How seminary blessed the life of President Ballard growing up in a family that didn’t attend church

As a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, great-grandson of Church President Joseph F. Smith and grandson of two Apostles — Elder Hyrum Mack Smith on his mother’s side and Elder Melvin J. Ballard on his father’s side — one might think President M. Russell Ballard would have had the gospel embedded deep in his heart as a teenager.

“However, I did not,” President Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told seminary and institute instructors during an online training broadcast on Friday, Jan. 21.

When he was 10 months old, the economic challenges resulting from the Great Depression caused his father to pull away from Church activity. Although young Russell Ballard attended worship services with friends, his family did not attend Church meetings and he did not attend seminary.

When President Ballard was a junior in high school, however, his friend Nedra Mortensen asked why he wasn’t attending seminary. From that time forward, he began arriving at East High School at 6:30 a.m., even on cold snowy mornings, to take part in early morning seminary and was eventually elected president of the seminary during his senior year.

“My attendance in seminary is one of the things that set me in the right direction for my life. In seminary my heart was touched and the seeds of testimony were planted within my soul,” President Ballard said. “I don’t remember everything that was taught, but I do remember how I felt when I was there. I also remember feeling as though I belonged there.”

President Ballard said seminary attendance helped him gain a testimony and move forward on the covenant path. The friends he gained from seminary helped encourage him to go on a mission. After his mission, he then encouraged his parents to attend Church meetings. “My parents chose to return to Church activity, and they accepted various callings and assignments throughout the rest of their lives.”

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is pictured as a young missionary in the British Isles, where he served from 1948 to 1950.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is pictured as a young missionary in the British Isles, where he served from 1948 to 1950. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

President Ballard shared his personal experiences with the seminary program as he offered counsel and encouragement to the Church’s 45,000 seminary and institute teachers around the globe during the online training. 

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and Church commissioner of education, and Chad H. Webb, Church administrator of seminaries and Institutes, also offered remarks.

In addition to blessing his own life, President Ballard said he was mindful of the blessings seminary and institute have played in the lives of his children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

“On behalf of all parents and grandparents throughout the whole Church, I thank you for the sacrifices you make to prepare, teach, and love and invite each of Heavenly Father’s children to come unto His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said.

In today’s conflicted world, young people need the joy and peace offered by the Savior Jesus Christ through His gospel. “They need to feel in their hearts the love that our Savior has for each one of them,” President Ballard said. 

He then shared four points of specific counsel.

Building future leaders

The youth and young adults of today will lead the Church in 20 or 30 years. They will serve in Primary, Young Women or Relief Society, or in bishoprics, stake presidencies or as mission leaders.

“To be good Church leaders, our youth need to first lead well in their own homes,” President Ballard taught.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during filming of the seminaries and institutes annual training broadcast at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during filming of the seminaries and institutes annual training broadcast at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Seminary and institute teachers aren’t just preparing youth to serve missions or go to college. “You are preparing them to become good parents. You are preparing them to become good Church members and leaders. You are preparing them to be successful in all future endeavors,” President Ballard said. “As you look at each one of your students, envision what they will be doing in five, 10 or 20 years, and then seek inspiration from heaven to know how you can help them prepare for that time.”

President Ballard encouraged educators to give their students opportunities to lead. “Help each student to stretch a little. Don’t just turn them loose and expect them to lead. Rather, teach them how to lead, then let them lead, and then continue to teach them how to do it even better.”

Accurately responding to questions

Asking questions is a wonderful way for students to learn, President Ballard said. “Please encourage students to ask questions, and then help them learn how to find answers through study and prayer.”

The gospel provides answers to most of life’s questions. However, in situations where a question arises where there isn’t sufficient information for a proper answer, don’t speculate, President Ballard advised.

“It is OK to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘we don’t know.’ We are always going to be safe and protected when we teach the truth, when we teach the things we do know,” he said.

In most cases, teachers can provide faithful, thoughtful and accurate interpretation of scripture and gospel doctrine, Church history or other topics. “I encourage you to stay close to the curriculum provided to you and to use the authoritative resources.”

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during filming of the seminaries and institutes annual training broadcast at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during filming of the seminaries and institutes annual training broadcast at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Keep it simple

President Ballard said he’s used the phrase “keep it simple” so much throughout his life that his children put it on the headstone where his dear wife lies and where someday he too will lie.

“Keep the gospel simple. It’s simply beautiful and clear and wonderful. As you teach the gospel, keep it simple and testify often of the ministry and the divine mission of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Students may not remember exactly what was taught, but they will never forget how they felt, President Ballard taught. “May [those we teach] never, ever forget how they felt as we were teaching the simple, beautiful doctrine of Jesus Christ.”

Most important responsibilities

President Ballard told listeners that while their responsibilities as teachers and administrators are important and needed, their responsibilities to their own families are greater.

“Whatever your circumstance, please nurture and build those family relationships. For those who are married, spend time with your spouse. Seek your spouse’s counsel and follow it.”

