Teaching Gospel Doctrine

There have been several posts in the Bloggernacle over the years about what comprises successful and interesting Gospel Doctrine class teachers. Since I have been serving as my ward’s Gospel Doctrine instructor for nearly the last year, I would like to add my voice to the gospel teaching chorus.

I love teaching. In my prior career (before becoming a blood-sucking lawyer), I dreamed of teaching. And, indeed, I did teach undergraduate classes for five years at the University of Michigan. So I was ueber-thrilled when the Bishop called and asked me to serve as the Gospel Doctrine teacher. Here is the philosophy I have formed about what works best for me, and for my ward.

In my opinion, Gospel Doctrine class is a place to learn gospel doctrine. Sound simple? It is. Thus, I focus on the Doctrines of the Restoration as presented in the manual, always trying to dig deeply into the experiences presented in the scriptures assigned for the week and concentrating on powerful ways to help the class members apply those teachings and principles to their own lives. I use the manual as the framework, the outline, as it were, for the principles we discuss. I do not delve too deeply into history (though it can be fascinating) or other such things. Not everyone is interested in those things the way I am, and so I give enough history to lend context and then get on with the substantive gospel discussion.

I view Sunday School as a chance each week for the members to either gain or renew their testimonies of various gospel principles taught or otherwise exemplified in each week’s reading. I want it to be a transformative spiritual experience for each member of the class, and for myself, one which causes us to measure the way we live the gospel against the standard in the scriptures. I want it to be as a soothing balm to those in need of divine comfort, a gentle prick to those who need reminding, a worthwhile spiritual feast that enlightens the mind, heart and soul. I incorporate music into every lesson that I think drives home the spirit of each message to the hearts of inidivuals more than I ever could. These include pre-arranged musical numbers themed around the gospel topics covered in the lesson, as well as group hymn singing at appropriate times.

I come to class thoroughly prepared, usually having read the entire assignment and what most church publications have to say about them (on gospelink.com) as well as having read commentary at feast upon the word and elsewhere. I ask people in advance to share personal experiences with certain topics, to share how certain passages have touched them or have meant to them personally. I usually pick one or two scriptures from the Book of Mormon that deal with each gospel topic as well just to share them and then testify each week that such scriptures further exemplify how the Book of Mormon truly is another testament of Jesus Christ.

My typical lesson goes as follows:

(1) A prayer and a topic-appropriate opening song to get them thinking about the wonderful themes of the lesson. I usually introduce the hymn and ask them to think about something specific dealing with the lesson as those musical prayers escape their lips and are driven to their hearts by the music.

(2) A brief (emphasis on brief) review of the historical situation and context for day’s scripture study. Sometimes, depending on the lesson content, this review may be intertwined in and out of the entire lesson. For example, as we have read Acts it has been necessary to talk a little more about context since the context is quite important to understand the principle and apply it to our lives.

(3) Review, either by reading the scriptures or narrating what has happened, of relevant scriptures to introduce gospel topics. This will be a coninuous process throughout the lesson.

(4) Personal experiences by me and/or class members with the various gospel principles, testimonies about those principles, discussion about how they apply and/or become real to us invidiually and collectively as Latter-day Saints.

(5) Perhaps an interspersed musical number or pre-arranged sharing of a personal experience with the theme of the lesson by a class member.

(6) A challenge to more fully live each gospel principle and suggestions for how to do so this week.

(7) A closing prayer. Sometimes, a closing song depending on what is being emphasized. I always want them to leave feeling uplifted.

This method may not work for every person or for every ward. The most important thing I have learned by trial and error is to teach by the Spirit and to be duly flexible to the perceived needs of the class when I enter the room to teach. I also do not do it perfectly, but I have discovered that people feel truly uplifted when I pay attention to these details, as do I.

Again, I try not to bog down the lesson too much with historical facts or references to various sundry translation issues, etc. I skim the surface on those enough (hopefully) to whet the appetites of those prepared to learn more of those sorts of things, and encourage them to study on their own or via institute those things in more detail.

