‘Spiritual anchor’: How one woman’s experience shows the difference of an early morning seminary teacher

Laurie Sandall has been teaching early morning seminary for more than 24 years

Latter-day Saint Laurie Sandall was first called to be an early morning seminary teacher in the fall of 2000. The mother of four was assigned to teach a small group of 15- and 16-year-olds in Elko, Nevada, a small town with only two interstate exits and one high school.

Sandall had a degree in education and experience serving in other youth-oriented callings within the Church, but the call to teach seminary still felt daunting.

“My stomach is in knots,” she wrote in her journal before her first class. “I have prepared hours and hours just on the first lesson and still don’t feel confident. I want the students to have a good experience and enjoy seminary. I want them to learn about Jesus and understand what He did for them. I want them to read and love the [scriptures].”

According to materials provided by her daughters, Heather Sandall and Lisa Baker, Laurie Sandall dedicated herself wholeheartedly to her seminary class, sometimes spending as much as three or four hours a day tailoring the lesson to the individuals she was teaching.

Now, after 24 years, “Sister Sandall” is retiring from teaching but only after fortifying the testimonies of hundreds of youth in their area.

Teachers like Sandall are the backbone for the Church Educational System’s religious education program for youth, ages 14 to 18.

Last August, President Russell M. Nelson issued a special, personal invitation to youth to attend seminary.

Seminary attendance, he promised, “will help you to know your Savior Jesus Christ and deepen your conversion to Him and to His restored gospel. What else can happen? In seminary, you can begin to learn how to receive personal revelation — and what a difference that will make in your life. … Your desire to be an active part of the Lord’s youth battalion to gather Israel will increase. You will take responsibility for strengthening your own testimony, and your faith can become rock solid.”

In a training for religious educators this past January, Chad H Webb, the Church’s administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, noted that over the last two years, seminary enrollment has increased by 22,000.

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“We are now at the highest percentage of seminary students enrolled that we have ever reported,” Webb told teachers. “Thank you for responding to President Nelson’s invitation to help gather a generation.”

But a growing enrollment brings a growing need for teachers — teachers like Sandall who want to teach about Jesus Christ.

And teachers’ influence is not only in enrollment numbers, Webb continued. “The real difference is in the impact you’re having. Every day, lives are changing as [students] attend your classes full of your love and faith and as they accept your invitation to study the scriptures and hear the voice of God. Thank you for exercising your faith to the blessing of more and more of Heavenly Father’s children as you provide a spiritual anchor they so desperately need.”

Early-morning seminary teacher Laurie Simpson stands with Savannah Simpson, in Elko, Nevada.
Early-morning seminary teacher Laurie Sandall, left, stands with student Savannah Simpson, 17, after class in Elko, Nevada, on Monday, May 13, 2024. | Adyson Simpson

Several of Sandall’s students recalled the positive impact she had in their lives.

One student, Chelsea Nielsen Decker, who was in Sandall’s class from 2005 to 2006, said “Sister Sandall” had a reputation. “I remember the upperclassmen saying, ‘Just you wait till … you get Sister Sandall. She’s great.’”

Sandall’s teaching wasn’t flashy or grand, “but she was powerful,” Decker said. “We could all tell she loved the gospel, and she knew the scriptures.”

Even though it’s been close to 20 years, “I still have specific memories of object lessons she did in class that have stuck with me through the years. She had a way to connect with teenagers,” Decker recalled.

Romney Goulding Hoyt, who attended her class in 2013 to 2014, remembered that they were studying the Book of Mormon that year. “I could tell that she just loved the scriptures and the stories from it. It seriously helped strengthen my testimony of the Book of Mormon and how much power it has.”

Hoyt said Sandall’s class was also an important part of her missionary preparation. “Whenever someone would get a mission call, she’d have us come back to put a little sticker of your picture on a map where you were going. I got to bear my testimony, and everyone sang ‘Called To Serve.’ I’d always planned on going on a mission, but I loved how excited she was about it and how she encouraged all of us to go.”

This past year, 17-year-old Savannah Simpson told her parents she had every intention of leaving the Church after high school — but that her experience in seminary had caused her to reconsider. She told her father, “I now just feel it. I know the gospel is true, and Sister Sandall helped get me there.”

While announcing changes in the seminary curriculum last January, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, General Authority Seventy and Church commissioner of education, commented that seminary teachers “are part of the critical life preparation of our youth and what they will need to become disciples of Jesus Christ in this coming season of commotion.”

— Laurie Sandall’s daughters, Heather Sandall and Lisa Baker, contributed to this article.

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