Between 2013 and 2015, the Church released eleven essays on historical and doctrinal issues that some members may be wrestling with. Topics ranged from “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” to “Mother in Heaven.”
Leading Saints asked our readers about their experience with the Gospel Topics Essays in the years since they have been released. 62% of readers expressed that the essays had either never been mentioned in their ward or that they didn’t know what they were.
Only 4% of readers said the essays were mentioned, “very often.” As leaders, we should be more familiar with the Gospel Topics Essays, and find ways to integrate them effectively into our wards and branches.
How Familiar Should Leaders Be With the Gospel Topics Essays?
As leaders should we be familiar with the controversial topics addressed in the Gospel Topics Essays, or would we be better focusing our attention only on less challenging or more faith promoting material?
As an individual, you can focus your gospel study as you see fit. But as leaders, we have a responsibility to those we lead to be prepared for the difficult questions they may have.
Consider a faithful member who stumbles across challenging materials and then approaches his or her leader for an answer. If the best we can do is scold them for looking at the materials, ask them to pray, or give them reassuring platitudes, they may mistakenly believe that there are no answers, or that the criticisms have more credibility than they do. As leaders we must have honest, straightforward answers to give.
Many leaders we spoke to felt reading the essays and studying the topics in more depth actually increased their testimony.
Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke to CES religious educators about the importance of using the Gospel Topics Essays. He explained:
Gone are the days when a student asks an honest question, and a teacher responded don’t worry about it. . . . It is important that you know the content in these [Gospel Topics] essays like you know the back of your hand.
How to Use the Gospel Topics Essays in Your Ward?
Once you become more familiar with the essays, you can begin to better integrate them into your wards and branches. As you ponder the best approaches, here are five ideas to consider.
1. Use them in CES Classes
With the more academic approach to the gospel in seminary and institute, seminary and institute are the ideal places to discuss the essays more often. Seminary can be a first introduction to many of the topics in the essays, while Institute classes can address some of the topics in more depth. One seminary teacher we spoke to said that students asked her about two of the topics in just the first three weeks of seminary. She was glad to have studied the material so she was ready to address the questions.
2. Use a Fifth Sunday Discussion
Since fifth Sundays are often used for a special or topical discussion, they may provide an ideal opportunity to introduce the Gospel Topic Essays in general or dive into one of the topics in particular. Consider the needs of your particular unit, and the diversity of members who will attend before deciding on how to approach the topic.
3. Focus on the Ward Council
Ensuring that all the leaders in your ward are familiar with the essays may a great first step. One bishop shared that they replaced the handbook training with Gospel Topics Essay training. Each week one council member would be assigned to read an essay and then share what they learned with the group. This approach may allow more of the ward to take advantage of the essays but in a way tailored for each individual auxiliary.
4. Don’t Overdo It
The Gospel Topics Essays are a wonderful, and as our survey showed, often underused resource. But that doesn’t mean they need to immediately overwhelm our worship. Most of the topics in the essays are not central to our worship. While they should certainly displace any inaccurate narratives, and better inform our discussions, they are supplementary. Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow, who led the efforts to produce the essays said, “I think there’s been a lot of interest within maybe a small percentage of church members but my view is most of the church really is not troubled, members are not troubled by these.”
5. Start from the Top
Whatever approach your ward or branch decides to take to the essays the leadership will set the tone. Wards and stakes will often use the essays more when members notice their leaders using them. Some members who know about the essays may be hesitant to bring them up if they’ve never heard their leaders discuss them. But when a leader asks the members of the ward to read and discuss the essays, the members of the ward will, it is amazing how many people will become interested and engaged.
How have you used the Gospel Topics Essays in your wards and branches? What tips do you have for making them more effective?