This is the first post in a new series called “Separating Culture from Doctrine”, where we talk about places where culture has been mistaken as doctrine among the members of the Church. I wanted to start with the dress code myth, but I decided to let that issue cool off a bit before I tackled it again. So I’m starting with something a little less controversial (I hope!) and somewhat lighthearted, but I would like to eventually tackle some things that are harder to separate. Do you know of a part of Mormon culture that many members of the Church mistake as doctrine? Have you heard of something in the Church that people make out to be doctrinal, and you’re not sure if it is? Let me know in the comments, or drop me an email or a post on Facebook (see “Subscribe and Connect” on the sidebar for links) and I will do the research and find out how much is doctrine, and how much is culture.
When I was in the Young Women program (the Church’s youth program for 12-18 year old girls) I kept a binder with a bunch of pages inside of sheet protectors. Whenever I would get a handout in Young Women or Sunday School I would glue it to one of the pages in this binder. I kept the for years, but I never used it, and eventually I scanned all the pages into my computer (which I haven’t look at since – until today when I was writing this post and wanted to include a picture of one of the pages).
Obviously those handouts had a huge impact on my life. Or not.
In fact, I don’t even remember the lessons they went to (not specifically). The lessons did make an impact in my life, and in the building of my testimony, but I don’t associate the handouts with those lessons. In fact, I remember every one of my YW and Sunday School teachers from my time as a youth, but I couldn’t tell you what any of them taught me. What I could tell you is that each one of them was an amazing example to me and the fire of their testimonies lit a fire in me.
They didn’t need the handouts to do that.
And neither do you.
Mormon Myth #1 – Handouts are an integral, and even necessary, part of a lesson. They help the class members remember the lesson, and are part of your calling as a teacher.
Truth: Preparing handouts can take precious time away from study and prayer that is an integral and necessary part of a lesson. The Holy Ghost teaches class members, and the Holy Ghost helps class members remember the lesson – not you, and not your handouts. As a teacher your focus should be on prayerfully studying the lesson material and listening for inspiration to know what questions will elicit the most beneficial discussion for your class members.
Our Church Web site now provides access to all of the general conference addresses and other contents of Church magazines for the past 30 years. Teachers can download bales of information on any subject. When highly focused, a handout can enrich. But a bale of handouts can detract from our attempt to teach gospel principles with clarity and testimony. Stacks of supplementary material can impoverish rather than enrich, because they can blur students’ focus on the assigned principles and draw them away from prayerfully seeking to apply those principles in their own lives. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Focus and Priorities, April 2001 General Conference)
I hear women say that their callings are wearing them out or that they don’t have time to serve. But magnifying our callings does not mean staying up all night preparing handouts and elaborate table decorations. It does not mean that each time we do our visiting teaching we have to take something to our sisters. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Let’s simplify. The message of a good lesson comes through spiritual preparation. Let’s put our focus on the principles of the gospel and on the material in our study guides. Let’s prepare to create an interesting exchange of ideas through discussion, not through extra, invented work that makes us so weary we come to resent the time we spend in fulfilling our callings. (Sister Kathleen H. Hughes, Out of Small Things, October 2004 General Conference)
Dedicating some of our time to studying the scriptures or preparing to teach a lesson is a good sacrifice. Spending many hours stitching the title of the lesson into homemade pot holders for each member of your class perhaps may not be. (President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Forget Me Not, 2011 General Relief Society Broadcast)
Mother was a great teacher who was diligent and thorough in her preparation. I have distinct memories of the days preceding her lessons. The dining room table would be covered with reference materials and the notes she was preparing for her lesson. There was so much material prepared that I’m sure only a small portion of it was ever used during the class, but I’m just as sure that none of her preparation was ever wasted. …What she didn’t use in her class she used to teach her children. (Elder L. Tom Perry, Mothers Teaching Children in the Home, April 2010 General Conference)
I’m sure no one’s soul was damaged in the preparation of the handouts my teachers made for me in Young Women and Sunday School, and I am not passing judgment on them and neither should you. This isn’t about judging people. It’s about talking about what is culture, and what is doctrine.
The Mormon culture encourages us to spend a little time on the praying and studying part, and then a lot of time on the handout part. This same principle can be applied to Young Women and Relief Society programs that get so involved the spirit is missed, and the only thing people remember are the cute decorations and handouts. They don’t remember the spirit they felt (if they felt the spirit at all) and they don’t remember the lesson taught.
We should be so careful to focus on what really matters.
I want to tell you about our Ward Christmas dinner. The dinner was fantastic, homecooked, gourmet food, and the decorations were intricate and handmade. The cultural hall felt like a winter wonderland. The atmosphere was lovely, the music was touching, and the company was wonderful, as usual. If I didn’t know the sister who was in charge I may have been tempted to think it was a little over done. But I know this sister and I know that she took great pleasure and joy in creating a beautiful environment for us to enjoy a delicious meal. She was very good at it, and I know that she didn’t stress out about it at all. In fact, I bet planning and preparing for that ward party was the most relaxing thing she has done in a while.
I related this story so that you can know that we should not be judgmental of sisters who make elaborate handouts for Relief Society lessons. Nor should we be judgmental of sisters who don’t make elaborate handouts for lessons.
(as a side note – if you give me a non-edible handout in Relief Society I will probably dispose of it in my recycling bin as soon as I get home – I do not like paper, and I despise clutter – handouts, in my opinion, are frequently clutter – and I do not want your little decoration you made for me. It probably doesn’t fit into my décor. These are things to think about as well when you are thinking about preparing a handout. If the handout is edible I will most definitely eat it.)
Let us please keep in mind that the Spirit is the real teacher when we “teach” a class. The handouts are cute, but most of them end up in the trash anyway. Save a tree – use the Spirit.
For more instruction on teaching the gospel, see the Church’s handbook, Teaching, No Greater Call. There are no handouts – just in case you were wondering.
How do you use the Spirit to teach your class? Do you use handouts? Have you ever spent too much time on the handout and not enough time on your lesson? Can you think of ways when a handout might be appropriate?