How do you deal with questions?

May 2, 2005 | 30 comments
By


Recent posts around the bloggernacle have discussed where and when (if?) we should feel comfortable asking difficult questions in a Church setting. The general experience seems to be that Sunday School, Relief Society, and Elders Quorum can all be good places and bad places to explore controversial issues in Church history and doctrine. These Church settings can be helpful or frustrating, depending on the experience, knowledge and comfort level of your particular teacher with such questions. You may have a popular Gospel Doctrine teacher, but you may still end up feeling frustrated if the teacher doesn’t understand your thought processes, or value your questions and opinions appropriately (i.e., gives you a blank stare and moves on to the next question).

So, say someone in your Sunday School class asks thoughtful questions related to the lesson that the teacher repeatedly brushes off every week and then hurries along to get through all the material in the manual. You can tell by the questions asked that this person is sincerely struggling. What do you do? Do you interrupt the teacher and ask follow-up questions as a show of support for the questioner? If you don’t think Sunday School is the place to explore specific questions, do you reach out to this person after class, or in an email later that week? Do you do anything at all?

Alternatively, say a close family member is struggling over gospel-related issues, and is sincerely questioning his or her testimony and commitment to the Church.

How do you deal with questions and doubts voiced by people in Church, or by members of your family? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you work out a compromise in the face of differing interpretations and conclusions?

P.S. For fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (or those who got dragged to see the movie last weekend and were pleasantly surprised), I think the Galaxy POV (point of view) gun would definitely come in handy in these situations.

30 Responses to How do you deal with questions?

  1. J. Stapley on May 2, 2005 at 1:51 pm

    I have approached people after class and have been generally well received. I know for myself and those close to me, the simple act of having someone listen to you and be there when you cry goes a very long way. Church is simply not the place for such intimacy, it seems.

  2. Kaimi on May 2, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    For many questions, particularly those that don’t really matter, I try to adopt a Unitarian-sort-of approach. You want to believe that the Book of Mormon took place in Guatemala and I want to believe that it took place all over the continent? Fine, as far as I’m concerned. There’s no need to evangelize other members about little nuances that don’t matter.

    (And often, in my experience, it cause major problems. You get disagreement and contention over “can Mormons drink Pepsi?” when the question really doesn’t matter much.)

    For real doctrinal issues, like “is Jesus the Son of God?” I don’t think there’s compromising allowed. But those issues are relatively few, compared to the myriad of inconsequential things about which people often seem to be willing to engage in bare-knuckle doctrinal brawls.

  3. Ben S. on May 2, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    Like J. Stapley, I’ve approached people after class and suggested a particular book or website. It’s usually well received.

  4. Travis on May 2, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    I don’t think it’s that common to find someone confident enough to express their honest doubts in a Sunday School or EQ/RS lesson. In my experience, it’s more common to get to know someone in your ward a little bit and then the doubts/questions just come up. I have had a number of these experiences actually. Sometimes I could tell the person was struggling and encouraged the person to say what was on his/her mind, other times a person shares concerns out of the blue.
    I think that offering words of encouragement and empathy during a class or afterwards in the hallway is a good thing, but I’ve always felt it didn’t go very far in the end. In the ward-context, I just think it takes some kind of already-in-place relationship to really have a meaningful discussion of real concerns/questions.

  5. Tim on May 2, 2005 at 2:34 pm

    I think the harder question is how to deal with a family member who is struggling. I’ve had a couple of family members who have seriously struggled with gaining a testimony and specific questions about the church/gospel and haven’t ever felt like I was good at helping in these situations. The problem always seems to be that, with a friend I can say give my input and then step away, in a sense. If the friend ends up falling away from the church, I feel sorrow and loss, but it’s not the same thing with a family member. With a parent or spouse, that person’s decisions can have a huge impact on my life. I’ve had discussions where, despite my very conscious goal to be supportive, nonjudgmental, non-emotional and open-minded, I’ve become the opposite of all of those things.