For those who are not married, the senior Church leader encouraged them to seek counsel from parents, family members or trusted loved ones.

“Your responsibilities or calling as a teacher in this program will end, but your family relationships are eternal,” President Ballard said.

President Ballard testified of the joy and importance of teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Today’s world is unsettled by disappointments, disagreements, dissatisfaction, discrimination, disrespect, discouragement and distress. The gospel of Jesus Christ can carry us through these difficult times,” he promised.

In conclusion, he blessed educators to find joy in their families, in the gospel and in their responsibilities as teachers or administrators. “I again express my love for and to each and every one of you and to your students.”

The gospel is astonishing

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of the Church Educational System, speaks during the annual training for instructors of seminaries and institutes broadcast on Jan. 21, 2022.
Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of the Church Educational System, speaks during the annual training for instructors of seminaries and institutes broadcast on Jan. 21, 2022. Credit: Screenshot, ChurchofJesusChrist.org

Elder Gilbert recently moved a painting from his home to his office at Church headquarters. “Somehow, seeing it in a new location has given me pause to reflect again on its astonishing design and spiritual significance,” Elder Gilbert said.

The painting, Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” portrays the moment Christ extends the call to His disciple Matthew. “Caravaggio has captured Matthew in the very moment of his decision to leave all and follow Jesus Christ. Every time I pause to observe this painting I am astonished at its message,” he told teachers during the online training

The gospel of Jesus Christ is similarly astonishing, Elder Gilbert declared, and yet individuals can “walk right past” its astonishing message even as they seek to help others who are struggling.

Elder Clark G. Gilbert shows Caravaggio's "The Calling of St. Matthew" during his remarks for the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion online training broadcast on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.
Elder Clark G. Gilbert shows Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew” during his remarks for the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion online training broadcast on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. Credit: Screenshot, ChurchofJesusChrist.org

Many students today have real questions and concerns that shouldn’t be ignored, Elder Gilbert said. He encouraged educators to use many of the resources available, including the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion resource “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge” and the Church’s Gospel Topics.

But in helping students resolve their concerns, teachers must also be careful not to become so focused on specific faith questions that they miss the opportunity to teach just how astonishing the gospel of Jesus Christ really is, Elder Gilbert said.

He referenced an address given by Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge, now an emeritus General Authority Seventy, during a BYU devotional. Secondary questions — such as questions surrounding Church history, polygamy, people of African descent and the priesthood, women and the priesthood, and the different accounts of the First Vision — can be unending, Elder Corbridge said.

“If you answer the primary questions, the secondary questions get answered too, or they pale in significance and you can deal with things you understand and things you don’t and things you agree with and things you don’t without jumping ship altogether,” Elder Corbidge said.

Elder Gilbert continued: “So yes, listen to your students’ concerns, create a safe environment for them to ask questions, and draw on trusted resources. But in the process, don’t miss the astonishing nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As with my story of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, don’t miss the astonishing nature of what is right in front of you.”

His representatives

Chad Webb, administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, speaks during the annual training broadcast on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.
Chad Webb, administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, speaks during the annual training broadcast on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. Credit: Screenshot, ChurchofJesusChrist.org

Some time ago, after an interaction in an airport, Brother Webb pulled out a sheet of paper and began writing, starting with the simple words “I am … .” He then wrote everything that came to mind.

He wrote down characteristics, relationships, Church callings, work assignments, preferences, etc. Before he finished he had written nearly 300 ways of answering the question “Who am I?”

More recently he was pondering this question as it applied to students. He pulled out another piece of paper and began writing, this time with the words, “Our students are … .”

“I believe our students are who prophets have said they are. They are beloved children of heavenly parents, who chose to follow the Father’s plan and overcame the adversary by their faith in the Lamb of God and the power of their testimony,” Brother Webb said during the Jan. 21 training for seminary and institute teachers. “The Lord reserved them, as President Russell M. Nelson said, to come to earth ‘at this precise time, the most crucial time in the history of the world.’”

On a third and final list, Brother Webb wrote page after page of characteristics and attributes that he appreciates about teachers in seminaries and institutes. “As I wrote, I found myself returning to one critical idea. I believe that the most important answer to the question of who we are is that we are asked to be representatives of Jesus Christ,” he said.

The focus of educators’ efforts is to help youth and young adults come to know Jesus Christ and rely on Him and His atoning sacrifice. 

“My prayer is that our youth and young adults will come to know our Father in Heaven and that by knowing who He is, they will understand who they truly are,” Brother Webb said. 

As representatives of Jesus Christ — who teach His doctrine and share His love — teachers will be able to help their students recognize their eternal identity. “That does not mean you will always be perfect. You don’t have to be. As you strive to teach the restored gospel — centered on Jesus Christ, focused on your students, and rooted in the word of God — the Holy Ghost will give it life and relevance, and witness of its truthfulness,” he promised.