Soon after a local minister began ridiculing Latter-day Saints and handing out anti-LDS literature during a high school scripture studies class in Sydney, Australia, Rachel Trujillo and Nicole McCann found themselves shunned by their friends of other faiths.
“Their friends started to ostracize them,” recalls Pamela Reid, who taught Rachel and Nicole’s early-morning seminary class in 1992. “Rachel’s date to the prom said he couldn’t take her, and even the staff at Castle Hill High School started to ask antagonistic questions about the Church.”
Ben Sacey, a nonmember friend, questioned Rachel about the truthfulness of the minister’s claim that Latter-day Saints do not believe in Christ. Rachel replied that Latter-day Saints not only believe in Christ, but that she and other LDS youth in the area gathered every day at 6:00 A.M. to study the Bible.
“He didn’t believe us, so he came to seminary one morning,” says Rachel. “He was shocked to see people studying the scriptures at that time of the morning.”
With encouragement from their seminary teacher, Rachel and Nicole began distributing Articles of Faith cards, bearing their testimonies, and sharing gospel knowledge. “We spent evenings together finding answers to questions and discussing how to answer questions,” Sister Reid says.
Sister Reid sought direction from her bishop and other priesthood leaders, and after fasting and praying she decided to buy copies of the standard works and present them, along with her written testimony, to the minister and to his parish leader. Within days, problems at the high school began to subside.
A few weeks later, Pamela Reid and the Church’s public affairs office in Sydney arranged for full-time missionaries, including then-missionary and former Brigham Young University basketball player Shawn Bradley, to answer questions and to address physical education students in the high school auditorium. Principal David Jaffe also allowed all Latter-day Saint students to attend. Students of other faiths who were not enrolled in physical education were so eager to hear the presentation that they asked to attend as well.
“People became more accepting, and friends returned,” Rachel says. “I was able to share the gospel and my testimony with them, and I was able to clear up the rumors and misconceptions. We would not have been as effective without Sister Reid. She helped us to answer questions, and seminary gave us knowledge that enabled us to respond. The whole experience strengthened our testimonies more than anything else.”
Pamela Reid, who now lives with her family in New Zealand, said the experience was inspiring. She praises students who sacrifice sleep for the gospel knowledge they can gain by attending seminary.
“I used to tell my students that they were putting on Heavenly Father’s armor for the day,” she says. “I really believe that.”
Lionel Walters, who began teaching seminary shortly after the program was introduced to Australia in 1969, calls devoted teachers “the mortar that holds the seminary program together.” Brother Walters, now the associate area director for seminaries and institutes in Australia and Papua New Guinea, says seminary and institute have contributed markedly to the area’s “doctrinal maturing.”
As in other nations where the Church offers seminary, nearly all the program’s teachers in Australia and Papua New Guinea are part-time volunteers. Many of those volunteers must travel great distances as home-study supervisors; others, like Pamela Reid, must bridge great gaps of misunderstanding.
Tools in the Lord’s Hands
“There are few sacrifices more noteworthy in the Lord’s kingdom than that of the devoted, dedicated early-morning seminary teacher who prays and studies and labors into the night to become prepared to meet a group of sleepy, often distracted, and sometimes skeptical teenagers at 6:00 A.M.,” says Stanley A. Peterson, administrator of religious education, elementary and secondary education for the Church.
“Through that daily effort, somehow, despite all of the barriers and the difficulties, that teacher, under the influence of the Spirit, often helps motivate those same young people to come back day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year until finally after four years of seminary, they receive their diploma. But more important than their receiving the diploma, many of those young people have gained a deep and abiding testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and a personal commitment to serve their fellowmen, to go on missions, and to marry in the temple.”
When Diane Nelson became a part-time seminary instructor in Lakewood, California, in 1960, she never dreamed she would still be teaching seminary thirty-four years later. With the first of the two early-morning classes she teaches beginning daily at 5:45 A.M., she hardly has time to dream. Diane, however, considers the blessings of teaching seminary worth the sacrifice.
“I don’t know anything more exciting in life than to be a tool in the Lord’s hands and to teach the gospel,” says Sister Nelson, who also teaches an institute class. “It would be a sacrifice for me to give it up. Seminary is one of the great programs of the Church. It really is changing lives.”
Many of the hundreds of students she has taught over the years would agree.
“If there was any one person in my life who had a big influence, it was Diane Nelson,” says Dan Merrill, a 1988 seminary graduate who lives just south of Lakewood, in Long Beach. “Before I began attending seminary, I never prayed or read the scriptures. Sister Nelson encouraged me to pray, to love the gospel, and to have a relationship with my Father in Heaven. I had probably never thought much about going on a mission. But after being in her class for three or four years, serving a mission became an absolute.”
Janet Broderick, a 1975 seminary graduate, said Diane has touched countless lives.
“I learned from her to put spiritual things first in life,” says Janet, who joined the Church at age fourteen. “She helped me to grow spiritually, and she helped me to see things I didn’t see before.”
Last year when Janet was having difficulty maintaining reverence in her youth Sunday School class, her prayers for direction evoked memories of Diane’s success in maintaining reverence during seminary.
“The next morning, Sister Nelson called long distance from California after looking up my number,” Janet says. “She said she felt the Spirit so strongly that she wanted to call. I hadn’t talked to her in years.”
Janet says the opportunity to ask Diane for advice was a direct answer to her prayers. “The things she shared with me specifically fit my Sunday School lessons,” she says.
Eighteen years after her graduation, Janet’s seminary teacher had once again blessed her life—with personal insights, scriptural references, encouragement, and, a few days following the phone call, several pages of notes on Christ-centered teaching.
Twenty-five thousand seminary and institute instructors offer religious instruction to young Latter-day Saints in 112 nations. Approximately 90 percent of those instructors are part-time volunteers who teach early-morning or released-time seminary, supervise home-study seminary students, or serve as institute teachers.
“The Church would need an additional six thousand full-time educators to service the area tended by part-time teachers, and that doesn’t include the support staff that would be required,” says Clarence F. Schramm, executive assistant to the administrator of the Church Educational System (CES). He says seminary and institute programs enable the CES to meet the goal of providing all high-school-age and college-age Latter-day Saint students with access to weekday religious education, along with their secular education.
Because of the willingness and sacrifice of part-time religious teachers, the number of nations in which the Church offers seminary and institute instruction has jumped nearly 70 percent since 1987.
Stein Arthur Andersen thought he was too busy for home-study seminary when the program was introduced to Latter-day Saints in Norway. In retrospect, he will always be thankful for his first home-study seminary supervisor, Tor Lasse Bjerja, who brought the program to his less-active family in the mid-1970s.
“Brother Bjerja had a major influence on my life,” Stein says. “I’m eternally grateful he took the time to travel an hour and a half to where we lived in order to introduce seminary. He literally went the extra mile, bringing with him the spirit of the gospel. My spirit recognized something, and I agreed to take part in the program.”
Stein eventually gained a testimony of the gospel, thanks to his private early-morning study sessions and with the help of Brother Bjerja and other Church members and youth leaders who nurtured his faith. “The Spirit began talking to my spirit, motivating me to go on,” he says.
Prompted by his studies and by the example of his seminary teacher, who decided to serve a mission, Stein resolved to continue seminary study in preparation for a mission. Now, two decades later, the two men live in the same branch in Stavanger, Norway, where they have served in a variety of leadership positions.
“There is no doubt in my mind of the importance of the seminary program,” says Stein. “I cannot see how I would have become active in the Church without Brother Bjerja and seminary.”
Dustin Tull, from Arlington, Virginia, was also impressed by his seminary teachers and by their sacrifices and contributions toward shaping gospel-centered lives. He decided, in fact, to become a part-time seminary instructor himself. For Dustin, a student at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, the blessings of teaching seminary come when sleepy students are spiritually awakened.
“There has certainly been a positive change in his heart,” said a recent letter from the mother of a student who had a hard time staying awake in Dustin’s class. “Lately he has started to read his scriptures again, which I have been praying for for a long time. Thank you for the preparation it has taken in your life to accept this call and the great example and unconditional love you bring to it.”
Students like Jane Bromley, who attends East Lansing High School, say seminary teachers bless a lot of students through their lessons and lives.
“I am amazed at Brother Tull’s initiative,” Jane says. “Some days he does not get much sleep, but he still comes and gives his lesson. He puts the gospel in real-life terms so we can apply the scriptures directly to our lives. I’m in awe at the sacrifice of seminary teachers. They have to prepare their lessons, get up earlier than the students, and review. I have gained so much respect for them.”
The eternal contribution religious instructors make toward the youth of Zion can be seen in the number of seminary and institute students who serve missions and marry in the temple. In the United States and Canada, 85 percent of full-time missionaries have attended seminary, while 82 percent of those who marry in the temple have attended seminary. The figures are similar in other nations.
To help older students continue their gospel studies, the Church has established institutes near more than 2,100 colleges and universities throughout the world. For many Latter-day Saint students attending colleges or universities, institute is a spiritual oasis where instructors and fellow students offer affirmation and refuge from a world that frequently challenges their testimonies and standards.
“Having that institute building to go to every day certainly makes the day more bearable,” says Tish Johnson, a student at the Land Park California Institute and at Sacramento City College. Tish, a recent convert, says the gospel knowledge and testimony of institute instructor Kenneth Miller are welcome contrasts to worldly voices of cynicism. She credits Brother Miller with strengthening her testimony and with helping her overcome opposition.
“He is always there for the students,” says Tish, who calls her institute friends “a second family.”
Floyd Young, bishop of the newly organized Northwest College young adult ward in Powell, Wyoming, knows firsthand the contribution institute instructors make to the Church. Bishop Young was converted through the institute program while attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie in 1959.
“We’ve seen marvelous things happen here with the ward and the institute, including six baptisms this past fall,” says Bishop Young, who substitute teaches at the institute. “Institute director Terry Niederhauser spends a lot of time getting students involved. He makes it hard for them to hide. Institute provides real blessings for the students.”
Institute students Tawnya Prince and Paul Otto, like Bishop Young, have experienced those blessings. After three years of being less active in the Church, “I knew I wasn’t the person I wanted to be,” says Tawnya, a student at the institute in Manhattan, Kansas. “I knew that the spiritual part of me was missing.”
In 1992, after visiting with institute director Tom Nelson, Tawnya began attending church and taking institute classes. A year later, she married in the temple.
“Institute teachers took a personal interest in me,” she says. “They helped to bring out my spiritual side and to put everything in focus. I sensed that they had a deep love and concern for students.”
Paul Otto began attending Michigan State University three months after his baptism in 1990. He says institute classes and visits with institute director Steve Henrie, CES coordinator for the Lansing, Michigan, region, not only strengthened his testimony during his freshman year but helped him to prepare for missionary work—both at home among family members and abroad as a full-time missionary.
“My missionary preparation class really helped me out in dealing with my mom,” Paul says of his mother’s initial opposition to his baptism and to his decision to accept a mission call to Venezuela in 1991. “She decided to listen to the discussions in order to prove the Church wrong. About a month and a half later, I baptized and confirmed her.”
The Church’s religious educators teach in different languages and lands, but they share a common mission: inviting students to come unto Christ. By giving of their time and talents to teach the youth of Zion, seminary and institute teachers truly touch hearts and shape lives as they help prepare future Church leaders, kindle spiritual awareness, promote love of the scriptures, and build testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ.