PROVO Randy Bott doesn't sugarcoat the challenges his Brigham Young University students will face when they serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He tells it like it is during the missionary preparation courses he teaches, with a mixture of wit and wisdom, and they love him for it.
They love him so much that Bott is the highest-rated professor in America in 2008 at RateMyProfessors.com.
"Everyone says before you leave BYU, you have to take a class from Brother Bott," said psychology major Cassandra Lawyer, a 22-year-old senior from San Diego.
A staggering number of students follow the advice. This year alone, 3,149 have taken Bott's classes. That's a full 10 percent of BYU's student body.
Ratings posted at RateMyProfessors.com by more than 190 of his students placed him just ahead of a business law professor at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. The Web site has 7.5 million student-generated ratings for more than 1 million college professors.
"It's ruined my life," Bott said with customary deadpan humor. "My colleagues ask me if they should bow or curtsey. I am by no stretch of the imagination the top professor in the United States."
Ironically, Bott told the Deseret News last month that fellow religion professor Susan Easton Black is probably the best teacher at the school.
BYU ranked seventh on the Web site's list of highest-rated faculties, but Bott's place at the top isn't a surprise based on the teacher evaluations students complete every semester, said Terry Ball, BYU's dean of Religious Education.
"Randy's always in the top 1 to 2 percent with his evaluations," Ball said. "Our religion professors get very high scores. If you're not excellent, you're not average. Randy's among the excellent of the excellent."
Students consider him a mission coach and self-help guru.
At the start of his mission prep class on Monday night, Bott asked which of a couple hundred students had received mission calls in the prior week. One woman stood to announce she will be going to Portugal in February. A man was called to go to Brazil in April.
Bott also asked if anyone got engaged during the week. None had. "Huh," Bott said, shaking his head in sadness at a sorry group. "Anybody manage a date?"
Short, stout and 63, Bott wore a white, long-sleeved shirt and tie. A low-lying crown of white hair circled his head topped by a wisp of white on top. The packaging made him wonder at the RateMyProfessors.com rankings. "I'm a bland person," he said. "I'm not audio-visually friendly."
The smile came after the joke.
To his students, Bott is like a cool older uncle or grandfather who makes you laugh, makes you feel good about yourself and sometimes tells a family secret when parents won't, but only to teach you and help you love the family more.
On Monday, Bott spent part of the class preparing students in case they have a bad companion for a few months. LDS missionaries serve in pairs, and they must remain with their assigned companion 24 hours a day. Some won't get up at 6:30 a.m., as required.
"I had hoped with the raising of the bar we had weeded out those who were unmotivated and unworthy," he said. "I keep hearing from missionaries around the world they're still out there in living color."
A few missionaries consider suicide, and others battle depression. Bott provided practical advice for dealing with those situations, culled from three years spent as a mission president in Fresno, Calif., and from former students across the world, men serving two-year missions and women serving for 18 months.
He peppers his teaching with highly relevant stories drawn from those sources and his own mission to Samoa.
One story took seven minutes of his 100-minute Monday evening class, but his digital-age students remained riveted to the real-world missionary problem: Church members who'd been offended by one pair of missionaries. Bott still doesn't know what went wrong, but his class loved hearing the hilarious, kindhearted and ultimately successful efforts of the new missionaries he sent to the area to resolve the situation.
One missionary went into the bathroom of a church member who had them over for dinner and left a thank-you note rolled up in the toilet paper.
The lesson? Be optimistic, determined and creative.
Those lessons stick, said Ken Alford, who joined BYU's religion faculty this fall after nearly 30 years as an Army officer. "I have a son on a mission in Fiji who took a class from Brother Bott," he said. "He raved about him then, and he's raved about him even from the mission field."
Bott's ministry extends beyond the classroom. He spends four to six hours a day responding to e-mails from students and former students who ask him for help with life problems.
The issues range from the silly an Armenian woman was told by missionaries he could help her prepare a Relief Society lesson to the heartbreaking, like handling the divorce of parents and moral trouble.
"You get known for that type of stuff," Bott said. "Now I get e-mails from parents and friends of students, too."137 comments on this story
His basic life message boils down to a positive faith in Jesus Christ. Satan is a destroyer and Christ a builder, he said. Negative thoughts about self-worth are darts from the devil.
"He sees you on this collision course with greatness, and he begins to tell you you're not worthy of it," Bott said.
Getting an "A" from Bott is easy, according to the ratings on RateMyProfessors.com. Lawyer said tests are open-note, open-book."It doesn't have to be a hard class to be a good class," she said. "Missionaries all over the world will tell you they are using things he taught them."