Fourth Sunday Relief Society and Priesthood teachers have a fascinating new task presented to them this year—teaching about the same topic for every month between general conferences.
Some of the challenges we face as fourth Sunday teachers embarking on this new quest include keeping our lessons interesting, engaging, and new even as we discuss the same topic with our classes over and over again. On the other hand, it presents us with some very unique opportunities to delve deeper, be creative, and rely on the Holy Ghost.
As I’ve pondered how my January fourth Sunday lesson went, talked with other fourth Sunday teachers, and began preparing for upcoming lessons, I’ve had a few thoughts about the task set before us. I hope my ideas inspire you in your own teaching efforts, and also inspire you to share and discuss teaching tips in your own ward Teacher’s Councils.
We have everything we need.
If you haven’t yet seen how the fourth Sunday lesson topic is presented, you can check it out here. This first time around, the Brethren have given us the topic of the “Sabbath Day” and have broken this broad topic into six sub-topics, each with their own paragraph the includes scriptures, questions, and a few thoughts.
The paragraphs are pretty short, though, and it may be tempting to think, “How can I fill a 45 minute lesson with one short paragraph?” On the contrary, however, these short paragraphs contain everything we need for a robust, meaningful lesson.
In fact, my experience teaching in January surprised me. Worried about having enough material, I’d planned to divide my time between two of these sub-topics, and was amazed to find that I barely had time to adequately address one of them.
Of course, I’m blessed to have a class that likes to share and discuss, but I think that the more specific a topic you tackle, the broader the possibilities actually are. This idea is actually a tip that circulates the blogosphere as well. If you want to start a blog, the more specific you’re topic, the more material you have to work with. And that’s because you can go deep.
We have a lot of freedom.
Although the bi-annual topic is handily broken up into six subtopics, the instructions given to fourth Sunday teachers make it clear that we do not have to follow a one-subtopic-per-month structure. Here’s what it actually says:
“Leaders or teachers may choose from the doctrines and learning activities suggested below, combine several of them, or create their own according to the needs of members.”
Depending on your ward, you may have received suggestions from your leaders about which subtopics to tackle when, and if so, that’s great. It can be really nice to have uniformity between the Priesthood and Relief Society within a ward. However, as the instructions above begin with “leaders or teachers,” I think that many of us teachers will find that it’s up to us to present the material however we feel inspired.
So although the subtopics provide very helpful guidance, we shouldn’t feel limited by them or the order they are presented in. The Brethren have left it up to us to teach “according to the needs of members.”
We have the perfect opportunity for goals and follow up.
Focusing on the same topic every month means that as teachers, families, and individuals we have the perfect opportunity to make goals and follow up on our progress.
In January, I challenged my class to write down one thing they are already doing to remember the goodness of the Lord on the Sabbath day and one thing they would like to do to help them remember His blessings and miracles even more. In my next lesson at the end of February, I plan to give them an opportunity to personally reflect on whether or not the thing they tried worked for them this last month.
The idea is that if it didn’t work, that’s okay. Sometimes we have to toss the things that don’t work for us and try something new. But if it did work, it’s the perfect time to acknowledge how it made a difference and to commit to keep trying it.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to be a part of an amazing lesson at Church and then to go home and forget. Focusing on the same topic every month, however, gives us a chance to review, remember, and recommit.
We are all teachers.
One of the amazing things about the new lesson structure is that it encourages a lot of class participation and discussion. Depending on your class, this may be a good thing, or this may be a challenge. In our last ward Teacher’s Council, we discussed ways to help people feel more comfortable sharing. Here are a couple of the ideas that came up:
1. Expect and Embrace Silence
People naturally need some time to think before they answer a question or share their experiences or feelings. Instead of asking a question and letting an awkward silence follow, we can encourage the silence by asking class members to first quietly reflect, without the expectation to share. Then, after we’ve given them a few moments, we can ask if anyone would like to share anything.
