Extending Institute


Since LDS institutes opened their doors to those not enrolled in colleges or universities, growing numbers of young adults have found the rewards of gospel classes, good fellowship, and institute activities.

David Sundwall, a young single adult in Washington, D.C., works in a genetics lab at a famous research institute. His position represents a tremendous scientific opportunity, he knows, but it also puts him in the uncomfortable position of being a believer in God in what he calls “an extremely secular workplace. Sometimes I feel I’m in the closet, because a religious perspective isn’t just ignored here—it’s deplored.” David needed the uplift of spiritual discussions with fellow believers during the work week, not just on Sunday.

Dan Garcia, a young single adult and army medic at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, wanted a structured program to deepen his doctrinal knowledge. Having joined the Church two years ago, he said, “I yearned to ‘catch up.’ Without years of seminary or Primary to teach me about doctrine and history, I felt frustrated trying to learn it all on my own.”

Lea Smemoe, a Missouri single mother of a five-year-old, simply wanted motivation to study the scriptures during her days filled with working, driving to and from the baby-sitter’s, and caring for a child by herself: “What I need is courage—to stay focused on eternal goals and study the scriptures consistently.”

David’s, Dan’s, and Lea’s stories typify the diverse situations LDS young single adults, ages 18 to 30, find themselves in whether they’ve chosen not to attend college or have graduated. Long work days, a sometimes draining work environment, and a lack of opportunity to socialize with other single Latter-day Saints are barriers to spirituality that are difficult to overcome. To help alleviate these burdens, in late 1993 the First Presidency initiated the extended institute program within the Church Educational System (CES) in the United States and Canada: they invited nonstudents into institute classes at college campuses, seminary buildings, and meetinghouses.

To spark a large influx of young single adults into institute classes, those who administer this program created advisory councils composed of local priesthood leaders, institute representatives, and young adults. Since the program’s inception in 1993, says Bruce Lake, executive assistant to the administrator of the CES, many more young adults have enrolled. In the past, “space has usually been available for noncollege students in areas where few Latter-day Saints live,” he explains, but the new extension has attracted many who were not enjoying the opportunities of institute classes earlier. And, he adds, “We’ve had rapid growth within concentrated LDS populations like Utah and Idaho.”

For example, the institute of religion at Boise, Idaho, now draws large numbers of noncollege students in the early and late hours of the day. Extension director Craig Spjut also recruits people by having them act in musical productions and sing in an institute choir that has burgeoned from 30 members to 180.

However, in communities with fewer Latter-day Saints, the influx of noncollege students has been, in the words of University of Minnesota institute coordinator David Durfey, “more of a trickle than a gush.” Instead of hundreds responding to recruiting done through singles wards, priesthood holders, and phone calls, the new students often come in “one at a time,” as Missouri coordinator Gene Van Shaar points out. “I’m hoping for a bigger nonstudent enrollment but am happy with any nontraditional student who walks into class.”

Additional classes require additional teachers, some of whom have been provided by the CES, but most of whom come from volunteers in local stakes. Mark Wood, a superior court judge in Fairbanks, Alaska, teaches several institute classes per semester. “I’m dedicated to the institute program,” Brother Wood explains, “because I converted to the Church in my late teens and my parents wouldn’t allow me to be baptized. As a result, I took institute for three years as a nonmember until my baptism. And even after our marriage, my wife and I continued to take adult religion classes here in Fairbanks. Religion classes aren’t just for college—they’re for anyone who wants to grow spiritually.”

Many students, whether working professionals or recent high school graduates, tell remarkable stories of spiritual growth. Through studying the scriptures in institute classes, some have recognized the influence of the Holy Ghost giving them direction. Others have gained a clearer understanding of Heavenly Father, the Savior, and the plan of salvation. Through their associations and activities, some have found friends—and spouses. For many young single adults who have given them a chance, extended institute classes have lightened burdens and offered new, hopeful directions.

“I Felt Like My Spirit Was Starving”

Many young adults say the influence of the Holy Ghost that comes whenever two or three gather in the name of Jesus Christ (see Matt. 18:20) provides a needed uplift after a long day. David Alleman, now a married BYU student, describes the experience as “the mission atmosphere outside of the mission and the Sunday atmosphere in the middle of the week.” David took advantage of the institute extension program in Fullerton, California, after returning home from a mission. Not in school at the time, David remained wary of returning to a former group of friends whose interests, he says, “weren’t exactly conducive to keeping the Spirit with me. So the Fullerton institute was really an answer to prayer for me, because it helped me continue feeling influenced by the Holy Ghost, just like on my mission.”

