There has been considerable chatter on LDS blogs these days about teaching at church. The commentaries seem to talk about two key issues:
1. The "simple" lessons in the Gospel Principles manual used in Relief Society and Priesthood
2. The recommendation not to supplement provided lesson material with other outside resources
Personally, I'm a little surprised at the backlash against the Gospel Principles manual. I suppose there are those who think they've progressed beyond the basics of the gospel, but I'm reminded it was while pondering the atonement that Joseph F. Smith had the revelation which now is Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
While the manual is rather simple, and in fact downright slim in some instances, the subjects are rich for discussion on many levels.
As for not supplementing our lessons with many outside materials, I agree we should teach from the church manuals. But as a rule, good teachers should be guided by the spirit to include applicable scriptures, personal experiences and other suitable materials in their lessons. In his oft-quoted conference talk, Elder Oaks said, "A gospel teacher is called to teach the subject specified from the inspired materials provided." Continuing, with specific reference to the Teachings of the Prophet manuals used in previous years, he said, "The best thing a teacher can do with Teachings: Joseph Smith is to select and quote from the words of the Prophet on principles specially suited to the needs of class members and then direct a class discussion on how to apply those principles in the circumstances of their lives" ("Good, Better, Best," General Conference, October 2007).
Russell Osguthorpe, general president of the Sunday School addressed the matter of gospel teaching in an interview with the Church News in January of this year. He described a gospel doctrine class he attended in which the teacher had the manual open before her, but rarely referred to it. Instead, she led a discussion of the major points of the lesson with the class.
I am not a fan of the "ready, aim, read" method of teaching that seems to seep into my high priest's group. Whatever the manual, we seem to start at the beginning, read a segment, and then chat about it, and then read the next one, and so on. While that's an ok way of covering the material, it's not an ideal to lead discussion or to teach in my view.
In a talk in General Conference in October 2009, Brother Osguthorpe listed some key questions gospel teachers ought to ask themselves:
1. As a teacher, do I view myself as a messenger from God?
2. Do I prepare and then teach in ways that can help save lives?
3. Do I focus on a key doctrine of the Restoration?
4. Can those I teach feel the love I have for them and for my Heavenly Father and the Savior?
5. When inspiration comes, do I close the manual and open their eyes and their ears and their hearts to the glory of God?
6. Do I invite them to do the work that God has for them to do?
7. Do I express so much confidence in them that they find the invitation hard to refuse?
8. Do I help them recognize promised blessings that come from living the doctrine I am teaching?
I believe the counsel to "stick to the manual" is less about directing the flow of the lesson than the general subject matter. Of course we ought to teach the course of study we've been assigned. But we must do so with the spirit so that we can inspire others (or invite the spirit to inspire others) as Brother Osguthorpe suggests.
Indeed, even our personal study can (and arguably should) exceed what the manual covers. Consider Elder Perry's memory of his mother's preparation to teach:
"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. How can I be sure about this? As I flipped through the pages of her notebooks, it was as if I were hearing my mother teach me one more time. Again, there was too much in her notebooks on any single topic to ever share in a single class session, but what she didn’t use in her class she used to teach her children" ("Mothers Teaching Children in the Home," April 2010 General Conference).
It seems to me a great teacher will have plenty in his mind and heart to share, and then be sensitive to the spirit's guidance as he teaches, recognizing the needs of his students, the subject of the lesson, the experience of his class, and his time constraints.
While some may be disappointed that Sunday School, Relief Society and Priesthood are not places for treatises on the history of ancient Judaism or endless debate on gospel hobbies, hopefully they can be compensated by well prepared and well presented lessons that draw upon the scriptures, invite the spirit, and teach the gospel.