Sister Kristen Oaks is passionate about education, teaching and the gospel living. Married to President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sister Oaks is author of numerous books, including "Testimony Glove," "My Home Can Be a Holy Place," and "A Single Voice: The Unexpected Life is No Less A Life."
In this episode of the Church News podcast she shares the spiritual and practical insights she has discovered as a new wife, mother, grandmother, and role model. She has a special place in her heart for children, single members of the Church and temple work. She is working to connect with others through the gospel, encouraging them to grow their testimonies no matter what stage or type of life they live. She is interviewed by guest host Sister Sheri Dew.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”
Sister Kristen Oaks has spent much of her life teaching. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in special education, both from the University of Utah, and a doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction from Brigham Young University. She married her husband, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the first presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the year 2000 in the Salt Lake Temple. In addition to her love of teaching, she loves being a wife, mother and grandmother. She is the author of several books, including “A Single Voice,” “The Unexpected Life is No Less a Life,” and several books for children, including “The Testimony Glove,” and “My Home Can be a Holy Place.” We are grateful she is willing to share her insights with us today. In addition to Sister Oaks, we are also joined by Sister Sheri Dew, the executive vice president of Deseret Management Corporation. Sister Dew, also a former member of the Relief Society general presidency, will be conducting the interview today. I'm so excited for this opportunity to sit back and listen to this conversation between these two amazing women.
Sister Sheri Dew: Thank you, Sarah. It is wonderful, Sister Oaks, to be with you. We're so grateful to have a chance to talk with you today. And let me just begin really where Sarah left off. She talked about some of the things that you had done prior to your marriage at the age of 53 to then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Let me add that you had also served a mission in Sendai Japan, and had worked for a number of years in the publishing business, including in international publishing. So let's just step back for a second and recall some of those early life experiences you had prior to marrying Elder Oaks. Just talk to us a little bit about your life before you married your husband.
Sister Kristen Oaks: I'm looking back 20 years. I had a wonderful job. I was a consultant for the largest privately held publishing house in America, and I took over their international division for some years. And then I came back to America, but I loved it. I couldn't believe they paid me to do it. I got to go and I taught reading, and that was my favorite job in all the world. It was a lot of traveling though. And it was very demanding. And it was exciting initially, but then I just wanted to be home. I wanted to settle down and I had a great time, but I wanted to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, with my family.
Sheri Dew: Okay, so now the time comes in the year 2000 when you marry Elder Dallin H. Oaks. You've now been married to him for more than 20 years. You're his second wife, his wife, June, passed away more than two years, I think, before the two of you married. So marriage for anyone, of course, brings life changes. But marrying an Apostle adds a layer of complexity to marriage that is probably difficult, if not impossible, for any of the rest of us to understand. So talk to us about both the blessings and the challenges your marriage posed in those early days.
Sister Kristen Oaks: I had a fabulous job, and I was at the top of my game, it was going very well. But I just really wanted to be a mom and have a home. But then after marriage, I realized I would join a family that I had to learn to become part of it. It was two years after the death of their mom, but they still really sorely missed her. And I realized when I watched my husband that his greatest joy, I mean when he would laugh from his belly laugh is when he was with those children. And they brought him every moment of happiness. So I realized I had to become part of the fabric of that family.
Sister Sheri Dew: So that's just not easy. What did you do to step into a family? I mean, this kind of family unit that's already formed, it's already functioning. They already have their own shared experiences, their own jokes, their own things that they've done in the past together that they all know and you come in as a newcomer, and yet you're their father and grandfather's wife. So what did you do to bridge that gap, which I think happens to anybody in your situation, you have to bridge a gap.