    Kaimi’s point about not being able to compromise on some doctrines is exactly the issue (well, my issue, anyway). When two people end up on different sides of a non-compromise-able doctrine, what is to be done?

  6. Dave on May 2, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    While there are some informal rules that seem to guide the content of questions or comments in Church classes, I think how a teacher reacts to tough or tricky or critical comments/questions depends mostly on the personality and teaching style of the instructor. Some teachers find in-class threadjacking very unwelcome, others are happy to follow an interesting comment wherever it leads. Some teachers welcome all comments and can comfortably deal with even wacky comments by saying (with evident sincerity) “that’s an interesting view of the issue, Brother So-and-so.” Other teachers have specific ideas or conclusions they want to establish as part of their lesson which would be undermined if a wacky comment were allowed to stand without being properly redigested or sanitized.

  7. JB on May 2, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    Kaimi, as a lawyer you should know that whoever gets to define the terms essentially wins the argument. You’ve defined two classes of questions, first, those that are unimportant and meaningless, and second, those that are so important that there are no negotiable deviations. I think most people would agree with that premise. However, the real argument is about in which classification does my question belong?

  8. a random John on May 2, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Ever since a class member lunged at me and tried to attack me in EQ for disagreeing with him several years ago (not in my current ward) I have tried to tread carefully as a teacher, especially until I felt that I knew the members of the class. I have also had to deal with people and questions that I felt were crazy. So I have been in the position of having to give a non-commital response, smiling politely, and moving on. When I am teaching a lesson I prioritize the time of the majority of class members, most of whom are probably not concerned with the lone voice of dissent.

    Of course it isn’t any fun when you are the person asking the question. I’ve been in that spot a few times, including this Sunday. It was uncomfortable and I felt that other class members (moreso than the instructor) dismissed my question out of hand. I was a bit upset, but there wasn’t time to go through the digression that would have been needed to demonstrate my point. I asked the question with the assumption that such a digression would not be needed, how wrong I was…

    However I find that I am most moved by the situation in which I am neither teacher nor questioner, but a classmember watching someone else being ignored. I have often found myself talking to someone that I felt was ignored after class, trying to find out what they were getting at. I have no idea if this is productive or not. I probably have too much tolerance for crazy people in one-on-one situations, since I am more that willing to listen to what I perceive as ramblings. But sometimes I am able to discuss an actual issue with someone. I think the act of listening is probably more important than any potential answers or information that I can give.

  9. a random John on May 2, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    I should probably clarify a bit. It is particularly imporant to know that you aren’t provoking the people sitting on the front row. If someone at the back of the class decides to come after you, you’ll probably at least have a chance to grab a chair for defensive purposes before they can get to you. Of course a chair won’t help much if the entire class is coming after you. Thankfully I haven’t managed that yet, but I make sure that I know where the exits are at all times.

  10. Elisabeth on May 2, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    Great comments. I may be assuming too much here, but one reason why I chose this topic is that people who read these blogs are probably more capable of effectively answering questions than the average Sunday School teacher, who may or may not be responsive (as Dave #6 points out).

    So I was wondering whether anyone here felt any sort of obligation to try to connect with Church members and to share their thoughts and knowledge when the opportunity presented itself. I think I would have benefitted greatly from having a resource like the bloggernacle (or a live participant thereof) while growing up in Utah.

    As for dealing with different conclusions and interpretations, I think Kaimi is right – sometimes disagreeing on an issue matters and sometimes it doesn’t. But finding a compromise on an “all or nothing” issue can be really difficult (or impossible), especially if the compromise involves a spouse. Could such a compromise be to focus on keeping your own committments to the Church, and agree to disagree?

  11. B on May 2, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    As someone who has officially left the church, but still remains on good terms with LDS friends and family, I submit that the best thing you can do is to lower your expectations for the conversations you have with someone who is seriously considering exit.

