Think about someone who has had a lasting impact on your life. Perhaps it was a family member, a teacher or a Church leader. What was it that made this person so influential? Ponder this while I tell you about someone whose impact on me was profound and life-changing.
On Oct. 1, 1976, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone gave a general conference address titled “The Impact Teacher” (see Ensign, November 1976, p. 103-5). I was fresh out of high school at the time, just weeks into my first semester of college. For some reason, this message resonated with me. Elder Featherstone spoke of the shepherds of Israel and their duty to gather the Lord’s flock, and I wanted to be such a shepherd. He spoke of fathers who inspire their children with a knowledge of who they are, and I wanted to be such a father. He spoke of teachers who teach in the Savior’s way, and I wanted to be such a teacher. Never before had I been so deeply moved by a conference talk.
Imagine my surprise when, just a few months later, I arrived in the Texas San Antonio Mission as a full-time missionary and met my mission president: Vaughn J. Featherstone. During the course of my mission, I discovered why President Featherstone was able to speak so powerfully about being an “impact teacher” — because he was an impact teacher! He taught me things that have remained with me in every responsibility and calling I have had ever since.
I’ve often asked myself, how was President Featherstone able to have such a positive influence on my life? There are probably many reasons, but three principles seem to stand out. I share them with the hope that they might be helpful to all of us who seek to make a lasting difference in the lives of the young people we serve.
1. Be with them.
Although he was responsible for 300 missionaries, President Featherstone found ways to be with us individually, to minister to the one. Through interviews, visits to our apartments, weekly notes and frequent phone calls, he showed us that he was in the work with us.
I’ll always remember my first day in the mission field. All of the missionaries in the area were gathered for a zone conference. As he addressed the group, President Featherstone took the opportunity to introduce me and paid me a high compliment — even though he had met me only hours before. Can you imagine what that did for the confidence of a brand new missionary? At that moment, I would have done anything for him.
If you teach or lead youth, look for ways to be with them — in all kinds of settings, not just during an hour at church. This is how you will find your most meaningful teaching opportunities. Take an interest in them and in their lives. Show them that you notice their good qualities. Help them feel that you are a fellow laborer, a fellow traveler on the path back to the Savior.
2. Connect them with heaven.
President Featherstone’s teaching was powerful because it was filled with the Spirit. Sometimes it seemed to us missionaries that he had the entire standard works memorized. In reality, he had simply followed the scriptural charge to all teachers, “Treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour [what to say]” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:85). We could sense that the scriptures were a precious treasure to him, and he used them to point us toward the Savior.
Sometimes in our efforts to build strong relationships with the youth, we forget that they must be converted to the Savior, not to us. Everything we do with them should build faith in Him. To survive spiritually, they will need a strong connection with heaven, and if we intend to help them, our connection with heaven must be strong as well.
3. Let them lead.
President Featherstone trusted his missionaries, gave us opportunities to lead and trained us so that we could succeed. When I was given such an assignment, President Featherstone always made me feel that my service was vitally important to the success of the mission. I never wanted to let him down.
Why do we sometimes hesitate to let the youth lead? Perhaps we notice their weakness and inexperience, and so we doubt their ability. But the Lord sees them differently. He sees not just who they are but who they can become. This is why He gives youth as young as 12 the responsibility to lead deacons quorums and Beehive classes.
Whether they admit it or not, most youth look to us for cues about how much to expect of themselves. So set the bar high, and then train them in ways that will help them meet our expectations. They will probably make mistakes; they may even disappoint us at times. But over time, and with encouragement and training from loving leaders, they will grow to become the leaders they were meant to be.
I used to wonder how I would ever repay Elder Featherstone for the meaningful impact he had on my life. I now understand that the best way to do this is to follow his example as I interact with the young people in my care. Years from now, today’s young men and young women will be where their leaders are now. In the meantime, if we strive to be with them, connect them with heaven, and let them lead, they will be prepared to be the next generation’s “impact teachers.”