With a new year comes a change in the way adults in the Church spend the third hour of their Sabbath day meetings. The most noticeable change is that elders quorums, high priests groups, and ward Relief Societies no longer have a lesson manual on which to rely. This means that Church members will take more individual and collective responsibility for what happens during this time.
The prospect of change can bring a degree of trepidation as members embark in this new direction. Church leaders speak of it with a tone of reassurance. “You can do this!” said Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society General President. “It’s actually more simple than you think. It’s less of a burden on leaders and teachers.”
The following questions and answers are distilled from separate Church News interviews with Sister Bingham and three members of the Priesthood and Family Department: Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, General Authority Seventy and Executive Director of the department; Richard Heaton, managing director of the department; and Mike Magleby, director of curriculum.
How did this new curriculum come about?
Elder Hallstrom: It’s another step in the rollout of an overall integrated curriculum for the members of the Church. It started with Come, Follow Me—for Youth in 2013. The next step was the production of Teaching in the Savior’s Way, which is a guidebook that’s elevating all teaching in the Church, not just in Sunday School, not just in Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society.
A component of Teaching in the Savior’s Way is the teacher council meetings supervised by the ward Sunday School presidency but involving teachers from all organizations. So now, we have Come, Follow Me—for Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society, sometimes called the third-hour curriculum.
Will you briefly review the week-by-week elements of the third-hour curriculum?
Elder Hallstrom: The first Sunday in the month is perhaps the most significant change, because that is going to be a council meeting involving the entire quorum, group, or ward Relief Society.
On the second and third Sundays of the month, the curriculum, which in the past has been the Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals, now will be drawn from talks from the most recent general conference. On the fourth Sunday, it will be a single topic selected by the First Presidency and the Twelve for a six-month period. The fifth Sunday will be as it is now, with a topic chosen by the bishopric for instruction to the combined Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society.
Will you please explain more about the first-Sunday meeting?
Elder Hallstrom: It’s a council meeting for the quorum, group, or Relief Society, led by their individual leadership. It addresses the needs of the quorum or organization and how we can better prepare ourselves, then organize to meet those individual needs. It is not a lesson—we have lessons or discussions on the other Sundays in the month—but the first Sunday is meant to be a true council, led by leadership but involving everyone.
Brother Heaton: Prior to any given first-Sunday council meeting, the presidency may in preparation prayerfully identify a need. Then, at the council meeting, they will present that and ask, “What are your thoughts on this subject? How will we address this need?” We don’t know how that will happen in any one group, but as the presidency comes to understand the needs of their group through home teaching or visiting teaching reports, they’ll begin to have a sense of what the general needs may be. Under the gift of revelation, they’ll select one of those needs and seek more information on how to meet that need generally.
Sister Bingham: The idea is that it’s truly a council in which everyone has a chance to contribute, and it’s much more rich when many people participate. 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?
For more information, see First-Sunday Council Meetings.
Is it fair to say that this council meeting, being more generally focused, does not supplant the ward council meeting?
Brother Magleby: Yes. You’re talking more about the principles to help many people than the specific needs of one individual person—although the individual needs of a person could trigger a general discussion about principles.
Elder Hallstrom: If I might add to that in this setting of a first-Sunday council meeting, we’re certainly not going to talk about very sensitive, confidential matters as a quorum or as a Relief Society. So it’s really more a matter of “This is a general need that we have; how can we better accomplish it?” or “We need to provide more service in this way; let’s organize ourselves to do better at that.” So we’re not changing the function of the ward council at all. If anything, it is totally supportive to what the ward council would be doing and helping in a more general way than person-by-person or family-by-family.
Depending on the circumstances in the ward, these council meetings could be rather sizable. How does one encourage involvement by everyone?
Sister Bingham: Facilitate a spiritual discussion! Respond positively to comments and keep the focus on doctrines. 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.
