Who needs a book?

  10. Olea says:

    Eye roll. The handbook is made for us, and not us for the handbook. I’m glad your ward uses the committees that work for them. We had an Activities Committee as well as a Service and FHE committee AND a Munch and Mingle Committee when I was in a YSA ward. Each had a male and female co-chair, so I enjoyed that our many committees give more opportunities for women to attend ward council.

    On a more on-topic note, I can’t stand the Come, Follow Me curriculum. I like to teach based on scripture, and often find conference talks to be too shallow to be the main focus of a 40-minute lesson. I absolutely sympathise with your determination to use the lesson plan and also give the kids what they need. It’s difficult, but so worth it when it all comes together.

  11. Kara says:

    It’s been a few years since I was teaching that age group, but I found the Come Follow Me manual excruciating for the reasons you explain. It was a relief to arrive at each new month!

    I did a ward council role play too, to much success. I love how you randomly assigned roles. 👍🏼

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