Educator passed test of discipleship

With an eminent background in the Church Educational System, Elder Joe J. Christensen is well acquainted with tests. He and his wife, Barbara, recently passed one of the most significant tests of their lives when he accepted the call to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy.

"Any committed Church member has already indicated a willingness to lay most everything on the line and accept whatever call may come," he reflected in a Church News interview five days after he was sustained in general conference on April 1. "This kind of a call gives you an opportunity to see if you're really serious about that commitment."The couple readily accepted, and Elder Christensen, president of Ricks College and a former Idaho farm boy, became one of 12 new General Authorities in the Church. (See April 8 Church News.)

At age 59, Elder Christensen has known the importance of dedication to the Lord's work since his childhood in Banida, Idaho, a small farming community that straddles the boundary between Bannock and Oneida (now Franklin) counties in the state's southeastern corner. (The name Banida is coined from the names of the two counties.)

He was the oldest child in a family of three boys, two girls and a male cousin who came to live with them after his own mother had died. With his father and brothers, young Joe spent many hours driving tractors, milking cows, hauling hay and irrigating.

"We learned what the 5 to 9' work day is like rather than the9 to 5'," he joked.

The ward to which the family belonged was the social center of Banida, where the population was only about 124. It was one of the most active wards in the Church, with sacrament meeting attendance typically at 80 to 90 percent.

"Because we were a very small ward, most people held more than one job in the Church," he recalled. "We were very much involved, and our lives centered around the Church in many ways."

As luck would have it, eight boys, including Joe, were born within a two-year period in Banida. That gave the little ward enough boys for a formidable basketball team, and they made strong showings against teams from other wards in the area that were larger.

As Banida was too small to have a high school, Joe attended Preston High School some 11 miles to the south, where he played on the varsity baseball team for two years. He also acted and sang in musicals and operettas presented by the school.

Having been double-promoted from the third to the fifth grade while attending Banida Elementary (a proverbial one-room school), he graduated from high school at age 16 and attended Utah State University, just over the Utah border, from 1946-48.

A 31-month mission to Mexico and Central America followed.

He was one of four missionaries who helped bring about the first convert baptisms in Costa Rica. Due to the extensiveness of the area in the mission, he served for 10 months in Costa Rica without any personal contact from the mission president other than correspondence.

"It was a time of maturation and growing up in the gospel," he recalled. "There were many opportunities to learn that the Lord doesn't leave you alone in those kinds of settings, so the development of a spiritual commitment was enhanced to a great degree."

Spiritual development was not the only thing he gained during his mission. While there, he met Barbara Kohler from Midway, Utah, who was just beginning her mission as he was finishing his. They dated after she returned home and were married in 1952.

The Korea conflict was raging at this time, and Joe Christensen, like many young men, faced the prospect of military service. He finished his undergraduate training at BYU in 1953 and, at the same time, was commissioned in its first group of Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps graduates. He was named outstanding ROTC graduate and received the Air Force Association Silver Medal.

The young officer was to report for active duty in July 1953, but while he was en route, the peace treaty was signed, ending the conflict in Korea. He ended up serving his two-year, active-duty commitment at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina.

"It was a delightful, challenging assignment with a lot of opportunities and choice experiences in sharing the gospel," he recalled.

One such experience involved the conversion of the officer assigned to succeed him, Howard Carroll.

"He impressed me as being a very clean-cut, competent person, always well-dressed and well-groomed, without the bad habits or vices common among some," Elder Christensen said.

The unit was on temporary duty in Atlanta, Ga. After a day of training, many in the group decided to relax at a nearby bar. Joe Christensen and Howard Carroll opted to return to the barracks instead, and spent the evening in conversation.

"The time came for my personal prayer," Elder Christensen recalled. "I was self-conscious and thought about finding a private room in which to pray. But I had second thoughts, and said: `Howard, in my faith, I've always had the custom of praying, and typically, I kneel. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to do that now.' "

He knelt and prayed silently, making his prayer shorter than usual. After he finished, Carroll said: "Joe, spiritually I'm in bad shape. Would you mind kneeling again and praying with me, only this time out loud?"

The experience led to a series of gospel conversations between the two, culminating in Howard Carroll's baptism the night before Joe Christensen was released from active duty.

Carroll subsequently baptized his fiance and her mother and later became bishop of the ward in Charleston. The Carrolls raised a family of five children. Years later, when Elder Christensen was president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, two of the Carrolls' sons came through as missionaries.

After his active military service, Elder Christensen fulfilled a deep impression he had received just after his mission that he should prepare to be a seminary teacher. Not knowing if there would be an opportunity to teach seminary, he had received training in secondary education, majoring in Spanish and minoring in English.