    Definitely still be open to those conversations. Use your “effective listening” skills where you try to really understand what the other person is saying, and then repeat back to them what you heard, and let them tell you if you heard right. But deal with their questions without assuming that you or anyone else necessarily has the answers to them. (Did I mention that I’m Unitarian Universalist now?) Don’t expect to be able to say anything that will miraculously touch their hearts with the spirit and change the course they’re on. By the time they start to exude the “sincerely questioning testimony/church commitment” vibe, my bet is that they are past that point.

    A number of people who talked to me during my exit process seemed to be listening to me only closely enough to get the keywords of my concerns so they could search through their mental Topical Guide and come up with the verse of scripture or GA quote or snippet of folk doctrine that would bowl me over with enough power and authority to knock me right off the high road to apostasy. I felt like I was a video game character suddenly and unexpectedly exiting the church building, and they were frantically trying to press any combination of buttons on the console that might make the character go back inside. When the “if any man lack wisdom” and “in your mind and in your heart” buttons don’t seem to work, they try the “Satan can’t mimic the feeling of peace” button, or the “start over reading the BOM 30 minutes a day” button, and then they add in the “learned think they are wise” and “dogs yapping at the wagon train” buttons, and all the while the thumb is pressing heavily on the “I know the church is true” and wide-eyed sincerity buttons. It made me want to ask, “What part of this do you think I haven’t heard before, and taught to others?” I was raised in the church, went to BYU, served a mission, was a regular at the temple, etc. If my concerns could be resolved by hearing the same typical responses, then surely they would have been resolved years ago by hearing the same typical responses repeatedly throughout my decades of church activity.

    A number of people were good listeners. After hearing me out, they understood very quickly that they had nothing to offer me beyond that which did not satisfy me. It saddened me, though it didn’t surprise me, to see how sad they were to realize that fact. Part of their sadness stemmed from their understanding that I won’t be hanging out at church with them anymore, and part from their belief that we won’t be together in the afterlife, and I think part of it stemmed from guilt at not being able to “set an example” or “share the gospel” with me effectively enough to change my mind. I wish they could have at least not experienced that guilt, because I realize now there is nothing they could have done. But I don’t know what I could have done differently, other than say up front “my mind is made up; nothing you can say could ever change it,” when in fact at that time I was trying my utmost to remain open to the possibility that there may yet have been a way for me to feel right about staying.

  12. Elisabeth on May 2, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    Wow, John – I guess that’s another reason not to disagree with people in Church settings. I can just see you at the front of the room fending off attacks with a chair. I would love to see that happen in Relief Society!

    It would be nice if we could all go to church with signs on our foreheads that said “I really need to talk to someone about my issues with polygamy”, or “Looking for someone to help me understand the book of Isaiah”, so we could match people up with questions and answers.

  13. Kevin Barney on May 2, 2005 at 3:45 pm

    When I teach GD, I try to make it clear to the class that any and all questions that relate to the subject matter of the lesson may be asked. People usually don’t avail themselves of this opportunity, but sometimes they do, and they seem to appreciate being able to bring up difficult topics in a controlled environment. (I taught a whole GD class on the salamander letter once, with the SP present–back when most LDS [including me] still thought it was genuine. I think it is best to go straight at tough issues.)

    If I’m a student in a GD class and someone else raises such an issue, my reaction depends on the situation. If I have something really positive I can contribute succinctly and quickly, I’ll raise my hand and make the comment. But if it is too difficult a topic to handle in that way, I’m loathe to take over someone else’s class for even five minutes. In that situation, I would probably talk to the person separately after class, or offer to e-mail some relevant material.

  14. Mark Martin on May 2, 2005 at 4:17 pm

    Is our focus on teaching the students, or on presenting all of the material in a specific lesson manual? If our purpose is to help the students live the gospel, then we should be interested in the doubts and concerns of an individual. I think deciding whether a particular question is best addressed with the entire class, or with the inquisitive student(s) in a more personal setting, is where good judgment and discernment are necessary. In some cases it may be beneficial to let other class members help answer the question or at least provide insight and sources for further searching. But if the issue is of interest to just one person, and it is not really related to the lesson topic, then follow-up outside of class may be more appropriate. For those follow-up discussions, I think B (#11) makes helpful suggestions about listening and discussing, without expecting to magically help that person to suddenly see the light.

