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January 22, 2009
In The Village
Teach with the Times -- Priesthood Meeting Part 2
by Orson Scott Card

In the U.S., at least, most of the elders who attend priesthood meeting are returned missionaries.

They learned a series of lessons and delivered them often. Lots of practice: Doesn't that mean that they're already prepared to be excellent teachers?

Wouldn't that be nice.

As missionaries, they gave the same group of lessons for two years. They had a trained companion to back them up or spell them off. They were teaching people who didn't know much about the gospel.

Now, in elders quorum, many of the men they're teaching know at least as much as they do. The lessons are different every time.

And there's another huge difference. As missionaries, their egos probably weren't on the line -- success was owed to the Spirit, and failure to the choices of the investigators.

But when you teach your fellow elders, it can feel as if your social standing in your ward is at stake.

So all that I'm-not-prepared stuff ("I found out I was teaching just last night," "I read the lesson during sacrament meeting") can be a way of excusing yourself in advance if people think you didn't do a good job.

Or, worse, it can be a way of showing off. You hope to wow the other guys with your brilliant insights into the gospel and/or your fantastic teaching, and yet you did it without preparation!

More likely, though, the last thing you want to do is appear to think you're better than the other men in the group. If you showed clear signs of preparation and then delivered a fantastic lesson, while speaking with the authority that comes from knowing what you're talking about, then the other guys might think you were -- gasp! -- a gospel wonk (at best) or a complete showoff smarty-pants (at worst).

Never mind that only the most ego-poor quorum members would ever think ill of you for doing a good job. Elders who are products of the American education system have had it pounded into them that the worst thing ever is to have other guys think that you think you're smart.

As far as I know, it's only in America where seeming smart is the kiss of death, socially. And even in the absence of women -- or perhaps especially in the absence of women -- most men cannot shake off the endless one-upmanship that typifies the behavior of young males.

But let's say you're in a quorum that has none of those ego problems. The teachers prepare; the quorum members try to support them and participate.

And the meetings are still unbelievably dull.

The Lessons

Lessons consisting of sermons and writings of former Church Presidents are a good idea -- provided the teachers follow the example of Jacob and "liken the scriptures to ourselves." Too often, though, teachers seem to think that because the words come from a prophet, it is enough merely to read those words. It isn't.

Also, the manuals tend to cover the lasting verities of the gospel rather than the issues that face us most urgently today. Only the most recent Presidents had an inkling of the world our elders face. Joseph F. Smith, Brigham Young, even the Prophet Joseph didn't say much about pornography, living together outside marriage, homosexuality, dealing with two careers, or even child-rearing.

They lived in a culture where the first four were almost unheard of, and the last was almost totally regarded as "women's work."

Yet today's elders are wrestling with temptations and struggling to do jobs that our earlier latter-day prophets had little to say about.

Still, the manuals provide only about half our lessons. In our stake, at least, a quarter of our lessons are "teachings for our times," based on General Conference talks assigned by the stake presidency. These are far more likely to be about contemporary issues.

But, again, when you have the words of a General Authority, which every man in the quorum is capable of reading himself, what does an ordinary elder have to add to what an Apostle had to say?

Know Your Quorum

What about the other quorum meetings? The ones decided on by the presidency of the quorum?

This is the opportunity for a presidency that really knows their fellow elders to assign topics that have practical use -- even if they aren't specifically about the gospel. (In fact, everything is included in the gospel, with the possible exception of tips for winning computer games.)

Alas, too many presidencies resort to lessons exhorting the elders to do their home teaching.

How many such "motivational" sessions can the average elder sit through in before his eyes automatically glaze over and he begins to actively hate elders quorum?

As my mother used to say, "A rule not sufficiently learned is never too often repeated."

But in the case of elders quorum meetings, the best way to get elders excited about home teaching is to get them excited about coming to church themselves. If lessons are so useful and interesting that the elders are eager to come to priesthood meeting, they will start to think of themselves as elders rather than simply as Mormons.

They are far more likely to place their priesthood duties as a high priority if they strongly identify themselves with a quorum in which they can hardly wait for the next lesson.

Long ago, when the Church consisted mostly of farmers or tradesmen who could come in from the fields or close down their shops for a few hours, priesthood meetings were held on weekdays, during the morning or early evening.

They had gospel lessons, yes, but they also talked about matters of common concern. Irrigation ditch maintenance and fair turns. The need to gather wood from the canyons. Competition with gentile merchants. How to acquire goods that were to expensive to import from outside the Rocky Mountains. New techniques of farming or accounting.

In those days, men didn't talk much about their feelings -- or about marriage or child-rearing challenges. But they talked about their real-world concerns. They worked on problems and solved them together.

What are the shared concerns of the elders in your quorum?

More to the point, since all of you are roughly at the same stage in your careers and your families, who is going to show up with a great fountain of wisdom to help everybody else solve the very same problems you're all struggling with?

Here is where a wise and prayerful presidency or teacher can consult with sources from the outside world that offer solutions consistent with the gospel.

And there's another resource, right within your ward, which elders quorums could easily draw upon -- but almost never do.

Next week, I'll finish up this series on elders quorum teaching by giving examples of excellent resources -- the "best books" from which we can learn "words of wisdom," and human resources as well.

But the most important point to keep in mind is this: You don't need to wait for some new program from Salt Lake to lift your elders quorum instruction to its highest possible level. The program is already there. It's just a matter of using it wisely, creatively, and with vigor.

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