What did your family and church friends think during this time?

They were curious if not a little concerned.  My family and friends shared many of my preconceptions about Mormonism and so were initially apprehensive of my involvement.  Had I shown a real interest in joining the church, they would likely have feared for my salvation.  However, as the classes progressed, they saw it as a good learning and outreach opportunity.  They also appreciated the new insight I was gaining from the experience.

Why did you stick it out for the full four-year duration of the Institute program?

My completion of the program was largely motivated by the personal relationships that developed between me and members of the LDS community.   About a year and a half after inviting me to attend classes, my colleague married and gradually became less involved with the LDS Institute.  So the new friendships that I had established were instrumental in making it a stimulating and enjoyable experience.  I discovered that I had a lot in common with several members of the LDS Singles Ward (who were also in graduate school) and so our friendships extended beyond the Institute.  I even spent a few spring breaks camping with LDS members and had a couple LDS friends attend social events at my own church.     

I also enjoyed the intellectual and spiritual challenges associated with attending the Institute, a significant portion of which came from dialogue with LDS friends.   Many of the topics we discussed were simply beyond the scope of the class in which they were introduced.  Classes typically followed a church-designated curriculum, oriented to LDS members, so conversations held after class with people willing to freely share their personal beliefs and understanding of LDS doctrine were essential in giving me a broader, more relevant perspective of the material.  Without those friendships and the opportunity to delve more deeply into the material and its implications, I probably would have lost interest in the classes.

Say more about attending Institute - what was it like?

Attending the LDS Institute has been an overwhelming positive experience.  I can no longer imagine a serious attempt to study or understand a religion that would not include learning directly from its practitioners.  To that end, the Mormon Church has an amazingly open and extensive education system offered at little to no cost to students.  I feel fortunate to have been able to participate in it. Some of my most rewarding Institute experiences were the opportunities I had to share my own religious beliefs and doctrinal perspectives with LDS members.  Unfortunately for Mormons, a comparable education within the Evangelical community would be harder to find without incurring the financial cost of taking classes at a Christian college.         

How has your interaction changed your views of Mormons and Mormonism?

At the same time I started attending Institute classes, I made a point to read several books on Mormonism written from conservative evangelical perspectives or by individuals who had left the LDS Church.  Those texts reinforced many of my early LDS preconceptions and argued adamantly that Mormons were not Christians.  I believed as I read those books that I was preparing to enter a mission field, and during the first couple years of attending LDS classes and conversing with Mormons, proselytizing was always at the back of mind.  I couldn't envision Mormons receiving an evangelical version of salvation without first accepting conventional Christian doctrine.   My current perception of Mormonism is quite different.  As I befriended more Mormons, I discovered that some of the most contentious issues that were the focus of anti-Mormon literature were simply irrelevant or ancillary to modern LDS beliefs and practices.   The practical application of their faith and understanding in LDS doctrine was actually similar to that of other Christians with respect to purely biblical doctrine.  Consequently, I no longer believe I am in a position to say the biblical salvation of Mormons is more in question than members of other Christian denominations.   My current practice, which has contributed to the most productive and meaningful of my inter-faith relationships, is to treat Mormons as Christian brothers and sisters as opposed to members of a non-Christian cult.