How Church education is a ‘sleeping giant in the Church’

Religious educators across the globe receive instruction, resources and insights during first Religious Educators Conference at BYU

PROVO, Utah — During the first address of the first Religious Educators Conference, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the Church commissioner of education, assured religious educators throughout the worldwide Church that their efforts are working. “Young adults are coming to institute at record levels. Young adults are attending Church schools at record levels. They are striving to take charge of their testimonies and grow closer to Jesus Christ.”

Elder Gilbert was one of several Church Educational System leaders and administrators who participated in the inaugural conference, on Tuesday, June 18. Some 800 religious educators and seminary and institute teachers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, for the opportunity to share and learn insights, best practices and resources for teaching.

The conference, which was livestreamed on, will also be published in the Gospel Library app and Media Library so it can be available to the thousands of other employees within the Church Educational System.

In the past, CES has hosted an annual in-person symposium. This year’s conference, however, represents the first time all CES entities — Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, BYU, BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii, Ensign College and BYU–Pathway Worldwide — have assembled, explained Elder Gilbert. “In total, these religious educators teach roughly half a million young adults across CES.”

The all-day event — which culminated in a keynote address by Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — also included a panel discussion with the presidents of each of the CES entities; an update on the reach and impact of seminaries and institutes by Brother Chad H Webb, the administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion; another panel discussion by several university deans and the associate administrator of seminaries and institutes; and several breakout sessions hosted by various other religious educators and administrators.

In welcoming participants and attendees, Brother Webb noted that he had received a text message that morning about an institute student in the Philippines.

The student was the only Latter-day Saint in his family but had decided to serve a full-time mission following the encouragement and support of his institute class.

Examples like that happen every day, said Brother Webb. “You could replicate that 1,000 times every week in the world as people come together to study the scriptures,” Brother Webb said of the seminary, institute and religious instruction happening throughout the Church Educational System.

Young adults are going on missions, going to the temple, choosing to stay active in the Church and to follow the Savior because of attending a seminary, institute or religion course, he said. “It’s almost taken for granted the sleeping giant in the Church that is Church education. It’s blessing people.”

The theme for the conference was found in Ether 12:41 — “Seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written.”

Brother Webb, who will begin his service as a counselor in the Sunday School general presidency in August, explained that some individuals are not interested in seeking Jesus. Others want to fashion Him after their own desires and hopes. “We are to ‘seek this Jesus’ of whom prophets testify’ so we know His true nature, His true attributes and characteristics so we can have true faith. Prophets play a significant role in Heavenly Father’s entire plan by teaching us the true nature of God,” Brother Webb explained.

The importance of teaching and amplifying the words of living prophets was emphasized throughout the conference.

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the commissioner of Church education, speaks during the first-ever Religious Educators Conference held in the Joseph Smith Building on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Brother Chad H Webb, administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, speaks during the first-ever Religious Educators Conference held in the Joseph Smith Building on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. | Ashlee Jarvis/BYU Photo

‘Take charge of your own testimony’

For the past two years, Elder Gilbert has asked religious educators to focus on what he has called “prophetic emphases for young adults.”

His hope, Elder Gilbert explained in his Tuesday morning address, is that teachers will learn how to listen to living prophets and help their students apply their messages.

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With that in mind, Elder Gilbert focused his remarks around a recent prophetic emphasis that “has been on my heart” — President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation for young adults to take charge of their testimonies.

Elder Gilbert noted that if the Prophet repeats a message or uses the word “plead,” Latter-day Saints should “pay attention.”

The Prophet did both regarding the need for individuals to take charge of their testimonies. President Nelson first introduced the invitation during his Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults in May 2022. He gave an almost identical charge to the entire Church the following October.

President Nelson said: “To this end, I extend to members of the entire Church the same charge I gave to our young adults last May. I urged them then — and I plead with you now — to take charge of your own testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel. Work for it. Nurture it so that it will grow. Feed it truth. Don’t pollute it with false philosophies of unbelieving men and women. As you make the continual strengthening of your testimony of Jesus Christ your highest priority, watch for miracles to happen in your life.”

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Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the commissioner of Church education, speaks during the first-ever Religious Educators Conference held in the Joseph Smith Building on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.
Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the commissioner of Church education, speaks during the first-ever Religious Educators Conference held in the Joseph Smith Building on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. | Ashlee Jarvis/BYU Photo

After sharing several personal recollections of his own journey to faith — which included experiences at a track meet as a youth, on the Osaka freeway on his full-time mission to Japan and sitting in a Sunday School class in Cambridge, Massachusetts — Elder Gilbert declared, “Brothers and sisters, as religious educators, we must help our students take charge of their testimonies.”

He then shared five things to teach students to help them take charge of their own testimonies.

First, “we must teach students that testimony building is a deliberate act of agency,” Elder Gilbert said, adding, “It takes work to deepen faith and discipleship.”

Second, teach students “to be a light to others, especially those who struggle.”

Elder Gilbert noted that this generation cares deeply about peers, especially those who face challenges. “Skepticism and doubt may be contagious, but so is faith and hope. … For those who haven’t yet found their faith, teach them to go to work serving others.”

Third, teach that it is OK to have questions. President Nelson has taught: “If you have questions — and I hope you do — seek answers with the fervent desire to believe” (”Choices for Eternity,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults).

Fourth, teach students to look to truth-filled sources. “Some young adults feel that the only way to have a robust faith is to turn to our critics.” However, Korihor, Nehor and Sherem were not trying to edify their followers but to validate their own wrong choices and personal agendas. “Teach your students that some sources may even be calculated to cause distrust, fear and doubt. Help them look to living prophets, to scriptures and to trusted Church leaders,” Elder Gilbert said.

Fifth, teach students to rely on the Holy Ghost. Students must understand “how they feel when the Holy Ghost is present and to recognize its dissipation when truth is misrepresented.”

In conclusion, he said, “Brothers and sisters, let us teach our students to take charge of their testimonies. Teach them to ‘work for it. Own it. Care for it. Nurture it so that it will grow.’ To this end, let us teach them to exercise agency, be a light to others, ask questions in faith, look to truth-filled sources and rely on the Spirit.”

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