“Major Changes in Priesthood and Relief Society Curriculum,” Liahona, Dec. 1997, 26
Beginning in January 1998, Melchizedek Priesthood holders and Relief Society sisters will be participating in new course work designed not only to increase their knowledge but also to bring them greater growth in gospel study, spirituality, service, and leadership.
The objective is to help members and leaders put gospel truths to work more effectively in their lives. To meet this goal, the new curriculum format gives a specific focus to each Sunday of the month.
On the first Sunday, the focus for priesthood quorums and groups will be on accomplishing priesthood duties; instruction on those duties will come from quorum and group leaders. Correspondingly, the Relief Society’s focus on the first Sunday will be on the work of the Relief Society, including enhancing individual spiritual development and testimony; the Relief Society presidency will provide instruction on that Sunday.
On the second and third Sundays of the month, priesthood quorums and Relief Society members will each study teachings of Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For 1998–99, these will come from a new book, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young.
On the fourth Sunday of the month, the subject of study for priesthood quorums and Relief Society members will be Teachings for Our Time—lessons based on contemporary subjects and resources designated by the First Presidency. These resources include current articles and addresses by the current President of the Church, other members of the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The subjects for discussion on the four or five fifth Sundays each year are determined by local Church leaders to meet local needs. The bishopric or branch presidency (or stake, mission, or district presidency) conducts these discussions.
Unlike the lessons held on the first four weeks of the month, the fifth Sunday discussions may be held either in combined meetings of Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society or in separate groups of adult brethren and sisters.
Fifth Sunday meetings may also be used to make up lessons that were missed earlier for conferences or other reasons. When such make-up lessons are taught, the brethren and sisters should meet separately.
The assignment to develop the new curriculum came from President Gordon B. Hinckley and his counselors, President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust. The two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who were most immediately responsible for overseeing its development say it is based on the principle that when teaching is effective and leaders show the way, members are motivated to action.
“Application could be its theme,” says Elder Dallin H. Oaks. “It stresses the application of gospel principles, especially in and through the priesthood quorums and the Relief Societies.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says it is hoped that the new curriculum will strengthen priesthood leaders and Relief Society presidencies in their roles as teachers and leaders. “We would like the quorum presidencies or group leaders and the Relief Society presidencies to see instruction as an extension of their leadership.”
While the priesthood brethren and Relief Society sisters will be studying the same lessons from the same resources on the second, third, and fourth Sundays of the month, instructions on implementing the new curriculum call for separate meetings. This separation is to strengthen the quorums and the Relief Societies in their individual and unique work.
President Hinckley has spoken of the kind of strengthening that may be expected to occur in priesthood quorums and groups. Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum Instructions, a booklet sent to local priesthood leaders with materials about the new curriculum, quotes a statement President Hinckley made in 1977, when he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
“It will be a marvelous day, my brethren—it will be a day of fulfillment of the purposes of the Lord—when our priesthood quorums become an anchor of strength to every man belonging thereto, when each such man may appropriately be able to say, ‘I am a member of a priesthood quorum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I stand ready to assist my brethren in all of their needs, as I am confident they stand ready to assist me in mine. Working together, we shall grow spiritually as covenant sons of God. Working together, we can stand, without embarrassment and without fear, against every wind of adversity that might blow, be it economic, social, or spiritual.’”
In a similar way, it is expected that Relief Society sisters will grow by learning and applying gospel principles in the strength and unity of their organization. “Sisters enjoy and benefit from the opportunity of meeting separately,” Elder Oaks says. “This is particularly important in the case of single sisters. There is something in sisterhood that is lost when they do not have this opportunity.”
Men and women will continue to receive doctrinal instruction in a joint setting in Sunday School Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Principles classes; the Sunday School curriculum will not be affected by this new study program for the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and Relief Societies. Members of the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and Relief Societies may meet together on a fifth Sunday when the stake or district president designates a topic for joint study; but if on that Sunday they are studying a regular curriculum lesson missed earlier because of a stake or general conference, they will meet separately.
In retrospect, it is clear that the new curriculum was developed with inspired direction. When Elder Oaks and Elder Holland received the assignment to improve the course of study for Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society, both had just finished rereading Discourses of Brigham Young, something each had independently felt moved to do without knowing why. Both felt that Brigham Young’s discourses would be desirable for current study.
Later, as these members of the Twelve and several members of the Seventy assigned to the new task began their labors, there was one particularly inspiring meeting that Elder Holland recalls as “the day it came together.” They were discussing possible approaches to a new curriculum when Elder Oaks stepped to a blackboard and began outlining a proposed format for various Sundays of the month. Ideas from others in the meeting quickly fleshed out the proposal. When they were finished, it was not any one person’s plan, Elder Holland says, but all knew it was what should be recommended.