Here’s an example:
Say, “Let’s each take a moment to personally reflect on the past week. How have you seen God’s hand in your life? Go ahead and ponder for a minute.” Then, after a few minutes of silence, ask, “Alright. Would anyone like to share how they’ve seen God’s hand in their life this past week?”
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2. Focus on the “Already”
We all face feelings of inadequacy and guilt already, and although we all need to improve and change as well, most of us don’t need the extra pressure. In addition, class members shouldn’t have to inadvertently admit to their weaknesses in front of the class. Instead, we can help class members dwell on the positive things they are already doing in the way we phrase questions.
For example, instead of asking, “What can we do to improve our Sabbath worship?” we might ask, “What things are working for you in the way you worship on the Sabbath?”
3. Focus on the Scriptures
I believe one benefit of limited guidance from an instruction manual or other source is that it directs us to more fully rely on the scriptures and the Holy Ghost during our lessons.
First, as teachers, we can immerse ourselves in the scriptures. Deeply reading, pondering, and praying about the scriptures provided in the subtopics is a good place to start, but our studies and preparation do not have to end there. One of my favorite ways to delve into the scriptures is to focus on stories.
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Each scripture reference is part of a larger story, and stories allow us to connect to gospel truths in profound, human ways. I truly believe that any scripture story can connect us to any gospel doctrine and principle through the gift of the Holy Ghost. Let me use an example to illustrate.
The story of the woman at the well was just another New Testament story until one day, it wasn’t. One day the story became vivid and real as I placed it in the context of my own knowledge and experiences.
Reading in John 4:6, “Jesus, therefore being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well” it hit me—Jesus was extremely tired. He’d been traveling all day, probably without food (in verse eight we see that His disciples have gone off to find food), and He takes a moment to rest.
As I ponder on that situation through the lens of my own knowledge and experience, suddenly Jesus’s exhaustion becomes very real. Perhaps I’ve never traveled by foot or donkey across the desert, but I’ve been on plenty of road trips and experienced many long days where I just feel completely drained at the end. My feet ache, my head hurts. If I’m hungry, like Jesus was, then I’m that much closer to losing my emotions or my temper. And you know what? When I’m like that, usually the last thing I want to do is talk to other people.
But just a few verses later Jesus is conversing with the woman at the well. Not only that, but He’s teaching her, sharing light with her. He sets aside the fact that He’s bone-dead tired, that His stomach aches for food, that His throat is parched, and instead He reaches out to lift and bless another human. Wow.
But the part that struck my soul the very most comes in verses 31-34. Christ’s disciples have returned, and they’ve brought food. “In the mean while his disciples prayed him, saying, Master, eat.”
Jesus’s response? “I have meat to eat that ye know not of . . . my meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.”
Light bulb. God’s will = sustenance. Service = replenishment. And somehow, the story of the women at the well became a profound example of how the Sabbath day can be both a day of service and rest.
Share the insights you gain from deep study with your class, but don’t stop there. Encourage them to have their own experiences with the scriptures, both inside and outside of class.
4. Prepare for Lessons Line Upon Line
I once heard that preparing for a talk or a lesson in brief, 10-minute chunks of time throughout a week is more effective than sitting down for a consecutive hour. Over the last few years, I’ve found this to be true for myself. It might just work for you too—especially for fourth Sunday lessons.
Since we have the same topic for several months in a row, it’s helpful to have frequent, brief opportunities to study and dwell on that topic. I also find that as I begin my regular scripture study with my lesson topic in the front of my mind, I find new connections to the topic in places I would never have thought to look otherwise.
Lately, I’ve found that as I remind myself of the topic and take good notes during my scripture study, I come to the fourth Sunday with a plethora of ideas that all fall together into a lesson. Sometimes ideas I didn’t even plan on using suddenly come up again through class members’ comments or through promptings of the Spirit.
I truly believe that the Lord will inspire our scripture study over the weeks as we continually ponder on our lesson topic in brief, frequent bursts. The new fourth Sunday lesson structure is inspired, and I’m excited that I get to be a part of it.