In my opinion, we have to be careful to remember that the general Gospel Doctrine class includes members of the Church ranging from life-long members to relatively new converts, and those who harbor private or open doubts sit alongside those with a burning commitment to the Church. In each class are individuals with private sorrows, struggles, worries, hopes, etc. There are many who are praying for answers to various questions. That is why I strive to create a peaceful, spiritual atmosphere not bogged down with too many academic minutia, all of which would certainly be interesting to discuss in other venues.

I love teaching Gospel Doctrine class, and while I am far, far from being the perfect Gospel Doctrine teacher, I am thankful that the Lord allows me to teach and (hopefully) to be an instrument in his hands in reaching people who need to hear and remember the good news of the Gospel before once again embarking on their way in this often lone and dreary world.

11 Responses to Teaching Gospel Doctrine

  1. Christopher says:

    Nice post, Jordan. I always enjoy your GD lessons when I am home in Plano.

    I always found the most difficult part of any GD lesson to be engaging the less interested (either because they are “too smart” for the remedial correlated material or they haven’t come interested or prepared at all). I have two questions …

    1) How do you handle disruptive (whether intentional or not) comments from class members (I have in mind self-proclaimed intellectuals who bring up deeper issues than you planned to address or class members of any sort who share personal experiences and promote them as THE gospel truth).

    2) Do you encourage preparation for the next week’s lesson? If so, is there an effective way you have found?

  2. john f. says:

    You do a great job in your lessons. I thought it was funny when you had to substitute for Dad in a ward that was not even your own, but even then you did a smash-up job. And I’ll always remember your great lesson on — something in the OT — that had a heavy dose of East Germany in it.

    I think you’ve found the right formula. Do you remember Bro. M in Oxford and his powerpoint GD classes? I thought his lessons were fine but yours are more meaningful somehow. I must admit, though, I am a fan of bringing powerpoint into the lesson, if appropriate. I just enjoyed a good GD lesson in Allison’s grandparent’s ward in La Cañada the Sunday before last in which the teacher relied on a very sophisticated PP with sound etc. and it was very effective.

    But I do not think it is necessary for every GD teacher (or for any GD teacher, for that matter) to use a PP presentation; rather, I have found them effective in the past on some occasions.

  3. JrL says:

    In my view, the toughest part of teaching Gospel Doctrine is extending your reach to the class members who don’t come. There are so many of them, and there is no tradition in most wards of the teacher assuming any responsibility for any of them. Some of your techniques suggest that you’re one of the few exception, since you’re “ask[ing] people in advance to share personal experiences with certain topics, to share how certain passages have touched them or have meant to them personally” and (if asked in advance) “[p]ersonal experiences by … class members with the various gospel principles, testimonies about those principles, discussion about how they apply and/or become real to us invidiually and collectively as Latter-day Saints.”

  4. Jordan F. says:

    PP presentations does sound like an interesting concept, but I see so many of those at work and professionally that I worry my brain would go into “work” mode at the very sight of the bluish illumination of computer generated pixels on the wall. I have seen powerpoint effectively used at a Stake Priesthood meeting- it allowed the speaker to incorporate various media into his talk.

    Still, there is a growing chorus which argues that powerpoint presentations “encourage ‘faux-analytical’ thinking that favors the slickly produced “sales pitch” over the sober exchange of information.” The Washington Post, for example, points to a PowerPoint slide presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in the air and the agency was weighing the risk posed by tile damage on the shuttle wings, where “key information was so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.”

    Having sat through far too many powerpoint presentations in law school and as an attorney, I tend to agree. As one blogger quipped, in an aptly titled post- “PowerPoint Kills Brain Cells”- “Nothing, and I mean nothing is worse than a professor who, for 75 minutes, gives a lecture one bullet point at a time. Teaching this way allows one to sit back, relax and let the powerpoint goodness wash over him leaving behind virtually no useful information and thus defeating the point of a lecture.”

    Chris- thanks for your comment. It is always nice to see you around. Here is how I have dealt with, would deal with those situations:

    (1) I try to be as respectful as possible. Most such comments are innocent and meaningful to the person saying them. Perhaps I classify it as interesting and move on. Sometimes I ask the class what they think. Sometimes I have kindly reminded the class that we are focusing on “gospel doctrine” in the small time allotted us in that class and that, while the issue they raise is interesting and worth further discussion and/or research, it is not something we have time to discuss. I have more to say about that which I will e-mail you privately.