Sister Kristen Oaks: You know, you mentioned something, and you probably didn't even realize that, that's familiar. Because people like the familiar and they like things to be that way they were, and to be together in a way that they were in, it's not possible. But one thing I did, my husband included me in every activity, I went to every baseball game, every meeting, every baby blessing, and I was there all the time. I mean, I wanted to be part of it, yet, I was still on the outside, a lot of the time, I think any second wife or divorcee, or single person can testify that you kind of feel that way. And I gave things to my girls. I mean, they were always gracious, they were always kind, but there's a difference from being outside and inside. The big jump for me came when a daughter, I got a letter from her, and she asked me if I would please be a grandma to her children, because she wanted them to know what a grandmother was like so they'd actually love her mother. And that was a big turning point for me, because I saw myself, “Oh, my job is to keep our family together, my job is to complement their grandma, to give access to my husband, and create opportunities for our family to get tighter.” And actually, from that moment on, it became a lot better for me. It was happier.
Sheri Dew: Let's talk about another aspect of this. As I'm sitting here, I'm thinking, “Okay, I absolutely know what it's like to walk into sacrament meeting, or a women's conference, or anything else alone and sit alone.” So here you were, you had been sitting alone as an unmarried woman. And now you marry an Apostle, who always is presiding or sitting on the stand. So you're still sitting alone. Talk about those unique aspects, or challenges of, again, marrying a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles?
Sister Kristen Oaks: Well, Sheri, the part that was so interesting, is, I was still sitting alone in church. And he still was up on the stand, he was still traveling alone, so I was home alone. And then he was off to meetings, he went to work every day, you know, I'm alone all the time. So that lonely part didn't change at all, except that I felt more uncomfortable in the audience. I remember honestly, going to my ward for the first time. And one thing that was interesting in our family, we stayed in the same home. And we lived in the same ward. And that was because there were so many changes in my husband's life, and he wanted to do that. And so I walked into this ward, where this beloved woman had been, and I just sat there for a while. And I said to him, “Okay, this starts, I've got to travel with you,” because one of his things he likes to do is every Sunday, he also likes to visit wards anonymously to see what's really happening in the real Church. And I said, “You've got to start taking me.” And the thing that saved me, it was working in Primary, I was called as the Primary worker. And those little kids didn't know anything about me other than the fact that I really loved them. We're still really close to all those children. But they saved me. They were my salvation, because they became my friends in the ward first of all.
Sister Sheri Dew: What a beautiful reflection to think about. So they really eased your way into this new community, new neighborhood, new ward. And think: it all happened through the Primary. Sister Joy Jones will love hearing your testimony about the power of Primary children, really to do such an unbelievable job of welcoming you.
Sister Kristen Oaks: There was an article that said,” How can you be childlike or be like a child if there's no children in your life?” And it's exactly it, the Primary is where everything's happening, at least for me, and that's how I assimilated to my ward and that house and everything. I became comfortable through the children.
Sister Sheri Dew: Beautiful. Okay, let's transition again. Let's go back and talk about this large and growing family that you married into. Again, you now have the advantage of time. You've been married for more than two decades, you've now seen a lot of things develop over this period of time. But when you look back and consider the family and the marriage that you stepped into, how can you see that the Lord was preparing you exactly to step into this marriage and this family?
Sister Kristen Oaks: There was one way He wasn't: I didn't know how to cook. And I don't know, that's such a major thing. I'm cooking for a tribe. I would recommend to every single person to watch the Food Channel and cook a lot. But what did prepare me is, my mother had had a stepmother. Her mother died when she was age four. And it was so traumatic and devastating to her. And that woman came into the home, and I can't judge her, but she took away all the mementos, all the pictures, all the remembrances of my mother's mother. And she, my mother, was never allowed to speak of her ever. Even at one point, the parents lived in one home and the children lived in another home. But I want to point something out, that the older siblings, and I think if anybody's listening that has a variety of children in their family and ages, the older siblings had more positive experiences than my mother. But for my mother, it was so sad for her that I made a pledge before I ever entered the Oak family, that I wanted my family to never have a negative experience. I wanted them to be able to speak about their mother. I wanted them to share stories and experiences and stay an eternal family. I love my family.