The leader of the council—what I like to call the discussion facilitator—could come prepared with a few scriptures, a couple of quotes from Church leaders, or a brief example or illustration of the doctrinal concept being discussed as prompts, to be shared if needed. For example, the topic might be “How can we increase the unity in our Relief Society [or quorum or group]?” Some questions might be these: “Why is unity important? What are some of your favorite scriptures about unity? What tends to decrease unity among us? (Keep this section short.) What are some specific things we can do to increase our unity? Is there one of these actions we’d like to do as a group? Which one would you like to do as an individual?” Write that down or put it in your smartphone as a reminder. Next week come prepared to briefly share how what you did has increased the unity in our Relief Society.
ister Bingham: The point I’d like to make is that they are not lessons anymore. They are facilitated spiritual discussions. Again, when we teach in the Savior’s way, we are much more engaged, much more able to learn, because our mind and our heart are invested. We come prepared to share, having already read the conference talk. We all know that when we have to articulate how we feel, what we think, and what we believe, it strengthens what we believe within ourselves.
The discussion leader does not need to come prepared with all kinds of extra materials. You might come prepared with a few thoughts of your own, a few scriptures that relate, maybe another quote, but really, the material in each conference talk is more than sufficient to have a wonderful spiritual discussion.
And at the end, it would be wonderful if the discussion leader would ask, “So what would you like to do about this? How would you like to apply this to your life?” And then, at the beginning of the next week’s meeting, give an opportunity for two or three to share what difference it did make in their lives when they put it into action.
Brother Magleby: I might add that the second and third Sundays, which are based on conference talks, are really taking what we’ve been doing in Teachings for Our Time, which has typically been on the fourth Sunday, moving it to the second and third Sundays, and doing it twice in a row. But we’re hoping to do it a bit more actively, so that the engagement is more than reading the talk together. It’s getting into the intent of the talk. What are the Brethren teaching us? What can we actually do after leaving this meeting as a result of our discussion?
Brother Heaton: More than giving a lesson about the same topic that was addressed in the talk, I think the intent of the Brethren is to get more into the words of the talk to see how they apply and discuss those words in a way that makes them more relevant and meaningful. Focusing on one talk can easily take the whole time, and in doing so, we honor the apostles and prophets and other leaders of the Church. We feel it is wonderful to explore what their prophetic words are, rotating six months at a time.
ould you please elaborate on the meeting for the fourth Sunday?
Elder Hallstrom: It will have a topic selected by the First Presidency and the Twelve. It will typically cover a six-month period. And it’s not a matter of having the same lesson every fourth Sunday for those six months; the intent is to take various aspects of the topic. For example, the first topic is already assigned to be the Sabbath day. It might be that on one Sunday, we talk about the sacrament. On another, we talk about Sabbath observance in the home. This first topic, Sabbath day, will last until new content arrives following April general conference. Then, every six months, there will be another topic directed by the First Presidency and the Twelve. Church members will be notified by way of the Church magazines or online.
Sister Bingham: The fourth week is really wonderful because you’re learning about that topic and increasing your commitment to it with the rest of the members of the Church around the world.
A year from now, what do you hope will have been accomplished with this new curriculum?
Elder Hallstrom: Everything that we do is to strengthen faith in Heavenly Father and His plan and in Jesus Christ and His Atonement. We hope there is an increase in the spiritual atmosphere of these meetings. We want to elevate teaching. The true teacher in every meeting is the Holy Ghost, and the teachers or the presidencies are instruments—vehicles, if you will—to help the Holy Ghost be the teacher.
We believe these changes will elevate the potential for our discussion to be spiritually directed: to be focused on needs, individually and collectively, in a way that is better than ever before. We hope that these first Sundays really become council meetings, not lessons; that the second and third Sundays become spiritually focused; and that individually and collectively, people will have felt something and have a personal desire to keep improving their lives.
Brother Heaton: We hope one of the outcomes of this is that members will feel the Church is increasingly relevant to the challenges and opportunities they face in their families in their day-to-day lives, because we’re trying to talk about real needs and real issues where the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide hope, encouragement, and solutions for them.
Brother Magleby: I see it in terms of three related concepts: revelation, service, and unity.
The first week allows an opportunity to receive collective inspiration by truly counselling together and understanding multiple perspectives from which the Holy Ghost can introduce a revelatory experience as a council. Then, we begin to exercise the service component of what it means for us to fulfill some duties that we have as covenant members of the Church. The result of that is a more unified group and Zion-like community.
Sister Bingham: 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.
Where can we find additional resources on the new curriculum?