Sunday, December 16, 2012

Separating Culture from Doctrine: The Lesson Handout

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 imageSchool 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 #1Handouts 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?


  1. Hmm. I had a few handouts in Young Women that did change my life. One was a quote by H. Burke Peterson (uh, I think) about how you are here to do a job, and no one else can do it as well as you. I was thinking about that just the other day.

    But then again, I hate clutter too and I hate having stuff in my scriptures (one of my seminary teachers would make "glue-ins," small pieces of paper with glue on the ends to add into our scriptures. GACK.)

    I do like handouts for Visiting Teaching though, because there are some cute/fun things out on the Internets. But I agree that it shouldn't be our focus when we teach.

    1. Ha ha I loved those glue-ins when I was in YW (but, like I said, I used to keep every single handout in a binder when I was in YW... yikes). Now I like to keep things simple. There are a lot of quotes that have made a significant difference in my life, and some came as "handouts" - and I guess I should have been sure to make a distinction between handouts that are like the ones Elder Oaks mentioned (basically supplementary material to what is in the lesson book - like a quote, or scripture, etc) and handouts that are hand stitched pot holders (like the ones Pres. Uchtdorf talked about).

      The part of Elder Oak's talk I really liked was when he said, "When highly focused, a handout can enrich." Indeed, as you have shown us :) Thanks for your comment.

  2. Becca, This will be such a neat and fun series to read!

    I know of ONE area where handouts are not only a great idea, they are already provided BY THE CHURCH: NURSERY! Have you seen the beautiful Behold You Little Ones Nursery Manual the church put out in the last 5-ish years? Every single lesson has a page to print out! They are generally activity pages where the children can color, cut, or create something that repeats the message of the lesson.

    And occasionally there are things you can print in the regular Primary age manuals, but those are very very few and far between. I think I remember a CTR shield in the CTR manual, and a few in the Old Testament manual for sure.

    I'm one of the teachers who skips the handout (I teach RS 4th Sunday lessons on Conference talks) and that is generally for the reason that the Spirit brings all things to our remembrance.

    1. Ha ha - handouts for little kids (even primary kids) where they need something to color/draw is definitely a good thing, I think :D Thanks for mentioning those.

      "and that is generally for the reason that the Spirit brings all things to our remembrance." And, we would hope, most RS sisters would be able to jot down a note if they really liked a quote/scripture. ;)

      If I ever pull a quote to use in a lesson that isn't specifically in the lesson manual/talk I like to have the source available for sisters who want to make a note of it, because sometimes an additional quote from somewhere can be really significant to a class member or two. I remember times when I heard someone quote a GA and I wished they would have given us the reference. I'll have to remember to do that when I teach lessons.

  3. Save a tree, use the spirit-- I love it.
    As a young woman I loved getting the handouts, now as a RS teacher I'm much more minimalistic. I agree that a well focused handout (or visual, which is what I use more of) can add to the lesson, but the primary focus should be on seeking out the Spirit and inviting it to lead the discussion. You can never go wrong that way. :)

  4. My first teaching calling was in the RS and substituting in Adult Sunday School. I remember one class I taught with handouts, where the handout's were so detailed,I lost focus and so did everyone else, and the class ended with everyone "expecting" something. So my current calling is in Primary, and my first year I tried using "coloring" handouts. But my class consisted of some really smart 7-8 year old's, who in observing how they learned;rejected the handouts after a few Sundays. They liked to discuss, sing and hear the lesson presented in a "story". Now I teach the 12 year old girls. They respond to handouts only if the handout is in line with the lesson, and if not, they will question the validity. The lesson I am being taught is to trust that the Holy Spirit is teaching me and the children at the same time. And the things any "student" will remember is what they have already been taught. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, but I am glad I finally got it.

  5. Nice topic!

    I saved the handouts from the lessons over the years, as a youth or in Relief Society, that were meaningful to me, such as they reminded me a principle or sentiment I learned from the lesson.

    I appreciate how you pointed out that it is still important to realize that handouts can be a benefit, still, and not be judgmental to those who do like to include them in a lesson.

