Seminaries and Institutes, International School for 275,000: A Conversation with Joe J. Christensen

Joe J. Christensen


Joe J. Christensen

Since 1912, the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion of the Church Educational System have been a vital force for good in the lives of thousands of Latter-day Saint young people.

What is now a worldwide program had its beginnings in Salt Lake City in 1912 with the first seminary; the University of Idaho had the first institute of religion in 1928.

Like the Church, the program is now moving into deepening internationalization under the direction of Dr. Joe J. Christensen, associate commissioner of education for seminaries and institutes.

To gain an insight into the seminaries and institutes program, its challenges, and the role that it plays, the Ensign met with Brother Christensen.

ENSIGN: Most of the Saints’ knowledge of seminaries and institutes is based on what happens “next door.” What is the real scope of the program?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: Back in 1912 when the seminary program started, it was a local Salt Lake City program. Even as late as 1970 it was strictly an English-language program operating mostly in the United States and in western Canada’s LDS communities. Also at that time we had programs beginning in England, Australia, and New Zealand. But 1970 ushered in a new era when the Board of Education of the Church Educational System made the momentous decision that the seminary program should be made available to the Church worldwide wherever numbers warranted and circumstances permitted.

Now, when your son or daughter participates in seminary or institute, he or she is one of some 275,000 students in 48 countries studying the gospel in 16 different languages.

ENSIGN: How does Church education serve the youth and parents of the Church?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: There are various ways that we can provide regular and specific weekday religious training for our youth. First of all, of course, is the released-time seminary program in which school authorities permit students to take seminary during regular school hours. An increasing number of states in the United States are allowing schools to participate in this program. We also have early-morning classes where seminary is held prior to school hours.

Then there are home seminaries, an interesting development begun in 1967 and internationally evolved in 1970 to provide home study seminary programs for youth who are unable to participate in the other two programs.

By 1971, we had more nonreleased-time students (those attending early morning seminary or taking home study seminary) than we did released-time students. This has not meant a decrease in the number of released-time students, but a massive increase in the number of nonreleased-time students. It means, of course, that we are reaching far more young members of the Church.

ENSIGN: Does the home study student receive the same material as the student who attends a class?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: Yes. It is essentially the same material, but in a different format.

ENSIGN: What is the difference?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: For the released-time or nonreleased-time classes, the student has a manual that corresponds with the teacher’s manual and with the necessary teaching aids for daily instruction. In home study, the students meet once a week with an instructor called to that position. The instructor selects the material for the individual student to study during the coming week. Home study material is such that it can cover an academic year, just as the material for the daily classes can.

ENSIGN: You mentioned that other states in the United States are accepting the idea of released-time seminary, so youth can receive specific religious education. Is this indicative of a current concern for the well-being of youth?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: I think there may be a combination of reasons why states in the United States are granting released time for seminary study. The major reason, I would suggest, is that we have gone through a period of critical times with youth—drug experimentation, hippie subcultures, and dropping out. I think this has sobered the older generation: they feel they ought to do more to establish stabilizing influences for youth in their education. I think the seminary program is being recognized outside of the Church as one that provides stability in the lives of youth by helping them develop strong moral character. It’s interesting to note that other churches are attempting to pattern programs for their youth after the Church’s seminary program.

ENSIGN: Earlier you referred to the Board of Education of the Church Educational Program. Who are they?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: The Board is composted of the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, five other General Authorities, and the general president of the Relief Society.

It is important to me that, as far as I know, the only time all of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve meet regularly other than their temple meetings each week is in their capacity as the Board of Education. This practice reflects the Church’s traditional emphasis on education, and we should recognize that those who govern the affairs of the Church also actively govern the affairs of seminaries and institutes.

ENSIGN: What are the goals for growth in the system?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: Our real goal is to help bring the full Church program to members throughout the world. Just as the Brethren create stakes and wards for that purpose, they have asked us to bring the full program of Church education to the world.

As an example of our worldwide thrust, let me tell you about Korea. As far as education goes, Korea is a phenomenal country. In Seoul 40 percent of the Saints are between 18 and 25. A survey indicates that 38 percent of Korea’s Church membership are college graduates. That is the highest ratio of college-trained Saints in the world. To serve this large percentage of Korean Saints, an institute was organized. We rented a classroom and hired a native Korean as instructor. Incidentally, he’s now the stake president.

Since then the Home Study Seminary Program has been added. Next, we hope for authorization to construct our own building, the first Church institute outside North America.

We try to offer institute classes whenever we have 15 students at a post-high school-level institution who are interested and willing to enroll. As the numbers increase, we develop the full institute program.

Whenever we find approximately 100 Latter-day Saint high school students we seek for released-time seminary; and where that is approved, we make plans for a seminary building.

Although this can be done quickly, it cannot be done overnight. When we started our expansion program in 1970 we did not have any courses translated into any other language. Our desire was to carry out the will of the Lord to translate materials and to export to all nations the seminary program in the home study format. That has been the consuming part of my assignment. I must be sure that we are getting the writing, production, and translation of curriculum materials underway, and that we get personnel on site with budgets and appropriate backup.

We will grow as fast as we can train teachers, write and translate materials, and organize students into classes.

ENSIGN: How are the seminary and institute courses prepared?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: We have a small, but very able, group of writers working at three levels: elementary, seminary, and institute.

ENSIGN: Elementary? Are seminaries and institutes operated at the elementary level?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: Yes. We prepare religious courses for children enrolled in Church elementary schools in the South Pacific, Mexico, and Chile. We also prepare special material for children enrolled in Indian seminary classes.

Further, we are working at the college level to coordinate all our religious study material so that no matter where a student attends, he or she will be studying the best in gospel scholarship that the Church can offer. We already have a coordinated Book of Mormon program; we are now working on such a program for other gospel topics.

ENSIGN: Do seminary and institute courses have different purposes?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: Not different purposes, but differences in approach because of differences in students. When students reach institute age, they are more disciplined, questioning, and serious.

We try never to make the mistake of substituting an intellectual questioning approach to the gospel at the expense of the spiritual approach. College students are hungry for something that will motivate them spiritually.

ENSIGN: How does the family fit into the picture of seminary and institute study?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: One of the best things that could happen would be for parents to really come to know what their children are studying in seminary. The home study format accomplishes that a little more naturally than the released-time program, because students are studying at home; many parents have set up a time to join their children in gospel study. Where that is happening, the family is stronger and more supportive, and they progress as a unit.

Unfortunately, most families aren’t yet very involved in studying with early morning and released-time seminary students. Parents encourage their children to enroll, but the encouragement all too often stops there. Ideally, they would work with their children to make the gospel concepts they are taught in class come alive in the home through practical example. Like every other arm of the kingdom, the seminary program exists to support the home. But in order to be most effective, the home has to help out, too.

I have a strong testimony of the importance of the religious education program of the Church. Although it may be important for a child to learn a secular skill, it is infinitely more important that he learn the gospel. All true religion is educational, and all true education is essentially religious.

I wish everyone could share that vision—it would not change the purpose of seminaries and institutes, but it might influence our results.

ENSIGN: What is the prime intent of the program?

BROTHER CHRISTENSEN: We want to teach the scriptures in context so students will not only get into the scriptures—we want the scriptures to get into them.

Our goal is to offer an environment where a student will get excited and change his life as a result of his experience. We are developing materials that we hope the students will find stimulating and enjoyable enough to cause such a change.

[photo] Home study group, eager for discussion, in Seoul, Korea.

[photo] Seminary and institute class in Frankfurt, Germany.