The First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approved the concept before work began on compiling Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young and on other materials for the first, fourth, and fifth Sundays in the month.
Then the General Authorities “turned to a remarkable committee of men and women who worked to get the Brigham Young material ready,” Elder Oaks says. “They did a superb work.” This Church-service committee not only produced the Brigham Young book for use on the second and third Sundays of the month but also helped with materials for the first Sunday’s Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum. The fourth Sunday curriculum was largely the work of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who determined the contemporary subjects they wanted covered, then selected materials from recent Church magazines and publications as resources.
Both Elder Oaks and Elder Holland express gratitude for the support of the two Relief Society general presidencies who have been deeply involved in planning and supporting this change in curriculum. “The former Relief Society general presidency (Sisters Elaine L. Jack, Chieko N. Okazaki, and Aileen H. Clyde) were deeply committed to this, wanting to leave that gift as they left office. Their hearts and souls were in it,” Elder Holland says.
“They sent some superb women to help in the preparation of the materials,” Elder Oaks comments, adding that the new Relief Society general presidency (Sisters Mary Ellen Wood Smoot, Virginia Urry Jensen, and Sheri L. Dew) have been equally committed and diligent in preparing for the introduction of this new curriculum.
For Melchizedek Priesthood quorums or groups and Relief Societies, the first Sunday of the month will be a time of instruction from their leaders and of planning or preparation for members to apply gospel principles in fulfilling their duties and roles.
The new booklet Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum Instructions amplifies the purpose: “The result of the first Sunday quorum or group meetings should be plans designed to make greater use of the talents of Melchizedek Priesthood bearers and prospective elders. These plans also should help them become better husbands, fathers, and sons and worthy, faithful priesthood bearers actively engaged in accomplishing the mission of the Church.”
The new instruction booklet notes that priesthood leaders should identify the needs of their members and those for whom the members are responsible, then plan ways to minister to those needs. In anticipation of some of the needs, there is a series of suggested topics that could be the basis of one or more first Sunday quorum or group meetings. “They are suggestions only,” the booklet emphasizes. “Not all of them need to be used. Leaders should be flexible in adapting and combining them to meet the needs and circumstances of their members.” The 13 suggestions range from “Using the Priesthood to Strengthen Family Members” to “Helping Members Prepare for Missions” and “Caring for the Poor and Needy in the Lord’s Way.”
Similarly, a new booklet entitled Relief Society Leader’s Instructions explains that Relief Society meetings and the material studied in them “should (1) help each sister increase in gospel knowledge and commitment and (2) unite the sisters in helping accomplish the mission of the Church, which is to invite all to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him’ (Moro. 10:32).”
The flexibility of the new curriculum for the Relief Society is suggested in this instruction dealing with the first Sunday’s “spiritual development and testimony meeting”: “Because each Relief Society throughout the Church will have different circumstances, needs, and resources, wards and branches will meet the purposes of Relief Society in different ways. But the principles of caring for and saving souls are universal. Each Sunday meeting can bring increased commitment to putting important gospel principles into action.”
Presidencies may use part of the first Sunday meeting “to instruct sisters about the purposes of Relief Society and to share instructions from priesthood leaders discussed in welfare and ward council meetings.” There may also be short gospel discussions—the booklet offers 20 suggested topics—to help sisters build their testimonies, strengthen family relationships, and learn to serve each other better. Bearing of testimonies will still be part of this first Sunday meeting.
While the presidency will instruct the sisters on this first Sunday, teachers who have traditionally taught specific lessons like spiritual living or home and family education will now be designated simply as Relief Society teachers and may be assigned to teach classes on the second, third, or fourth Sundays. Ward and branch Relief Society members will notice also that the two sisters serving with their president are no longer called education and home-making counselors, but first and second counselors. But the responsibilities of dealing with education and homemaking concerns of sisters remain with the Relief Society and will now be assigned by the president to her counselors.
What of women and men who serve in the Primary, Young Women, or Young Men and cannot attend Relief Society or priesthood meetings? Relief Society presidencies and quorum or group leaders will need to develop some means of sharing with them the material discussed and assignments made in these first Sunday meetings, Elder Oaks says. For other Sundays, there will be the printed manual, articles, and lessons for these members to study on their own. In addition, it is hoped that, when applicable, their spouses or other adult family members will share insights from the day’s Relief Society or priesthood lesson discussions.
The teachings of Church Presidents have been included in this new curriculum at the direction of President Hinckley. “He himself is a great teacher and a master historian, one who loves the substance found in the teachings of earlier Presidents of the Church,” Elder Holland says. President Hinckley often shares the words of the Presidents with members of the Quorum of the Twelve and other General Authorities and is eager to see their teachings shared with the general membership of the Church as well.
The 1998–99 manual for study, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, will be distributed to every Latter-day Saint 18 years of age and older and is meant to become part of the member’s gospel library for personal gospel study. Teachings of other Presidents will be covered over the next several years but not necessarily in order of their Presidency.
Why start with the teachings of Brigham Young? In practical terms, “Brigham Young was the most accessible to us,” Elder Oaks explains. “President Young’s teachings are so extensive and have been so thoroughly examined and fully catalogued that it was comparatively easy to compile them into one volume that will serve us for two years.” Work on the teachings of other Presidents, including the Prophet Joseph Smith, is now going forward for use in future years.
Elder Holland points out that in addition to magnifying his remarkable gifts as a prophet, President Young spent decades teaching members how to put the principles of the gospel revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith to work in their lives. The second President of the Church was a master of application—one of the purposes of the new curriculum.
Members may be surprised, in fact, at how applicable his teachings are to life in the 1990s and beyond. “There has been an inclination on the part of members, and those outside the Church as well, to see Brigham Young as the great colonizer, the great, practical American Moses—all of which he was. But I am awed by the profundity of his mind. He is brilliant and inspired, by every standard. You only have to read what he wrote to understand that his words still speak to us today,” Elder Holland says.
Elder Oaks concurs strongly. “I’d like to promise every member of the Church that if you will read these teachings you will be profoundly taught and exhilarated by the truth and beauty and value of the principles of the gospel taught by this great prophet. They are powerful!”
As an example, Elder Oaks quotes from the teachings of President Brigham Young: “Many imbibe the idea that they are capable of leading out in teaching principles that never have been taught. They are not aware that the moment they give way to this hallucination the Devil has power over them to lead them onto unholy ground” (Discourses of Brigham Young, selected by John A. Widtsoe , 77–78). That, Elder Oaks says, is still a valuable caution for any who would take it upon themselves to disseminate gospel principles beyond what the prophets have taught.
On the fourth Sunday of the month, the focus of the new curriculum will be contemporary and topical, allowing flexibility to teach on current issues. Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and groups and Relief Society sisters will study 10 different topics designated by the First Presidency, along with 2 more topics to be designated by stake, mission, or district presidents. One of the topics chosen by local leaders is to be taught in the first half of the year, and the other is to be taught in the second half.
The designated resource materials for lessons on these topics are drawn from the teachings of the President of the Church, his Counselors, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as printed in recent Church magazines. Some additional resources are also designated in other current Church publications.
Might teachers use other resources? Applicable scriptures would be appropriate. But teachers are not encouraged to seek out other sources. “We are satisfied that we are providing sufficient material for a stimulating and edifying lesson,” Elder Oaks says. “Additional efforts might better be focused on improving our teaching methods.”
“We’re a worldwide Church,” Elder Holland explains, “and in many areas perhaps all they will have available to teach is what we put in their hands. We felt an obligation to do a good job of that so teachers would have ample resources even where they do not have access to large libraries or such things as computer databases of LDS materials. We’ve been very conscious of tapping material we know they already have.” In areas where the Church is still very new and translated materials are limited, a set of guidelines for using the more limited materials available to members in those areas is being provided.
“We could not implement this new curriculum without the Church magazines,” Elder Oaks says. The Ensign and the International Magazines will continue to be the major sources of material used in the fourth Sunday lessons for the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society Sunday curriculum. All members and leaders are encouraged to subscribe to the Church magazines as part of their Church curriculum study materials.
Both Elder Oaks and Elder Holland see high-quality teaching as a way to retain new members and bring back old ones who are not currently enjoying all the blessings of the gospel.
Elder Oaks points out that converts come into the Church after intensive but basic gospel instruction by missionaries, during which they feel strong spiritual confirmations; in the ward or branch, they need to find doctrinal instruction that continues to touch their spirits. Less-active members desiring to come back must find teaching that reinforces their resolve with gospel substance.
“All members of the Church need to deepen their doctrinal understanding of the gospel and thereby strengthen their testimonies,” Elder Holland says. This cannot happen for new converts if they are left without strong reinforcement after only six brief missionary discussions, and it will not happen even for lifelong members if they do not continue to study and ponder gospel principles throughout their lives.
President Hinckley often emphasizes nourishing members “by the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4), Elder Holland says. “We believe this new curriculum is going to nourish them.”