There are more than 2,500 Institutes of Religion in the Church Education System in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving more than 350,000 students.
Through institutes, college students are able to add a variety of religious courses to their education. The majority of institutes have some kind of weekly devotional program, said Randall Hall, assistant administrator for seminaries and institutes in the CES.
Some may not have a devotional, depending on the needs of students in the area, but those who do run a devotional program see many benefits both socially and spiritually, he said.
“For many, many years, it’s been a very important part of the institute program."
While there is a formal process for approval of speakers, devotionals vary greatly from institute to institute, Hall explained.
Wayne Dymock, director of the Logan Utah Institute of Religion, runs a program with an enrollment hovering around 6,000 to 7,000 students each year — the largest in the CES. The devotional, their Religion in Life series, brings anywhere from 900 to 1,200 students to the institute’s gymnasium every Friday.
There’s a committee to set up chairs every Thursday night, plus a tech crew, a committee for musical numbers and a group of faculty for ushering.
“It’s a lot to set up, but once it gets going, everybody doing their part, it really flows very smoothly,” he said. “It’s just a big event each week.”
Darrell Janson, director of the Gainesville Florida Institute of Religion, sees a bit of a different turnout. The institute there has only about 100 to 200 students any given semester, he said. The Friday devotionals see about 16 to 20 students.
He described the experience: a senior missionary couple, who help with planning too, usually make a lunch for the students.
“They are just sitting there and relaxing and eating while they listen,” he said.
Institute devotionals not only vary in size but also in traditions.
Food is an important one for the starving college students, many directors said.
“If you feed them, they will come,” Janson said. “I know that’s not the only reason they come, but it does help. I mean, they enjoy that.”
At the Gainesville Institute especially, he explained, the institute becomes a “home away from home” for many students and meals can add to that.
In large institutes like the Logan Institute, full meals just aren’t realistic. The institute tries to provide small refreshments like donuts or hot chocolate a couple of times a semester, Dymock said. They’ve tried meal programs before but have opted for simplicity.
“We just felt like maybe we could use our funding in other ways to benefit the students.”
Important too are the social traditions.
“That is the social event of the week,” said Norman Gardner, director of the Tucson Arizona Institute of Religion, which has about 500 students enrolled and around 125 students at each weekly devotional. He described how many of his students are often the only Mormons in their college classes.
“The devotional is an important place to connect, to gather together with others that share your values,” he said.
Russell Greiner, director of the Mission Viejo California Institute of Religion, with an enrollment of 800 to 900 students, discussed how friendships and even marriages come from devotionals and other institute activities.
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