And Sheri, I love kids, I spend a lot of time with my nieces and nephews. And we had a lot of fun. But besides having fun, I think I was a teacher and a counselor. When they had hard times, I would say to them, “Oh, let's just say, ‘ho ho ho I have a problem,’ because that's a wonderful thing to have.” And they hated it. They still hate it. But I knew that they might not have the luxury in their lives just to let down. I knew there were hard things ahead. And finally, for all the single members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I feel like they are so close to Heavenly Father. And He is so mindful of them. And Heavenly Father was my best friend, He just carried me through everything. I depended on Him. I prayed every day, and so I had had that experience.
Sister Sheri Dew: I know that you also have such a great testimony of the Savior, and His personal intervention in our lives. And in fact, I have tried to do things to teach that to your growing family. But I know that the Savior has been beside you your whole life, and you can see that and we can see it in your reflection. We can see it in your countenance and in your image. I'm wondering as we're talking just maybe a little bit more about the family. And you've already talked about some of the challenges that anyone has in coming into an established family. As you look back, can you now see any specific things you did as you entered the family? As you started to get acquainted? Things that you did, quote unquote, fit in? Can you think of any specific activities that might actually be really instructive for someone in the same situation?
Sister Kristen Oaks: Oh, absolutely. From food, even on holidays, we celebrated in the same way. We had the same recipes. We talked and laughed about their mother a lot. And initially, I didn't feel as comfortable as I do now. But I learned so much about her. And that was really important—when we go on cruises, or we have a family reunion that we all go on every other summer, and everybody gets together— that was so important to them, and I allowed that to happen and I wanted them to remember their mom. The other thing is I started with the children again. We did a lot of grandchildren parties. We had dinners with our family. I kept that up. But we really tried to have sleepovers, we had teddy bear parties, we went on excursions, we went up once to see the moose. But the more I involved the kids, the closer I felt to them. It just was another doorway into the family for me.
Sister Sheri Dew: What about school activities, plays, games, you've got some family members that are very musically talented. I'm guessing you've been to a countless number of those things.
Sister Kristen Oaks: Oh, constantly. I mean, my husband supports them in everything. So I've been to more baby blessings, more courts of honor for Scouts, prom courts, I mean, musical performances. And, you know, my great gift is, I am not musical, but I listen. And because I listen, I just don't critique and I just love being there. And I take cookies to the grandkids. I tried to stay in touch with the grandkids. I don't know, looking back, Sheri, anytime that you can value another person and you know what they really value, like I have some daughters that are nurses,I'm really interested in that, I have some that are artists and they really create beautiful things, I have one that's a violin teacher that does incredible things. I just sort of, I wanted to learn more about things and I praise them in those things, I love those things.
Sister Sheri Dew: Beautiful. That's really beautiful. And frankly, that's instructive for every one of us in any kind of significant relationship that we're trying to develop, I mean, the secret of what you just said, that you really value what these other members are bringing to your life.
Sister Kristen Oaks: And but Sheri, also, not everybody values you getting close to them. So you have to honor that too. I mean, some people accept that and some people, see, I think there's real danger when you come into a marriage. And this is what I found is, when you're creating a new memory, they don't want to lose a memory of their mom. And so rather than losing that memory, you kind of reject the other person. Maybe that's just my way of looking at it. But that doesn't have to be. And I think we overcame it so much, by speaking ever so often.
Sister Sheri Dew: Very nice. Let's switch gears just a little bit. You've demonstrated, and you've talked about the fact that you have a passion, really, for teaching the gospel to your family. What motivates that? Where does that come from?
Sister Kristen Oaks: It comes... I come from a wonderful family, Sheri. I mean, I couldn’t tell you how wonderful my parents are, or how well they treated me. But they were not active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I had to beg to be baptized. I asked to be baptized at 10, all my sisters were baptized at 8. And my parents really would let us go to church, my father went to the daddy daughter dates, but I never really had a father’s blessing. Or we'd bless the food, but I never got down, and we didn’t pray every night as a family. And I didn’t hear people’s testimonies, or we didn’t read the scriptures together. And I didn’t realize until I was an adult, looking back, what decisions I might have made in my life, or how I could have been a better person, if I’d had someone directing me and teaching me the gospel, and somebody besides my Primary teachers, you know? So I never want any child in my family to not know it. You know, Elder Andersen said, “As the world speaks less of Christ, we better start speaking more of Christ.” And why do we do that in our families? And you know, the scripture says, I wrote it down, it says: “We talk of Christ, we preach of Christ.” But you know, why are we doing that? And the end of that scripture says, “Why? That our children may know to what source they may look for remission of their sins.” The whole purpose of being a member of this Church and loving Jesus Christ is to bring our family along, and I know how painful it can be not to have that in your life. I longed for it, still I long for more of it.