For Julie (name changed), a waitress in the midwestern United States, the influence of the Holy Ghost she felt in institute provided a dramatic improvement to her life. “I had not been living by the precepts of the Church for some time,” she recalls. “I felt like my spirit was starving and just crying out for some sort of spiritual food.” Julie’s initial enrollment in institute resulted less from spiritual hunger and more from what she admits was “my need for a parking place at the institute building—directly across the street from a part-time class I’d enrolled in!” She took advantage of the institute parking sticker but soon felt guilty about using the space. “I’ll just go once to institute,” she thought to assuage her guilt. But after that, she never missed again. “As soon as I walked into the room,” she recalls, “I felt the overpowering influence of the Spirit, something I hadn’t felt for a long time—and something I kept returning for again and again.”

For others, the influence of the Holy Ghost during class discussions comes in more subtle but still profound ways. David Sundwall, the genetics researcher in Washington, D.C., recalls one institute discussion dealing with Genesis and the Old Testament. “I’d been struggling with the prevailing philosophy in my lab, which considers the idea of a creation by God ludicrous,” he recalls. “But as we talked about the Creation as the scriptures explain it, I felt the Spirit testify to me that there was, indeed, a literal creation. Those kinds of confirmations I feel in institute really help me when I go back to work.”

“Pure Knowledge” to “Enlarge the Soul” (D&C 121:42)

Coming to a more complete knowledge of the Savior’s mission profoundly enlightened Erin Evans’s religious outlook. A businesswoman working for a large energy corporation in Houston, Erin inaccurately assumed for many years that she needed to perfect herself in her lifetime. “In the back of my mind,” she said, “I thought being saved meant having all my food storage, never missing a meeting, and complying with every detail of a religious life.”

When she enrolled in an institute extension class as a young single adult, however, Erin came to understand, through a series of discussions on the Atonement, that “Jesus Christ was the only perfect being ever to live on earth and thus the only person who could save us. When my teacher pointed out that Jesus is called the Savior because he saves, I finally began to understand that he paid the price for my sins, and he will help me overcome my faults—now and in the eternities. My responsibility is to repent.” Filled with much greater faith as a result, Erin noticed her life becoming “less stressful and so much more happy and hopeful with that understanding.”

As a convert, Glenn Davis, a French and world history teacher in Maine, found tossing out his prejudices about the Bible refreshing. “I grew up in a very scientific home,” he remembers. “I guess I’d heard of Moses before, but that was about it. After all, the Bible wasn’t worth studying to me—I knew only a stereotype of its being old, ancient, and irrelevant!” But through a personal study schedule set up by an institute instructor after Glenn’s baptism, he began reading the Old and New Testaments before embarking on a study of the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture. “My former views were completely without foundation,” he observes. “The Bible has been so enlightening and the prophets and people in it full of insight for problems that everyone faces, whether today or thousands of years ago. And all scripture, I’m seeing for the first time, is interrelated. Ancient and modern, they all testify of Christ.”

Among Friends

Finding friends with similar beliefs constitutes another prime motivating factor for young single adults who enroll in institute. For Kelli Allen, an administrative assistant for the Florida Chamber of Commerce in Tallahassee, “It’s just refreshing to socialize with people anxious to share their faith with you. I usually don’t meet any other members outside of family, except on Sunday.” That sense of fellowship during the work week inspired Kelli to sign up not only for night classes but also for lunch-hour classes when her schedule permits.

Eleanor Sundwall, who works for a nonprofit organization in Maryland, found the friendliness and openness of institute students wore down her resistance to learning more about the Church she’d grown up in but had come to question as a teenager. Initially, Eleanor attended an institute class because her returned missionary brother encouraged her to accompany him. She assumed she’d meet with the narrowness she’d come to expect from religious people. Instead, she discovered, “No one was self-righteous at all—just very accepting of me and my questions, as was the teacher.” Eleanor enrolled in institute, ready to resolve her doubts and “be more accepting of my new religious friends, since I didn’t find them hypocritical at all.” She now serves both as a part-time ordinance worker in the Washington [D.C.] Temple and as the homemaking counselor in her singles ward Relief Society.

Of course, there are those who find more than friends at institute. Laura Pyper, an architect in Boston, Massachusetts, took an institute class with a man who turned out to be her future husband. When they began riding home together after class, she says, “We discussed all of these deep, spiritual ideas. Getting to know each other on that level seemed much more meaningful than going to the movies.” One particular discussion they continued after class—on choosing an eternal companion—obviously had serious implications in their relationship. “Let’s just say it was life-changing for the both of us!” she says.

A New Direction

Perhaps the most vital contribution institute extension classes offer is a new direction. Gospel knowledge begins as enlightenment and goes on to change lives.

Mike Elliott, a disc jockey in Manhattan, Kansas, had a loyal home teacher who also happened to be the local institute director. Although Mike had not been very active in the Church, at the encouragement of his home teacher, he enrolled in a family history class and began to study the doctrine of salvation for the dead. He started doing family history research. “I went back 13 generations on my father’s side,” he says of the course work. “As I went along, I began to feel a special kinship with my deceased family members, especially one grandfather five generations back.” That kinship instilled in Mike a desire to return to full Church activity, and he recently served as a volunteer for the St. Louis Temple open house.

