Key Priorities and Initiatives Related to Our Mission


Brent L. Top and R. Devan Jensen

Brent L. Top ( is dean of Religious Education at BYU.

R. Devan Jensen ( is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.

Q: Brent, what surprises have you had during your term as a dean?

A: Well, I think the biggest surprise was the amount of work and stress involved. There are so many different parts of Religious Education that all need my attention. It is so much different than just teaching my classes and working on my own projects. Now my work affects the entire college and all that they do in their classes and projects. It is like juggling many balls at the same time. Hopefully, I haven’t dropped too many along the way. Generally, I’ve been very pleased with the work of Religious Education. It is a privilege to be part of this great work. Sometimes there are also disappointments and discouragements, as with any large organization. The one area that I probably wasn’t anticipating was the amount of fund-raising that a dean does to further the work of the college.

Q. So you have to go out and talk with people and ask for money?

A: Yes, although people are familiar with BYU and Religious Ed, having been alumni and having taken religion classes, they are usually surprised to find out that we have financial needs and have to fund-raise. I think they’re surprised that the Church doesn’t just pay for everything or that the university doesn’t just give us all the money we need. The university, while generous in appropriating funds, cannot cover all the needs we have for research and other projects. So the university and the Church expect us to raise funds for our key priorities and initiatives that are related to our overall mission.

Q: So what are those key priorities?

A: Over the four and a half years that I’ve been dean, we have settled on four major priorities. The first initiative is inspiring teaching and experiential learning. The very first thing mentioned in our college mission statement relates to our teaching—teaching not only students on campus but also extending that teaching beyond the classrooms and helping the broader Church. So, giving the students inspiring religious educational opportunities is part of that initiative.

The second initiative, again directly related to our mission statement, is the gospel scholarship media initiative; that is, anything related to media and technology and how we can further the mission and message of Religious Education through modern media.

The third one is a very exciting one that I’ve seen some real growth in the last few years, and that is the area of religious outreach. That includes all our efforts to establish friendships and build bridges of understanding and respect between Latter-day Saints and those not of our faith.

Then one of our biggest and most visible priorities is the work of the Religious Studies Center, the research and publication arm of Religious Education. That includes all its books and publications as well as grants for research—both for the academy and for the broader Church.

Q: It can be expensive running a publishing house. Are you including the costs of salaries, or what’s involved in the RSC fund-raising initiative?

A: Yes, as the umbrella entity over research and publication, the RSC has a lot of expenses. Not only do we employ student interns that are editing, designing, and marketing our materials, but we pay the salaries and benefits of the support staff and administration. In addition to the costs of publishing books, we give grants for research that leads to publication, and not only to our own religion faculty but to other scholars who are working on important projects.

Q: Tell us about how people apply for grants.

A: My associate dean, Daniel Judd, who has responsibility over the RSC, each year sends out applications and information concerning the grants available to BYU faculty and grants available for those in the broader academy. For example, I just received a brand-new RSC publication on Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith by RoseAnn Benson, who received a grant to research that topic. RoseAnn Benson is not a BYU religion faculty member or even affiliated with the university, but she has done a wonderful work in helping Latter-day Saints and others understand the influence of Alexander Campbell on Sidney Rigdon and the many comparisons between Joseph Smith’s and Alexander Campbell’s restoration movements.

Q: This connects well with your religious outreach efforts because of the connection between faith traditions. What efforts are being made in the area of religious outreach?

A: We have interfaith dialogues going on with major religious leaders and scholars of different denominations. We invite them to come to campus to present lectures. For example, we have the annual Faith, Family, and Society lecture series, and then we publish those talks in a volume. In addition, we have interfaith conferences and ongoing dialogue with the Community of Christ and the various Restorationist branches. We recently had a wonderful conference with about ten religious leaders from all across the spectrum of Christian denominations talking about their respective views of the afterlife. These presentations will be published in a significant book. The religious outreach council has done significant and very fulfilling work in bringing LDS and non-LDS leaders and scholars together to better understand one another and work together on projects of shared values.

Q: What is going on with the gospel scholarship media initiative?

A: Everything having to do with increasing gospel and scriptural knowledge through media is in that initiative, and I’m trying to raise funds to support the work because it is very expensive.

We have several very important gospel media projects. One example is the Virtual New Testament Project. Professor Tyler Griffin from the Department of Ancient Scripture and his team of animation experts have made an app that is available to anybody in the world, free of charge. With this app, you can see how the old city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and Herod’s temple looked in Jesus’s day, in 360-degree view. It has been a valuable tool not only for our students as they’re studying the New Testament but also for anybody in the Church or in the world that wants to envision what New Testament Jerusalem would have looked like. The team’s plan is to do the same thing with other cites mentioned in the New Testament so that this technology-savvy generation can better understand the New Testament.

Tyler has been involved with the Virtual Book of Mormon Project as well. It is a very fascinating way to help our students and others to understand important concepts of the Book of Mormon, such as which plates composed the Book of Mormon. The team developed a virtual reality application where people can actually see Mormon’s cave with the various plates and how one set of plates becomes the large plates and how another set becomes the small plates and so forth.

Another significant project is our Hallowed Ground, Sacred Journeys series, which is being spearheaded by Professor Craig Ostler of the Church History and Doctrine Department. Craig and his team have put together a great website, This is where a student or anybody can go for important information about LDS Church history sites. You can see a video that explains each place, and then you can also hear Church history experts talking about the significance of the site. It is a wonderful tool that can enrich a person’s knowledge about our early history.

I’m probably most excited about the Gospel Scripture Roundtable series. I don’t go anywhere in the Church without having somebody stop me and say, “We’ve seen you on TV. We’ve seen your colleagues. We appreciate the work that you have done, and why are we not getting any more of those?” This series will be enhanced and even better than ever. Rather than just a roundtable of talking heads, there will be additional resources and videos made available through the hyperlinks posted with each episode. We anticipate having four different series of scripture or gospel roundtable discussions: foundations of the Restoration, Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, doctrine and teachings of the Book of Mormon, and the eternal family. We estimate that it will cost about five thousand dollars an episode. We will have students and others do the additional hyperlink resources so that any person can watch parts of it, download it and put it on their phone and listen to it and watch it as a podcast, or they can just look up the articles and chapters with additional information. I’m really excited about this project, and it will be a wonderful way to bless the Church but also to have resources that we could use for our students and online courses and also that could be used internationally for people who do not have BYU TV or can’t be on campus for religious educational experiences. They could access it through the Web and the RSC website.

Q: Let’s discuss experiential learning because, after all, we’re here for the students.

A: President Kevin J Worthen has emphasized experiential learning and inspiring teaching, and in Religious Education we’re looking at how we meet that goal of our university president. How do we enrich classroom experiences? There are a couple of things that are going on right now that are very significant. One is the spring or summer term Church history travel study program. We subsidize that with scholarships and grants to students to be able to spend eight weeks studying the Doctrine and Covenants and the history of the Church on-site, This last year we gave two-thousand-dollar scholarships to many of the students who participated in that. We hope to continue to support students who want to have this kind of experiential learning opportunity.

Another thing that is going on is that we have several of our Religious Education students participating in archaeological digs in the Holy Land with some of our faculty who are world experts on biblical archaeology. There are great opportunities for students to have experiences with the Bible lands, literally digging in the Holy Land turf. What a way to truly experience what they have been studying in the Old Testament or New Testament. I want to be able to provide greater financial support for students to have those experiential learning opportunities outside of the Joseph Smith Building at BYU.

Q: So, if you could put in a plea to donors, what would you say?

A: I could just get down on my knees and beg. I’ll put hat in hand, if necessary. I know there are many opportunities for donors to share, but Religious Education would be blessed with a gift of one dollar or one million dollars. Every little bit helps. We have established some goals for each of those initiatives and every penny, every dollar that is given to Religious Education can be designated to one of those four initiatives.

So my plea to our readers, our listeners, our watchers, our students, our alumni would be this: Think of how Religious Education has influenced your life in some way through the years. Maybe it was an inspiring class with a great religion teacher or maybe it was an important book authored by one of our faculty or one published by the RSC that has inspired you. If you have been blessed by BYU Religious Education in some way please share a gift—whether small or large—in honor of the influence of that class or that professor or that publication. I invite you to share with us of your means so we can continue the legacy of producing great scholarship, blessing students and also giving others the opportunity to understand the Church better. To donate, contact Garrett Rose at 801-422-3899 or email