Last year my Relief Society presidency decided to devote a meeting every couple of months to teaching the Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) to the women. A Relief Society counselor asked me to be the teacher, and I was hesitant. I had no experience with the program myself, and I worried that a program aimed at people trying to recover from often pretty serious issues wouldn’t resonate with a room of mostly non-addicted women. And more importantly, would it encourage women, who already tend to be hard on themselves, to see their everyday mistakes and foibles as misdeeds serious enough for the deep and thorough repentance process advocated by the program?
I took a few days to look over the 12 steps (lessons), which were. 1. Honesty 2. Hope 3. Trust in God 4. Truth 5. Confession 6. Change of Heart 7. Humility 8. Seeking Forgiveness 9. Restitution and Reconciliation 10. Daily Accountability 11. Personal Revelation 12. Service. Then I asked the counselor if she was ok with me tailoring these lessons to non-addicted women, and when she said that was fine, I went ahead and agreed to do it.
I’ve now taught five of the lessons and they’ve generally gone quite well, thanks in large part to a good group of sisters who are always willing to speak up and share their thoughts. But I also think they’ve gone well because of a couple emphases unique to the ARP and some teaching strategies that have worked for me over the years. I think many of these strategies and emphases can be applicable to almost any class taught in church.
5 Successful Emphases and Strategies
- Emphasizing vulnerability and honesty. The ARP begins with the premise that honesty is the first step toward changing our lives–honesty with ourselves about who we are and where we can/should make positive changes. In that spirit, I try to model vulnerability and honesty in every lesson, both in the sense of talking openly about my own life, mistakes, and regrets, and also in the sense of being open about some struggles/questions I have with certain doctrinal concepts emphasized in the ARP manual.
Take the topic of submission to God, for instance, which was emphasized in step 3. (I deeply dislike the notion of submission. If I’m to become a good and ethical person, I want to do it because that’s the kind of person I want to be, not because I’m bowing down to God’s will.) During step 3, I talked about how the concept of submission didn’t resonate with me at all, how I prefer other frameworks like ones of progress and process, and I asked the women how they felt about submission. I loved the ways that the women were able to share their takes on submission, including ones that felt liberating to them as they faced the most awful moments of their lives and just handed the situation over to God.
2. Emphasizing change. The ARP is all about creating lasting change in one’s life. That is fundamentally an inspiring and hopeful emphasis. The idea of change for the better is one that can resonate with almost anyone. Who doesn’t have regrets? Who doesn’t see places in their lives where they can improve? I’ll take that emphasis of personal growth over obedience-focused topics like tithing any day.
- Removing the lessons from a sin framework. Well, maybe I didn’t totally remove it. If women wanted to think about issues in their lives in a sin framework, I didn’t stop them. (And sometimes, I’m sure, sin frameworks are appropriate, particularly in cases of cruelty, racism, etc.) But I definitely and deliberately expanded the conversation beyond sin and repentance. I feel like Mormon women too often dwell on their mistakes and feel way more guilt and shame than they need to. By expanding our discussions to challenges/problems/difficult circumstances and our power to address those, we were able to broaden our discussions away from sin or addiction and towards issues women face every day – depression, feeling stuck, anger at our kids, troubled relationships, etc.
The step 5 lesson on confession posed one of my biggest challenges as I tried to steer us beyond notions of sin, given that the main takeaway of the lesson was that we need to confess our sins to God, bishop, and wronged person. So I asked the women to think of the notion of confession not only in terms of sin, but also in terms of speaking honestly about the truth of our lives to others. The women were able to have a great discussion about why we aren’t more vulnerable with one another, why we pretend things are ok when they are not, and the power of opening up to another person.
- Quoting women. The lessons in the manual greatly prioritize the voices of male leaders and male-voiced scriptures over the voices of women. So in every lesson I deliberately quote Chieko Okazaki (I have 7 of her books) or some other wise woman, often from a different tradition. During step 2 which focused on hope, I led the women through a womanist reading of the Hagar story, and the women loved learning about how Delores Williams and other Black women see in Hagar their own stories of exploitation, abuse, and ultimately, hope in a God who sees them.
- Giving the class something new. People love hearing something new. They get tired of the same questions, the same points, over and over again. So bringing in new frameworks or ways to think about morals or ethics can be really engaging.
For example, during step 3, the manual suggests that the serenity prayer can be helpful as we learn to trust God: “God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I read that prayer to the women and said that there’s no doubt a lot of wisdom in that prayer, but I then I offered them a different perspective, that of Sharon Welch who wrote A Feminist Ethic of Risk. She pushes back on the serenity prayer, saying, “The drive of moral life is that we can never know the difference between that which we can change and that which we cannot. Our challenge is to move creatively in a very different sort of adventure, one whose prayer is more like, ‘What improbable task, with which unpredictable results, shall we undertake today?’” The class seemed to enjoy this different perspective and weighing out the merits of both approaches.
This probably goes without saying, but I also recommend avoiding the questions in the manual. Not that they are necessarily bad. But manual questions, even in new programs, classes, and manuals, tend to be ones people have heard a dozen or more times in previous classes. Coming up with new open-ended questions, based either on experience or reflection, has always worked best for me.
Teaching matters. When a lesson goes poorly, when questions are uninspired, answers are rote, and class members perform the same old script, I leave church utterly uninspired and deflated. But when a lesson goes well, when people grapple with new ideas, weigh out competing goods, and speak openly about the truth of their lives, a church class can be magical. My most moving memories of church all involve lessons in which a teacher created a place safe enough for women to be open, vulnerable, and brave as they shared their experiences, insights, and struggles. May we all have more of those magical class moments. May we all have teachers who do their best to foster safe, open, and invigorating discussions. That – for me – is the best of what Sunday church can offer.