Former Stake President Stephen Lai is the Director of the Seminaries & Institutes of Religion (S&I) Program in the Singapore Mission. He is based in Singapore and takes care of the seminary and institute programs in Singapore, East and West Malaysia. Besides administering the program, he teaches two weekly Institute classes for young single adults in Singapore.
Here is the interview with the Editor.
- What is the objective of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion?
Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.
- What are the benefits of youth attending early morning seminary?
Although the youth would prefer to sleep between 5.30 am and 6.30 am, those who attend early morning seminary have developed a strong bond among themselves over the four years that they have been together. They persevere and encourage one another to complete seminary knowing that everyone is in the same boat. They all want to learn something from the Spirit each day.
Seminary students also learn to manage their time well. To them, completing their homework and getting sufficient sleep are premiums. Subconsciously, they plan their schedule accordingly.
- Why are some parents reluctant to send their children to early morning seminary?
When parents see their children waking up early in the morning with insufficient sleep, they feel their pain. When the children suffer in their grades, they become anxious. They worry about their children's health and their safety going to class so early in the morning. The list goes on. These concerns are natural and legitimate; they are part and parcel of our earthly challenges.
Seminary started in 1912. The first early morning seminary class began in 1949. Today, over 400,000 members are enrolled in the seminary with 268,000 in the early morning, home study, and online classes.
Our Singapore students are not alone fighting fatigue and other challenging in their adolescence. These students persevere and come together to study the gospel of Jesus Christ five days a week building testimonies that will protect them against an ever-darkening world of deceit and dangers.
At the end of the day, the responsibility of enrolling their children in seminary, sending them to classes, and encouraging them to complete the course of study will always lie with the parents. The priesthood leaders, teachers and others are secondary reinforcers to the parents.
- How do the early morning seminary students take the stress and do well in school?
In Singapore, the biggest challenge among our youth is to do well in school. Juggling between school and seminary work is difficult but doable. President Russell M. Nelson has recently invited all the youth to go on a 7-day social media fast. Such fasting can free them from the clutches of the Internet. It can free them from spending many hours on matters that have no intrinsic value. It will give them more time to concentrate on things that matter most—time for homework, time for meaningful interaction, more time for sleeping, and more time in developing a deeper relationship with our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Many parents are not fully aware that 'seminary can change lives' as reported by President Thomas S. Monson. Who can better shape their teenager's growing character better than the Spirit? Outside of the 3-hour block on Sunday, seminary is one of the best options to help our youth to deepen their conversion in Jesus Christ.
Over the years, the majority of our youth have done well in their GCE ‘O' and ‘A' levels examinations. The same goes for the expatriate youth. God is loving and merciful to His faithful children. He compensates every youth who makes an effort to attend seminary daily in His own way and in His own due time. His promises will never fail so long as obedience, sacrifice and consecration are manifested in the lives of our youth and their parents.
- What does it take to be an early morning seminary teacher?
Early morning seminary teachers have to prepare a lesson every day and get up every morning at 4.00 a.m. This calling is indeed very demanding - highly taxing on the body and mind. They hardly have any leisure time for themselves. When one lesson is over, they sigh a relief, take care of their own personal matters, do their household chores (some have to go to work), and hit the scriptures and manuals again. They are usually the first one to arrive and the last to leave. They go about their calling faithfully with concern for the wellbeing of the youth, no less than that of any parent.
- What about the Institute program for adults and what curriculum is available?
Institute is meant for young single adults between the ages of 18 and 30. In the past, we have had a few converts who are outside of this age range but are interested to deepen their conversion. Married adults who are within institute age are welcome to enrol in institute but this is an option for them.
In the past, we had the notion that institute classes were meant for every adult. In recent years, the Asia Area Presidency had re-emphasized that institute is meant mainly for the YSAs. Others, such as new converts who wish to join, may be considered if recommended by their Priesthood leaders.
- How can members not enrolled in the Seminary & Institute programs use the materials available on Gospel Library for their study?
Any member can access the manuals with ease on the Gospel Library. The manuals may be used as reference guides or aids such as teaching a lesson or preparing for a speaking assignment. Many of the materials have undergone intensive revisions to keep them relevant and up to date.
- What recommendation do you have for individuals or groups who want to study the scriptures on their own?
The Church Board of Education has introduced four new cornerstone courses namely (a) Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, (b) The Eternal Family, (c) Foundations of the Restoration, and (d) Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon for institute studies. These cornerstone courses are written thematically and would help any gospel seekers to study and understand gospel themes more in-depth. As a matter of fact, these four courses are mandatory to be taken by students at the three BYU campuses.
For individual and small group studies, it is recommended that Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel be chosen as a course of study if it has not been done before. What better way to start off a gospel study class than this new curriculum--to know and to appreciate our Savior more intimately through His Atonement for all of mankind.
Most of the institute scripture courses relating to the standard works have been updated. They are excellent resources to help us to increase our gospel knowledge and understanding of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
- Final remarks
I take my hat off to all the past and present seminary students and teachers, along with their parents and priesthood leaders who have supported this inspired program even in their trying times. God loves all and has never failed to notice and bless His covenant children who obey prophetic counsel faithfully.
President Thomas S Monson said, 'When you have the chance to be involved in seminary, whether in the early morning or in released-time classes, take advantage of that opportunity. Many of you are attending seminary now. As with anything in life, much of what you take from your seminary experience depends on your attitude and your willingness to be taught. May your attitude be one of humility and a desire to learn. How grateful I am for the opportunity I had as a teenager to attend early-morning seminary, for it played a vital role in my development and the development of my testimony. Seminary can change lives.' (Thomas S. Monson, 'Believe, Obey, and Endure,' Ensign or Liahona, May 2012)