Panel Discussion
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Panel Discussion

S&I Annual Training Broadcast 2020

June 9, 2020

Brother Jason Willard: We welcome you, wherever you are, to this panel discussion. My name is Jason Willard, and I serve as an associate administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. We’re so happy today to be joined by the following special guests: Sister Reyna Aburto, Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency; Sister Michelle Craig, First Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency; Sister Jill Johnson, wife of our commissioner, Elder Paul V. Johnson; and Brothers Chad Wilkinson and Bert Whimpey, who also serve as S&I associate administrators. Thank you to each of you for joining us today.

The purpose of this panel is to discuss some questions that we hope will be helpful in a wide variety of circumstances as you seek to more powerfully bless the youth and young adults throughout the world. We have sought heaven’s help in preparation for today’s discussion, and we invite you to do the same.

With that said, let’s begin with our first question. We seem to have more and more teachers, students, and families who struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotional challenges. What can we do to help them?

Sister Reyna I. Aburto: Well, I think that in reality we are all in need of healing from something, but I think it’s important for us to help our students understand that if they are dealing or struggling with their emotions, that they are not broken, that they are not defective, that emotions are part of our divine nature. However, if we have constant sadness, we probably need to ask for help. So I would suggest following the Savior’s example. He asked questions that allowed people to express their feelings. He allowed people to express their pain—for example, when He asked Mary and Martha questions when Lazarus was dead. Also, on the road to Emmaus He talked to His disciples, and He asked them questions to allow them to express their concerns and their pain because they had lost their Savior. The same thing happened with Mary Magdalene by the tomb and when He asked different people questions to allow them to express their feelings.

I feel that if we create an environment where students feel safe to express their feelings—not necessarily in the classroom and not necessarily to each other but safe to express their feelings maybe in writing, maybe to a family member, maybe to a friend, and, especially, to Heavenly Father. We can ask questions that will allow them to express their feelings somehow. “What are your concerns about your friends, your family?” “How can we help each other?”

I have noticed that when we ask people for ideas or revelation or inspiration on how to help others, they receive that inspiration if they pray about it, and they can go and help. So if we create an environment where people do not feel judged, then we will be helping them with that and helping them understand that there are no wrong answers, that they can ask open questions and feel free and safe to express their feelings. And especially if they are struggling with something, they don’t have to deal with that alone; they can reach out to our Heavenly Father, to our Savior, and to each other. And no matter what, no matter what is happening in their lives, each of us is a child of God, and we can turn to our Heavenly Father. We are all brothers and sisters, and we can turn to each other. We are all disciples of Christ too, and we can turn to Him.

Brother Bert Whimpey: I appreciate Elder Holland—if you remember, it was in October 2013 in his conference address. He talked about his own struggles that he had at one time with depression. And then he said this: “There should be no more shame in acknowledging [our mental health struggles] than in acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.”1 He said that it’s OK to talk about it and express it, in fact, to share those things. And then I really appreciate the three things he shared: “Never lose faith in your Father in Heaven. … Seek the counsel of those who hold keys for your spiritual well-being,” and then, if necessary, “seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values.”2

I think it’s important not only for our students but also for our teachers to know that it’s OK to express those things and talk about them and get the help they need. It’s also a wonderful thing in our profession to be able to visit with an HR representative to look at what the benefits are and places they can go to find help, and the Church’s website is also a wonderful place to go to find resources.

Brother Willard: Brother Whimpey, thanks for that. This next question deals with our youth and young adults and how we can help them see why the Church is relevant in their lives, why they need the Church, and why the Church needs them.

Sister Michelle Craig: I think this is such an important question, and I really believe that our youth and our young single adults have to feel that membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more than a list of rules or boxes to be checked. It’s more than a social club. They need to understand that the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love. It’s love for God, and it’s love for others. And in learning and living the gospel, they will really come to know and feel their identity and their purpose.

Our youth today respond to principles like loving others, reaching out to those who are on the margins of society, loving. They want a cause, and they want to make a difference in the world. I hope they can come to understand that as they are faithful, within the structure of the organization of the Church, they will have more of an opportunity to make a difference for good in the world than through any other organization.

One of the things I love about President Nelson and the direction the Church is going is that there is such an emphasis on youth and young single adults, more than at any other time that I remember. And as adults we need to step back, and we need to give our youth opportunities to lead, to plan, to seek revelation, and to act on that revelation. We need to respect their intelligence, and we need to learn the lessons they have to teach us. We need them, not to boost numbers but because the world is in desperate need of what they have to offer. And the Church has the structure to provide the means to meet those needs one person at a time. I hope that everything our youth and our young single adults are learning in their homes, in church, and in seminaries and institutes will inspire them to use their hearts and their hands to reach out and love other people and to serve those whom they come in contact with. Because that’s the natural result of love for Jesus Christ and love for others.

I think really everything comes down to Jesus Christ. Everything that we do and teach as teachers and as those who love and interact with youth and young single adults and children should strengthen testimony in the life, the mission, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. And that’s really what it’s all about. I think that if we do that, then they can hopefully come to know that this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this is His gospel, the blessings of membership in this gospel are so great, and we are all needed to accomplish the work. Really it’s His work.

Brother Willard: So well said. Thank you. Brother Wilkinson, what were you going to add to that?

Brother Chad Wilkinson: I couldn’t agree more with what Sister Craig just said. I was just thinking as she was talking about an institute class I had where the majority were returned missionaries. And they talked about one of the greatest struggles of adjusting to coming home, which was that they were so focused for 18 months or 2 years on someone else, and when they got home it was seemingly all about them. Within the gospel and within our classrooms, we can make invitations that allow them to think about that or explore some ways to do those things and reach outside themselves.

Brother Willard: Sister Johnson, what would you add to that?

Sister Jill Johnson: As I considered this question, I had another thought about the power in covenants that we can have only in a church that has the authority and power of God. And in today’s world, with so much pressuring the young people and pulling them away from the Church, to reconnect them with the power in covenant keeping. We can feel in this world that we are alone and powerless to overcome the things that befall us: our trials, our temptations. But the covenants that you can find only in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in sacred places, have so much greater power than any of those forces have. And I really think that’s something the Church can provide. We can make that known to our students and bear testimony of that and show them through our own lives that there’s more to the Church than just doing good. There is power in the covenants.

Brother Whimpey: Sister Johnson, I appreciate that comment. I’ve had conversations with young adults who have said something like this to me: “I can feel close to Heavenly Father without going to church.” And I’ve said, “I agree. But my goal is not just to feel close to Heavenly Father; I want to become like Heavenly Father. My goal is to be exalted.” And I think we need to help all of our youth and young adults remember that the purpose of mortality is to become like their Heavenly Father. Church is where they find the keys of the priesthood and the ordinances and the covenants, like Sister Johnson said. It is the kingdom of God here upon the earth, and there is something they will gain here that will help them become like Heavenly Father that they can get in no other place and in no other way.

Brother Willard: That’s really true. Not just to be part of a cause, but—I think it’s been mentioned in our recent general conference—to be part of “the cause of Christ.” And that’s what those covenants provide for us. So thank you very much for that. What are some small and simple things we can do to increase our power to bless our students, to teach with greater power, and to have truly astonishing teaching?

Brother Wilkinson: I love that question. We’ve talked and taught and trained a lot on skills and methods and a lot of different things, and all are important. But as we appoint ourselves a teacher—meaning the Holy Ghost as the teacher—as we appoint the Holy Ghost as our teacher and we invite him into our classrooms, then that power, that astonishing teaching will take place.

Elder Johnson taught me one time that Satan may not be able to get very many S&I employees or people to commit adultery or break the Word of Wisdom or do something very bad or severe or serious. But he can do little things that would cost us power. He can invite us to maybe complain or to sit around a table and talk evil of another or make fun of a student or laugh at this, or little tiny things that, as we give in to them, we lose the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Ghost cannot be with us in the same degree that He could be or should be.

I’m thinking of Achan in the Old Testament, where they were commanded when they went to battle against Jericho not to take any accursed thing—none of the goods, none of the treasures—from Jericho. And Achan did, and nobody else knew it. And the next battle, where it was seemingly a given that they would win against the city of Ai, they lost, and 36 men lost their lives.

There’s a principle there that what we do matters. The little things we might say or the complaints or the murmuring, or whatever may come that could influence the power of the Holy Ghost to come more forcefully into our lives—it matters. And it cost the whole system power. It’s something that matters. I would just invite us to do those little things. Pay attention to the small and simple things that will invite the Holy Ghost or help us have, to the greatest capacity possible, the influence of the Teacher.

Brother Willard: Brother Whimpey, you had a comment?

Brother Whimpey: If we really are centered on the Savior, that’s in my thoughts as I sit and I think about my students and I think about my lessons, that I’m really Christ-centered. I want my students to know His characteristics and attributes. So it begins there if I focus on the Savior.

Then I think the second thing is that I’m focused on my students. I really appreciated Elder Bednar—if you remember, in a Leadership Enrichment Series he talked about an experience with his son, when his son wanted help with knowing what to plan for a priest and Laurel activity. So Elder Bednar read to him Jacob 1:5: “Because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them.” If you remember the story, it took a couple of times for Elder Bednar’s son to finally realize that Elder Bednar was saying, “What needs to happen? Before you plan an activity, think first about what experience our students need.” Approach it from “What does a student need to experience?” in our preparation.

Then I think the third thing, as Brother Wilkinson mentioned, is to be conscious of allowing the Holy Ghost to perform His role and function as we’re in the classroom. That’s so important. I think the Gospel Teaching and Learning handbook, section 2.1, is a great thing to review as we really think about the role and function of the Holy Ghost. And just simply understanding that and allowing the Holy Ghost to perform His role and function in the classroom would be very, very significant.

Sister Craig: Just something simple that I have found is that if I’m teaching and I feel that the Spirit is not there, if I bear sincere testimony of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, then the Holy Ghost comes. That is the mission of the Holy Ghost, is to testify of the divinity of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. So if I bear testimony, a simple testimony, the Spirit will come.

Brother Willard: We talked about teaching more powerfully, to be more Christ-centered. But as we seek to be more learner-focused, what can teachers do so that their preparation is more relevant and specific to the students?

Sister Johnson: Well, when I first read that question, I wondered, What does it mean to minister to students one by one? Does it mean getting to know them specifically? Can we just know them personally? Spend time with them in ways that we would know them better? Then I thought that this question is going to be different for a teacher who is in Orem and teaches over 100 students. Trying to get personally involved in the lives of all those students would be a daunting task compared to a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany, who has six students that he or she attends church with and is very close to some of the families. I think it would be so discouraging to feel that, as a teacher, your responsibility is to be involved with each student personally like that, like visiting their families and attending their events. They have so many events, and you could just be overwhelmed.

So here are a few ideas that I have for assessing needs. I thought, we need to ask. We need to ask the students themselves what their needs are. We need to ask other teachers what they’ve observed in students of the same age and age-group and culture, because this Church is worldwide and there are many cultural differences. But most importantly, ask our Father in Heaven and rely upon the Spirit and the promises that we have that if we’re doing everything that we can, then we will be blessed with the inspiration we need to know those students and know what it is that we need to be teaching them. In a complex world with all the new challenges the youth have, it’s even more important that we have that guidance from our Heavenly Father in teaching them.

Sister Aburto: I think that if we counsel with them and know about them, we will get to know them better. It’s important to observe them also and to listen to those cues or watch those cues that they will give us. The comments they make or the lack of comments or the questions they ask will allow us to know them better. We could probably even let them ask questions anonymously. Sometimes they feel more free to say what is in their hearts if we don’t know their names. Also make sure to connect the principles and the doctrines that we are learning to what is happening in their lives right now—not necessarily in the future, but right now—so they can see themselves in the scriptures, so they can see themselves in gathering Israel, so they can see themselves in the work of salvation and exaltation. And they can also look back in their own lives and see the times where the Lord has blessed their lives so they can remember who they are and that He is always ready to bless them. Help them find that relevance. And in order to do that, you need to know what is happening in their lives.

Brother Wilkinson: I think both of those comments are absolutely fabulous. I have found that first day of class to even have the students write me a letter. I don’t want them to tell me what their sins are or anything like that but to tell me about themselves. What do I need to know about you that will best help me serve you as your teacher this semester or this year? Tell me about your family, tell me about your work, tell me about what activities you’re involved in. Tell me about what you expect out of class. Or even say, “I’m struggling with my faith,” or, “I’m wrestling with something.” Then I take a picture of each student and staple it to that paper. And as I read that letter, I get to know that student, and I keep those things in mind as I do my preparation. Those are some, maybe just some, practical ways to get at what Sister Johnson and Sister Aburto are teaching us.

Brother Willard: Our next question is for our teachers to help. How do we balance this responsibility we have to teach the doctrine clearly and truthfully while still encouraging students who come from a variety of circumstances and different cultural backgrounds to appropriately share their thoughts and feelings? What could you say to a teacher that is trying to make sure students feel that they have a voice in class, that they can speak, that they can share thoughts and feelings that may differ from what’s going on in the class and still teach the doctrine?

Brother Whimpey: That’s a hard balance sometimes in a classroom. I think we have to remember that our responsibility is to teach truth, not opinion. Our students need to know that when they come to class, they’re going to hear the truth. That’s why we need to be centered in the scriptures and the words of the prophets so when students come, that’s where we’re going to be, and that’s where we’re going to find our answers. Also, remember the objective, and that is that our purpose is to help youth and young adults to understand and rely upon the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ. I need to help my students to understand.

But I also think we need to remember that our students then have a responsibility. Remember Doctrine and Covenants 50: we’ll preach the word of truth, but then also our students need to receive the word of truth. They need to be believing as they come to class. So if our classes could kind of become like a laboratory, where students come and feel this environment where truth is going to be taught, but then they feel safe to share their questions or their experiences or their concerns. But then, as teachers, we really are there to help our students learn how to learn—learn how to feel the Spirit, how to learn for themselves in that environment, to share what they’re thinking. And maybe that even leads to our discussion, leads us into the scriptures and to the words of the prophets to help us find what’s the truth and not just what’s opinion or what is being said in the world today.

But let’s focus on what is truth. Think about the pattern for acquiring spiritual knowledge. If we really could focus on that pattern and help our students learn how to act in faith and have an eternal perspective and then to look at divinely appointed sources to get their answers, then as they come to class, that’s why they’re there, so they can learn truth, so they can become like their Heavenly Father.

One of our area directors shared with me an experience. He was sitting in a classroom, and a young adult shared an opinion that wasn’t really quite in harmony with the teachings of the Church. Then the teacher responded like this. He said, “How does your own testimony and understanding of the plan of salvation inform your opinion? Starting from a place of faith, from what you know and what you felt, let’s talk about that from that perspective.” And then he said that he saw this young adult actually get revelation on the spot as they tried to act in faith and look at it with an eternal perspective. They talked about what they know, what they still don’t know, and why they want to keep trying to figure it out. So they didn’t have all the answers, but in that environment they came together to know the truth and looked at that, acting in faith and being believing, from what they did know.

Now, how can I help you learn how to learn and how to find answers as you move forward in that capacity? I think sometimes we have to be careful, that if we sometimes don’t let the principles and the doctrines of the gospel change us, we try to change the principles and doctrines of the gospel to fit our circumstance and situation. If we really can say, “Heavenly Father, I want to become like you. Help me learn how the doctrines and principles of the gospel will help me,” in that spirit of “I still have questions and concerns, but I really do want to know what the truth is.” I think as teachers we can really create that kind of an environment, the way we respond. But helping our students go to the scriptures and the prophets to learn truth and to help them as they wrestle to really know what is true. Then I would also say, don’t underestimate the power of testimony and of witness. “But of the mouth of two or more witnesses all truth is established.”3 In the scriptures, the words of the prophets and their own witness of what is true. And then as that Spirit bears witness, our young people will work this out and they’ll learn how to learn for themselves and to come to know the truth for themselves.

Brother Willard: I love the comment from Nephi when he says, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”4 Nephi bore his testimony of what he did know, and what a blessing that is to all of us.

Brother Wilkinson: One of the thoughts that came to my mind was the woman taken in adultery and the Savior’s example. He didn’t shy away from teaching the truth. He taught her the doctrine that it was not OK. But He did it in a way that protected her, made it a safe place to help her have an experience.

Sister Johnson: I was thinking along those same lines, that if the students can feel the love of the Savior and the power of the Atonement as more of a force than when we teach the commandments and the consequences of not obeying them. If the feeling lastly that they take from the class and the lesson is that there is someone that loves them so much, that there is a way to access the power of the Atonement, that when we have made mistakes—and everyone will and everyone does—there are things that we just need the Atonement for. The positive side of all of this becomes what the student leaves the class with. They feel like there’s hope. And they really need that in this world, I think.

Brother Willard: Thanks for those comments. In fact, this last question has to do with that as well: How can we help the youth feel like they’re really being seen, that their questions really matter? Sister Craig, what would you add?

Sister Craig: I thought of a scripture in Mark that you’re all familiar with. A rich, young ruler has approached the Savior, wondering what he can do to receive eternal life. And the Savior lists some commandments that He’s already obeying. And then, before asking this young man to do something really hard, really hard—and we all have hard things—I love verse 21: “Then Jesus beholding him,” or seeing him, “loved him.”5 I think really the most important thing we can do with every interaction with our youth is to help them feel loved. I realize that’s not always easy and sometimes it will take a lot of effort and prayer on our part to have eyes to see as the Savior would see.

Another thing that comes to mind when I think about this is that we need to utilize the power of questions. That’s been talked about here today, but we need to learn to really tune in to our students and those whom we’re teaching and ask good questions—questions that will allow us to gauge how they’re feeling and where they are and then encourage them to ask their real questions, not just the questions they feel like we want them to ask. These are questions that are sometimes uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers, and that’s OK. They can’t be dismissed, because I think even the fact that they have these hard questions is indicative of their interest. And we certainly don’t want them to be passive participants. We want them to question. Our job is to help lead them to appropriate sources, most importantly the Lord, to receive and act upon personal revelation. And we need to be doing the same as we create environments of trust where they feel safe to express their beliefs and sometimes their doubts. I think as we create these environments of safety and as we really respect them, their intelligence, their capability, what they have to teach us, and what they have to offer, as we give them opportunities to answer the call of a prophet and Jesus Christ and to engage in the work of salvation and exaltation, I think feeling seen, heard, and needed will be a natural result.

Sister Aburto: I think we also need to be sensitive to the students who have different circumstances in their lives and in their families. We need to make sure that they feel included, that they are part of this Church and of this body of Christ, that we all are. I feel that we also need to be careful with the words that we use. For example, there are students who maybe don’t live with their parents, so we can just say “your family” or “the people you love” instead of saying “parents.” Also I think that being vulnerable helps them see that we are all struggling with something, that we all have our weaknesses. So I think that helping the students feel part of this journey that we are in together, that nobody is perfect, will help them feel that they matter. And also, of course, listening to them, listening to their comments, listening to the questions they ask. If they ask a question, we just need to stop what we’re doing and try to help them find the answer themselves—not necessarily give them the answer but find the answer themselves in the scriptures through prayer, through the words of the living prophets.

Sister Johnson: I just want to say that going through these questions has made me think back on the teachers that I’ve had in my life and the great import they’ve had on my life—just amazing. I’ve been so grateful these last few days in preparation for this to think about the teachers that I’ve had and their love and their devotion to the Savior and what a huge impact it has been. I felt so important and so relevant because of them and their love for the Savior and for me. I’ll be eternally grateful for all the good teachers that we have in this Church. It’s just been a wonderful experience to rethink the goodness.

Brother Willard: When it comes down to it, the example of a great teacher will speak volumes. That will say more than this panel discussion or talks for eternity about teaching. All it takes is just to think of a teacher who blessed your life, to think of an individual who reached out to you and ministered to you in such a way to bless your life. And I know that will be a sermon that will speak much longer than we could in our time today. So thanks for that reminder.

As we conclude our time together today, let me just thank each of you on this panel for teaching us both by your words in our discussion today but, more importantly, by your examples of living Christlike lives. You are disciples of Jesus Christ, and for me it’s been a privilege today to be with each of you and to learn from you. To our audience who is listening throughout the world, on behalf of each of us on the panel, we love you. We thank you for the many ways that you’re seeking to bless God’s children. I bear witness that He lives; this is His work. And I pray that His richest blessings will be poured out in each of your lives, wherever you may be, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.