Monday, October 17, 2005

Teaching in Sunday School and the weakness of leaders

As a Sunday School teacher, I have certain responsibilities. Not all of them are comfortable. Each week, I have several young minds that I must guide and challenge. A certain percentage of their spiritual edification is on my shoulders. I am called to teach them the Truth. But I cannot, by my own nature, just give them the straight lesson from out of the lesson manual. I also do not want to fill their heads with speculative doctrine. I also refuse to water down the gospel for them.

These are just kids. They are 14 and 15 years old. Little life experience and little to challenge their belief system in this land of the saints. Do I challenge them? Well, I try, but in a way that will build their inner strength and make sure they are committed to whatever they choose to believe.

Excuse me. Did you just say"whatever they choose to believe"? How weak and aimless! How ambivalent! But the truth is, I do not tell them what to believe. I present to them what I have learned in a way that hopefully makes sense to them and encourage them to pray and seek the spirit. I answer and encourage their questions. I want them to think about the gospel, not just accept it. Work and struggle through these deep concepts, until they accept them and make them their own, or reject them and choose a different life. I don't think fence-sitting is healthy. If you are going to be in the church, you should be there because you believe (or know, as the case may be). Anyone staying for the wrong reasons is not doing anyone any favors.

This attitude and approach has meant that there have been times when we completely strayed from anything close to the lesson I had prepared, and yet, it was a powerful class experience. And that is the whole point. They are learning.

In my class, I do not teach them questionable doctrine, but perhaps I sometimes border. Today was the lesson on the need for prophets in the church. I focused on how the prophets are human and make mistakes. In so doing, I quoted Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie. I was not at all disrespectful. I wanted them to come away with a sense that no one, not even our leaders, should be set on a pedestal and worshiped or considered perfect. I believe there was one man who was perfect, and his name was Jesus Christ (at least, his anglicized name).

As a child, I used to believe that the prophets were almost perfect, say %95 perfect. I actually thought in terms of percentages. As I understand it now, percentages make no sense in a discussion of perfection, if for no other reason than because even the best of humanity would have a laughably low percentage of perfection.

As an adult, I am more reasonable. I understand that leaders are human beings. They have frailties, biases, weaknesses. Many of them are woefully and inadequately prepared to compassionately deal with the burden of the sins of another person. Many are insensitive. Some turn a blind eye to certain behaviors of friends. Some are overly strict. Some have double standards for men versus women. I have known many of these instances to happen to people I know. It can be frightening to think about.

How bodes this for the church? Well, if I believe at all that these are men (and the occasional woman or two) called of God, I have two choices. Believe that the church has been corrupted or accept that imperfect leaders is a part of the plan. I choose the latter. I believe some of the strength of the church comes from the realization that if it were the church of men, it would have fallen apart years ago with all this untrained and often hypocritical leadership (including missionaries and women's group leaders). But because it is God's church, it still stands, despite the imperfections running rampant.

How do you convey that to 14-year-olds? I use something like a modified Socratic method and walk them through the logic, but of course, I try to invite the spirit to work on them as well. I show them, as best I can, that despite weaknesses, the calling is still to be respected. There are leaders of the church, past and possibly present, with whom I have not agreed. That does not change that they were called of God, according to my belief system.

My belief system has had to become more accommodating, to allow for weakness of others. I used to be very condemning, but have learned I condemned myself much more than anyone else. I have realized that Christ operates on the principle of forgiveness, not just for sins, but for all the weaknesses and frailties we each have. Can I do less than that?


J2A2K (darth_ender) said...

Wow, my brother! I really like this. Powerful, insiteful, blunt, and honest with others and yourself. I think you hit a key point. Despite our leader's imperfections, we do not have the luxury to be unforgiving or judgmental. Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

I've struggled with the same thing as well. I heard a quote that has helped me refine my teaching techniques. "Don't play devil's advocate. The Devil has enough advocates of his own". At first I was irked by this quote, as I know that it is an essential element in socratic teaching and in instruction. I am an academic AND I come from Jewish stock; I play devil's advocate in my sleep. I'm not promoting the erradication of the method, just a more judicious use of it as one out of many, many, many other (and depending on the situation- possibly MORE effective) methods at our disposal in LDS instruction. I've found that when I've taught (like a broken record) playing devil's advocate with point after point, week after week, I'm ignoring an entire plethora of tools at my disposal which will teach other aspects of analysis, complex thinking and testimony building. I also find that when I stretch myself to think of different tactics to present the material and 'mix it up', my lessons are better. Of course, complex-thinking approaches for different learning styles and for a more in-depth pallate of approaches to gospel learning are a great perk!

Students have precious few LDS teachable moments. (Let's face it, how much of the time are we a. not listening b. playing basketball, scrapbooking or providing service c. listening to speakers who we don't understand.) Teachers who can make a difference and actually TEACH have an entire GOSPEL to convey.

Guessing by our lifestyles and actions, what percentage of the gospel do we have an understanding of truth substantial enough to change our hearts and subsequently produce behaviors suited for 'the right' reasons? When the students leave, they'll have a whole week (or sometimes years) to see the world from another point of view. When do we actually build upon their experiences and observations and then springboard that information to synthesize the context and come to an understanding of truth? When students get into a gospel class, can't we take the time to scratch the surface of the gospel, universal histories and truth, etc. still building upon a wholistic approach which is less defensive, less focused on the minutia of the negative, and a more effective use of time?
Just a thought.
Thanks for your blog. It's great!

Anonymous said...

thanks brother,my ability to locate this site is timely. This has really helped me. I had an experienced that made me lost my spirit gradually. I served as a consellor to my branch president. I had a genuine concern which I expected my Stake president to attain to but he never did, even after my branch president had imformed him about my concern. I was not happy each time I went to church on Sabbath and sitting up there with my branch president. I decided to stay away from church and later returned all church materials in my possesion. I was later release in a branch conference which they taught I will not attend, without being interviewed.
Now I am attending a new ward under the leadership of this same stake president. I never wanted to accept a new call because I felt I was not properly released from the last call. I am now reasonable. It is the Lords work I will do it. I will use your belief system. Though he was insensitve about my concern, i really condem myself for staying away from church and returning the Lord's working tools given to me to help in HIS work. I have forgiven the leaders for their acts and I hope GOD will forgive me and let His Spirit be with me as I accept a new call as a Sunday School President in this new ward.