Episode 12: Sister Wendy Nelson joins Sister Sheri Dew to talk about President Nelson’s 3 years as Prophet

In January 2021, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrates the third anniversary of President Russell M. Nelson serving as the leader of the Church.

In this Church News podcast, we celebrate this milestone as guest host Sister Sheri Dew interviews President Nelson’s wife, Sister Wendy Nelson. They explore the life and ministry of the Prophet over the past three years. 

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Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: Three years ago this month President Russell M. Nelson was set apart as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jan. 14, 2018. This special Church News podcast examines President Nelson’s first three years from the perspective of his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson. President Nelson, a leader of almost 17 million Latter-day Saints worldwide, has traveled extensively, changed Church organization, issued historic invitations, used technology and built many bridges of understanding. We’re joined not only by Sister Nelson, but by Sister Sheri Dew, the executive vice president of Deseret Management Corporation. Sister Dew, also a former member of the Relief Society general presidency, will be conducting the interview today. She has authored the biographies of three Church presidents, including the book “Insights from a Prophet’s Life, President Russell M. Nelson.” Sister Wendy Nelson is a retired marriage and family therapist and professor and the wife of President Russell M. Nelson. As I hinted at, instead of the traditional format for this Church News podcast, we are going to step back and listen to a conversation between these two amazing women. It was taped a few weeks ago at the Conference Center where Sister Nelson also participated in another media interview. I’m thrilled they are both willing to give us this glimpse into President Nelson’s amazing ministry.

02:05

Sister Sheri Dew: When you married Elder Russell M. Nelson in 2006, you kind of stepped onto a moving train. He had a large family already, but it was growing fast. Because the great-grandchildren were starting to come really fast. He had been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for two decades, more than two decades. So, he was already quite senior in the Quorum. You had been a very successful professor, you had a reputation around the world for some of the things that you had written in your field, you had been a professor of marriage and family therapy, as well as a therapist. And all that stopped on a dime, his calendar became your calendar, and you stepped into a brave new world, as it were. Talk to us about that transition.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees during a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, wave to attendees during a devotional in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

02:49

Sister Wendy Nelson: Yeah, there was a lot, a lot, that I stepped into. And really, I can barely remember that time. Because our experience these days doesn’t look anything like those early days of transitioning. To get to your point: What did I learn through that? I did learn that when you’re on the Lord’s errand, meaning, when you are doing something that the Lord has said, “I need you to do this,” then God will provide the way. He will absolutely show you how. And it really is true that with God — meaning when you are working with God — nothing is impossible. So what looked really impossible, what felt just overwhelming, over time, really diminished. And like I say, my husband and I threw away our rear view mirror a long time ago. I live with a man who is totally, hopelessly, present in the present. And then he’s moving on. And he’s looking to the next thing. What’s the next thing the Lord needs him to do? So, like I say, our life doesn’t look anything like that.

04:02

Sister Sheri Dew: Everybody goes through major transitions. And, of course, we talked to you about your transition because it was on the public stage. Any counsel you would give to someone going through transition, whether it’s marriage, job, health, so many different things? Anything that you glean from that that would help all of us as we go through transitions at different stages in our lives?

04:26

Sister Wendy Nelson: Number one, stick with what you know to be true. Make your list, check it twice, about what you absolutely know to be true. Because in times of high confusion, lots of things to deal with, it’s tough to figure out: What do I really believe in? What is really happening here? And everything feels like it’s moving. So to have that list and keep adding to it every day. What do you know to be true? And sometimes you start with, “OK, God is my Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ is my Savior. His Atonement is real. There is strengthening power in the Atonement. Prayer is real. Fasting is real. The Scriptures are answer books. If I take a question to the scriptures, I can get it answered.” Stick with what you absolutely know to be true and do not look to the right or the left. Then know that you are working with God and with God all things will be possible and you’ll have an amazing experience.

05:29

Sister Sheri Dew: So we’ve had the conversation more than once in our lives where we have said — because maybe we’ve gotten hit with something that we’ve had to sort of recover from or think, “Oh, wow, how do I handle that?” — and we’ve both had the conversation occasion where he said, “OK, what do we know for sure is true?” And it’s what you just said: “Well, I know that God is my father. I know Jesus is the Christ. I know Joseph was a Prophet. I know we have a living Prophet. And I know the Book of Mormon is real. OK, I better start there, start there, and then try to figure out the personal element.” That’s right.

06:05

Sister Wendy Nelson: And then the Lord will help you have eyes to see what is the next thing that is really true, then you can add that to your list, and it will be a great thing.

06:15

Sister Sheri Dew: OK, your husband has now been President of the Church for three years. You traveled, of course, widely with him before then, for a number of years, but it’s different. When your husband becomes President of the Church, it is different traveling with the President the Church than it is with [traveling with] … a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. During the last three years, you’ve been to more than 30 countries, I think it’s in the neighborhood of 35 countries. You’ve seen large, large audiences and very small ones, in some places, whereas he’s chosen to go to where the Church is young. What have you learned, particularly in this last three years, that has been somewhat distinctive from the earlier years, when you were traveling with your husband? What have you learned about the Church? What have you learned about people?

President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors in the First Presidency participate in the 2020 Mission Leadership Seminar, transmitted worldwide via technology on June 26, 2020.
President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors in the First Presidency participate in the 2020 Mission Leadership Seminar, transmitted worldwide via technology on June 26, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

07:07

Sister Wendy Nelson: So let’s just refine that to say — since this last year was no travel — we’re really talking about 35 countries and 14 states in two years. That’s what we’re talking about. And let me just say one other thing about this year of no travel. Imagine this: Exactly a year ago, December 2019, I looked at our 2020 calendar to see where we would be going, where we were traveling. And looked from January through July, every single month, there was a huge trip, and arenas, huge arenas, booked. And I thought, “OK, well, this is what we’ll do.” And I knew that in between those, there was at least one huge trip a month that in between, we would be doing local opportunities to be with our local congregations. There I am, I’ve sort of got my whole head set into this is how it’s going to be in 2020. And suddenly, in early January, I looked on the calendar again, and everything’s gone, meaning all those trips were gone. So this is early January, this is pre-COVID. And I said, I said, “Where did those trips go?” And he said, “I just felt like we didn’t need to do them. I just felt like I should take those off the calendar.” So there is a prophet in the land. His name is Russell Marion Nelson. So that’s just a little context there. But to the question of what I’ve experienced through all of that travel, I feel like I have friends, that we have friends, all over the world. I can tell you that when we are studying our “Come, Follow Me” or watching a Book of Mormon video or reading our scriptures, we will often say to each other, “Imagine, our friend in Mongolia is reading ‘Come, Follow Me’ scriptures, right today.” Our friends in India, our friends in Tonga, our friends in Indonesia. In fact, just the other day, I received an email from one of our friends in Indonesia. And there she was, and you know, she’s in our hearts. And suddenly, there she was just saying “Happy Thanksgiving.” So I feel like we’ve got friends all over the world. And what really caught me off guard was the immediate connection that I would feel every time to every person I would meet on a trip, an instant connection. There was no warming up. There was no “Oh, maybe I’ll love you in 15 days.” This was like, “I love you. You’re my sister.” That would be with huge congregations. I could feel this is of God, I mean, there’s no way you can do this. I would feel that speaking to a congregation of 50,000 or a little small branch in Yekaterinburg, Russia — the same thing. I never wanted to leave them because of this connection. Well, that’s to me when you know that you’re on the Lord’s errand, because I can’t do that. What I learned through that travel, as well, is sacrifice is so important to really staying converted when I would meet people who had gone through great sacrifice to join the Church. Great sacrifice to keep learning. Great sacrifice to keep their covenants. Man, they’re rock solid. They’re not wavering at all. And so that was just wonderful. I have learned so much from the people we’ve met. It was a privilege for me to be in their presence. I was better for that. So we missed them. Bottom line is we miss them.

10:49

Sister Sheri Dew: And I know you hope that the day will come soon, we hope, where travel is more doable. Again, building on this, and thinking about so many experiences you’ve had and that you’ve personally witnessed with your husband over the last three years: Is there a moment or maybe some certain kinds of moments that you think typify his ministry?

11:14

Sister Wendy Nelson: I love that question. And I wish I could point to one moment, but I can point to what would be part of that moment, to some absolutely essential elements of that moment. It would have to be a moment when he is bringing the Savior’s love to somebody. I would have to involve inclusion. You would have to involve what looks like courage and boldness. But it’s actually just obedience. If we’re with someone, and they will say, “Oh, President Nelson, thank you for this. And thank you for that. Thank you for this adjustment.”

Sister Sheri Dew: Thank you for “Come, Follow Me.” Thank you for home-centered, Church-supported.

Sister Wendy Nelson: He is so gracious. And he’ll just, you know, humbly say, “Well, thank you.” And then when they walk away, he’ll say, turn to me and say, “I was just following instructions. I know how to follow instructions.” So meaning, “the Lord told me to do this. And I know how to follow instructions.” Such a moment that would define or represent his ministry would also show him harkening. He loves that word, hearken, meaning listen to obey. Absolutely, because he is always, ever waiting to hear the next thing, feel the next thing, be guided to the next thing. It would have to involve something about the gathering of Israel. And anything that would prepare the world for the Second Coming. This is a man on a mission for the Lord. He is single minded. Whatever rhymes with whatever the Lord needs me to do. That’s what he’s after.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson with the Rev. Theresa Dear while meeting with NAACP leaders at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson with the Rev. Theresa Dear while meeting with NAACP leaders at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

12:49

Sister Sheri Dew: He’s a bridge builder. I mean, we think about so many things that he has done. He is reaching out to leaders of the NAACP, something that had heretofore not been done. It’s reaching out and wanting to meet with the imams of the mosques in the South Island in New Zealand, where there had been a terrorist attack. Its leaders of nations. It’s reaching out to meet with Pope Francis, frankly. What can you tell us about his desire to connect with peoples of diverse backgrounds, and, diverse points of view and his instant ability to express love to them? I think we see that in the photographs, the footage that’s been shot of him around the world. You can just see his respect. But how does that look from your point of view?

13:37

Sister Wendy Nelson: Well, he loves building bridges. He does not like walls that separate or segregate. He does not like categories or labels, because he believes that also separates and segregates. And I’ve come to listen just a little bit better to what this is all about. And what has caught my attention is, he doesn’t just want to bring the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. He wants to bring the blessings of the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. And he just doesn’t want to bring the blessings to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. He would like to bring the blessings to every single person himself. So that’s what we have there with President Russell M. Nelson. There is a joy that compels him, because he knows it’s true, because he knows the blessings that the Lord has for these people — the promises, the blessings, the unbelievable things that we can’t even imagine. He knows that the Lord has something for every country that will make it better for every family that will make them stronger, for every individual that will make them happier. So he is compelled to do that. He can’t restrain himself.

15:00

Sister Sheri Dew: OK, you will soon have been married to President Nelson for 15 years. How is he different today than when you married him?

15:11

Sister Wendy Nelson: He is so different from when I married him and I am so different, at least I hope we are, because our marriage is such a great joy for each of us. So you have this marriage which provides a hothouse for us to arises who the Lord really needs us to be. So he’s different. I’m different. I’ll tell you some specifics in a minute. But there is a concept that says the more time you spend with someone or something, or even an idea, the more you will become like that person. Start looking like them even, start seeing like them. I think that’s happening. And so, of course, he’s different. I think it would be terrible. The biggest insult is to say, “Oh, you’re just the same.” So he is different. And, in fact, he will sometimes say, “I’m better today than I was yesterday.” So imagine, I sometimes say to him what someone else said, and that is, “What do you think we’ll be doing 1,000 years from now,” because I’ve shared a lot with these first 15. It’s been an adventure, in terms of absolutely how he is different. Differences that I noticed with him, even in the last three years since becoming president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he is more future oriented than ever. What is the next thing? His prayers are different. I wish it were appropriate for me to tell you how his prayers have changed. But I can tell you that one of the sweetest joys of my life is to hear him pray. To have him be voice when we are having our family prayer is really something. I can tell you that his prayers are more global. He really does pray for the people of the world, even when there isn’t a camera rolling. He’s so quick to adapt. I think about, here’s a man who for 34 years played the organ every Thursday for the Brethren in the temple. The moment he becomes President of the Church, he and everybody else can figure out that’s not going to work. And there’s no moaning and groaning. There’s no looking back. There’s only “Oh, wasn’t that great?” He doesn’t even mention it. I had to say to him, like several months after, “Are you OK about this?” Because our routine every Wednesday night was he was on the organ practicing for Thursday morning, and that suddenly had changed. But I think that’s just shows how quick he is to adapt, which is really fascinating to watch. He does not hold on to “This is how we’ve always done it.” He is not a slave to tradition. He has not tried to replicate anything that’s been done before. But he’s not trying to be inventive, just to be inventive. What is what the Lord would have him do? We’ve talked about how he doesn’t see color of people. I’ll tell you what he sees. He sees those who need healing. I’ve watched that for years. He’s more compassionate than ever; his knee-jerk response is always benevolence, kindness. He’s even again, more what looks like courageous and bold, but is just his obedience, his intense, exquisite obedience to whatever the Lord needs him to do. He is undaunted. I’ve watched this a lot in the last three years. If he knows something needs to happen, again, I don’t know details. But he knows something should happen. And then, there’s an obstacle. And I just watch him be undaunted. And he will say, “Well, we knew there would have to be an obstacle when something that’s good is going to, you know, affect the world and prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Savior. We know this was going to happen.” And then he goes to plan B. Something I’ve noticed: Two words that I’ve not heard him use before the last three years — reduce and simplify. He loves those words. That’s how he is living his life these days. Reduce and simplify. One more is that he is even more honoring of other people’s agency. He’s always been honoring, but he’s even more honoring of other people’s agency. He doesn’t even want to use the word must in a talk. And I have never seen the grief that when he is aware that someone is not experiencing the blessings of what the Lord has for them because they’re breaking a commandments — that is what makes him sad. The very toughest thing for him, he said this the other day, the very toughest thing for him is when he reviews the cases of those where the marriage is ravaged. Those are all the things I’ve seen.

President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stand together at the BYU Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 2018. It was part of a global tour of eight countries.
President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stand together at the BYU Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 2018. It was part of a global tour of eight countries. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

20:02

Sister Sheri Dew: Let’s switch direction now here just for a second. During the last several years, President Nelson has spoken repeatedly really about the strength, the influence the importance, the contribution, the value of the depth of Latter-day Saint women. As his wife, what is your unique view of that? What do you see personally about his regard for women. Here he is the father of nine daughters, and a terrific daughter-in-law; and married to a wonderful woman, Dantzel, a marvelous woman; and upon her passing a second marvelous woman, but what do you see about his regard for women?

20:52

Sister Wendy Nelson: Well, this is a man, President Nelson, it is deep in his soul, in his cells, I’m sure if we cut him, it would come out “I honor womanhood.” He was raised by a father who absolutely adored and cherished and respected and honored his mother, meaning Russell’s mother. And one of the very first things he ever taught his son was to honor his mother. But I’ll just give you a personal example. And that is, if I just think of this one little illustration in my own life, which happens every single day. He will never go through a doorway first. If I am with him, he’ll stand to the side, he always has me walk through the doorway first. If we are in the kitchen, we walked down the hall to go to the office, we walked down the hall together. And then he stands to the side for me to go in through the doorway first. That to me says at all, his honoring of woman.

21:53

Sister Sheri Dew: So continuing on in this line of thought about how your husband feels about women, he’s the father of nine daughters. What have you observed in that father/daughter relationship, by of course, coming to love his daughters?

22:08

Sister Wendy Nelson: Well, I can tell you that his daughters are spectacular, which is a true reflection of him as their father, and probably especially their spectacular mother, Dantzel White Nelson. These girls are sturdy girls, meaning they’re not on every wave that goes by, they’re not on the internet, sniffing out some specious thing that’s out there. They are rock solid. They’re just deep, core good. They know how to get things done. There’s no pretenses. They’re really low maintenance, meaning he has great confidence in them. So he does not do hover, you know; he does not do helicopter parenting. He’s not hovering over them. Because he has such confidence in their decision making ability. And they and their spouse, with the Lord, will figure things out. And so, of course, it’s easy for him to honor women because he has been with Dantzel who was smart and bright and inspired. And he’s got these fabulous girls who are bright and smart and inspired and no nonsense girls, and there is no frills. And they’re not putting on airs, and they just want to do what the Lord wants them to do.

23:24

Sister Sheri Dew: President Nelson gave a talk called “Hear Him.” What have you learned about hearing Him, how to hear Him, from being married to President Nelson?

23:34

Sister Wendy Nelson: What I’ve learned about hearing Him is this: That everything we do in our home is to increase his ability and my ability to hear the voice of the Lord, as brought to us by the Spirit. To increase his ability to receive revelation for the Church; to increase my ability to receive personal revelation for my life. To hear Him, what I’ve learned is we absolutely remove anything that prevents the Spirit from being in our home in full abundance. An example is zero contention. I thought that was an impossible thing. And until I really started to study what the Savior taught the Nephites, and to say “contention is not of me.” And so, literally, if we would be watching a movie, and there would be contention, he needed to turn it off. If there was a sporting game, but it became contentious rather than competitive, he would turn it off. So anything that offends the Spirit —contention. We’re extremely careful about whatever we watch, a movie, etc. Our home is designed by both of us to make sure that the Spirit can be there and full abundance so that hearing Him is always on our mind.

Missionaries wait for President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to a devotional in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019.
Missionaries wait for President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to a devotional in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

24:57

Sister Sheri Dew: If it were possible for you to have a heart to heart conversation with every woman in the Church …

Sister Wendy Nelson: I would love that.

Sister Sheri Dew: I know you would love it. What would you want to tell them? Would it have anything to do with how to hear Him or would you take it in a separate direction?

25:15

Sister Wendy Nelson: I wouldn’t tell them that we need them and how important they are, because they’ve been told that. But I’d give them some opportunities to have some experiences about how needed they are and how key they are. I would tell them to absolutely keep immersed in all the light and truth they can, in terms of what they read, what they watch, what they say, what they think. Immersion. You’ve heard me talk about this before. But I think it’s not an accident that we are immersed in the waters of baptism. However, once we come up out of those waters, if we only sprinkle our lives — we weren’t sprinkled to be baptized, we were immersed to be baptized. If after being immersed, we then only sprinkle our lives with a little Scripture here, a little prayer there, a little fasting there, we will only know enough about the gospel to feel guilty and not enough to feel joy. Keep immersed in all the light they can. As as every single woman prays, and then takes note of what the Lord is telling her, this is how you can increase the light in your life, or the truth in your life. She’ll be led to do it. I would also say, so that they can experience how important they are and valued they are, to look for an opportunity to make a sacrifice of time or energy, and then find a way to give service with that time and energy, because sacrifice and service will absolutely let them feel part of something bigger. They’ll feel like they’re making a difference. So that’s what I’d say is sacrifice and go give service across the room, across the street, across the world, across the veil.

26:59

Sister Sheri Dew: OK, in this most recent general conference, President Nelson gave really a classic address, I think it will become a classic: “Let God Prevail.” I’ve heard it quoted a billion times in the last two months. What do you think let God prevail means for him? And let me say for you, what does let God prevail mean for the President of the Church and his wife?

27:23

Sister Wendy Nelson: In a very practical way, let God prevail means for President Nelson that he is on call 24 hours a day for the Lord. And he is willing to do whatever he is instructed to do. He has told me that in a meeting, he will get an idea. He doesn’t tell him what the idea is. But in a meeting, he will have an idea or have words put into his mouth that absolutely changes the trajectory of where things were going. So let God prevail means he’s on call for the Lord 24 hours a day. It also means let God’s will prevail. Let God’s love prevail. So that’s what happens when he’s with the imams, when he’s with our friends from the NAACP, when he is with whomever — let God’s love prevail. Let God’s laws prevail. He’s wild about God’s love — laws and love. But he loves learning and teaching about God’s laws, because then they’re so predictable. You know the result. He is fascinated with formulas — just trying to figure out formulas of his own. I’ve spoken about this a little bit to say that we love playing Scrabble with each other. And he’s figured out a formula that if he does a certain thing, he will win that match. And it’s pretty funny, but it works. So let God’s will prevail. Let God’s love prevail. Let God’s laws prevail. Let God’s vision prevail. You know, it goes on. He is serious about letting God prevail in his life and in the life of the Lord’s Church, and in the world to prepare for the Second Coming of the Savior.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, talks with children while meeting with a three-generation family in Singapore on Nov. 20, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, talks with children while meeting with a three-generation family in Singapore on Nov. 20, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sister Sheri Dew: What do you know today that you didn’t know three years ago?

29:15

Sister Wendy Nelson:  Well, I know that prayer works. And I know that fasting works. And I know that praying and fasting with others, for others, brings miracles. I’ve certainly learned that. I’ve learned what Doctrine in Covenants 123:17 says, which has been a favorite of mine forever. But I’ve really come to see it in the last three years, and that is cheerfully do all that lies within our power, and then stand still. And then wait and watch for the hand of the Lord to be revealed. Because the Lord has such better ideas about what I should be doing or how he would handle a situation. So I have learned that over and over again. Wendy, back off. If you’ve cheerfully done everything you can do, then it’s time to stand still. Show the faith you have and turn it over to the Lord and then watch what happens. Then it is a beautiful thing. I can also say that without a doubt: What do I know? Even more than I knew three years ago, I know that there is a Prophet on the land. His name is Russell Marion Nelson. I know without a doubt he was chosen premortally to be the Lord’s Prophet to the world, on the earth today, at this precise time. I know that Jesus Christ is at the head of the Church, that He guides everything through His Prophets and Apostles. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Sister Sheri Dew: Amen.