Another young single adult, Ellen (name changed), a divorced mother working in public relations, says studying the Book of Mormon gave her motivation to come back to the Church after being excommunicated a year and a half earlier. She took an institute class “at a very discouraging point in my life, when I could have easily given up,” she says. But during one particular class period, Ellen was struck by the teacher’s discussion of Nephi’s struggles: “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me” (2 Ne. 4:17–18). She realized “even Nephi and this great institute instructor sometimes felt the way I did.” Just maybe, Ellen thought, she could overcome as they did. With that knowledge, she became worthy for rebaptism and says, “I am so happy in my new life in the Church”—a new life that recently included marriage to another Latter-day Saint in her area.

Sometimes lifestyle changes are more internal, although just as significant. Janine Mika, an office manager in Ithaca, New York, noticed a perceptible inner peace whenever she returned to home or work from her institute class: “The discussions we had put me into what I call a ‘pondering mode’: a constant conversation with God that keeps me receptive to personal revelation. I just keep pondering about what I’ve learned and feel so much closer to Heavenly Father as a result.”

Continued Growth

More and more young single adults will have a chance to experience such benefits. Brother Lake says monthly satellite broadcasts “are bringing in rapidly growing numbers of potential institute students. They convene in stake centers and institute buildings all over North America to hear messages from the prophet and the apostles.” While most of the broadcasts originate from the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University, others have originated from Atlanta, Georgia; Seattle, Washington; and Washington, D.C. One 1997 broadcast drew more than 100,000 viewers in the United States and Canada.

As Brother Lake points out, “We have over a million young single adults in the Church now, and the extended institute program can benefit all of them.” The benefits, say young single adults who have enrolled in classes, are very real. The program indeed lifts burdens, offers hope, and greatly enlarges the soul.

An Institute in Your Stake

Many stakes sponsor classes that take the institute program out to where the young adults are. Currently there are more than 1.5 million young single members in the Church, and as Bruce Lake, executive assistant to the administrator of the CES, explains, “We want to reach out to them all.” He points out that stake institute classes can nurture and increase students’ activity in the Church and provide valuable social opportunities.

These stake institute classes flourish throughout the world and can help meet singles’ needs for a variety of reasons. Some young adults may not have easy access to a university or college institute. Others may feel more comfortable with a postcollege group or feel more at home in a stake setting. Often the location of such classes in a stake is simply more convenient.

Erika Holbrook, a project coordinator for a construction company in Lehi, Utah, is one young adult who has taken advantage of the classes offered in her stake. The institute program “has been a great tool for building my testimony,” she says. After graduating from high school and leaving Young Women, Erika found herself almost alone in her age-group within her ward. But in her institute classes she could associate with people her own age from her area, and she already knew her instructor, a former member of her ward. “My classes have pushed me to get to know the scriptures better and have helped me find out what I really believe in,” she says. With a stronger foundation of faith, she has deepened her commitment to the Church and more fully enjoys participation in her ward meetings.

In stakes that cover a large geographical area, institute classes may be sponsored by one ward or several wards in a particular locale. However, the classes are still coordinated through the stake.

If the local program qualifies, stake institute classes may offer credits that can be transferred to Brigham Young University, Ricks College, or BYU—Hawaii. To do so, however, each class must meet the following criteria:

  1. 1.

    It must be an approved institute of religion class.

  2. 2.

    It must use the CES curriculum.

  3. 3.

    The teacher must be trained and supervised by the CES.

  4. 4.

    The teacher must meet certain academic requirements.

Students are also expected to meet standards of performance to obtain transfer credit.

To start a stake institute class, priesthood leaders should contact the institute of religion nearest them for assistance. No minimum number of students is required, says Brother Lake, “but you need enough people to be able to engage in stimulating gospel discussions.” A qualified teacher must also be available.

Stake leaders or young singles who would like a class to be taught in their area have several options. Priesthood leaders can solicit help from the nearest institute of religion; or, if there aren’t enough other young adults in their area for a class, they can set up an individual correspondence program through the nearest institute. Students can approach their bishops or stake presidents, who may then initiate the procedure to establish a class.

[photos] Young single adults share a variety of study and work situations. The extension of institute programs is designed to draw them all in. (Far left: photo by Craig Dimond; center: photo by Jed Clark.)

[photo] Some members who find themselves spiritually isolated by their work situations now enjoy the blessings of socializing and participating in gospel-based activities through institute programs offered to all young singles. (Photo © FPG International.)

[photos] Institute participation strengthens members in a variety of ways—for example, through group activities (far left) that build bonds of fellowship and classroom discussions (above; photos by Jed Clark.)

[photo] Friendships with others who share the same ideals are one valuable by-product of participation in institute activities. (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

Elizabeth VanDenBerghe teaches Spiritual Living in the Valley View Eighth Ward Relief Society, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake.