“My husband and I love the new curriculum. We talk about our Relief Society and priesthood lessons every Sunday after church while fixing dinner. It has led to many wonderful discussions. Since both lessons are on the same topic but given by different teachers, we gain added insights by sharing what we learned in our lesson,” says one sister, reflecting on the gospel instruction she receives on Sunday.
Married couples are not the only ones who benefit from the parallel instruction. “I have found myself in conversation with Relief Society sisters after priesthood and Relief Society meeting, discussing the topic of the lesson,” says one single brother. “It’s always interesting to hear the perspectives from sisters on concepts we’ve been learning about in priesthood. It opens new insights we hadn’t considered.”
The new curriculum was developed in response to instructions from the First Presidency. “What they really wanted was to give the curriculum more doctrinal substance,” says Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Presidency of the Seventy, who serves as General Authority adviser to the Church’s Curriculum Department along with Elders F. Enzio Busche, John M. Madsen, and Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy.
“I think there was an initial bit of stuttering with the new curriculum,” says Elder Morrison. “I think it was quite a change. But then people began to understand the importance of focusing on the teachings of the prophets. The new Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum is giving a doctrinal foundation from the mouths of modern-day prophets. We need to know what the Brethren were saying 100 or 150 years ago as well as what is being said today.”
“Five objectives crystallized the early discussions,” Elder Jensen says. “One was to address the concern that modern members are not really familiar with the teachings of men such as President Brigham Young and President Joseph F. Smith. Two, there was a desire to strengthen the work of the priesthood quorums and the Relief Society, to really get people into the work of those organizations instead of just talking about it. Third, there was the hope to strengthen new converts. Fourth, more flexibility was desired to focus on current topics. Finally, it was hoped that providing a parallel course of instruction for men and women would carry over into the home and into conversations between husbands and wives.”
“Most instructors have really caught the vision and are teaching in priesthood and Relief Society like it was intended,” says Elder Jensen. “The first Sunday is a time to understand and appreciate the power and the authority of the priesthood and the role of Relief Society and then get down to doing the work of those organizations, turning the philosophy and the doctrine into practical reality.”
Elder Morrison points out, “As we address these practical considerations, we have to maintain the doctrinal underpinning. We have to understand why we need to do these service-oriented things.”
Eric Samuelsen of the Grandview Third Ward, Provo Utah Grandview East Stake, says: “We recently had the best priesthood lesson of my life on a first Sunday. Our elders quorum president called 15 sisters during the week and—promising strict confidentiality—asked them what they wished they could tell their husbands. The results were stunning: ‘I wish he’d really listen to me when I tell him about my day.’ ‘I wish he’d join in, or even lead, a family discussion at the dinner table instead of heading straight for the TV.’ ‘I wish he’d notice unpleasant chores that need to be done. Why is it my job to clean toilets?’ As he read the comments, the men in the quorum just sat there stunned. It led to the best discussion we’ve ever had in priesthood, and I for one left both chastened and inspired.”
In both priesthood and Relief Society, the focus of the first Sunday is to help men and women understand their duties and meet their respective responsibilities. It is a time to identify specific needs and decide on cooperative ways to meet those needs. Members of the high priests group leadership or of the elders quorum or Relief Society presidency should provide the instruction. Their many options include holding discussions on charitable service or other welfare work; on effective home teaching or visiting teaching; on the need for temple ordinances and the blessings of participating in temple and family history work; on strategies for meaningful family home evenings, fellowshipping, and missionary work; on managing family finances; and on other topics. Assignments may be made for specific tasks, and reports from previous assignments may be given.
Leaders are encouraged to make use of approved resources for the first Sunday, including Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum Instructions and Relief Society Leader’s Instructions; Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2, sections 1 (Melchizedek Priesthood), 3 (Relief Society), and 16 (Gospel Teaching and Leadership); videos such as Putting the Melchizedek Priesthood to Work and Continuing to Minister; and manuals such as Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, Part A and Part B; The Latter-day Saint Woman, Part A and Part B; and Gospel Principles.
“The Teachings of Presidents of the Church lessons have been the greatest thing to happen in Relief Society in years!” says Lynn Gardner of the Leona Valley Ward, Lancaster California Stake. “Studying the words of the prophets is so important. How often before did we actually take the time to read, much less discuss, these subjects addressed by the Brethren? Multiple subjects they spoke on are still problems today, and we benefit greatly by the revelation they received for their time.”
Elder Madsen comments: “That is one of the great things about prophecy, that it doesn’t just speak to one particular era. The richness in the approach of talking about the teachings of each of the prophets is that it helps us see a continuity in human experience. Though my world is different from 150 years ago, at the human level my struggles are similar.”
With the second and third Sundays of each month set aside for this study of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the teachings of past Presidents of the Church, members studied the teachings of President Brigham Young during 1998 and 1999. In January 2000, new manuals containing the teachings of President Joseph F. Smith were distributed to all adult members. These are meant to be studied at home by individuals and to be used not only twice a month at church but also in family home evenings, mealtime discussions, and other settings.
The new manuals emphasize the doctrinal teachings of the prophets rather than their biographical backgrounds. Each President’s personality can’t help but come through in his teachings, however, which adds to the interest of lessons. “Anyone who studied President Brigham Young’s teachings quickly learned he was plainspoken, practical, and pragmatic but at the same time deeply spiritual,” says Elder Jensen.
The Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals are more challenging for some members than earlier manuals, but the rewards of careful study and contemplation are greater. “As I read the quotes from the prophet, it is left to me and the Spirit to make the interpretations I need at any given time,” says Tracie Laulusa of the Scioto Ward, Columbus Ohio Stake. “I can more readily decide how I need to apply the doctrine and direction in my life.” Another sister comments: “I was a bit confused in the beginning because each lesson was simply a collection of quotes, but now I enjoy the format. It is wonderful to have solid, spiritual, doctrinal lessons. I believe women want lessons like this.” The stronger curriculum strengthens the Church, she explains, because as women grow in understanding of doctrine, they pass on greater strength and spirituality to their children.
While doctrines and principles are summarized in a chapter’s section headings and there are suggestions for study at the chapter’s end, most instructors have discovered that more advance thought and preparation are needed than before. Some have thought that all the material needs to be covered in class, but that is not the intent. “Instructors need to pick out the main points that have applications for their group and then lead the quorum or class in a discussion,” says Elder Jensen. “They will need to assess the needs of a quorum or class, construct thought-provoking questions, and not be concerned about getting through all the material because it generally won’t be possible.”
Russ Hartill of the Moscow First Ward, Pullman Washington Stake, says: “As an instructor, I find that each quote could easily expand to fill the entire lesson, so I ask quorum members which of the quotes most impacted them during their reading. This encourages members to read the lesson ahead of time. Identifying patterns in a prophet’s sayings is a great way to stimulate conversation, observation, and the sharing of individual insights.”
In a recent general conference address, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “As I have visited in quorums and Relief Societies, I have generally been pleased and impressed at how these Teachings of Presidents of the Church are being presented and received. However, I have sometimes observed teachers who gave the designated chapter no more than a casual mention and then presented a lesson and invited discussion on other materials of the teacher’s choice. That is not acceptable. A gospel teacher is not called to choose the subject of the lesson but to teach and discuss what has been specified” (“Gospel Teaching,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 80).
“On the fourth Sunday, when we discuss topics from Teachings for Our Time, the level of interest from the elders seems to increase,” says one brother. “Talking about subjects the Brethren find important today makes us feel closer to the topics. The discussions often seem more relevant to our particular circumstances.”
Elder Busche notes that “the problems of the people of the world are mind boggling. Personal problems, marriage problems, child-raising problems, motivation problems, depression problems—you have them by the thousands. The teachings of the latter-day prophets can be a help and an aid for our sufferings in life.”
Toni Thomas of the Lake Poway Ward, Poway California Stake, says: “I have taught the fourth-Sunday lessons over the last year, and I have found them to be both a challenge and a blessing. Choosing from the variety of material that is offered requires thought and prayer as to what approach will benefit the sisters I teach. But that’s where the blessings are too. The Spirit is stronger, and I feel more love for the sisters when I make the effort.”
“The fourth Sunday is a golden opportunity for emphasizing subjects most needed in a particular area,” says Elder Jensen. The lesson on this day is devoted to a study of current gospel subjects communicated to the Church by the First Presidency and local leaders. In a given year, 10 of the monthly subjects and designated resources are chosen by the First Presidency, and 2 of the monthly subjects and designated resources are chosen by stake, district, or mission presidencies in consultation with their respective Relief Society presidencies.
“Discussion is a key to success in teaching these fourth-Sunday lessons,” says Elder Jensen. “If a teacher will prepare with that idea in mind, it will be more useful.”
Because some teachers and instructors will not have access to some designated resources, more than one approved resource is provided for each subject. Before the lesson, teachers should select one or at most two of the designated resources, study the selected material carefully, identify the main doctrine or principle being taught, and make notes of some key phrases or scriptural passages that teach the message. Teachers can prepare why, what, and how questions to encourage quorum or class participation, can gauge whether people are understanding the message, and can help members see how to apply gospel truths in their lives. Questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” or that lead to speculation or controversy should be avoided.
A month that has a fifth Sunday offers another chance for adult brethren and sisters to be taught by local leaders. “Fifth Sundays present a golden opportunity for leaders to prayerfully consider local conditions and the needs of their members and then to address them,” says Elder Madsen. If the bishopric or branch presidency choose to have the priesthood and Relief Society meet together on these days, then the bishop or branch president should instruct the combined group. “I don’t think we have ever had a time in the history of the Church when our curriculum has had the potential of being more relevant and helpful in solving problems,” Elder Jensen notes. “We hope members and leaders throughout the Church will put earnest effort into correcting any weak areas in priesthood and Relief Society instruction.”
As the First Presidency has stated, “Individuals, families, quorums, and Relief Societies can realize marvelous blessings as this new pattern is followed” (Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum Instructions , v, and Relief Society Leader’s Instructions , v).
Purpose is to help Melchizedek Priesthood brethren and Relief Society sisters understand and meet their responsibilities.
Instruction is given by the high priests group leadership or presidency of the elders quorum or Relief Society.
Assignments may be made for specific tasks, and reports from previous assignments may be given.
Purpose is to study the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by past Presidents of the Church.
The Teachings of Presidents of the Church manual is to be studied and used at home. Assigned chapters are to be read by individuals before coming to class.
Not all chapter material can or should be covered during class time. Instructors pick a main point or points and lead class discussion.
Instructors should focus on the manual and not bring in outside material.
Purpose is to study current subjects chosen 10 times yearly by the First Presidency and twice yearly by local leaders.
Instructors should pick only one or two of the approved resources for their lesson material, identifying the main doctrine or principle to be taught and making notes of key phrases or scriptural passages that teach that message.
Instructors ask thoughtful why, what, and how questions to gauge whether class members are understanding the message and to help them apply it in their lives.
A month with a fifth Sunday offers an opportunity for adult brethren and sisters to be taught by local leaders; if brethren and sisters meet together, the bishop or branch president instructs the combined group.