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.