Community roles: teachers and auxiliaries

by calcsam 4 min read22nd Jun 201169 comments


Related to: Building rationalist communities, Lessons from Latter-day Saints, Holy Books (Or Rationalist Sequences) Don't Implement Themselves, Designing rationalist projects.

I'm beginning a new subseries of posts, trying to answer the following question: what should be the roles in a rationalist community?           

In this post and the next one, I will outline the roles in Latter-day Saint communities. In the following posts, I will draw more conclusions as to which roles would be ideal for rationalist communities.

I should note that these sets of responsibilities are designed to function in congregations where 100 to 150 people come to church every week. They are slimmed down when the congregations are smaller. I’m going to outline all the roles, and as I go, I’ll note which ones are the most important.

The Main Roles

There are four main groups of “callings,” responsibilities in the church. I will discuss the first two groups in this post.

First, there are the teachers, who speak, teach and lead discussions in Sunday church meetings.

Second, there are auxiliaries, responsible for ensuring the well-being of the various segments of the congregation. In each congregation, there is a women’s organization, a men’s organization, as well as young women’s, young men’s, and children’s organizations.

In smaller groups, the leaders and more-committed members often wear multiple hats.


"Teachers [are] foot soldiers in the ongoing war against ignorance and complacency. Sunday worship is only as good and effective as the teaching." - Orson Scott Card. (Link, read the whole piece if you like this one.)

Some members of the congregation are selected as regular teachers, who teach “Sunday school” classes to everyone, for two hours of class every Sunday. 

In addition, every week, three speakers from the congregation are assigned to give talks in the one-hour everyone-together “sacrament meeting”. These rotate every week; people rarely give talks more than once every six months.

Teacher selection

Qualifications? Interestingness and the ability to promote personal applications.

The main enemy in church is simply boring-ness. Making a learning experience interesting is a nontrivial problem: visit your local school for evidence of that. This is even more where everybody is expected to teach, at some point.

Speakers in the everyone-together “sacrament meeting” can drone on about favorite stories. Teachers can um and er their way through the lesson and ask bad questions.

While selecting teachers, leaders must balance two conflicting objectives: interesting classes and skill development.

On the one hand, if you pick the relatively confident, outgoing, intelligent people to teach, you’re more likely to have interesting classes. On the other hand, if these people teach all the time, the others will never get a chance to learn to teach.

Why is learning to teach so important for everyone? Well, everyone has to teach their children.[1] Plus there are recruiting and career benefits.

The usual compromise is a mix of the two types. Some teachers are picked primarily so the classes will learn, and some are picked primarily so the teachers will learn.[2]

This is supported by a shared norm/belief that the responsibility to learn lies with each individual; and you shouldn’t blame a bad teacher. In a class focused on basic principles of living life, through sufficient humility and introspection, you can learn in any class, even given a less-articulate or educated teacher.[3]

The norm is most clearly articulated by C.S. Lewis:

an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul.


The church, having been around for awhile, condensed the doctrine into a set of manuals. Here are some examples of manuals.

There provide for a more standardized curriculum and provide a way to disseminated shared institutional knowledge, both doctrinal and practical (good questions to ask when teaching a particular topic.)

Again, there is a tradeoff:

  • Hew too closely to the manual and you neglect the special needs of your class and discussion becomes stilted because it’s curtailed whenever not exactly on topic.
  • Stray too far and the class becomes a forum for the teacher and/or eloquent class members to hold forth on their favorite topic-related points, which may or may not be helpful to the class as a whole.

Finally, manuals provide a lower bound for teaching quality by giving inexperienced teachers basic ideas and jumping-off points.

The only way to figure out whether manuals are a good thing for Less Wrong is to include what works and see if good results can be replicated.


One of the most important but unassigned (unassignable?) roles is ‘intelligent commenter’ – saying useful things in class discussion, taking the initiative and leading small group discussion, summarizing the group’s discussion in useful form to the teacher afterwards.

The best teachers aren’t so much teachers as discussion moderators. But this is far from automatic, especially given the earlier discussion of teacher quality.

Less Wrong seems to use small groups, which work well as long as at least one ‘intelligent commentator; ends up in each group. Without people trying to keep the discussion on track, it can roam around topics without actually going anywhere.[4]


There is the men’s organization and the women’s organization. Sometimes there are other groups; for example, in my current church, there is a group of Stanford students, since about half of the church members are students there.

(In “family wards” there are also organizations for the teenage boys and girls, plus one for younger children)

Basically: this is how you number the flock and make sure you don’t forget about anyone. More about that later when I discuss leadership.

The men’s organization divides the men in two and assigns each pair three to five people to visit monthly and watch out for. The women’s organization similarly divides the women into pairs and assigns them to visit each other. This is called “home teaching” for men or “visiting teaching” for women.

Home and visiting teachers are expected to be the first line of service if someone needs a ride to church or the airport, if their marriage is straining, if they end up in the hospital, etc.

This helps most for those who don’t live with other church members and for families. It is mostly redundant for those that are roommates with other church members.

Visiting rates are around sixty percent in my church unit (all young single adults), maybe forty percent overall. (That is, 40 or 60 percent of people are visited every month.)

The division is along age and gender lines because, as for age, the youth will naturally just divide that way anyway.

As for gender, there’s the obvious reason: a group of guys, or a group of girls, will talk about anything gender-related more freely than in mixed groups.

There are also norms that place a high emphasis on a traditional family model. A single woman, a new mother, and a mother with her last kid on the way out the door are in different stages of the same role, and are well positioned to learn from and support each other. (Similarly with males.)

Groupings will likely slice differently in Less Wrong communities, of course. Having a formal or informal woman’s subgroup is probably a good idea, else the gender balance will probably continue to be, um, skewed.[5]

[1] This is a reasonably well-understood topic among Latter-day Saints. See here.

[2] I should add there is a group responsible for ensuring teachers are trained properly, through holding teacher training classes, and so on.

[3] This is also supported by another norm, that the group already understands the central ‘purpose of life’ type questions; the challenge to discover them through intelligent analysis. Instead, the central challenge of life is to apply already-known principles consistently in life, ie overcoming akrasia, and this is a talent to which intelligence and articulation are not qualifications.

These norms are usually cited in response to concerns like, "I don't see any reason to come to church, it's boring and I don't feel like I'm learning anything I don't know."

[4] This was my father’s impression when I brought my parents to the LW meetup in Tortuga. He said it reminded him of his college days in IIT-Bombay. There were a lot of smart people living together, and most of them had never been around other smart people before and were so excited to be around each other. A lot of discussions there were unsatisfying, as they seemed to pinball frantically around n number of topics without actually seeming to go anywhere

[5] How can this be effective? Well, Less Wrongian women should probably have some sort of ongoing discussion about this. One idea from me: Divia was telling me about Crucial Conversations and Nonviolent Communication. Not trying to gender stereotype, but maybe subgroup meetings on these kinds of topics would attract a more broad base of women?