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January 3, 2013
The Real Issue
Bizarre Comments at Church
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


Last Sunday in Relief Society we had a fairly straightforward lesson about parenting. But it went terribly wrong when the teacher started sharing some personal experiences. They were downright wacky! Worse, they displayed some very strange views of the gospel.

I couldn’t think of a constructive way to respond, so I didn’t say anything.

But now I wonder if I should have said something. What if somebody took the crazy comments seriously? I have six grown children, so I’ve been around the block when it comes to parenting.

What is a good strategy for dealing with bizarre comments at church?


Church just wouldn’t be church without bizarre comments and weird stories. They come with the territory of inviting all comers to participate during lessons and testimony meetings, and of staffing each of the classes with a teacher.

How you deal with them depends on your role in the class. A teacher or presiding officer has the authority to interrupt a comment or redirect a lesson because the class is within his stewardship. In Relief Society, the presiding officer is the Relief Society president. And either she or her designees have the authority and responsibility to ensure that true doctrine is taught.

An ordinary class member has no authority to direct the class or teacher, but he does have the responsibility to contribute in a constructive way to the lesson. A person can do this by visibly paying attention to the lesson (manual out, looking interested), having a reverent attitude, and praying for the teacher. A person can also do this by answering the teacher’s questions and making comments that are relevant, helpful, doctrinally correct, kind, and (usually) no more than about 30 seconds in length.

An ordinary class member has this responsibility even when it is the teacher who is heading down a rabbit hole of odd or irrelevant ideas. There are several approaches you might try, always remembering that you are not actually in charge of monitoring or directing the lesson.

Your tone is crucial. It should be friendly and kind, never condescending. You should not affect a false humility and pretend you are unsure about something you absolutely know. But your tone should be diplomatic and moderate: do not be so strident that you feel stupid if you discover that someone else has better information than you.

And there are two situations when you should say nothing at all. One, if you cannot express yourself kindly, you should keep your mouth shut. There is no occasion at church where unkindness is warranted. Contradicting a person can be done kindly, so do not mistake a fear of offending someone or a desire to avoid awkwardness for kindness. But if you are feeling an urge to snap, or set someone down, or show how much smarter and more spiritual you are, or if you are feeling offended, you should keep quiet until you are calm and ready to be kind.

Two, if the initial weird comment is not relevant and the class is moving on, you should let it go. If a teacher tells a wacky story, but then moves on, help him move on by commenting on the non-wacky part of the lesson. Don’t bog down the class by going back to the wacky story.

Similarly, if the comment is made by a person who is known to make bizarre comments, it may be best to let the lesson go forward without further comment.

But if the wacky comment is under discussion, and if you can express yourself kindly, here are some things you might try.

Correct false doctrine promptly and kindly. For example, if the teacher says she prayed to the Holy Ghost you might pipe up immediately, as if the teacher simply misspoke. “You mean you prayed to Heavenly Father?” And she will probably say, “Oh, yes. What did I say? Sorry.”

For another example, if someone teaches that we chose our families in the pre-mortal existence, you might put up your hand and respond, “Actually, nowhere in the scriptures does it say that we chose our families before we came to earth. What it does say is . . . . ” You would then relate the scripture in question to whatever topic you are discussing, providing the teacher with a nice segue back to the lesson.

You can also use this approach when someone propagates a false fact, such as “the eye of a needle” refers to the tiny door of an ancient fortress, through which a camel could only enter by crawling on its knees. If you hear such baloney, you can say, “Actually, . . .” and then correct the error in a tone that implies that everyone—especially you—is surprised and delighted to discover the true fact. You can even start with “You know, I once heard that, too. But in fact . . . .”

But if you are going to do this, make absolutely sure (1) that what the teacher said is actual false doctrine or incorrect fact and not just another point of view or practice or policy and (2) that you are right.

When a bizarre comment or story under discussion is not actually false doctrine, but you disagree with it on more than just personal grounds (i.e. the speaker thinks boxing is healthy exercise but you think it is barbaric), you should offer your alternative view. Church lessons depend upon sensible class members who are willing to share their experiences and insights into how to live the Gospel. I am constantly wishing that more of our faithful sisters would share their thoughts during Relief Society!

Start with a phrase like: “I find that,” or “I think,” or “To me.” These phrases are not openly confrontational; they indicate that what follows is your opinion or point of view. You then can make a parallel point without announcing that you are trying to contradict what was just said. The teacher might not even realize that you are disagreeing with her.

Another good strategy is to read a scripture that is on point. “This makes me think of the scripture in . . . ,” you say, and then you read it and make your point.

You might also raise your hand and make a comment about something pertinent in the lesson manual. Or even read from the lesson manual! (Imagine that.)

Finally, a caveat. Church lessons need not be perfect for you to learn from them. Some bizarre comments might lead you to think deeply about why you think they are not right. Also, one lesson is just that: one lesson. The topic will be taught again. Not every imperfection needs to be addressed right now.

More importantly, bizarre comments are the price we pay for encouraging all class members to participate as equals during our Sunday lessons.

Articulating personal thoughts and experiences about the Gospel to other members of a class is an important means of growth for some people, and it is important to afford them that opportunity. It would be wrong to jump in so often that class members avoided making comments out of fear of contradiction by a more articulate or experienced member of the class.

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