Recent changes to the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion program, both current and upcoming, are part of an invitation “to join in the greatest work on earth — the urgent need and opportunity to gather Israel,” said Chad H. Webb, the Church’s administrator of Seminaries and Institutes.
Webb issued the invitation to help gather Israel to instructors, administrators and other Church Educational System employees during a panel discussion as part of the 2021 Seminary and Institutes Annual Training Broadcast on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
Rory Bigelow, associate administrator over operations, and Adam Smith, associate administrator over instruction, joined Webb in the discussion to share a vision of Seminaries and Institutes’ goal — to help gather Israel among an entire generation of youth and young adults.
Seminaries and Institutes are doing a “marvelous job” of meeting the needs of actively participating, committed members of the Church, Webb said. However, “others are not generally being impacted, and the truth is, worldwide enrollments in S&I programs are decreasing,” he added.
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Webb noted that gathering Israel included missionary work and temple work, but as President Russell M. Nelson taught, “it also included building faith and testimony in the hearts of those we serve.”
While “losing” some youth and young adults is a worry, the scriptures often refer to that as being scattered or gathered, Webb explained. “There are some who are struggling with faith. But we know where they are; they’re not lost to us. But they are scattered by the influences of the world and may have removed themselves from joining with us. We have a remarkable opportunity and an urgent need to assist in ‘gathering’ this portion of Israel.”
This will be accomplished by creating experiences that lead to conversion, relevance and belonging and by making those experiences accessible to as many as possible, Webb said. But creating such experiences will require some adjustments.
“We need to move: from talking and telling to engaging and inviting; from telling students where to be to meeting them where they are; from only praising the ideal to also honoring the struggle; from social activities to meaningful social interaction; from a focus on class credit and graduation to a focus on spiritual growth and becoming; from passive learners who are acted upon to active participants who are instruments of the Holy Ghost,” Webb said.
Webb, Bigelow and Smith then outlined several changes, both already implemented and upcoming, that will focus Seminaries and Institutes around the goal of gathering Israel.
In collaboration with the Sunday School general presidency and the Priesthood and Family Department, Seminaries and Institutes will have one handbook for teachers in the Church, Smith said. “‘Teaching in the Savior’s Way’ and ‘Gospel Teaching and Learning’ will come together and will be simplified and clarified and unified to really give us a clear definition of teaching, of what a classroom experience should be, of what a learner should experience when they’re with us.”
To support that, they will also be creating a Training Resource Library to provide teachers with a place they can go to see a teaching skill explained and modeled which they can then practice and implement.
“We really hope to help our teachers identify a skill that they want to improve and have resources to improve it,” Smith said.
They are also looking at “effective and meaningful ways” for a teacher to measure and evaluate themselves.
Webb said that sometimes instructors can think about performance evaluation as a professional term that makes them nervous. However, the handbook, the Training Resource Library and measurements are all meant to be positive and “to give you help in your desire to progress and to bless students — not because you all want to be perfect teachers but because you want to create the best experience for your students,” Webb said.
Webb also expressed appreciation for instructors’ willingness to adapt to several recent changes, including the alignment of Seminaries and Institutes’ curriculum to “Come, Follow Me” and adjusted reading requirements for seminary completion.
“Another change, or maybe the elephant in the room, is the pandemic and what’s happened over the last number of months in our classrooms with so many disruptions and changes with online learning and other changes that have been created because of the pandemic,” Webb said.
By being forced to deliver instruction online, Smith said, they’ve learned two critical things. First: “Our full-time teachers, our volunteers, they’re so willing and wonderful and consecrated. They really stepped in a tough spot and performed wonderfully.”
Second, they’ve realized there is a lot of room for improvement.
“Our level of proficiency in online delivery of religious education is not where it needs to be,” Bigelow said. “And some have adapted quickly, and the skill set was just innate, inherent in them, and they’ve been able to do it. Others maybe not so much.”
They will need to continue to upskill, Bigelow said, and find ways to improve.
Many have asked if there will be an expanded digital offering of seminary and institute classes after COVID-19 goes away?
“I would just say we’re still wrestling with those questions,” Webb said. “It’s very possible that the day will come where there will be full-time seminary teachers who teach exclusively online. But it’s also true that all of us need to have the basic understanding of how to effectively teach online. We all might, at some point, be called upon to do that.”
Some teachers have done “remarkably well” with online instruction, Webb continued. “We’ve seen teachers who have quadrupled their enrollments in institute programs because they have such effective online deliveries.”
What will never change
Despite some changes and adjustments within the program, one thing will never change, Bigelow said. “We exist to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ. We want to help them qualify and prepare for the blessings that await them.”
Two other things that will never change, added Smith, are that “we will always be loyal to prophetic priorities and the direction we receive from prophets and apostles. And we’ll always strive to have the Holy Ghost with us in our personal lives, when we prepare, and especially when we’re in a classroom with students.”
Webb said no new program or resource will matter or succeed unless it is aligned with Heavenly Father’s will. “It will require the very best we have to offer. It will require that we let God prevail in our lives. It will require that we are willing to embrace and cheerfully respond to change. To have the power to change lives, we must teach and testify out of changed hearts,” he said.