Sister Sheri Dew: What do you think helped you take such an active interest in the gospel as a youth when it wasn't really emphasized or lived in your home? You've talked about how wonderful your parents were, but the gospel wasn't really being lived or encouraged. So how did that get through to you, that you cared, that you wanted to know more?
Sister Kristen Oaks: Well, I knew that my grandparents were extremely religious. And my grandfather actually wrote a letter and he bore his testimony. And he was actually over Temple Square for 35 years So I'm reading this testimony, and the Church was right across the street from my house. So I could go to Primary, and the people that lived next door to me went to Primary. But my best friend said something to me I'll never forget, because many of the people that I went to church with when I was little are no longer active in the Church, and, we were talking about it, and she said, “You know, the difference between you, Kristen, and me, is that you just believed and I didn't. And I don't know how someone explains why they believe, but my soul just longed for it. I responded to that message. But the church was close, and friends. And I think when you're talking to Primary leaders, you need to get kids in church, and you need to have them have friends.
Sister Sheri Dew: It seems to me as I just listened to you that you were blessed with a number of things: Friends, Primary teachers, proximity of the Church, but you also have the gift to believe. It's a spiritual gift. It's a beautiful spiritual gift. And it seems to me that that's often what propels a child to kind of go against the grain of the family when the gospel isn't being really embraced inside of the home. And so it's really a beautiful thing to consider and to contemplate about that spiritual gift.
Sister Kristen Oaks: Well, you have to know my sisters were really drawn to the gospel. And we actually moved when I was 12. And I was far away from the church, and I didn't have friends in that neighborhood. And so there was a while that I was not as near the gospel, but it's always been important to my little sisters. If I had to say, looking back on our teachers, I think Heavenly Father just was watching over a little family. I mean, as children, we knew nothing of that. But He just was helping us and guiding us.
Sister Sheri Dew: That's wonderful, just the power of teachers. So now let's expand the gospel discussion to your family. When you think about all of the outside forces that are pulling our children and our youth and even young married couples, and other, frankly, all ages, to embrace secular ways of thought, so what are you doing, or what suggestions do you have for others who are trying to make the gospel as relevant as possible in their family's lives? What are you seeing that is being effective in your own family?
Sister Kristen Oaks: I want to talk about this. But just before I start it, before you told me about this podcast, I was in the temple for a missionary and praying, and the Lord just told me to talk about being a mother and being relevant. And so when I'm referring to this, it’s something that really drives me, because I know what it is not to have the gospel, and I don't want anyone around me not to have it. And so my husband and I really got together, we wanted our children to love the scriptures and love holy documents. And we thought, “We have to make it fun, too.” I mean, nobody wants the gospel driven down their throat. It has to, you know, in every job that must be done, there's an element of fun. So we challenged our family over the years to memorize The Living Christ. And the next year, the Family Proclamation. And then part of this last year, as part of Joseph Smith’s living vision, the First Vision and that we provided materials, we sent out materials, and then we had them pass off the memorization to their grandpa. And we had dinners to celebrate when we could and then we've been sending out certificates. But they love it, they want to do it. And one thing that was hilarious is when we were memorizing the Family Proclamation, Jenny's family called at 10 p.m., and the little kids said, “We want to come over and pass it off.” And we're in bed. And so my husband gets on his robe and goes out there. And these little girls are passing off, they said, ”Grandpa, we have to do it because we have to come to the dinner.” And the interesting thing is Jenny had asked us if we could please memorize something else. And it became part of them. They loved it.
Sister Sheri Dew: You're talking about actively, intentionally, President Nelson calls this “righteous, intentional parenting,” or grandparenting, where you're doing things that help the children actually engage. And what a wonderful thing that you had some that were a little late and saying, “No, no, we don't want to be left out,” and they've done it. And they got involved. That's righteous, intentional grandparenting, seems to me.
Sister Kristen Oaks: Well, we also have had some family history parties. When I say we had parties, my husband's written some biographies, so his mother, Stella, none of the children knew her. So we had our grandchildren over for dinner. And she loved yellow. So everything was yellow. She loved hats, so everybody had to wear a hat. I mean, everything that she loved was at the table. And then my husband passed out the biographies, marking sections of them. And then the children read from them. That was their favorite party, because they learned about their grandma. They learned who they were. And they loved the hat part. I mean, we had baseball hats. You know, people want to know sacred things, Sheri, that you have to make it alive and vital. And that's what we've done. I hope.
Sister Sheri Dew: So parties were the purpose. That's what I'm hearing.
Sister Kristen Oaks: We're trying, we're really trying.
Sister Sheri Dew: I’ve heard you say that “Come, Follow Me,” speaking about doing things intentionally to try to grow our testimonies, I’ve heard you say that “Come, Follow Me,” and participating in that with your husband has actually changed your relationship with your husband. Say something about that, if you will.
Sister Kristen Oaks: Oh, well, before “Come, Follow Me,” we’d go to different parts of the house and just read our scriptures. And, you know, now that we have “Come, Follow Me,” and it’s mostly my husband just saying, and me too, we, we go in and we religiously get out our manual, and we read it together. And then we read the scriptures together. And it’s the first time in my marriage that my husband teaches me personally the gospel. I mean, I think when you marry an Apostle, that’s the one thing you want to do is share in these sacred experiences. And “Come, Follow Me” has opened that world for us, that we’ll read the verses together, and then he’ll say, you know, we’ll ask each other questions and explain. I love that program. I feel like it was given from our Savior to us. To draw us closer to Him, I love it.
Sister Sheri Dew: Marvelous. Building on this, how has COVID affected all of this? How has it affected your family relationships, or your family interactions? How has it affected you and President Oaks?
Sister Kristen Oaks: Well, we're home a lot more. You know, it could have been so devastating because my husband's with the Prophet every day. And so I don't want to be the family that makes the Prophet sick. So we are really in isolation.
But I want to make a comparison. I’m looking out now at the Salt Lake Temple. And right now it’s sheathed and scaffolding and surrounded by cranes and trucks, and literally, there’s mud. And I’m comparing it to us, because right now, we’re kind of hidden away, and we have masks on. And I look at the temple now, and I see it as being renovated and reinforced, and beautified and strengthened. And I think, “How are we going to do that?” And so the way we’ve done it, and I kind of made a list, we revised our family book, we have wrote a book called “Tell Me a Story,” where we collected our family miracles, when we’ve been sick, or when we’ve been lost, or things that happened, and just the fun stories, and we revised that and send it out. And it’s actually to be read at bedtime to little kids. That’s what we read it for. We talked to everybody on the phone, especially my husband, just constantly. We send out a monthly letter, we never did that before. I started a Facebook page when we were supposed to light the world, but I started it with stories about my family and things that they do. I mean, I have a granddaughter, and for Christmas, she asked her children to memorize a scripture as a present. So I just started saying all the wonderful things they do. So I have the Facebook, but it’s mostly about our family. And that had never been before. We have Zooms. The last big one was at Christmas, we had various families do part of the Nativity. So Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, Anna and Simeon. And I go to the post office every week. I made some plaques that say “Hear Him,” because our Prophet wants us to hear Jesus Christ. And I mailed those out to all the families, and I’ve been sending games to the kids.
So, Sheri, if you ask, COVID has been a blessing. Because we didn't do any of those things before to the degree that we do now. And even though we're sheathed away and hidden under masks, and far away from each other, we need more hugs, but we are closer together. And I hope we become a more holy family as a result of this.
Sister Sheri Dew: I've thought so many times in the last few months that yes, there have been some really hard things about COVID, but we have, I think, all adopted some different ways of communicating and learning to express love. And the hope is we don't lose any of those, should the day come, we hope, before too long when our activities can be a little bit more normal, whatever normal is these days. But you look at that and say those are treasured experiences that you're grateful to have had and to continue to have.
One of the things that I like to do from time to time is to look at different periods of life and say, “Okay, what have I learned from this period?” You've now had a couple of decades as a mother or stepmother, grandmother, wife to your husband. So first, on the family side, what do you think that you know today that you didn't know a couple of decades ago about being a mother, a stepmother and a grandmother? What have you learned about that?
Sister Kristen Oaks: To love, and just to keep on loving, and how important it is to have a place where people can be safe. You know, my husband is a genius. He does not insert himself into his children. I know from his talks people see that he is very direct about things. So you know what he thinks, but he is so non-judgmental. And he’s really helped me to be that way. A stepmother is really better off not having a lot of opinions. I am not their mom, especially the adults, and they don’t need a mom. They had a mother, but they need a friend. And so if I can just love more and support them. I think that’s a lesson and it takes a lifetime to learn. And I think love can be different things in different ways. It can be saying the truth when it needs to be said or just sending flowers when somebody needs them. I honestly feel like my husband’s first wife whispers in my ear a lot about what her kids need. But it’s just staying close to the Lord so He can tell me what my family needs so I can give it to them. Because I don’t know all the time.
Sister Sheri Dew: In the same manner, or in the same fashion, what do you think you know today that you didn't know two decades ago about being married?
Sister Kristen Oaks: What I know—and I think that this does not just apply to me—I think every home in the Church, our homes are like temples now. And we need to keep it more holy, to be more careful about the the television that comes in, or the radio that comes in, or the things I talk about to him. He really needs positive things and he needs things cleaned up, to keep the house really tidy, at least where he is and organized. You know, when I first got married, and I hadn't done the dishes, I would put them in the oven. I'm better than that now, I get them done. You get to know each other, you think what each other are thinking. I never thought that was possible. Not that we finish each other's sentences. When we first got married, my husband said he and Neal A. Maxwell finish each other's sentences. And I said, “Shouldn't that be you and me?” And I think after 20 years, it is me and my husband. There's times to be quiet. There's times not to get mad. And there's just to love more and build people up more. And when they come home to make sure it's a place where they feel love.
Sister Sheri Dew: Lessons for all of us, really in any situation. You've been so generous with your time today, and frankly, we could talk to you. You're delightful. You're smart. You''ve had so many treasured life experiences. But are there any parting thoughts that you have, that you would share with us today?
Sister Kristen Oaks: Yes, and when you asked me that, I felt really impressed to go to my husband's first wife's journal, as she knew of her imminent death. And she wrote letters to the children, and her thoughts mirror mine. And so I just added a few words, and what I would say to anyone listening: “My wish for all of you is that you will take up the cause,” and these are my words, “bringing souls to Christ.” Back to her: “Write more notes of encouragement, offer a listening ear, give small gifts to others so they know they matter. “And I wrote: “Across the miles and across the veil, we belong to each other.” And she closes: “I will be there to welcome you. I want no tears of sorrow. Only tears of joy for a life lived with fullness and purpose, a life dedicated to the Church and committed to Christ's example.” And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sister Sheri Dew: Oh, we thank you so very much, Sister Oaks. You know, I don’t know that there’s any better compliment than to say that when you finish a conversation with someone as we just finished with you, it makes me, and I’m guessing all of us who are listening, want to do better and be better, and try harder and just keep trying. So thank you so much for sharing a little window into your heart, and your testimony ,and to some of your life experiences. We love you. We pray for you. Thank you so very much.
Sister Kristen Oaks: I love you, Sheri. Thank you.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others.Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.