How Do You Teach Lessons When You Don’t Agree With Them?

I currently teach Relief Society in my ward. It’s possibly the best calling in the church. It’s teaching, which is usually fun. It involves nothing administrative and no meetings. You don’t have to call people on the phone (a dreaded task which I will go to great lengths to avoid). And it’s only once a month. Really, I have it pretty good.

However, sometimes this calling seriously stresses me out. How do I teach a lesson on following the prophet, or the priesthood (both topics I’ve had to do in recent months, and which I’ve found particularly challenging)? And even when it comes to less potentially controversial material, I often find myself seriously disagreeing with what the manual has to say. And often it’s not just an issue of such-and-such a quote that I can’t take seriously;  it’s the entire framework being conveyed. But the assumption behind these manuals–which, quite frankly, include some pretty crazy statements–is that you agree with what’s being said; the challenge is simply to convey it effectively.

In other contexts, it would be simpler. If I were writing a blog post on such a lesson, I would simply say what I think and freely explain why I take issue with certain assertions. If I were in an academic setting, I would see my job as something along the lines of encouraging students to think critically about the text. But a church class falls into a category of its own (one might say, if one were to be snarky, that it has the form of a class, but denies the power thereof.)

And yet I do actually think church should be different than an academic setting. I respect that it’s a devotional context, and its aims are different. And no matter how much I might take issue with certain things, I really don’t see teaching RS as the appropriate time or place to extensively articulate my disagreements.On the other hand, I won’t teach things I don’t actually believe. That’s a boundary I have to maintain for my own integrity.

One of the knotty issues here is that teaching at church has a personal element that’s not necessarily there in academic settings. You’re expected not just to teach, but to some extent, to testify. To affirm your commitment to these doctrines. I think the personal element is a good thing, a powerful one, a way of moving us away from completely abstracting our faith out of the realm of lived experience. But it can also make things a lot more complicated.

What I generally do is read the manual and then try to come up with questions that I think are interesting about that topic–which may or may not be tied terribly closely to what the manual is doing. And it seems to work well enough; at least, no one in my ward has yet called me to repentance for my rather minimal use of the manual, and they usually have a lot to say.

But I still struggle to find a balance between respecting the context I’m in, and at the same time wanting to be honest about my beliefs. By that I don’t mean airing all my reservations about various church doctrines  in the name of honesty–I just mean that I don’t want to feel like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. I do come back to the fact that my ward called me to teach knowing perfectly well where I’m coming from, and if they wanted someone more orthodox, they could have picked someone else. And in the end, I can only teach as me–somewhat irreverent, overly academic, prone to theological angst.

And when I start to worry too much, I remind myself that most people are probably only half-paying attention and half-wondering when this meeting will be over already so they can go home and eat lunch.


  1. I try to find the common ground: usually my own feelings and the lesson aren’t completely disjoint, so I find the things I can honestly stand behind, and start from there.

    Sometimes I’ll flat out state I don’t understand a particular idea or principle and ask the class to explain it to me. I think the third hour of church is supposed to be pretty free-form and individualized anyway, so I don’t mind asking questions that get the class to fill the time instead of just listening to me ramble on.

  2. This is tough. I’m fortunate, perhaps, that my issues are few and such that there’s rarely a public context that would bring them out.

    That said, I’ve had two such occasions in the last year. One was a lesson, the other a talk. With the lesson, I was able to structure and frame it in such a way that I never had to teach anything I wasn’t comfortable with. With the talk, I advised the counselor in the Bishopric who asked that my views on the topic were not typical and I had some issues with much of Church rhetoric on it. He said, in essence, it’s your talk, do the best you can.

    If I were a regular teacher and had this problem, I think I’d either ask for another calling or find what lessons I *could* teach comfortably, and swap weeks with someone else.

    I’m not above gently challenging the status quo in a lesson or talk, particularly when the common view is more traditional than scriptural/doctrinal, I have good support, and it’s constructively done. But I always do so in a way that builds up, instead of playing devil’s advocate or being derisive.

  3. I hit this wall years ago the last time I had a calling — I was a Sunday School teacher and as part of my efforts to prepare myself to teach, I began noticing how much conflicting information and whitewashing was in the manual. I tried working around the sticky claims and finessing the material I was supposed to teach so that I wasn’t contradicting it but was still managing to tell the truth.

    Eventually it got to me and I asked the bishop to release me. He wanted to know why, as he said I was a popular teacher and seemed to really care about engaging people with the gospel. I was honest; I told him that I was too concerned about the false information and misrepresentations that the lesson plans perpetuated, and I felt too conflicted to continue in my role. The bishop honoured my request, but he also never asked me to do anything else. Although the ward was small, I was never again asked to speak in Sacrament meeting, give a prayer, or any other situation that would have me speak to the congregation as a whole.

  4. Whether you believe what the manual seems to be espousing or you believe that it falls woefully short of accurately addressing important issues, good teaching in church isn’t about persuading people to believe one particular take on the gospel, and it certainly isn’t about testifying about things you don’t think are right.

    Good church teaching is about laying out a few clear veracities and asking questions to enable your students to articulate their thoughts and insights.

    If you go in with an agenda to teach what the manual says verbatim, you will fall short. If you go in with an agenda to contradict or qualify what the manual says you will also fall short.

    I am convinced that participants in an adult class at church learn best when they are given time to think about something profound, ponder questions, listen to the Holy Spirit, attempt to articulate the insights that come either verbally or in writing, ask questions that arise in their minds, and listen with respect to the insights of others.

    So, I wouldn’t anguish over whether or not you totally agree with the manual at all. Find the elements that ring true, lay those out, ask good questions and let the Holy Ghost teach while you manage the classroom in a way that allows the sisters to teach each other. Students always remember what they or their friend says in class much longer than they remember what the teacher said.

    Not all of them will arrive at the same conclusions you do. Each sister learns different things at different times. As a teacher you are in a particularly good position to capture what elements of truth might be in any one student’s response and encourage other participants’ response to those pieces of their comments.

    So I think your approach of coming up with questions is a fine idea.

    The trickiest part of teaching for me when I have a subject I’m not particularly keen on is the process of allowing my understanding to guide my lesson preparation without allowing my strong opposition to the parts I disagree with to take over and run the show.

    But then I remember how much I dislike it when a teacher who thinks quite differently than I do does that in a class where I’m a student. That helps me back off.

  5. .

    Keep in mind that when people leave our ward, you will have given them an understanding of how you feel in wards they consider normal.

    Also, most of the feedback I hear from your lessons is positive. Or, at the very least, exciting. People I like like your class. That’s good, right?

    And, in passing, we hardly mess with the manual at all in EQ also. So you’re in solid wardly tradition there.

  6. In a purely theoretical discussion, I’d probably get all high and mighty and say that it was the teacher’s duty to get with the program, change her thinking, and learn to submit to whatever principle was under discussion — I mean, in theory, shouldn’t the idea be that religion shapes our lives and opinions, not that our opinions shape religion?

    But I realize that real life isn’t just theory, and that this is a far harder question than church members who haven’t faced it would believe.

    It’s not quite the same thing, but close enough, when our stake president chose all the raise-righteous-children talks from April conference to use for the Teachings for our Times lessons, which I had been teaching. Now, I believe children are important and that family life is valuable. But I simply couldn’t teach those lessons, at least not month after month. I had no credibility. I couldn’t testify to any of it. I couldn’t bring myself to pretend to be enthusiastic about any of it. So I had to let it be known that I would welcome release.

    Your situation is more complex. I don’t know what I would do, but I look forward to hearing how you resolve it, one way or another.

  7. I tend to do a lot of research and teach what I do know. I do read the manual (well mostly), but I rarely open it in a classroom setting. I find myself making a lot of comments from blogs, or business books I read for work, or whatever comes to mind.

    However, It isn’t normally because I feel any dissonance with the material, so much as it is that I like to teach things I am interested in, and normally, I find the manuals uninteresting.

  8. i love teaching in church, and miss it a lot. i only taught relief society once, and it was on a topic i love, but i taught a lot of sunday school on a lot of topics i didn’t love, or at least that’s how they were presented in the manual. most recently i taught old testament, which is probably my favorite book of scripture. often the manual would skip entire sections of the old testament that were my favorite, and so i often opted to teach those instead of the tired old lessons everyone’s heard a million times (joseph fleeing potipher’s wife, for example).

    you say you want to teach what you believe, to testify, to invite faith– all these things make for a good lesson. and the best lessons, in any context, are taught with love. no matter the topic or what the manual does or doesn’t say, i look for something i love, even if it’s just one sentence, and jump off from there. some lessons look pretty creative and tangental by the time i’m done, but can definitely say i’ve never taught anything i didn’t believe (and trust me, i don’t believe everything written in those manuals!), and i’ve never had any complaints, either. more often than not, class members have told me it was the best lesson they’ve ever had. i’d attribute such a compliment to love.

  9. I agree a lot with what MB said. I see my job as a teacher as having to do more with getting the members of the class to interact with the material — think about it, apply it, even criticize it if they want — rather than telling people what I think. So asking questions is good.

    I also like what Isobel said. In most lessons you can find something that resonates with you, so pick up on that. I’ve often done that this year when teaching the Old Testament — not because I disagreed with the manual, but because I find that certain themes are repeated too often, and the Old Testament is so much richer than that. Every once in a while someone in the class tells me that he/she had never known that such-and-such was in scripture, or that it was interesting to think about something in an unfamiliar way. When that happens, I feel I’ve done my job (or at least part of it).

  10. Interesting thoughts, Lynnette. I definitely belong to the “pick and emphasize parts you agree with” camp, but then the last time I taught regularly, it was teachings for our time. With typically 2-3 talks to choose from, there was lots of material within which to find stuff that didn’t make me feel false to present.

    What I generally do is read the manual and then try to come up with questions that I think are interesting about that topic–which may or may not be tied terribly closely to what the manual is doing.

    I really like this approach. I’m sure it won’t please everyone, but I suspect that if you deviate from the manual in a way that’s engaging, people will probably be forgiving (as it sounds like they have been).


    Sometimes I’ll flat out state I don’t understand a particular idea or principle and ask the class to explain it to me.

    This sounds like a really good idea too.

  11. Lynnette, if I could come to your classes I would be persuaded to attend Relief Society. I think that asking new questions (not the same ones repeated in the lesson manuals) is a crucial process of spiritual growth.

  12. Thanks for all your comments and ideas. (And especially for such thoughtful replies, rather than lectures on why I just need to appreciate the virtues of the manual.) Reading this has gotten me thinking about what we understand to be the purpose of our church classes. I tend to agree with those who’ve made the point that the role of a teacher in a church setting is more to facilitate engagement of the material by class members than to opine at great length on the subject at hand. (Which isn’t to say I’ve never found myself doing the latter . . .)

    And yet–raising questions isn’t a neutral activity; the questions you ask, the way in which you frame a discussion, inevitably reveals a lot about your biases. I don’t think that’s a bad thing–just something to be aware of. For example, in a lesson on following the prophet, you might ask, “how has following the prophet blessed your life?” Or you might ask “what do you do when what the prophet is teaching seems to contradict your conscience?” Those are going to lead to rather different discussions. I guess what I’m saying is that I might imagine that I’m ducking this problem by focusing on questions, but I’m not entirely avoiding it. I wouldn’t ever ask a question with the intent to undermine faith (I hope!), but I will admit that I have a preference for questions that don’t have clear answers, and I dislike the faith-promoting style questions which the manual so loves.

    In general, I think I do what several people have mentioned and do my best to find things that resonate with me and run with them. And usually that’s doable. I actually started this post back in July, after having to teach on the priesthood and finding it a really difficult experience and wondering about the whole enterprise. But fortunately it’s not that challenging every month. There are a couple of topics I simply couldn’t do, and would ask to trade–Ardis, I’d have bailed out on the child-raising lessons, too! I’d also have a very difficult time with anything on the temple, or the patriarchal order. There are probably a few other topics I just couldn’t do, but I seem to be able to muddle through the rest (though by the end of last year, I thought I might go crazy if I had to do one more Joseph Smith Was a Prophet and All These People Testify of Him! lesson, as the manual seemed to repeat that lesson for several months.) But the truth is that I’d have to be pretty desperate to ask to be released because, as I said–it’s possibly the best calling in the church.

    cchrissy, thanks!. Th, that’s good to hear, because I’m sure the people you like are quality people. 🙂 And Fideline, I’d love to have you in attendance.

