When Teacher and Text Aren’t on the Same Page

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

Moses and AaronGeorge 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/

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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10 Responses

  1. Naismith says:

    “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.”

    That is just wrong, and is not churchwide practice. In our ward, under various bishops, yes the bishop officially sent the list out, but the RS was charged with picking half the talks and were never overruled.

    Have you asked your RS president what the procedure is in your ward, and has she requested such input? Are you sure they are all picked by men? In choosing, I always looked at the priesthood lessons first, because I figure the women have heard all the other talks already.

    • April says:

      In our stake, the high council chooses the talks studied for all RS and priesthood classes. My RS president explained this to me when I was assigned this talk.

    • Em says:

      You are fortunate to live in a ward where the policy is more inclusive, but your case is definitely not universal. While it is nice to introduce talks the sisters may not have heard because they were in priesthood session, I wonder if your male counterparts are using the same logic and choosing talks from the Relief Society broadcast? Or if those talks are even eligible? I have not been in RS for quite a while because of my calling in an auxiliary so I don’t really know how it has been working recently.

      • April says:

        Here is the official policy:

        Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society lessons on fourth Sundays will be devoted to “Teachings for Our Time.” Each lesson can be prepared from one or more talks given in the most recent general conference (see chart below). Stake and district presidents may choose which talks should be used, or they may assign this responsibility to bishops and branch presidents. Leaders emphasize the value of Melchizedek Priesthood brethren and Relief Society sisters studying the same talks on the same Sundays.

        So it appears the the Relief Society broadcast talks are not eligible, because they are not technically part of general conference. Also, it appears that it is official policy that only men choose the talks, and that female classes are expected to learn from the same talks men learn from. So, Naismith’s ward chose to take a more inclusive route in allowing women to choose some of the talks, but they were not following church policy, which gives only men this opportunity.


      • Naismith says:

        I do not know how widespread the practice is, but what our stake does is absolutely within the church guidelines. A bishop should not be wasting his time doing anything that could be delegated to someone else, as well as issues of inclusion and counseling with councils.

        If I lived in a stake like that, I would definitely bring it up the next time I had an interview with the stake presidency.

        And sorry to have threadjacked, because the OP general comments were well worth considering.

        But the attitude I find here is often that the church is run by an Old Testament style patriarchy who cling to their power and dismiss women as unimportant. My actual church experience is that the church is run through a system of servant leadership, where men are conduits through which priesthood power flows, and their job is to serve and support all.

      • MKOH says:

        Our Stake Presidency chooses to select the General Conference talks to be used for 4th Sundays themselves. Every time I have a temple recommend interview with one of them I tell them how much it would mean for women in our stake to have one of the six talks chosen be from a woman. They always tell me that they’re not going to do that. There’s obviously going to be wide variation in how this plays out because it’s completely up to the Stake Presidency who chooses the talks.

  2. Ziff says:

    I love your strategizing, April! Great solutions to thorny topics. I like that you point out that even the manual says we can pick and choose from what’s in there.

  3. JrL says:

    I suspect I would have enjoyed–and learned from–the topics you chose. And you are absolutely right that the lessons do not require that teachers make any effort to cover all aspects of the material. But I’d focus on a sentence you quote, but then don’t discuss–a sentence that seems to be the most important in lesson preparation: “Prayerfully select from the chapter those teachings that you feel will be most helpful to those you teach.” I wouldn’t want to encourage you to take up topics that you feel you cannot, in good consience, teach. But shouldn’t the starting point be the needs of the class? Just as the starting point for planning an activity is the needs of the members (or others) the activity is intended to serve (I like the process outined here: http://www.lds.org/youth/activities?lang=eng: ). I suppose you might find that a “teaching … most helpful to those you teach” is one that you feel you cannot teach. But isn’t the solution then to ask someone else to teach that part of the lesson? (Which is often a good idea regardless.) But I suspect that most often the Spirit will guide your thoughts about the needs of the class toward a need that you are particularly qualified (or, with effort and prayer may become qualified) to address.

  4. Mike C says:

    April, loved your post! I thought a lot about this when I started teaching early morning seminary post-faith transition. I was worried about representing the institution appropriately when I didn’t agree with some of the teachings.

    What I’ve found is that it is easier than I thought. Like you model here, there is so much I agree with and so little time that it is usually easy to focus on the things I’m on board with.

    The other thing I’ve discovered is how much our own teachings contradict one another. For example, it is not hard to find quotes from other church leaders that contradict Pres. Smith’s obedience quote. Similarly, there is tons of self-contradictory stuff in the Book of Mormon. This has given me more confidence in teaching things that I actually believe, since they are almost always supported by some strains of Mormonism.

  1. November 1, 2015

    […] When Teacher And Text Aren’t On The Same Page Planning a lesson when the manual doesn’t resonate with you… […]

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