    I’m interested to hear more comments about how we can encourage people to ask their sincere difficult questions (as Kevin said in #13), even if it means preparing to address them more fully in a later class. We don’t need to solicit curveballs from hecklers and professional doubters, but should realize that inquiry is what led to many revelations throughout the ancient and modern scriptures. That same spirit of sincere inquiry can help us understand the meaning of the scriptures and revelations.

  15. Tim on May 2, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    B – Thanks for your comments. If you’re willing to share, I’m curious to know how these kinds of discussions played out with close family members.

    I agree that the most useful thing to do in these situations is usually just to listen, to be understanding, to maintain a good friendship. If you can add an insight, a source of information, etc. that the person hasn’t come across, that’s great. But usually if the person is open to hearing the insight or source of info, he/she would have already tracked it down. Often, as appears to be the case with B., the person has looked it over and, for one reason or another, the information hasn’t resolved the issue.

    With regard to family, I know from personal experience that focusing primarily on being a good listerner can be harder–but still possible. Although, I’m not sure how I would deal with these issues if they came up between me and my wife. It seems like once the raising of children is concerned, it gets much more important and much more difficult to have these discussions and to decide on a course of action (i.e., what to teach Tim junior about prayer, Joseph Smith, the temple).

  16. Floyd the Wonderdog on May 3, 2005 at 9:59 am

    While substitute teaching Sunday School class, I was accosted by a visitor who reviled that he had been excommunicated and wanted us to pass judgment on his previous bishop and stake president. I did not allow him to derail the class. After all, we were there to study the gospel, not to vindicate his feelings.

    I also don’t allow the conspiracy theorists or anyone else with an agenda to take control of the class. I do take time to discuss various topics with people outside of class. For example, my HT had seen *National Treasure* and began to espouse a Masonic conspiracy theory. He had studied the law, so even those with *adequate* logic skills can find themselves in strange territory. Class time is to cover the topic. Don’t try to create tangents or hijack the class.

  17. Mark Martin on May 3, 2005 at 11:00 am

    It could be fun to hear some of the toughest questions Elisabeth has heard from her 5- and 6-year-old Primary class.

  18. B on May 3, 2005 at 11:04 am

    Tim, my parents are very reserved and rational; they rarely show feelings openly. I live far from my parents, so I talked to both of them on the phone, one of them on an extension. My parents were mainly interested in understanding the extent of my apostasy, asking me, “Do you still believe this? Are you still going to live by that?” When I calmly and clearly said no to most of those questions, they went through some typical responses, but it seemed a little perfunctory.

    For example, I responded to a question about my testimony of Joseph Smith by saying, “I don’t believe Joseph Smith ever had any more authority to do things in God’s name than any other believer has, and after all that he did, he certainly didn’t deserve any special authority.” Dad said, “now remember, we don’t believe the prophets are perfect” and for whatever reason never commented on the other, more fundamental assertion.

    They also told me the little techniques and rationalizations (sorry for the negative connotation there; I can’t think of a better word) they use to keep themselves going to church relatively happily. I told them those things didn’t work for me. The conversation ended with them telling me that the door to the church is always open and I could always come back. In other words, it went as well with them as could be expected.

    My believing sibling was very dismissive, mocking, and sarcastic, but those have always been personality traits. My relationship with my disbelieving sibling improved ten-fold, as we moved almost immediately to a new level of understanding and trust in each other.

  19. annegb on May 3, 2005 at 11:17 am

    In regard to the questioner in class, I jump in and say something like, “I think Sister — makes a good point. What do we do in that case? I’d really like to know.” Which is one of the reasons I’m generally not welcome in Sunday School.