  13. A few more thoughts. We work hard in the church to keep things standardized. We have the same lessons from the same manual taught the same weeks–the everywhere you go, the church is the same idea. But of course that’s not true, for a number of reasons. One of which is that the teacher is a huge variable. One way of thinking about that is to say, the material which the One True Correlation Committee has selected is what’s important, and the teacher variability is something to be reduced as much as possible. I’m actually not totally unsympathetic to some of the motivations behind this–I think anyone who’s experienced something like an RS lesson that turned out to be on the virtues of the Tea Party, or a Sunday School lesson devoted to locating Kolob, can appreciate why encouraging people to stick to the topic is not a bad idea.

    But at the same time, the variability among teachers is what is potentially powerful, because it’s what makes the material engaging and relevant, as opposed to something dry being read in a robotic fashion. I know I always appreciate it when people teach lessons like a real human being, when they talk from a place of who they are (rather than how they might imagine an ideal church member). Which is why I’d be hesitant to prescribe an ideal format. While as I said, I tend to think about classes in terms of facilitating discussion, I don’t want to downplay the value of conveying information, because I think there are times when that’s a useful way of engaging the material (though again, ideally not done in a robot-like, disengaged from actual life fashion). I might also see some differences here between the second and third hours, in terms of their intended purpose, though that’s another discussion.

    Maybe what I’m getting at is that the potential risk of having real live teachers who bring in their experiences and personality and opinions is that people will say things that sound apostate or offensive or cause trouble. But the risk of censuring people for bringing into much personal stuff is that no one will learn anything, as we mind-numbingly ask the same questions and give the same answers every week. I do think there’s a genuine tension there, between incorporating a variety of perspectives and experience, and maintaining some kind of standard teachings (so that church is more than the Gospel According to What Sister Lynnette Space Cadet Is Thinking About Today.) Though my experience is that as a church, we’re rather more prone to err in the direction of being too mind-numbing. And stories like Molly’s make me sad.

  14. I am also a RS teacher. I teach the topic, not the lesson.

    So, for example, this last Sunday, I taught on the topic “Faith in Jesus Christ” and used supporting quotes from the lesson of that title where appropriate in my lesson/discussion. I figure some people actually read the lesson, and they will get the correlated version, but most people have no idea that I am omitting large (boring) or troubling passages (mostly just boring).

    With the Gospel Principles manual, this has been very easy. The topics are rich, but the lessons as written are too simplistic for many in the audience to maintain engagement. So my liberal additions are welcomed. The Prophet manuals were harder to deal with, I thought.

    When in doubt, when you really feel you have nothing “appropriate” to sincerely share on a certain point, ask a question that will illicit discussion about it, rather than presenting unorthodox material yourself.

    I have received universally positive feedback with my approach, btw. Not one person has expressed to me or the presidency a concern that I stray from the manual. Instead, people have been very complimentary–especially those who have actually read the lessons.

  15. Like ESO, I teach the topic more than the specific lesson plan. I look the lesson over, but I almost always craft my own lessons. This is usually less because of substantive disagreement with the content than with my disagreement with the pedagogy implicit in the manuals. I hate the standard Mormon catechism lesson style, and I won’t do that. When I ask questions, they’re genuine questions, I’m not trying to elicit obvious information from the text the way you might with a five-year old. (This is of more than theoretical interest to me, as I just received a second-hour teaching calling, so I’m going to be getting back into the teaching saddle.)

    Also, your last paragraph isn’t just a joke. No one else is likely to have read the manual or particularly care. It sounds to me as though your lessons are great, and you need to cut yourself some slack and not obsess over the minutiae of the manuals so much. In other words, you should pretend your teaching the High Priests Group rather than Relief Society. At least in my HPG, it’s pretty much anything goes.

  16. I find it perfectly acceptable as a teacher to admit disagreement and then explain why. We really shouldn’t be teaching and testifying of doctrine if we ourselves feel in our hearts it is not true. Our manuals may contain the “official” stance of the church, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the stance is “true”. I do know that the correlation process in the church is a staggering endeavor and just about impossible to get everyone in agrrement with presentation, theory, etc. This is manifest in coupling all of our basic principles as found on the various web sites the church maintains along with official publications and manuals. Finding consistancy on some materials is about impossible and shows that we still have a lot of work to be done in correcting bad doctrines, misleading doctrines, and thus perfecting our doctrine.

    One of the reasons we go to church is to learn the truth and become more advanced in “theory” and principle of the gospel. We have to realize that our doctrine is still just a theory that needs some changes in order to become perfected.

  17. Your title question is one I’ve pondered lately as I’ve sat in Sunday School listening to the poor instructor try to synthisize the mess that is much of the Old Testament with the lesson manual. She does a wonderful job, but it ain’t easy. For a church that has the out of “we believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly”, our instruction manual are often so ultraliteral that it would make a Southern Baptist embarrassed. Some of it is just silly,like the numbers gone wild (i.e. 2.5 million Hebrews in the exodus). But other things, like trying to justify the genocide of women and babies recorded in Joshua because everyone around the Israelite were pagan
    and worshipped a different god, is just uncomfortable.

  18. .

    I think one of the tension we’re talking about is an inherent tension in Mormonism: the one between hierarchy and personal agency/revelation. I suspect that as dangerous as individuals are, the Church proper knows that only individuals can grow the Church.

    The tension keeps the Church alive.

  19. Thank you for posting this, Lynnette. I’ve been struggling with this very same issue lately in teaching Gospel Doctrine. The manual drives me batty sometimes because like you’re saying, I don’t always agree with the claims it’s making or the overly simplistic presentation. Especially with the OT. The way we read that text is appalling. The text is so dense and the manuals draw the easiest possible conclusions filtered through an LDS lens. I’m likewise frustrated because I feel so inadequate to the task of reinterpretation that I lean on the manuals.

    Sometimes I’ve been able to come up with a manual/me hybrid reading of the text that I have found satisfying. At the same time, sometimes it’s really rough, and I don’t feel like teaching because I don’t feel like I believe what I’m asked to say and I don’t want to testify disingenuously. It’s an ongoing struggle, but I had a good experience a couple of weeks ago. I was not feeling a lesson. Amos was kicking my trash (as was my recent bout of agnosticism) and I just kind of inwardly gave up.

    But, I planned a lesson where the class taught the text–read chapters and presented. It was an exercise in communal reading that I think was very valuable. We were all interpreters in that space together. And, I was okay with God because God let me be where I was spiritually and allowed the lesson to hopefully turn out in a way that benefited the class.

  20. You wrote: ” I don’t think that’s a bad thing–just something to be aware of. For example, in a lesson on following the prophet, you might ask, “how has following the prophet blessed your life?” Or you might ask “what do you do when what the prophet is teaching seems to contradict your conscience?” Those are going to lead to rather different discussions. ”

    They are.
    And they are also both pertinent and reasonable questions on this topic.
    So, ask both questions. My experience is that if your class participants answer them thoughtfully it will make the lesson way more helpful and insightful than if you just ask one or the other.

  21. I think it shows that you are a thoughtful teacher that you are even asking the questions and caring about these things.

    My favorite lessons, fwiw, are those where the class engages with the Spirit (obviously not the ones that end up on tangents) and where the teacher really plays the role of facilitating that process.

    I also think that there is a time and place (and the Spirit can help you with that) where you can say, “You know, I struggle with this, so I’m going to lean on you today. What caught your attention in the manual? Do you have an experience related to this topic that helped strengthen your faith?” etc. Some of the best lessons I have taught have been when I really had no idea what to do with the content and/or felt restrained from coming with a predetermined outline or questions and watching it all unfold before my eyes as people engaged. (I live in an amazing place where people are willing to participate and be real.)

    I think a willingness to be vulnerable can say, “Hey, it’s ok if you don’t have it all figured out or if you struggle with a concept in the Church” and “I trust you all enough to open my heart a little and let you in.” I think it is important for us to realize this together, rather than pretend that everything is always peachy-king in our lives or our journeys of faith.

