It has been just six months more than a decade since John H. Vandenberg was called to serve as the ninth Presiding Bishop of the Church. Since October 1961 he has established himself as a much-respected leader of the Aaronic Priesthood. Many program changes and innovations have been spearheaded under his administration, and members throughout the world have had their lives bettered because of them. In company with his two counselors, he has journeyed throughout the Church, sparking enthusiasm and dedication among countless thousands of his fellow workers.
All of this has been as a great labor of love for Elder Vandenberg. This would greatly please his Netherlands-born parents, who boarded ship at Rotterdam and journeyed to Utah, where they married and raised six children, among whom was John Henry. Elder Vandenberg has said that perhaps the greatest influence on his life was the example of love and service set by his parents. He has amply magnified this family tradition.
Early in life he was drawn to the study of business and finance, and these skills have aided him well throughout life, whether it was while he worked with a livestock firm or later in ranching, textile, and other businesses.
At twenty-one he was called to serve a mission to the Netherlands, where he was mission secretary. While there he met Ariena Stok, who later immigrated to Utah, where the couple married. They have two married daughters, Mrs. Paul W. (Lenore) Mendenhall, Salt Lake City, and Mrs. F. John Francis, Vienna, Virginia; nine grandsons, and one granddaughter.
Prior to being called to the Presiding Bishopric in 1961, Elder Vandenberg served as a stake mission president, counselor in stake presidencies in Denver and in Salt Lake City, and as vice-chairman of the Church Building Committee, in charge of finances. He is now 67 years of age. (For further biographical information, see Improvement Era, December 1961 and November 1967.)
His new assignment—as managing director of the new Department of Physical Facilities—will coordinate the Church building, building operations and maintenance, and real estate departments, and he will also assist in directing various Church farms. The following interview further elaborates this new calling.
Q. Can you tell us more about this new department?
A. This has all been of interest to me because, in part, the creation of the new department came from a suggestion I made a number of months ago. I didn’t expect to be here, but as the Presiding Bishop I have seen the need to coordinate the total activity of the marvelous physical facilities of the Church.
We have in round numbers about 4,000 buildings for use by the Church. This represents a great investment of the Saints and of the Lord’s resources. This new department will begin with the intended purchase of real estate, erecting the buildings needed, and continuing with the buildings’ proper maintenance and use. It’s really a tremendous assignment. It’s going to be very interesting, and my desire is to do the best that I know how.
I’m very happy with the assignment. It’s something that I’ve been directly connected with for many years, and to now see so many of these areas tied together and to have the opportunity of assisting the Saints throughout the world with this great area of concern is a choice assignment.
Q. Do you foresee changes in the typical chapel design as we have come to know it?
A. I think not. Our present design is the outgrowth of many ideas and experiences. Basically I think the Church can be proud of its buildings. They are very functional. You see, we really have a very sophisticated church in terms of the wonderful programs we foster and for which we use our buildings.
Primarily, we look to the need for worship and for gospel study, but supplementing those areas are the Sunday morning meetings, various kinds of class instruction and activities —from Relief Society for the women to Scouting for the boys and to theatrical, athletic, and recreational events. I call our program highly sophisticated because it reaches into every facet of our life, from the cradle to the grave. To design a building that can function in all of these programs represents great experience and inspiration.
In time we may have some modest changes in the size of classrooms, but this often is a challenging matter, because a certain area may have many children now but twenty years from now it may have few children. This pattern has not proved to be uncommon in certain areas.
Q. The whole problem of maintenance of our buildings has been a consistently nagging concern. How can members of the Church assist in this?
A. That’s a very easy question to answer. If the Saints would realize that when they come into the meetinghouse they are stepping into the house of the Lord, and if they would respect the building as the property of the Lord and would control their children, this would be the greatest thing they could do. The Lord certainly wants us to use his buildings, but they are his, and he has directed them to be built for his purposes.
I think the Primary Association has done a great job of teaching little children to be reverent, of teaching them to fold their arms and walk quietly to their classes. Sometimes our older youth forget their early training, and this has required that we build our chapels child-and-youth-proof, so to speak, such as brick or cinder-block walls instead of hollow walls with studding into which holes might be punched. Now isn’t that an insightful commentary about us—that we need to make the house of the Lord less damageable? Parents need to be much more concerned about teaching an attitude of respect and love for the houses of the Lord.
I think the Saints would appreciate knowing, however, that a very fine maintenance program has been implemented, and we encourage all bishops and branch presidents to immediately repair and maintain their buildings to the desired level of beauty that they reflected when they were first built. The mere fact that a building ages does not mean that it should become less beautiful.
Q. What about fund-raising for chapels—what is the best way?
A. I wish all the Saints appreciatively understood that one of the bishop’s biggest difficulties is to raise sufficient money to build and then maintain buildings, to which the Church always contributes at least 70 percent of the cost. We encourage the bishops to make direct solicitation from the Saints individually and to sit down with their members and review their problem and then to encourage a financial commitment that the members can manage over a twelve-month period. This is the best way because it is the way the Lord has directed. In my opinion, it’s also the more businesslike, more effective way.
Q. As you look back on your administration as Presiding Bishop, what are the things that stand out in your mind?
A. There are so many—it is a difficult thing to attempt. My two wonderful counselors—Elder Simpson and Bishop Brown—how I’m proud of them! Whatever we accomplished, I give a great deal of the credit to them. They took their assignments and did not falter.
If I were to look back, I think we made great progress in trying to meet the needs of the Aaronic Priesthood. This great personal achievement program that is now underway, in which a youth sits down with his parents and then counsels with his bishop about his future, is a meaningful and exciting thing.
Also, the tying closer together of the MIA and the Aaronic Priesthood has been a great step. The lesson manuals and changes we’ve made in them have been very helpful, I think. We prepare our lessons so that a novice can give a lesson. Now think about that for a minute. Look at the simply miraculous thing we do in the Church. We baptize a person and then within three months we ask him to teach a class. We hand him a book and, with some teacher training experience and his own study and prayer, we then turn our children over to him. The miracle is that the program works—it works a thousand times every week throughout the Church. So we’ve tried to develop our Aaronic Priesthood teaching manuals so that any person can follow the instructions and can lead the youth involved in worthwhile and beneficial experiences.
Let me also say what a privilege it has been to meet regularly with the First Presidency as a result of the assignments of the Presiding Bishopric. This is a privileged association. It has been very choice.
Q. For more than ten years you have been counseling parents and youth. What is the theme that you find yourself returning to time and again?
A. That’s a very good question. You know, I’ve come to deeply believe from my experiences that if we can teach people to know who they are—eternal children of God, schooled in the preexistence—to know why they are here, to further develop and prove themselves, and to know where they can go if they follow the Lord’s plan, we plant something so basic and fundamental that it influences their lives forever. This is one thing that many of us don’t grasp very easily because of the current physical attractions of the world.
But if we’d remember that we have been granted a special privilege in coming here to develop ourselves for the eternities, to develop our talents for the betterment of others, what a change in direction it would effect in many of us. It’s been a choice experience for me to bear this kind of testimony to the Saints throughout the Church.