There’s recently been a pretty dramatic change to the third hour curriculum. Rather than a lesson, or even a General Conference talk, the first week of the month is “presidency’s choice” of topic. The second and third weeks are discussions on General Conference talks assigned by the presidency, and the fourth Sunday is on a topic assigned by the church (“Sabbath” for six consecutive months–kill me now). To me, switching from the Teachings manual to selected talks from the last General Conference is an upgrade for a few reasons. First, we spent more time on Howard Hunter than he actually spent in the role of church president. Some of these manuals were a little thin (his was pretty good, though). Second, we have a little more control on what talks we choose. Lastly, while I don’t love every General Conference talk, I figure those talks are more relevant to someone else, and there’s always something there for everyone.
Basically this gives us license to talk about what we want to talk about, which is steering into the skid since that’s what’s going to happen anyway. It feels more open.
I was teaching Youth Sunday School when the Come Follow Me curriculum was launched, and that was pretty rough in my opinion as a teacher. It’s still the approach for the youth. The difficulty I had as a teacher was keeping the attention of my 12-16 year olds on the 3rd, 4th and 5th consecutive lessons on the same topic (e.g. “Priesthood” or “Restoration”), especially since they were getting these exact same topics in YM / YW. Man, that was a tough pull. Those kids were playing a lot of whatever they were playing on their phones back then during those weeks. That doesn’t bode well for the six consecutive 4th Sunday lessons on the same exact topic, but we’ll see.
For me, this new approach to the first Sunday of the month felt like a pretty big change, especially since despite being in the Relief Society Presidency, I haven’t attended Relief Society in my ward for over a month due to a mix of travel, business emergencies, and back pain, and I’ve only been in this ward a little over a year due to a stake realignment–I’m still trying to pretend I know people’s names. I hadn’t even gotten around to reading the curriculum launch notes on lds.org in advance. So, with a new year dawning, and a very welcome meeting time change , I entered Relief Society wondering what it would be like.
We formed a circle, as suggested in the article on the changes. That alone wasn’t easy since Relief Society is a huge group, about 40 women in my ward, and we’re in a smaller room (Priesthood meets in the 3rd overflow in the gym). Our ward skews older, so EQ only had 7 in attendance, and they had plenty of room to make a circle. The HP group is bigger, maybe 30 in attendance. A circle of 40 is frankly a little unwieldy, but that goes to the heart of my general complaint that EQ/HP are two separate groups whereas all women are apparently one big woman with no separation by age.
From the article, Sister Bingham said:
It is recommended that, if the group size allows, we make a circle with our chairs so that each person feels like they have an equal voice. Those who are facilitating the council should watch for those who have not made comments or who look like they would like to make a comment but are too shy to have done so. Include everyone.
My first impression of the circle was that it felt a lot more interactive. Sometimes a cosmetic change like this can be powerful, like Mr. Keating telling the boys to stand on their desks to see things from a different perspective. There may have been about the same number of comments, and probably from the same people, and maybe they were even the same types of comments, but there was also more connection and non-verbal communication. I found it much harder to play Candy Crush or shop on Amazon with all those kind eyes boring into me. People were connecting because we could see each other’s faces, not just the backs of hairdos. At one point I wondered if this was a practice “council of the gods,” a group meeting to discuss and make decisions about actions. However, another comment was made that it reminded someone of AA or one of those groups in the 70s where people share feelings and do trust falls. To each her own.
Our chosen topic was new year’s goals individually and collectively, as a Relief Society. In typical fashion, nobody wanted to suggest a goal for all 40 of us, so the very first hint of a suggestion (a story about the YW reading the BOM together) was glommed onto as something actionable for all of us to take on. I’m still a bit skeptical about group goals, but whatever. Not my rodeo. There was a lot of back and forth about how to do it. Read the whole thing? Have a number of pages per day? Count it even if they just read one inspiring verse? Let each person choose for herself? The sister sitting next to me leaned over and said, “We’re not really going to do this, right?” The woman who sort of accidentally suggested it was subsequently put in charge of the group goal’s execution, so she was probably kicking herself for speaking up.
The action item focus is new, although vague application questions have always been a staple of our lessons. From the article, Sister Bingham explained:
One of the beautiful things about this council meeting is that you actually come up at the end of the meeting with an action plan. You choose an action individually, and possibly as a group. Then, in the next week, they have an opportunity to briefly report: What was the effect of what you chose last week? Did it really make a difference?
It seems a bit ambitious to me to think we are really going to change accountability in this way, but we’ll see. Most of what I see is that people will only ‘fess up if it’s positive, not if they didn’t do anything, and half the time, the comments are just personal stories that don’t move the ball forward anyway. Some people just like to talk. But I’m prepared to be surprised.
The article had suggested a possible first topic for wards struggling to figure this new format out:
For example, the topic might be “How can we increase the unity in our Relief Society [or quorum or group]?”
This was the exact topic our ward’s Elders’ Quorum chose, unsurprisingly, which is kind of funny when the purpose is to give local leaders and ward members more personal say in what’s done and create more accountability for our discussions. These should reflect what we as ward members know to be our priorities or feel impressed is important right now, not just something handed down arbitrarily from Salt Lake. As Sister Bingham said:
The point I’d like to make is that they are not lessons anymore. They are facilitated spiritual discussions.
Honestly, I thought they were always spiritual discussions more than lessons, at least in Relief Society (less so in Gospel Doctrine, although it depends on the teacher), but this gives us permission to do what we already were doing. Whew! Because we really don’t stick to the manual in Relief Society whereas I’ve often heard the men are literally passing the manual around and reading chunks out of it, without a doily or silk flower in sight, or even a table to put them on. We like to freelance on the lesson content, but with props.
Our second meeting was really rough. We had asked for input on meeting topics women wanted to discuss, and there was some controversy because a few sisters only wanted talks from apostles, none from any sisters or the seventy. That wasn’t the question up for debate, and when the suggestion was rejected, there were hurt feelings and even a storm out; it wasn’t great. Honestly, I didn’t really want to go back after that happened. The church’s overview of the new program seems to indicate that this is expected, though, and that in the pilot wards the meetings were often rocky at first, and by the end of the year got much more productive. So I guess we are on track!
Sister Bingham describes what she hopes the outcome of the change will be:
I would hope that in a year, the members would feel more united, they would feel more in tune with the Spirit, they would feel more supportive of one another, and they would actually feel that living the gospel of Jesus Christ makes a difference in their daily lives.
I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I’m optimistic that sitting in a circle, more than anything else, was a successful change. What were your impressions?
- Did your group sit in a circle? Did you like it or not? How many are there in your RS/EQ/HPG?
- What topic did you discuss for this first two meetings?
- Did people come away with action items? Was it a group goal? Do you think it’s going to happen?
- How are they going? Are they productive? Do people participate?
- Are you optimistic about this new approach? Why or why not?
 We got the sweet 11:00 start this year.
***I originally posted about this change on BCC after our first meeting. This is a follow up piece now that we’ve had two months.