I would consider it unethical to advocate spiritual principles that I didn’t believe or hope to be true. At the same time, I recognize that when I teach at church, I am serving as a representative of the institution. People do not come to church to hear my personal opinions. It would be inappropriate for me to contradict the text I am supposed to teach.
Stepping down, either by seeking a substitute or by asking for a release from a calling, may be a justified strategy to avoid teaching material that rubs the wrong way, but I have never used this option. Frankly, I appreciate the opportunity to teach when the subject matter is sketchy because then I can frame the message to be less offensive.
Here are some of the more difficult lesson plans I have taught at church and the strategies I used to balance my personal, feminist ideals and my obligation to represent the institutional church.
Sustaining Church Leaders, the Free-Thinker Way
Preparing a lesson on sustaining church leaders required a great deal of introspection and prayer on my part. I had to evaluate what “sustaining church leaders” meant to me because I could not agree with some of George Albert Smith’s views offered in the text. Take this example:
There is only one pathway of safety for me in this day and that is to follow those whom the Lord has appointed to lead. I may have my own ideas and opinions, I may set up my own judgment with reference to things, but I know that when my judgment conflicts with the teachings of those that the Lord has given to us to point the way, I should change my course. –George Albert Smith Reference A
I could not with integrity teach women that they should ignore their own judgment in favor of following those with higher ecclesiastical status. I omitted this segment of the text rather than compromise my integrity by teaching a concept I did not believe. Fortunately, the instructions for teachers allow deletion:
Prayerfully select from the chapter those teachings that you feel will be most helpful to those you teach. Some chapters contain more material than you will be able to discuss during class time. Reference B
George Albert Smith also commented on a scripture story about the prophet Moses, which illustrated that sustaining church leaders means helping them. Smith and I agreed on that. I read more of the scriptural context and found another experience from the life of Moses demonstrating that one can sustain church leaders by assertively and kindly offering suggestions to improve church governance; I could certainly teach that! You can read my lesson about sustaining church leaders here: http://www.the-exponent.com/relief-society-lesson-6-sustaining-those-whom-the-lord-sustains/
Teaching Talks for Men to an All-Woman Audience
I like a challenge. Sometimes. Other times, I am exasperated when a challenge comes to me that seems completely unnecessary. Such was the case when I was assigned to teach about a talk from Priesthood Session utilizing sports and war metaphors to remind 19 year-old men of their missionary duty. Reference C Only men chose the talks and they required the same talks to be taught to both men and women, hence the inappropriate selection for an all-female class.
I had no 19-year-old men in my Relief Society class. I could tell the ladies to relay the information to the young men in their lives (i.e., nag) but that seemed much less effective than what the original author of the talk did when he spoke to the young men directly about the issue. Could the sports and war metaphors be used to illustrate some other gospel principle? Perhaps, but the metaphors were unlikely to resonate with my female audience.
The very end of the talk discussed senior missions. Since this was the only part of the talk applicable to women, I devoted the class to a discussion of senior missionary work, including a detailed exploration of the information on the topic at LDS.org, since two paragraphs of a talk is not enough to fill a class period. I utilized much of that information in this lesson at the Exponent: http://www.the-exponent.com/relief-society-lesson-13-doing-our-part-to-share-the-gospel/
Making Families Real
A lesson on family responsibilities was fraught for me because I do not believe in rigid gender roles and I think the phrase “preside in the home” needs to be retired. I focused on this statement from the text:
In the sacred responsibilities of parenthood, “fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners”. They should work together to provide for the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of the family. Reference D
My class brainstormed ways we could support our families spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically and then we watched three short films from LDS.org about real Mormon families: stepfamilies, single people, and older couples not currently raising children. Since these films are about real people, they do not necessarily illustrate someone’s ideal. I included the same films in this lesson for the Exponent: http://www.the-exponent.com/relief-society-lesson-9-sacred-family-relationships/