    (2) I think that is a great idea, but I have not been very good yet at actually doing encouraging people to do so, aside from calling on people during the week to share experiences that Sunday, etc. Thanks for the reminder- I will try to be better about creating ways to help people prepare in their own homes during the week. I really admire Jim Faulconer, for example, and the flier he always prepares a week or two in advance of a lesson with “thinking” questions about the lesson scriptures for class members to consider in their personal and/or family scripture study during the week preceding the lesson, though I do wonder how many people actually take advantage of it.

    JrL- I need to do much, much better at extending my reach to those who don’t or can’t come (due to primary, etc.). When I was in Young Men’s (I taught every week in Teacher’s Quorum), I used to go to the boys’ homes that missed and give them a ten minute recap of the lesson. Obviously, I can’t do that in Gospel Doctrine. Several people have asked me to e-mail them an outline of the lesson each week as they have been called into primary or elsewhere, but I have not done that. I can certainly do a much better job of this, and I will think of something now that I can do. Perhaps I can take an outline of the lesson, add to it a brief summary of the classroom discussion, then e-mail that around to those who could not make it. Of course, I will give them the option to “opt-out” of the e-mail. Thanks for the food for thought!

  5. Nancy Allen says:

    I agree with your approach to teaching GD. (I’m in my 4th year as GD teacher and love it.)

    One thing I do before my lessons is to write a trivia question on the board that has something to do with the lesson. (This week’s lesson includes Paul’s experience with the silversmiths at the Temple of Diana, so my trivia question is about the seven ancient wonders of the world, one of which was the ancient temple of Diana.) It’s always a nice way to get the class engaged right from the beginning.

    PS: Noticed you were (or perhaps still are in the Ann Arbor area). I graduated from Pioneer high school in Ann Arbor.

  6. Jordan F. says:

    I was in Ann Arbor for five years, and I am pretty sure your mother (Sister Loretta Allen) was in our ward. Well, I am sure that Loretta was in our ward, but not sure she was your mother. In any case, thanks for commenting, and for the trivia idea.

  7. Nancy Allen says:

    And thanks for the nice note about my blog — I haven’t spent much as time with it as I need to.

    Loretta Allen isn’t my mother — my parents (Curtis and Elaine Allen) left AA in 1975, at which time my father was released from being bishop of the AA ward (when it was still part of the Dearborn stake).

    You may have known Cal and Marlene Dyer, who were long-time residents of Ann Arbor. I noticed Marlene’s obituary in the Deseret News today.

    Have fun teaching GD.

  8. BobW says:

    Excellent points. As a going on four years GD teacher I too find that a planned template helps simplify preparation and focus where the spirit says the lesson ought to go.

    On Power Point, we have former GD teacher who is a school teacher and understands the principals of teaching well. When he used PP it caused his lessons to be carved in stone so they couldn’t follow where the spirit wanted to go on occasion.

    I find that there is usually a topic which lends itself more to a fervent testiomony of the Savior and the atonement than the others do. If I make that my closing topic the class has the opportunity to end with the spirit crashing over them in waves.

  9. Equality says:

    Like you, Jordan, I have had dreams of teaching but was seduced by the law (and she is, after all, a jealous mistress). Gospel Doctrine teacher was perhaps my favorite calling I ever held in the church. I taught in my ward in Pleasant Grove, Utah. I am thinking about that experience today as I will never forget the best Gospel Doctrine class I’ve ever been in was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. It was the other GD Teacher’s week to teach (thankfully), and instead of trying to plod through whatever lesson was next up in the manual, she ditched the book and just led a discussion about what people were feeling that week (mostly numb and scared). It was the most open, honest, and real moment I ever had in church. I don’t really have a point other than to share that story.

  10. Jordan F. says:

    I like that story. I think that we often have to let what happens in the world around us dictate what we teach and discuss.

  11. Maximus says:

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

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