    Of course, you might get people who will jump in and try to convince you why you shouldn’t feel the way you do (grin), but I think there could be some meaningful exchange.

  22. I was just called to teach RS and my first lesson was last Sunday. When I first read the Gospel Principles lesson on the Church in Jesus’ time I felt depressed because I didn’t think I couldn’t authentically teach it. I mean, some of it was fine, but the parts about the apostasy sounded really negative and arrogant to me, and the way the lesson was written was so simplistic and pedantic. And I disagreed with it’s interpretation of what some scriptures meant.

    Then I realized that the lesson was simply drawing on scripture (and, surprisingly, no other materials whatever) and I thought, well, I can at least teach what’s in the scriptures. So I used the suggested scriptures, a few others, and some materials from the Oxford Bible Concordance. I didn’t read anything from the manual, and didn’t say anything I don’t believe.

    So I guess that’s like ESO and Kevin Barney saying they teach the topic not the lesson. I’m going to keep viewing the manual as an idea-starter, and that’s about it.

    I think your ward made a very good call asking you teach RS, Lynette. I’d SO much rather have someone who thoughtfully prepared their own materials than someone who just used those boring manuals.

  23. re 19 and 21–I think teaching the OT has got to be one of the most challenging teaching callings. I have my frustrations with the Gospel Principles manual, but it does at least go through what are in fact basic LDS doctrines. The OT manual, on the other hand, is often downright disingenuous in what it does to the text. My sympathies to those who are wrestling with that! Elizabeth, that’s a great story.

    mb, I wasn’t wondering which question to ask in such a circumstance—I agree that they’re both useful questions. My point was simply that there really is no neutral site from which to teach. I agree with many on this thread who propose that raising questions is a good way to deal with challenging material—but this still involves making decisions about the kinds of questions to ask and therefore wrestling with the issues I’m raising in this post. I mean, there are people who get nervous upon even hearing questions that don’t have clear answers. Though I agree with Kevin about the catechetical approach making me crazy. One of my pet peeves in school is when professors play “read my mind”—as in, ask questions, and wait for the class to guess what s/he is thinking. (I had a professor who did that so much that we would quickly start calling out random theological words—sin, grace, salvation, eschatology—to see if one of them would be the right one.) And in an adult class in church, I find such an approach equally ridiculous.

    It sounds to me as though your lessons are great, and you need to cut yourself some slack and not obsess over the minutiae of the manuals so much.

    Kevin, I appreciate the kind words—though surely you realize I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t being angsty and obsessive. 😉 Though I do think sometimes there are larger issues at stake. With a lesson on the priesthood, do I ignore the elephant in the room and not bring up gender—and possibly come across as implicitly endorsing the current set-up? Do I hijack the lesson to explain why all this gender stuff is nonsense? I think some middle course there is probably best, but it’s not easy to find. (As it turned out, my experience teaching this particular topic was less than pleasant. I didn’t have to ask the gender question—people spontaneously swooped up in to explain how wonderful it was that women don’t have the priesthood. Which is why I actually didn’t want to bring up the question—I didn’t want it to turn into an apologetic-fest. Which it did anyway.) But fortunately most topics are a lot less loaded.

  24. Michelle, I very much agree that lessons are much better when teachers take the risk of being vulnerable. Like you say, it can be a powerful way of building community and having honest conversation. Though the criteria of “engaging with the Spirit” is one I have to admit I find complicated. The problem is that the same lesson can lead to one person reporting a faith-promoting, spiritual experience, and another to feel that she’s encountered apostasy. I guess that’s why it’s good we have lots of different teachers with different styles.

    Emily, I hear you! I had the same reaction to the manual’s portrayal of the apostasy, which is a ridiculously outdated narrative—I can’t believe it’s still in there. But I like what you’re saying about using the manual as a jumping-off point; that’s pretty much been my attitude, too. You can read the title of the lesson and then go somewhere with it. Actually, when I’ve been feeling snarky, I’ve been tempted to tell the class the title and see if they can guess what questions the manual asks.


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