Let’s chat about how to teach LDS Relief Society. Not the hokey way–the meaningful way.
I’ve been teaching Relief Society for about a year now, so I’m not an expert. I put myself squarely in the “amateur with good intentions, a bit of social anxiety, and a bunch on her to-do list” category. However, I’d like to share what I’ve learned thus far. Feel free to join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.
First off, do you remember why Relief Society even exists? If we’re going to teach something, shouldn’t we understand what the purpose of the class is? To help answer that question, Daughters in My Kingdom informs us that “the purposes of Relief Society are to increase faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families and homes, and provide relief by seeking out and helping those in need.”
Relief Society is not merely a social hour, a venting hour, a fashion show, or a crafting hour. Those things are all fun and have a level of importance; but, the real reason we are gathered together each Sunday is to accomplish the purposes described in Daughters in My Kingdom. We are gathered together to build a strong community of women where discussions and growth can occur–specifically in regards to increasing faith and personal righteousness, strengthening families and homes, and helping those in need. So, how do we do that?
Let’s get two basic things out of the way first.
- Do Not Make Handouts. The focus is on the Spirit, the discussion, the learning, and the building of community. Not the scrapbook paper. Save your sanity and the forest. No handouts. Most of them end up in the trash anyway.
- Do Not Make Treats. See above notes about handouts. Focus on the message and the thoughts of the sisters, not the temporary goodness of sugar. If it is an extra special occasion or you have a bunch of cookies leftover from yesterday’s family reunion, then go ahead and bring them. Otherwise, forgo the treats. Most of us can do without the extra calories anyway.
Now, on to the things that can help your lessons accomplish the purposes of Relief Society…
Rather than thinking of yourself as a teacher, think of yourself as a facilitator. You aren’t there to share your depths of wisdom (ha!) with the sisters in Relief Society, you’re there to facilitate a discussion so that the sisters can learn from each other. It’s not a dissertation, a business presentation, or a preschool class–so don’t treat it like one.
- Ask Meaningful Questions. I rarely use the questions directly from the manual. Rather, I re-phrase them a bit to be more inviting of discussion rather than canned primary-esque asnwers. When you’re preparing, re-write the questions into something that you would personally find intriguing or thought-provoking. For example, lesson 2 in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual has the following question: “How do you think President Smith’s children were influenced by his testimony and his expressions of love for the Savior?” That is an okay starter question, and it would probably get some conversation going. As an introvert though, it’s not something that I would raise my hand and answer–so it’s not a question I use word-for-word when I teach. When I hear questions like that, my introvert mind tends to revert into basic mode, think “it was good, they learned things” and then get distracted by contemplating solutions for world peace (or maybe just solutions for dinner). On the other hand, if someone asked the following: “Who influenced you when you were first learning the gospel? What was it about their testimony or their actions that was meaningful?,” then it would get my mind headed in the right direction. Prepare questions that you personally would be interested in or willing to discuss.
- Use the Manual. I know. I know. You’re rolling your eyes right now and saying “ugh-the manual.” The manual is where it’s at though. The majority of the content for your lessons should come directly from the manual. In order to be useful for all congregations of sisters (this is a world-wide church with 15 million members after all), the manuals are written in a way that sometimes seems impersonal or removed from the here and now. That’s okay though. You get to take that material and discuss it in a way that meets the unique needs and challenges of the sisters in your Relief Society. I like to start off my preparation by reading through the lesson in the manual as if I was just reading it for my own personal knowledge. Then I go through it again and mark things like I would if I was sharing it with a close friend.
- The Focus is on Them–Not You. Your goal in preparation is to be familiar with the lesson material to the point that you feel comfortable leading a group conversation about it. Aim to speak 25% of the time, or less. Focus on finding ways to encourage discussion rather than preparing an academic lecture or something akin to a history lesson for 3rd graders. Ask meaningful questions, give people sufficient time to ponder, divide the room into small groups for discussion, and do whatever else you can to allow the sisters to teach each other and build community. I’m consistently amazed by the maturity, depth, scholarship, wisdom, and love that is displayed by the sisters in Relief Society. It’s there–you just need to invite it, or even coax it out. If you’ve been talking for longer than 5 minutes without a break, you’ve been talking too long. When I first started teaching Relief Society, I usually prepared 8-10 pages of notes. Now that I’m focusing more on discussion, I’m down to 2 or 3. That’s 2-3 pages in giant font because I lose my place while teaching if I don’t use font sizes meant for people 4x my age.
- Share Your Personal Experiences at the End (or Middle) of the Discussion, not the Beginning. This is one that I just realized a few weeks ago. I noticed that when I share my own personal experiences first then I sort-of unofficially sway the conversation in that direction; but, when I ask a question and let others start the discussion, we get a wider variety of replies. So, now I usually share my own personal experiences in the middle or end of a particular discussion rather than using them to start off. Trust the sisters in your Relief Society. They will participate if you give them opportunities to. Really. They will.
- No One Expects You to Be Perfect aka stop the illusions and facilitate real discussion. Be open. Be willing to talk about your imperfections, your struggles, and your joys in a way that lets people know you are real and you are doing your best. The sisters you are teaching are real people too–they have dreams and sadness and goals just like you. Share things that have helped you in your journey through life. Encourage others to find hope in their lives. You don’t need to overshare–but putting a cloak over everything doesn’t help anyone either. Be willing to display your own vulnerability so that others know they are not alone. This goes for doctrine-related questions too. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say “I don’t know” or “that’s always confused me too” and ask the sisters for replies. Someone there will know the answer. If not, you can all take a detour and learn/read/explore together.
- Pauses are Fine–Stop Stressing About Them. Don’t be so afraid of pauses that you rush on to the next topic without giving the more reserved sisters a chance to share. Some of the best thoughts and comments come after a pause. People often need time to contemplate. Let them do so. During a pause, it may be helpful to rephrase the question so that others’ minds can be sparked. Don’t rush through. Use your best judgement on when to move on.
- You Don’t Need to Cover 100% of the Material. Most of the lessons have more material than you could cover even if you had the entire 3-hour block to do so. You don’t need to discuss 100% of it, or even 50% of it. Select the aspects that are most applicable to the sisters in your ward and their individual needs. Never, ever, ever cut a conversation short in order to “get through all the material” or to “move on because we have so much to cover.” Some weeks you’ll only discuss two or three paragraphs from the manual, other times it may be four or five pages. Either way is fine. Again–focus on building a community and creating an environment of growth and wisdom.
- Remember that Everyone Has a Different Story. No matter how well you know the sisters in your ward, I guarantee that there are dreams and challenges that you know nothing about. Don’t assume that everyone was raised in a gospel-centered home, or that everyone has a happy marriage, or that everyone has a testimony of basic gospel principles. Do your best to use language that is inclusive and welcoming, and that allows many different types of people to feel welcome to participate.
- End Your Lesson on Time. Every Time. Give the same courtesy to your fellow ward members that you expect for yourself. Keep a close eye on the clock, and be sure to start wrapping up things at least two or three minutes prior to when your lesson is scheduled to end. Additionally, be sure to give at least 5 minutes for the closing hymn and prayer. If your Relief Society meeting ends at 9:50, you should begin wrapping up your lesson no later than 9:40. Do not go over time. Do not make all your class members late for Sacrament Meeting, or short the Sunday School teacher 10 minutes because you felt your lesson was more important than theirs, or keep your sisters’ families waiting in the hall. End on time. Always.
That’s all the tips I can think of now. What tips do you have? Even if you’re not a Relief Society teacher, you’ve probably participated in enough lessons to make a few observations about what works well and what does not. Please share in the comments so that we can all work towards creating a strong, gospel-oriented society of sisters.