When Valeria Guzman was in high school, her mother dropped her off at the church meetinghouse every morning in time for seminary at 6:30 a.m. For many of the youth in her class, the early start time was difficult; for Guzman, it was the highlight of her day.
“I would say a prayer before each class so my mind would be open and ready,” said Guzman, from Kennesaw, Georgia, who is now a freshman at Brigham Young University.
Guzman found her time in seminary became something she looked forward to daily, for it was a place she could ask questions and learn about the gospel.
“My parents are converts, so they don’t have the background that some people do,” she said. “We learned the gospel together.”
One of the highlights of her seminary experience, she recalls, was the time her class spent on doctrinal mastery.
“I remember having questions about being sealed in the temple, the temple garments and covenants,” she said. “At first I didn’t really understand how important marriage is. As we talked about it in class, I started to understand more the importance of marriage, and how it fits in the Plan of Salvation.”
That deeper understanding of marriage — in addition to other doctrinal topics — helped her as she navigated the halls of her high school and, more important, as her testimony began to grow.
More than 400,000 seminary students are having similar conversations as they study doctrinal mastery in their classrooms, meetinghouses and homes today.
Doctrinal mastery, first introduced by President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a Feb. 26, 2016, broadcast for Church Educational System employees, is one way students are learning how to learn in the gospel.
“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ President Ballard said during the 2016 announcement. “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church.”
Since that announcement, seminary classes around the world have hosted important conversations covering important topics facing youth today. The focus on the doctrine allows students to find answers to questions for themselves.
“Last week, a young man told of an experience which he had had and connected that experience to a principle we had been discussing in class,” said Jeanne Isaksen, a teacher in the Skien Ward, Drammen Norway Stake. “Another student had experienced a challenge in connection with her choice of schools. After she had been through that trying time, she was able to see the Lord’s hand in this experience and how He had in fact guided her through it, remembering a story and gospel teachings discussed in class. …
“Doctrinal mastery helps the students to gain a focused in-depth understanding of the gospel’s teachings. It helps them be able to connect the dots with the things they know or have been taught and put it together into a bigger picture. This is the foundation upon which their faith and testimony is being built.”
Among the topics included in doctrinal mastery are the Godhead, the Plan of Salvation, prophets and revelation, priesthood and priesthood keys, ordinances and covenants, marriage and family.
“For those teachers that are spending the time on it in class, it is helping students to understand fundamental doctrine better and how it applies to their questions in real-life scenarios,” said Chad H Webb, administrator in the Church Educational System. “It’s not just 100 questions and 100 answers. Rather, it is ‘how do I find answers and view this question with a more eternal perspective?’ Hopefully what we’re doing is helping them to learn how to learn as much as giving them answers to specific questions.”
Seminary teachers worldwide report that as they integrate doctrinal mastery into classroom discussions, they are seeing positive results with the students.
“Doctrinal mastery has helped young people to open up with questions and arguments that are very profound and serious that sometimes are not addressed or shared,” said Paolo Petrollini, a seminary teacher for the Terni Ward in the Rome Italy East Stake. “It helped them to better understand the divine nature and the role of Christ for personal repentance. The best experiences for young people are related to the contextualization of personal life and the actual problems that they live and face in everyday life.”
Juswan Tandiman, who is the Asia Area Seminary and Institute director, said the initiative has been an “effective bridge” to help students better see and understand the relevancy of the doctrine and principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their personal lives.
“More … seem to find it safe to ask their faith-related questions/concerns, to know where to look for additional legitimate information, and have begun developing greater confidence in living and sharing what they learn,” Brother Tandiman said.
Kim Huber, a seminary teacher in the English-speaking seminary class in Rome, Italy, teaches youth through a video-conferencing platform. She said the addition of doctrinal mastery has enhanced the teaching of correct doctrine.
“The program has really helped me as a teacher to be more mindful of pointing out when a doctrinal point is being taught and, I believe, helped the students to recognize how much doctrine is actually being taught in the scriptures,” Huber said. “Anything that leads us to more truth and better understanding is worthwhile — that is how I view the valuable addition of this doctrinal mastery program.”
Sonny Aiono, a coordinator in American Samoa, said the initiative has helped his students who are a little more quiet and reserved, saying “they develop confidence to share as well.”
Recognizing with a new initiative comes some unforeseen challenges, Webb said curriculum writers are always trying to work through problems as they arise.
“Not everyone has implemented it exactly like we hope yet, so we’ve still got a ways to go,” he said. “It’s certainly blessing students, and I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback … but we still want to make it better. We keep updating materials and try to keep it current.”
For the first years of doctrinal mastery the lessons were written with the idea that the portions of the lessons that helped students understand the doctrine would be taught in shorter 5-10 minute segments, with the practices exercises designed to take anywhere from 15-40 minutes.
“The hardest thing has been fitting it in,” said Damon Kenrick, a seminary teacher at the Salt Lake City Utah West Seminary. “It is good material —well-written, essential, and we need to have it — it is just trying to fit it in in an applicable way.”
This year, the doctrinal mastery lessons are written as 40-minute lessons meant to take the entire class period about once a week.
“We have included a suggested pacing guide in the appendix of the doctrinal mastery teacher material that suggests which … lessons to combine to make room for the doctrinal mastery lessons and suggestions about where to teach these lessons,” said Cameron Packer, manager of seminary curriculum. “This will help alleviate the problem teachers had with transitioning between doctrinal mastery and sequential scripture teaching.”
Packer said research also shows that while doctrinal mastery is helping students improve their understanding of the doctrine, a greater emphasis on using scripture passages to explain and teach doctrine is still needed.
“It’s remarkable how current the Book of Mormon is,” Webb said. “We’ve seen students come with questions that they think are new, and the answers are in the Book of Mormon. They come with a challenge they’re facing, and they feel a little bit alone in that challenge, like it is the first time that anybody’s been confronted with that question. And then they turn to the scriptures and find answers to their current questions.
“Just because the Book of Mormon was written anciently, doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply and have the inspiration and guidance we need today.”
Finding the right balance
Because the premise of doctrinal mastery is meant to address current topics and questions facing youth today, it is important to include updated information and resources.
Since it takes some time to update the materials, especially with the translation process for students and teachers around the world, Webb said they are working on integrating doctrinal mastery into the daily class curriculum.
Rather than making doctrinal mastery separate than the curriculum of the school year, it will be part of the study guide for seminary teachers.
“Beginning in 2019 (Old Testament year), the doctrinal mastery lessons and review activities will be incorporated into the Old Testament seminary teacher material so that there will no longer be two separate teacher manuals,” Packer said.
Added Webb: “A constant challenge for teachers is to know what the most important things will be for your students to understand and learn. There is a balance between how much to cover and how deeply to cover certain topics. We hope our teachers will seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost to try to meet those needs the best they can.”
Most important, instructors must create an environment that helps youth acquire spiritual knowledge.
“Questions are good and invite revelation,” Webb said. “We welcome questions and invite students to search out what the Lord has taught, and then as they find truth to act on that truth. There are right answers; there are eternal truths; and we want students to come to those answers on their own.”