  20. Elisabeth on May 3, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    B- Thanks for your comments. You’re right that it is so important to be a good listener as someone is discussing his or her personal reasons for questioning or for leaving the Church. I wish that more members of the Church were open and accepting of those who question, but, in my experience anyway, sincere questioners are summarily dismissed, ignored or chastised for questioning in the first place. These reactions tend to give justification for the questions (i.e., the Church is hiding something), and encourage the questioners to seek acceptance elsewhere. And a lot of members have difficulty accepting that people can come to the realization that the Church isn’t true, not because the person wants to sleep around and get drunk, but because, after sincere study and thought, the person just doesn’t believe it anymore.

    Mark Martin-

    I’ve had a few tough questions in Primary. I was telling the story of Ammon as part of the lesson once, and one little girl asked whether or not Ammon really did cut off the arms of the robbers. She looked so horrified at the thought that this could be an actual true story. But most of the time, the toughest question I get is if I brought any snacks or when is it time to go home (sigh).

    And thanks for the comments on what you do as a teacher, or as a participant in class, with questions. From a personal standpoint, I really appreciate people who ask the hard questions in class, just to hear what other people are thinking, but I know as a teacher it can be difficult to respond when you’re trying to teach the lesson and get through the material. I think the material in the lesson manuals can be pretty disappointing, though. I guess we’re encouraged to just stick to the manuals to prevent teaching false doctrine or the teacher’s pet theory…

  21. Travis on May 3, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    I agree that my favorite Sunday School and EQ lessons are those where tough questions are asked and seriously considered. It’s helpful to hear other people’s ideas, even if none of them is ultimately persuasive/conclusive. Some questions reallty aren’t appropriate for a group/class setting, but asked in the right way, I think most hard questions can be discussed in a class setting. I don’t think the standard manual format for SS/RS/EQ lessons needs to be a hindrance to this kind of discussion. I’ve never personally felt required to cover an entire lesson anyway, when a good idea or discussion comes up, I’ve always felt like we should go with it. In the end, the goal is to have an enlightening discussion, not to cover a set number of pages in a manual.

  22. Kelly Knight on May 3, 2005 at 10:37 pm

    Having been through the Teacher Development Course, it seems to me that teachers, regardless the class, are encouraged to keep the discussion on course with the prescribed lesson manual and lesson of the day. The varity of understanding and knowledge in any given class is so large that to go off topic and discuss matters that are often speculative in nature can be a real disservice to the young (spiritually speaking) in the gospel.

    Quite frankly, I think those that raise questions in church classes that they know will be controversial need to be reminded that not everyone is on the same track, and that perhaps their questions would best be asked outside of class time.

    I feel for the teacher who is doing the best they can to learn the lesson material, then stand and deliver a 40 minute lesson to a daunting group of lifers, feeling totally inadequate to even get the lesson across, let alone answer questions for which they have no answers.

    An astute member will recognize the discomfort of the teacher and perhaps jump in with a short answer that will satisfy the question, and take the conversation back on track.

  23. Elisabeth on May 4, 2005 at 8:33 am

    Hi, Kelly-

    You raise some very good points. It’s important not to become distracted from the main objective of the lessons, which is to teach gospel principles. And the experiences of the teacher and the members of the class may vary widely, so sticking to the manual is a good rule of thumb.

    That said, members who have more experience in the gospel seem to have fewer opportunities to learn in a Church setting, since many of the manuals focus primarily on the basics. Of course, you can always learn new things by re-reading and studying the same material, but sometimes Sunday School makes me feel like I’m stuck finding new ways to learn the multiplication tables instead of moving on to algebra – or at least long division…

  24. annegb on May 4, 2005 at 9:59 am

    I think Kelly’s right, but sometimes I really want to know. Now I come to Times and Seasons or the other blogs and eventually somebody addresses those questions for me, or recommends a book. I’ve felt a lot calmer in Sunday School or church simply because I know I’m not the only one with questions, while I remain committed to the gospel.

  25. Blake on May 4, 2005 at 9:18 pm

    My greatest experience in dealing with questions comes from my 3 years as nursery leader. I always felt that it was best to deal with the sensitive questions up front and honestly. Sometimes I would get a really hard one like: “can I have a grahm cracker?” Once I got the penetrating question that every teacher dreads: “where is my mommy?” I didn’t know how to address that — so I skirted it. I answered it: “Your mommy isn’t coming for you, so get over it.” That didn’t go over too well. The ultimate, however, was the ultimate question: “How come you’re here, you aren’t a girl.” That pretty well said it all. All of my training in Greek and Hebrew was no avail. I could have resorted to Aquinas or Kierkegaard, but I just didn’t think that they really said anything that was up to answering that one. I had to admit that it was true: I am not a girl. No amount of honesty, sincerity or love could change that simple fact.

  26. annegb on May 4, 2005 at 9:26 pm

    Funny, Blake, I’m in the nursery, too. I just hand out those graham crackers left and right. When they ask about their mommy, I say, “she’s coming in a minute, look at this cool truck.”

    Have you read Kirby’s account of him and his wife working in the nursery, and after six months, he turned his recommend into the bishop and told him they worshipped Satan now. I’m sure he exaggerated.

  27. Kelly Knight on May 4, 2005 at 11:23 pm

    First, thank you Elisabeth. Are you by any chance related to a Wade Campbell, DDS, in Campbell CA?

    One comment I would like to make is that Sunday School and such are designed to be supplements to our personal scripture study. Quite frankly, I have learned far more about the gospel by trying to answer questions and accusations by non-Mormon or anti-Mormon folk than any Sunday School lesson. What happens is this: someone makes a comment, I do the “source material research” and voila, I learn that for the largest part, whatever the accusation is, it is overcome by the very material that was be accused.

    If someone wishes, please give me a shot, and I will demonstrate the methodolgy.

    Now, how does this help? Because it causes me to really, really search the scriptures to find the answers. Or, I have to dig into the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, or Church History. And in my digging, I find all kinds of neat stuff.

    And Second, this thread prompts me to reinstate my “Mormon Answer-man” services. Years ago, over a period of about 6-8 months, I ended up writing some 250 “white paper” responses to all kinds of questions. Before I could pull it all together, however, my puter crashed. I think it would be fun to start it up again, perhaps at my blog, ldser.blogspot.com.

    Anyway…

  28. Blake on May 5, 2005 at 10:22 am

    Thanks annegb. I really like Kirby, except I think he is a wuss for becoming a Satanist after only 6 months. I was in the Archipelago Mormon for three years and I am still a dedicated servant of sanity …. well, mostly. It’s just that the world of a three year old makes so much more sense to me.

  29. Elisabeth on May 5, 2005 at 10:58 am

    Hi, Kelly,

    I’m probably not related to your friend – my father converted to the Church and our family moved to America when I was about 10, so we’re not related to anyone really. Makes it difficult to play Mormon Bingo to see how many people I have in common with other people :)

    To your point about questions, I’ve found some answers through scripture study, but I yearn to be able to discuss questions, thoughts, etc. in a Church setting. Some friends and I in our ward were planning to establish an informal discussion group on Church issues as an offshoot to our book group, but the Bishop learned of our plans and we were told that we shouldn’t do this. Blogging helps, but I’d like to see more open discussion in Church. Your blog sounds interesting – I’ll check it out.

  30. JWL on May 5, 2005 at 11:05 am

    Just for the record, the GDSS teacher’s manual states:

    “Each lesson in this manual contains more information than you will probably be able to teach in one class period. Seek the Spirit of the Lord in selecting the scripture accounts, questions, and other lesson material that will best meet the needs of class members. Keep in mind the ages, interests, and backgrounds of class members.”

    Teachers are not required to get through all of the material in the lesson manual, and getting through the entire lesson is certainly no excuse for spurning on-topic questions, even if difficult.