Reflections on Teaching

Paul V. Johnson and Scott C. Esplin

Paul V. Johnson and Scott C. Esplin, "Reflections on Teaching," Religious Educator 22, no. 3 (2021): 1–9.

Elder Paul V. Johnson has served as commissioner of the Church Educational System (CES), as a member of the Chile Area Presidency, as the administrator of religious education and elementary and secondary education, and as a member of the Europe Area Presidency.

Scott C. Esplin is dean of BYU Religious Education.

Esplin: Thank you for allowing us to share your experiences as a religious educator, administrator, and commissioner of the Church Educational System with our readers. For those who may be unaware of your background, will you share your experience with Church education?

Johnson: Sure. I began teaching seminary in 1978 in a one-person seminary in Chandler, Arizona. We lived there for four years and then transferred up to Cache Valley in northern Utah, where I taught seminary in three different schools for about seven years. Then we were transferred down to the central office in Salt Lake City, and I worked there for eighteen years in a number of assignments. I started off with the videos they use in seminary, and then they had a division called Design and Evaluation at the time that I was involved in. I spent time with curriculum and training and then was in the administration for the last few years that I was there. I then had a year away as a member of an Area Presidency in Chile. After that, I came back as commissioner and was commissioner for seven years. I then spent four years away in the Area Presidency in Europe. Most recently, I came back a second time as commissioner and served there for two years. So that’s a brief history of my time in CES.

Esplin: For approximately four decades you have been a teacher, an administrator, the commissioner, and a General Authority. From these various perspectives, what have you learned about teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Johnson: That is a wide-open question, but one of the core things I’ve learned is that learning spiritual things requires something different than learning historical facts, math, or other subjects. You think about Paul: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The only way you learn the gospel is by the Spirit. It is impossible any other way. You can learn things about it without the Spirit, but you can’t really learn the heart of the gospel without it. And to really learn by the Spirit, you have to live the gospel. You have to live what you learn. That’s when the Spirit is poured out. You know, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). There are a lot of scholars in the world that know a lot about Jesus Christ—the context of His times, His travels, His sayings—but to really know Him and become like Him, we are required to live His teachings. I am sure there are hundreds and hundreds, thousands of scholars that know a lot more about the details and the context of the life of the Savior than I do, and many of them may not even believe that He is divine. I don’t know everything about the Savior, but I know He lives and His Atonement is real. That knowledge comes only from the Spirit.

We have to be careful not to fall in the trap of viewing learning the gospel as purely an academic exercise. It requires more. That is one of the reasons the ordinances are so important. Think about section 84, where it teaches, “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:19–20).

I guess that is one important thing I’ve learned. Learning the gospel is different than learning other things. It requires us to put into practice what we are learning, and then we really learn. We can teach someone about the law of tithing, and they can answer the questions on a test, “How do you calculate tithing?” “What is it used for?” “What does the Church do with it?” But for a person to really have a testimony of the law of tithing, they have to live it. And that is the way it is with the teachings of the gospel. I don’t know how many lessons I have learned about teaching over the years, but that seems to be a core one—and one that if we’re not careful we can slip away from.

Esplin: Thank you. Is there a particular episode in your experience as an educator that drove this lesson home for you?

Johnson: I think it has gradually come. I don’t know that I have always understood that. I am not sure I still completely understand it, but I will tell you an incident that really drove the importance of it home to me. When they were just getting ready for the raising the bar for missionaries—this was in the early 2000s—and developing Preach My Gospel, I got a phone call one day, and it was President Boyd K. Packer, who asked me to come up to his home on a Sunday morning. He read to me the letter that was going to be sent by the First Presidency about raising the bar for missionaries. Then he talked about what they were trying to do with missionaries. I was the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes at the time, and he just said, “What are you going to do to help us prepare these young people to serve missions?” That question just haunted me. I went back and thought about it. What can we do in Seminaries and Institutes to help prepare people? I thought back to my own life and what was really important to me. What have I learned? What was it about my own personal experience that had made a difference? What it boiled down to was the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in my life and actually using the gospel to bring the power of the Atonement into my life. This triggered some of our focus on teaching and learning in Seminaries and Institutes. It really came back to me realizing that it was when I was willing to live the gospel that the power of the Atonement came into my life and that I could sense it. And it made a difference.

Esplin: Thank you for sharing that. As the commissioner, as the administrator, as a teacher, as a General Authority, where have you seen the hand of the Lord guiding Church education?

Johnson: That is a great question. I have seen it in classrooms of our called seminary and institute teachers all over the world. It has been powerful to see the Lord guiding them in their teaching. I have seen it in the classrooms of our higher education faculty on our university campuses. I have seen it at all the administrative levels at our universities and seminaries and institutes. It has been very clear to watch the members of the board who govern these institutions and see the hand of the Lord rest on them. I think you see it in lesson preparation and local decisions. It is really evident in choosing leaders for the institutions and deciding on important policy and direction for an institution. Basically, I have seen it all over the place. It is very apparent to me. This is part of the Lord’s work, and He helps guide it. I know He does, I have watched it. I have also noticed it, this is maybe a little bit personal, but I think our own weaknesses and egos, like my weaknesses and egos are factors that can limit His influence in the work. We sort of block Him out, and when we can strip ourselves of our egos and focus on what He wants us to do, I think we see it even more clearly.

Esplin: Thank you, Elder Johnson. What role do you see Church education playing in the Lord’s work on the earth today?

Johnson: I think it has a really important role and on at least two dimensions. One in a practical temporal way, just educating people and preparing them to earn a living or to raise their children and contribute to society. Then also on the spiritual side to help them become disciples of Jesus Christ and to bring them to Him. That is where I see it fitting. It has a tremendous impact, and one of the exciting things is to see that impact spread to even more people across the world.

Esplin: You conducted an insightful interview at the end of your first appointment as commissioner of Church education that we highly recommend to our readers.[1] How was your experience different the second time you served as commissioner?

Johnson: In one sense I was more familiar with the details of each of the entities going in, just because I had been the commissioner before. The board makeup was much different. We had a new First Presidency, and there were different faces on the board, both members of the Twelve and others who were now on the board. That makes a difference. One of the big differences was we had a new CES entity, BYU–Pathway Worldwide, that was established between the times I served as commissioner. That was an exciting new development. One of the other aspects that isn’t specifically related to what was happening in CES at the time, but I had had more experience now in an area and as General Authority and had a little different view, including what some of the issues that our members and our local leaders face. We also had a few different leaders in the CES entities themselves.

Esplin: You mentioned working with the board; what lessons have you learned from working closely with the Church Board of Education?

Johnson: That is a great question and another one where you could make a really long list. Probably one of the most important is trust the Lord. It is His work. Along with that is trusting the Lord’s timing, because it is not always what we expect. Sometimes we get impatient, and we think things should move much faster, especially if we are the one who has an idea and we want to see it adopted. At other times His timing is quicker than we feel ready to implement. I think trusting His timing on things is one of the challenges that we see in our own personal lives.

Another thing that has struck me is that we shouldn’t expect the board members to do all the work for inspiration. We really need to give them our best thinking and our best information. I think that applies to whatever situation we are in. If we are in a ward council and we just plan to sit back and let the bishop get all the inspiration, I think that is a wrong approach. We need to give our best thought and our efforts to help the council make decisions. Related to that is we need to be careful not to try to force our own vision on them. I’m speaking about the board or any group that we are working with. Be open with your thoughts and suggestions. If you have a strong feeling that something should go a certain way, it is a real temptation to be selective with information so you can mold the presentation in your attempt to lead them to the conclusion you want. It just seems to me that we should let prophets be prophets. Let them receive guidance and the best help we can give them is to give them the best information we have, including our recommendations.

Another thing that struck me working with the Board of Education and Boards of Trustees is that those who make up the boards have an incredible view and vision of the work. Members of the boards include the First Presidency and members of the Twelve, the Relief Society President, the Young Women President, the Young Men President, the Presiding Bishop, and a member of the Presidency of the Seventy. Imagine how expansive the view and vision of the work and the world that each of them has and how broad that vision is collectively. They step back and see things from a different viewpoint. While we are focused full time on CES, on our particular portion of the total work, they see the whole thing. Their expanded vision really helps CES fulfill the role that it needs to fill in the kingdom. If we are not careful, if we just view it from our viewpoint, which is narrower than theirs, we can either miss an area we should be focusing on, or we can bleed into an area that they see as someone else’s responsibility in the work. It just seems the broad view that they have of the work and the world is really critical in helping us fit into the role should have.

Esplin: Thank you. That is a fascinating view on things at the general church level, but I think it has great application at the wards and stakes. Related to your work as commissioner, what do you wish teachers knew about the work of Church education?

Johnson: I think something really important for people to understand is they are part of a great system with dedicated people in all the CES entities. It is just inspiring to see people from all over the world focused on helping the young people. It is incredible. Sometimes if you are in your classroom at a university and you have your twenty-seven students there or if you are teaching a daily seminary class and you’ve got twelve students who are trying to stay awake early in the morning in some part of the world—sometimes we just see that little portion and don’t realize the impact. We are talking about getting close to a million people, and if you include continuing education, it is over a million people that are involved in Church education classes and education. It is an amazing work, and I hope people realize they’re part of this. They are an important part—whether it is the five students in your seminary class or whether you’re an online instructor or whatever your role is—it is an incredible work, and I am just grateful for your efforts.

The other thing that I would mention is that your efforts really do make a difference in the lives of students. In fact, you have a remarkable influence and I think we have seen this over the years in studies that have been done about results from CES institutions. Personally, I just had an email exchange and phone call from a student that I had, I don’t know, this had to be the late 1970s or early 1980s, a student that had some questions and some comments, and she made a comment about the influence [of] that seminary experience all those years ago. You have a remarkable influence on people. The other thing I would like them to know is that Church education really does have an important place in the kingdom. It is a helping role, but it is an important helping role.

Esplin: Related to that, what can you share with us about those relationships between those various entities? You mentioned keeping in mind the bigger picture that we are part of a much larger system than just our particular assignment at a seminary or the university or wherever it may be. What can you share with us about the relationships between Seminaries and Institutes, Church universities, Church schools? What missions do they share in common, and how are they unique?

Johnson: The missions of each of the institutions are quite similar. They all contribute to the work of salvation and exaltation that the Church is involved in. They are not totally separate from each other in the job they are doing. There really is quite a bit of overlap. But despite that, they are different entities, and they have different roles, but their general strategic purpose in the kingdom is similar.

If you are thinking of a metaphor, you might think of something like a naval fleet of ships, where the whole fleet has a strategic mission, but each ship has a little different role. You have a flagship, you have an aircraft carrier, you have a cruiser, you have a submarine. They’re each designed to do a little bit different things and yet there is overlap in what they are trying to do. Or you may think of a sports team, where each player has a different role, and yet the general goal of the team is to win the game. Each different member of the team has different things they try to do while they are playing the game. For Seminaries and Institutes, it offers religious education to youth and young adults everywhere the Church is organized. It has a tremendous reach and the numbers in Seminaries and Institutes are much larger than any of the other institutions—it just is amazing. They also have the responsibility for our primary and secondary schools that we have in the Pacific and Mexico. BYU is like a flagship. It is the most visible of our institutions and has some connections with different academic and even government entities around the world. It is also our only institution that offers graduate degrees. BYU–Hawaii is, of course, an undergraduate institution, but it is really focused on students from the Pacific and the Pacific Rim. It is the most international campus in the United States for a university. Ensign College is focused on applied, job-ready certificates and degrees. If you go to Ensign College, you walk away and you are very employable right out the door. BYU–Idaho is focused on teaching, and it is an undergraduate institution that is trying to teach as many students as they can. They also have a number of online degrees, some of those through BYU–Pathway Worldwide, which is really an access point to higher education for people around the world. Each of the entities has a little different role, but they all work together. We have a president’s round table where all the heads of the CES entities meet for a couple of hours every month counseling on issues that affect all of the institutions and updating each other on what is happening across CES.

Esplin: That will be helpful for our readers because many of our readers come from each of the various institutions. To use the naval example, we probably have readers in every one of those ships. Stepping back now, looking at your time as commissioner, what do you see as the most significant developments within Church education during your time as commissioner? This could be your first time as commissioner or your second time as commissioner.

Johnson: I think one of the most visible has been the development of BYU–Pathway Worldwide. When I was first commissioner—I think it was probably 2009—they started this little pilot in three locations with just a handful of students. I remember visiting one of those locations. It was down in Mesa, Arizona, when we were just barely trying this concept out and then it grew, of course. It was part of BYU–Idaho, and it grew during the first time I was commissioner. And then when I was out for a while, Commissioner Kim B. Clark was tremendous with this. He had had some feelings before he was commissioner, when he was president of BYU–Idaho. He had had feelings that maybe Pathway would not always remain with BYU–Idaho, so he organized it so that it could be lifted and moved somewhere else. When I came back, it was a separate entity, and now you have fifty thousand people involved, being blessed by it. So that’s a very public and visible change.

The transition from LDS Business College to Ensign College was also a significant decision including opening the door for them to offer a few applied baccalaureate degrees and to offer courses online.

One of the things that happened—I think it was 2012—was an official letter from the First Presidency encouraging all young adults to take institute. Through the years institute had been focused more on the college students, that was the way it was initially started. They had been reaching out to young adults for many years, and there would always be this question: are they really institute students? Can we invite all the young adults? That was answered in 2012. That was a very significant move. Recently the institute program is focusing on ways to innovate institute. There has been a decline in percentage of young adults taking institute, so leaders in Seminaries and Institutes are putting a lot of effort into encouraging some changes there that will help.

I think another important one has been the connection and alignment between seminary and the Priesthood and Family Department including on Come, Follow Me. The latest step is a total week-by-week alignment of the seminary curriculum schedule with Come, Follow Me. That has been a significant change and a long time coming.

There has been the development of the institute cornerstone courses. I think that has been a significant step to try to make sure that core issues of the gospel of Jesus Christ are covered for anyone who is graduating from one of our universities or from institute.

The rise and expansion of BYUtv has been a major issue over the years. And they are a player in the broadcast world now, and it has been impressive to see that.

There was the “Strengthening Religious Education in Institutions of Higher Education” document that was approved by the board a couple of years ago. In fact, the final approval was given just a few weeks before I came in as a commissioner the second time. I was not involved in the development of that document, but when I read it, I was instantly supportive. I thought it was a fantastic document and helped us keep our focus on what is central in teaching religion at our universities and colleges. I think the document was to help us stay laser focused on what we are about. I think that can be a little difficult if you are in a university setting where, if we are not careful, we can shift from the core being the gospel of Jesus Christ and turn it into an academic exercise.

Esplin: Thank you. To conclude, what one thing, if done really well, do you think would make the most significant difference within Church education?

Johnson: If I were to boil it down, it is to live as the Savior lived and teach as the Savior taught. I guess that’s two things, but they are tied so closely together. It seems that is where we derive our power, in living our covenants, living like the Savior lived and then trying to teach like He did.

Esplin: What advice do you have for us as you leave your assignment as commissioner?

Johnson: Keep central things central. You look at the objective or mission statements from all the CES entities, and although there are some differences, the central messages are very similar. It is to help make disciples of Jesus Christ and to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life, to develop disciples who are leaders in their home and in the Church. In seminaries and institutes, it is to help them rely on the teachings of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, help them prepare for the temple, and prepare themselves and others for eternal life. If you look at those, even though they are different words, the core of them is the same. I think if we could stay focused on this, it would really help us cut through some of the other influences and factors that can take us off course. There is so much that can distract us from our mission or objective, but let us stay focused on them, and the Lord will step in and help bless us in our efforts.

Esplin: Thank you, both for this counsel for our readers and for your service in Church education.



[1] Elder Paul V. Johnson and Barbara Morgan Gardner, “‘Lift Where You Stand’: A Conversation with Elder Paul V. Johnson,” Religious Educator 16, no. 3 (2015): 11–25.