    I know, in my experience, there have been lessons that when the handout was passed around, or we collected it after the lesson, that it touched my heart that the sister took that time to make something for me. It often feels to me that someone cares enough to make something that they wish will be a blessing to me. They are often a gift of the heart. I receive them as such. I cannot think of a time when I felt upset about a handout. I can understand if someone else has, but it jut has not been my experience.

    There have been quotes on handouts that do not touch my heart like it may have the person who created it, but I know that, just like a particular lesson may be more meaningful for another person in the room than for me, some handouts may be as well. Part of being members of the Church is realizing that we are sharing, and sometimes it is not all about "me" or "us" but about letting others serve in ways that are meaningful to them, too.

    In my experience, in the wards I have been a member of as an adult, handouts are few and far between. An occasional handout can be nice to remember the point of a lesson when the conversation wanders, or to give to a sister who was absent or in an auxiliary,just to let her know she was missed. I believe making and using handouts can be decided upon with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, too, just as we are counseled to do when preparing our lessons.

    So, coincidentally, I was asked to teach a lesson in Relief Society this month. I also happened to feel inspired to make a little handout, a nice quote from the lesson that touched my heart, and I attached a little chocolate kiss to the paper it was printed on. A few days later, my kids got sick and I was sad to have to call and let the RS presidency know I would not be able to come as I had to tend to my family. (I really wanted to teach the lesson I had been preparing for!) BUT I had those handout to offer; I gave them to the RS presidency to have for the sisters on Sunday even though I couldn't be there and someone else was teaching the lesson.

    Certainly, the handouts are not a substitute for me teaching and it would have been better for me to teach. But in the circumstance I was in, sharing the handouts allowed me to still feel like I was contributing something, especially since I am new and trying to find my place here in this ward. Additionally, perhaps of those sisters who received them, maybe one or two felt a little bit of love and concern that day, or maybe that quote from the lessons was just the message one of them needed to be reminded of. The Lord gives gifts of the spirit to those who are humble and seek them, and even a little handout can be just what a person needs.

    Looking forward to the next topic!


  6. This is interesting, because I've often felt a little bit "lame" for not being up to making elaborate handouts or treats when I taught RS lessons. I just can't handle the extra pressure, plus I don't have a stock of pretty papers or even a printer that currently works....

    I'm now a primary teacher, and next year I'll have a class full of 11 year old boys. I'm considering putting together a folder or binder of sorts that will contain pertinent information from each lesson - I'm hoping to get them into the habit of bringing it to church so we can add to it here and there. Maybe that's too much to ask....

  7. I have always thought that the time that you take to prepare the handout shouldn't be greather than the time it takes to prepare the lesson! I try to avoid handouts. My teens tend to get lots of them, and they like them. So I guess the key is -- know your audience.

  8. I am not a hand-out maker. I do not have time for them, or usually like them. I can think of three times where I made a hand-out that I thought was significant. We had a lesson on eternal marriage and I put lace on white handkerchiefs for each of the girls to remind them to be worthy of attending the temple someday. Also in YW, I taught a lesson about leaving Babylon behind so I provided a 'for sale ONE BABYLONIAN COTTAGE' sign for each girl. Recently I taught a marriage class and used the words from The Family: A Proclamation on a photo recipe card. I saw it on one sister's refrigerator, but I am sure most of them ended up in the trash. So, sometimes I think they are helpful but not if they take away from the spiritual preparation it takes or the Spirit you want to invite to your lesson. Right now I just get to teach music in hand-outs :-)

  9. I think I just recently got rid of nearly everything in my "binder" including the binder itself. Your post makes me think of lesson decorations, too. When I taught RS years ago, the presidency noticed I didn't bring a decoration. The offered to have someone bring one for me. Decorating is soooo not my thing, so I was glad to have someone help me in that area, if it was so important, which it really isn't.

  10. Sometimes a timeline (like for the Book of Mosiah or Alma) is helpful during class. I don't expect them to keep it.


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