Recently I was reminded of Elder Holland’s April 1998 General Conference talk titled “A Teacher Come From God”. It is a talk that was given soon after President Hinckley expressed that each member of the Church needs a friend, a responsibility, and nourishment by the good word of God. I took the time to listen to the talk, which led to me reading the talk, which led to me reading the talk again. It’s an Elder Holland classic, but what talk of his isn’t an Elder Holland classic?
As I read this talk I was captivated by his phrasing, including, “Are we really nurturing our [members] in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calaries?”
The quote that was the biggest frying pan to the face for me was when he quoted President Kimball by saying,
“Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or a meeting, and… then return home having been largely [uninspired]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time … of stress, temptation, or crisis [in their life]. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous work to get members to come to Church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.”
Elder Holland then quotes President Hinckley when he said,
“Effective teaching is the very essence of leadership in the Church. Eternal life will come only as men and women are taught with such effectiveness that they change and discipline their lives. They cannot be coerced into righteousness or into heaven. They must be led, and that means teaching.”
As I studied this talk I saw it as an opportunity to share on Leading Saints and start a dialogue about some of the pitfalls many church units face when it comes to teaching. I can only speak from my own experience, but I have rarely been a student in a church classroom where it moved me spiritually on a consistent basis. I generally go to church for the ordinances, and I wish I could say, I stay for the incredible teaching.
So why does the teaching become mediocre in a ward? What new approaches have been tried that have changed the dynamic of the church classroom? I am sure a higher level of church teaching has been done consistently, and I hope others will share success stories so we can all benefit. Here are a few thoughts that came to the surface as I discussed Sunday teaching with other members and leaders.
Problem #1: Lack of Experienced Teachers
In basketball, many teams pride themselves on having a “deep bench”. What this means is that most players on their team, even the ones sitting at the end of the bench, can come into the game and make a difference. I’ve heard of wards with a “deep bench” where in one classroom you can have a half dozen former bishops, a few past stake presidents, and even a mission president or two. This is fantastic, but for most wards, it isn’t reality.
When a ward doesn’t have a “deep bench”, by the time teachers are needing to be called there isn’t much experience left. The bishopric, Relief Society presidency, ward and stake auxiliaries have sucked up all the teaching talent and what is left is good-hearted members that will really be stretched in a teaching calling, which leads to rookie teaching. No fault to the inexperienced teacher for doing their best. It’s simply the reality of the ward.
Many times it’s hard enough to find experienced teachers to place in the Sunday School presidency, let alone finding solid teachers to actually do the teaching. In Church history it seems like being the Sunday school president (formerly known as the Sunday School superintendent) carried more clout. Has it become an after-thought calling?
Fix #1: Leaders Should Teach More
What if every ward was required to swap the Sunday school president and the bishop? What difference would this have on the week-to-week teaching? Would the talents and capacity of the bishop, who is suddenly called as the Sunday School president, have a deeper impact on the ward compared to the bishop remaining the bishop? It would be a wise exercise as a ward leader to consider filling the spot of the Sunday School president before most significant leadership callings. This would be a great first step in improving teaching within the ward.
Great teachers are generally great leaders so it might be more difficult to keep them in the Sunday School presidency when they are being called to other callings that appear more significant. This doesn’t mean they can’t teach more often. It’s easy to consider the bishop or high priest group leader too busy to worry about teaching a gospel doctrine class as well. However, the reality is each individual should be making time for personal scripture study daily, they might as well be preparing a lesson. These busy leaders don’t need to be teaching gospel doctrine or their quorum lesson every week. They could teach once a month or possibly every 6-8 weeks.
When a Sunday School president is preparing the teaching schedule, they should really consider who are the best of the best teachers in the ward, and arrange for them to teach regularly, regardless of their main calling, set them apart as a teacher as well. Have a teacher committee of the most effective teachers in the ward! By getting great teachers in front of the class, it changes everything. People will begin to be nourished and they will have a reason to stay after sacrament meeting.
Problem #2: Lack of Training
Currently, the only requirement to be a teacher in the Church is worthiness. It doesn’t require a fantastic teaching degree, though, that is often helpful. Most teachers prepare with all their might and stand in front of the class with a prayer in their heart. Great blessings come to those teachers, but more training wouldn’t hurt.
Fix #2: Spread Out the Trainings and Find Your Teachers a Mentor
When a problem is identified, like the need for more training to improve teaching, it is a natural Mormon reflex to want to hold a meeting or teacher training class outside of the 3 hour block so it can be fixed. There isn’t anything wrong with this approach, but let me tell you a secret that isn’t a secret: AFTER THREE HOURS OF CHURCH, FEW WILL BE EXCITED FOR ANOTHER CLASS/MEETING TO ATTEND.
A training class using resources like Teaching, No Greater Call is definitely helpful, but Sunday school Presidents might consider holding it on a monthly or quarterly basis.
The best improvement comes from training on a person-to-person level. From my experience, most Sunday School presidents aren’t confident enough to give strong feedback because they may not be experienced teachers either (why Fix #1 is so important), and the teacher may not respect them as a teaching mentor. It might make more sense to find a mentor for each teacher that they would be open to talking with and taking counsel from. This might be the current bishop, a priesthood leader, or anyone they respect. After each class, the Sunday School president can arrange a quick 5 minute discussion at the front of the class with the mentor, the teacher, and the Sunday School president. They can talk about what worked, what didn’t work, and some ideas for future teaching.
Problem #3: Tradition
Because there is a lack of quality teachers and a lack of training, new teachers have nothing else to fall back on but tradition. “How ever the last teacher did it, that’s how I’m going to do it.” Most members have been attending Sunday School for decades. Every classroom is about the same. Full of folding chairs (padded if you are lucky), chalkboard at the front, not much room to do anything else. This structure facilitates a “lecture teaching style”, and that is usually what you get.
Fix #3: Do Something Different, NOW
Rumor has it, as early as 2017 the Church will be releasing a new Sunday School curriculum that will follow the pattern of the youth program, “Come, Follow Me”. This will be a refreshing change, but consider the changes you can make now that will facilitate better teaching. How can the set up of the room be changed to better facilitate a discussion rather than a lecture? What autonomy can be given to the Sunday School presidency or the instructors that would allow them to try something new? Let them ask forgiveness rather than permission. As I have mentioned before, what Sunday School needs is a flash mob.
Do something different that will retain the lesson in the minds of the ward members.
Problem #4: Lack of Understanding, Expectations, & Accountability
It’s an old joke in the Church that the Sunday school president’s only role is to ring the bell at the end of class. If they are really feeling ambitious, they can stop by the materials center and see if they need to order more chalk. This is, of course, in jest, but many Sunday School presidencies get set apart and then are never really sure what else they should be doing. They lack understanding, they don’t know what expectations they have because nobody is really holding them accountable.
After a deeper study of Handbook 2, most Sunday school presidents are shocked to learn their focus is to “improve learning and teaching at church and in [member’s] homes.” (Handbook 2 12.2.2.) As one gains an understanding of the responsibilities of a Sunday School president, it’s obvious why the leader needs to have great capacity, similar to a bishop. There is a lot weighing on the Sunday School program, and if a ward can get it right, many problems are minimized.
There are so many moving parts in a ward that the Sunday School can be overlooked. Sometimes we feels it’s par for the course if we can get the teacher to show up and be somewhat prepared. This is more evidence of the daunting role members play in this Church. The bishop is so busy with worrying about the youth, and other troubled families that by the end of the month he hasn’t thought twice about the Sunday School (this was my experience). This is understandable, but it leads to the Sunday School president not understanding his expectations because he is never held accountable.
Elder Holland said, “Most people don’t come to church looking merely for a few new gospel facts or to see old friends, though all of that is important. They come seeking a spiritual experience. They want peace. They want their faith fortified and their hope renewed. They want, in short, to be nourished by the good word of God, to be strengthened by the powers of heaven. Those of us who are called upon to speak or teach or lead have an obligation to help provide that, as best we possibly can.”
Fix #4 Prioritize the Call of Teaching and Restore Sunday School Respect
If a busy bishop reads the paragraphs under Problem #4 it might push them over the edge. It can be discouraging to be a leader in this Church when there is so much on your plate even if you are an effective deligator. My encouragement would be to start with baby steps; small changes that will have an impact overtime.
The first baby step a leader could make is set a regular appointment with the Sunday School president (monthly or weekly). It doesn’t have to be a long appointment, but give the Sunday School president a chance to understand what needs to change with teaching at church and in the home.
Also consider who your Sunday School president is. Did you select from priesthood holders after you had chosen the bishopric counselors, high priest group leader, elders quorum president, high councilor, ward mission leader? Why not select the Sunday School president long before any other auxiliary leader. For 6 months, try treating the Sunday School as the most important auxiliary in the ward. Create a ward Sunday School plan to go along with the ward mission plan. Change the culture of the ward to a teaching and learning culture. Remember, nothing is more motivating than understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again, I’m the student, not the guru. Where do I have it wrong? What am I not considering? I learn more from your comments and feedback than I do researching for an article like this. Share your perspective below and lets see what deeper truths we can find.