Terry Lloyd works in the financial services industry and has taught in a wide variety of professional and Church settings, including early morning seminary, Sunday School, primary, and priesthood quorums.
As teachers, we are stewards entrusted with helping the people in our meetings draw closer to the Savior. Particularly with a renewed emphasis on discussions (and not lessons) in these meetings, good discussion techniques are even more important to ensure the people are being spiritually fed and helped in their efforts to live the gospel more fully. These tools can be developed by anyone who makes the effort.
In preparing for and leading discussions, there should be a relentless focus on the application of the concepts to daily living. Elder Holland called this the “Therefore, what?” question for each lesson and President Oaks described it this way:
“In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”
Below are some methods to help us make our discussions and meetings more relevant to living the gospel.
Some Basics – Teaching in the Savior’s Way
The “Teaching in the Savior’s Way” program is full of simple, practical guidance for teaching in any gospel setting. Just two of those principles applicable for meetings are:
- Love Those You Teach
- Teach by the Spirit
Some easy ways to love the people in the meetings and classes is to pray for them by name and think about them while preparing for the discussion. (In addition to his personal prayers about them, one primary teacher I know regularly puts the names of the children in his class on the temple prayer roll.)
One tool to help invite the Spirit into the room is simply to ask for it to be present during the discussion. The offer of “ask and ye shall receive” is one of the most common in scripture. If any discussion leader sincerely asks for that help she has a right to expect that help. The discussion leader must do his part, of course, but the most important part—the presence of the Spirit—can be acquired if we ask. None of us is perfect but the Father recognizes this and will compensate for our limits.
Practical Helps for Making Discussions Effective
There are a variety of ways to keep the discussion focused on how the material applies in our daily lives. Here are a few that can be particularly effective:
- Use a printed handout even if it is only the main topics and possible applications in the lives of the people in the room. That outline may only have five or six lines of text but it visually reinforces the key points and how we can apply those principles in daily life. Consider putting in a section on the outline for the class members to write down their impressions and ideas of how to apply the concepts. I often put in a “Therefore, what” line near the end. Other people call these “action items,” “take-aways,” or “to-dos.”
- Write the main principle or doctrine on the board (or projected on a screen). If the discussion starts to get off track simply point to that item (for example, “How do I get the Spirit more fully in my life?”) and direct the discussion back to that central question.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. If people are thinking about the question give them some time, perhaps rephrasing the question slightly to help their contemplation.
- Eliminate “gotcha” questions that could embarrass people. Because spiritual impressions are closer to feelings than thoughts, ask how a certain verse or quote makes someone feel.
- Whenever possible, use the scriptures to respond to questions and direct the discussion. The Savior set this example in His personal ministry citing to the scriptures and expounding on them.
- Anticipate questions and distractions that might come up and how you will handle them.
- Let the Spirit guide. Sometimes the best insights come from the back row and you don’t have to cover every point in the outline.
- Imitate the good teachers by “stealing” their techniques. This includes thought-provoking questions you have been contemplating during the week as you prepare for the meeting or class. The Savior is the best example, but there are others around us.
Handling Difficult Situations (and People)
We all face difficult situations and questions in our meetings. Some people in the room can offer challenges to effective discussions. When problems arise, there are graceful ways to steer the discussion back to spiritually feeding the people in the room. Here are some ways to make sure we’re getting to “therefore, what?” in the meetings:
- Acknowledge the comment by simply saying “thank you” and move on to the next point, scripture block, etc. You are not obligated to address every thought that comes up.
- Acknowledge the person even if only to say “thank you” or “a good question, I wish we had more time to discuss that.”
- Blame the clock. For example, “Sister Jones, we would love to hear more about taking your grandkids to Nauvoo, but unfortunately, we don’t have time here. Maybe you can tell some of us more after class.”
- If someone asks a hard question (doctrinal, historical, or other) and you don’t know the answer, simply say, “I don’t know.” It’s possible no one else knows the answer but more importantly, these questions (e.g., which specific animals were on Noah’s ark) often don’t have practical application in living the gospel today. In that specific case, consider something like “I’ve often thought about that one myself but I don’t know,” or “An interesting question. What is a situation in our lives today that makes us like Noah? Are we being asked to do things differently than the world in preparing ourselves? What are some of those things?”