He did teach seminary, but not for long. After a year, he returned to BYU, where he joined the Religion Department faculty part-time while doing graduate work. Then followed a part-time position as director of the institute of religion adjacent to Washington State University, where he received his doctorate.

Thereafter, he became full-time director at the institute of religion adjacent to the University of Idaho at Moscow, and subsequently was director at the institute adjacent to the University of Utah from 1962-70.

By then, six children had joined the Christensen household. The entire family went to Mexico in 1970 when Elder Christensen was called to preside over the Mexico City Mission.

"It was marvelous to have Barbara and the children along, and to have Barbara be able to speak Spanish," he commented.

But they had been there only a few months when President Harold B. Lee called representing the Board of Education and appointed Elder Christensen as associate Church commissioner of education to serve with Commissioner Neal A. Maxwell.

It was an exciting time to be in Church education. The Church Board of Education had decided to internationalize the seminaries and institutes. During the next nine years, Elder Christensen traveled to 66 countries to implement the Church's educational programs. Typically, in a given area, seminary and institute would start with home-study courses and develop into early-morning or, in some domestic areas, released-time instruction as Church membership increased.

Another significant opportunity came in 1979 when Elder Christensen was called as president of the new Missionary Training Center in Provo. It had been opened in 1976 as the Language Training Center. Its scope had been changed in October 1978, when it became the Missionary Training Center, providing instruction to missionaries called to English-speaking missions, as well as foreign-language missions.

Pres. Christensen began his service in July 1979 for what was contemplated as a three-year mission. His presidency ultimately lasted four years, during which time more than 58,000 missionaries came through the center.

He returned to the commissioner's office in 1983, but was there for just two years when the appointment came as president of Ricks College, an assignment he embraced with enthusiasm. (He and BYU Pres. Jeffrey R. Holland, also sustained at the recent conference as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, will continue to serve temporarily as presidents of their respective institutions.)

Elder Christensen became – and remains – an irrepressible booster of Ricks College, which has just completed its centennial year.

"I have been, for the last four years, in what has to be the finest college educational setting in the world," he declared. "I know of no finer place to receive an education for the first two years than Ricks College. It has a superb, teaching-oriented faculty, good facilities and a marvelous student body. That all adds up to a great college."

During his term, he has seen a rapidly increasing enrollment reach a ceiling established by the board of trustees of 7,500 daytime students. To meet the growth, the faculty will be increased to more than 300 teachers this fall, a net gain of 38. Also this fall, a new faculty office building will be completed, and a recent addition to Romney Science Building has doubled the size of the physical science facilities.

"And we've worked hard to make this centennial year an exciting year, one that could help a lot of people know about the strengths of Ricks College," he said.

The new General Authority said his family – which now includes nine grandsons and seven granddaughters – has been very supportive.

"They recognize that there's a good chance that Barbara and I will spend some time outside the United States and away from where they are," he said. "We're a very close family, so that will be part of their sacrifice and ours. But they're committed, and they understand."

Among the most satisfying experiences of his life, he said, was to be present for the temple wedding ceremony of his youngest child and to have all his other children in the room with their spouses.

Looking ahead, Elder Christensen said he sees the Church's rapid growth and progression as its greatest challenge. "But fortunately, we have advantages like the missionary program that helps develop a great group of competent and committed people, and we have callings and opportunities for the members of the Church to develop, so I don't have any fear for the future of the Church."

Having devoted much of his life to the education of young people, he is aware of the tests they face. His advice to them is simple: "Basically it is to obey the commandments, live up to the standards, immerse themselves in the scriptures and follow the prophet, and they'll be guided throughout their lives."

Elder Joe J. Christensen

  • Birth date: July 21, 1929.
  • Home town: Banida, Idaho.
  • Married: Barbara Kohler of Midway, Utah.
  • Family: three sons, three daughters, nine grandsons, seven granddaughters.
  • Education: graduated from Preston High School in Preston, Idaho; attended Utah State University; received bachelor's degree in education from BYU; received doctorate in education with emphasis in counseling from Washington State University in 1960.
  • Military service: U.S. Air Force officer, 1953-55.
  • Past Church callings: missionary to Mexico and Central America, bishop, high councilor, Melchizedek Priesthood MIA general board member, Young Men general board member, counselor in Sunday School general presidency, president of Mexico City Mission, president of Missionary Training Center, regional representative.
  • Background in Church Educational System: former seminary teacher; former part-time religion instructor at BYU; former institute of religion director at Washington State University, University of Idaho and University of Utah; former associate Church commissioner of education; current president of Ricks College.