Church leader says BYU will remain ‘a religious university with a religious purpose’
Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the new commissioner of church education, also tells students the university can help them improve as disciples and find lasting peace in Jesus Christ.
Brigham Young University will not pull away from its religious and spiritual roots like other American colleges and universities have, the new liaison between the school and its board of trustees said Tuesday in a devotional on the campus in Provo, Utah.
“This is a religious university with a religious purpose,” said Elder Clark G. Gilbert in his first speech at BYU since he was appointed commissioner of the Church Educational System of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in May 2021.
“BYU is prophetically led and will remain a spiritual beacon to the world,” he added.
Elder Gilbert said BYU, the church system’s flagship school, is not affected by the three primary factors that pull many religious universities away from their spiritual backgrounds identified by Robert Burtchael — faculty promotion outsourced to secular disciplines, funding shifted from the sponsoring religion to outside sources and university leadership decoupled from the sponsoring institution.
Occasionally, some people suggest the Church of Jesus Christ should step away from BYU the way it divested itself of junior colleges nearly a century ago.
“Let me explain why this will not happen at BYU,” said Elder Gilbert, who became a General Authority Seventy of the church in April 2021. “First, prophets have foretold the significant role this university will play in the kingdom of God. Moreover, we have remarkable faculty and staff who came to BYU precisely because they believe in the unique spiritual mission of the university.”
Two weeks ago, church leaders moved to ensure faculty remain spiritually aligned with the missions of the church and BYU by announcing that all newly hired Latter-day Saints will be required to hold a temple recommend, which signifies their faith in Jesus Christ, the church and its leaders.
Second, Elder Gilbert said, BYU’s governance structure is unique.
“Perhaps the most anchoring reason BYU will remain grounded in its religious purposes is that its oversight and governance remain squarely tied to the church itself,” Elder Gilbert said. “By design, the chairman of the Church Board of Education and the board of trustees for BYU is the prophet, President Russell M. Nelson. The vice-chairs are his two counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring.”
Third, he said church leaders on the board remain invested in BYU students. He didn’t mention it, but the church subsidizes the tuition of each student. Elder Gilbert said the board also invests other time and support. The presidents of BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, BYU-Pathway Worldwide and Ensign College meet once a month with the full board and a second time each month with the board’s executive committee, chaired by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of BYU.
“By any external standard, this is a remarkable board,” Gilbert said, referring in part to the fact that three board members are past university presidents and the chair is a former medical school professor. “But more importantly, these are spiritual, even prophetic leaders. They pray over you. They counsel about your needs. They receive revelation for this institution. They love BYU and they love you.”
As commissioner of church education, Elder Gilbert, a former Harvard business professor specializing in disruptive innovation, and former CEO of the Deseret News, is the liaison between the board and the universities and coordinates the monthly meetings.
“Every major expenditure, all faculty appointments, key curriculum decisions and the selection of university presidents are reviewed and approved by the Church Board of Education,” he said. “So, when BYU’s mission statement declares that the university is ‘founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,’ know that this is part of the very design of the university.
“BYU is designed for a distinct spiritual purpose.”
Elder Gilbert, who is the past president of both BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide, walked around a circular stage on the floor of the Marriott Center arena while he spoke to an audience estimated at 2,413, according to center staff.
He shared reflections about his time as a BYU student who graduated in 1994 with a degree in international relations and a wife, Christine, with whom he has eight children. He called BYU a temporary spiritual refuge.
“A lot of us come from places where we were religious minorities and experienced things like Elder Gilbert talking about being made fun of in a high school assembly,” said Nick Burrup, 21, a finance major from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Then we all come here and we’re united in faith.”
Elder Gilbert noted that the school’s size isn’t big enough to accommodate every Latter-day Saint who would like to attend.
He told the students he wanted them to understand “what a sacred seat each of you sit in.”
“Students in areas such as Africa, Brazil and the Philippines look to you as examples,” he added. “They would do anything to receive the opportunities you have to be on this campus, to live in this community and to be at this devotional.”
That notion struck a chord with Eleanor Molver, 21, of Seattle, Washington.
“That made me think about the students around the world who would give anything to be here,” said Molver, a sophomore in biological sciences education. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention in class and I thought, ‘I should.’ I should be constantly grateful for BYU and for great church leaders who set such a good example.”
Elder Gilbert counseled students to be rooted in Jesus Christ in an era when people he quoted, like David Brooks and Rod Dreher, have noted society unraveling spiritually. He said some young church members tell him they worry about marrying and having children in a world Dreher said is losing its connections.
“My message today is that we can find peace, even in the commotion,” Elder Gilbert said, quoting President Nelson’s recent message that “despite today’s unprecedented challenges, those who build their foundations upon Jesus Christ, and have learned how to draw upon his power, need not succumb to the unique anxieties of this era.”
He said BYU can change students’ lives in lasting ways if they let it. He told them he and his friends were not perfect as BYU students, “but most of us were trying to do our best to become something more in Christ, and we were grateful for BYU’s impact in that effort.”
“I appreciated the clip he shared from President Nelson about how we don’t focus on perfection but improvement, getting better through Jesus Christ,” said Andrew Logan, 21, a mechanical engineering major from Oakland, California.
Elder Gilbert asked students to remember four things:
• Christ will take us wherever we are: “Brothers and sisters, you don’t need to be perfect to be in this church. You just need to do your best, which includes repentance, as you strive to become something more in Christ.”
• He will love us even when we do not reciprocate that love: “In this season of polarizing public discourse, I’m grateful for Christ’s model of charity and love. Even when we feel attacked for our most cherished beliefs, He inspires us to respond with empathy and kindness.”
• “In these troubled times, Christ is the repairer of the breaches in our lives.”
• He will succor us in our infirmities: “For any of you who are struggling with challenges that don’t seem fair, don’t turn to the world. Please turn to the covenants that bind you to Jesus Christ. He can comfort you in a way no one else can.”