- Some of these distractions have been described as getting caught up in “the thick of thin things.” For example, while Chiasmus and the Dead Sea Scrolls may be fascinating to some of us, discussing any topic in class must ultimately lead us back to the Savior, His Atonement, and how we can become better disciples. Sunday School is not an “academic symposium” but a “clinical” program where we refine the tools of living the gospel daily. The scriptures are not a history book but a series of case studies from which we learn principles to apply in our lives today. There is (to some of us) some interesting research on the weapons of war in the Book of Mormon, but in the class, the question we need to answer is, “What weapons (or tools) can I use in my daily spiritual battles? What is the breastplate of righteousness in my spiritual warfare?”
- Direct their energy. Some people want to “be heard” or contribute (or just show how well informed they are). You can “seed” next Sunday’s discussion and make these people allies—instead of antagonists—by giving them some specific material (a conference talk, a section of the discussion outline, etc.) to review before class and ask them to summarize it when called upon. This can be beneficial for them and the class. Texts and emails are also an easy way to have class members be thinking about the material during the week before the meeting.
- Another “tactic” is to solicit help from others in the room to stay on track. This can be done in advance (“Sister Cortes, if we get off topic, I will look to you to help steer us back”) or in the room (“Brother Long, let’s go back to [our topic]. How have you seen people apply this principle [tithing, ministering, Sabbath observance] in their lives?”).
- Tactfully say something like “Please hold that thought until we get to it in a few minutes,” or “Let’s talk about your specific question after class; I’m interested in your perspective.”
Don’t Hide Your Light
For some of us, these meetings may be the only opportunity during the week to feel the Spirit and unconditional love. Information, even gospel knowledge, can be acquired from a book or online but the calm assurance of the truthfulness of the teachings is harder to find. Our meetings are a rare opportunity to feel the Spirit and recommit to living the gospel. Elder Holland gave this advice,
As President J. Reuben Clark Jr. once said, “Never let your faith be difficult to detect.” May I repeat that? “Never let your faith be difficult to detect.” Never sow seeds of doubt. Avoid self-serving performance and vanity. Don’t try to dazzle everyone with how brilliant you are. Dazzle them with how brilliant the gospel is. Don’t worry about the location of the lost tribes or the Three Nephites. Worry a little more about the location of your student, what’s going on in his heart, what’s going on in her soul, the hunger, sometimes the near-desperate spiritual needs of our people. Teach them. And, above all, testify to them. Love them. Bear your witness from the depths of your soul. It will be the most important thing you say to them in the entire hour, and it may save someone’s spiritual life.”
No discussion, like no one of us, is perfect. In the October 2017 conference, Elder Holland reminded us that we can become perfect “eventually” if we steadily, continually make improvements.
The quality of our discussions can also improve from week-to-week and the teachings can sink deep into the hearts of everyone there. When introducing the initiative for “Teaching in the Savior’s Way”, Elder Holland, himself a master teacher, gave us this simple promise:
“You can do this.”
Like perfecting our lives, consistent attention to the fundamentals will improve us as discussion leaders. Everyone can develop the basic skills to make the discussions spiritually productive for the people in the room.
Gene R. Cook: Teaching by the Spirit
Jeffrey R. Holland: “A Teacher Come from God”
Vaughn J. Featherstone: “The Impact Teacher”
Dallin H. Oaks: “The Challenge to Become”
Jeffrey R. Holland: “Teaching, Preaching, Healing”
Jeffrey R. Holland: “Therefore, What?”
William D. Oswald: “Gospel Teaching—Our Most Important Calling”
Dallin H. Oaks: “Gospel Teaching”
Dallin H. Oaks: “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit”
Bruce R. McConkie: “The Teacher’s Divine Commission”
David M. McConkie: “Gospel Learning and Teaching”
David M. McConkie: “Teaching with the Power and Authority of God”
Brian Gudmundson: “Questions, the Heart of Learning and Teaching”
Scott H. Knecht: “Asking the Right Questions in the Right Way”
Dustin West:, “Conducting a Well-Tuned Group Discussion”
Come Follow Me:, “First Sunday Council meetings:
A very well kept “secret” is other resources collected in the CES materials, many of which can be used in most settings.
Every year the Church hosts a symposium for CES instructors (seminary, institute, religion). Typically they broadcast one or two key presentations. They are excellent and most go beyond techniques to giving a spiritual shot of adrenaline (and an example of teaching by the Spirit). You will find the 2018’s edition helpful as well.