Our missionary son in Peru has found a gold mine of names for potential missionary work. Where? In the branch clerk’s office.
“Last night I helped Joseph [the branch clerk] put together the activity report,” he told us in a letter. “We have some membership records and lists from the computer showing names of people who have been members for twenty years, but Joseph has never heard of them. I think we need to visit all the people on the list to see if they still live in this area. If they do, we can see about reactivation and possibly find out if they have had any children in the last twenty years who would like to know more about the gospel. Record-keeping leads to missionary work! I am not out of my element!”
He has truly caught the vision of one of the greatest reasons for keeping records in the Church.
On 6 April 1830, the day the Church was organized, the Lord impressed upon his people the importance of keeping records: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you,” he told the Prophet Joseph Smith. (D&C 21:1.) This should be no surprise, for whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ has been upon the earth, prophets have made and preserved records. Again and again we are told that records are vital.
Why are they so important? There are many reasons, including the simple truth that if you keep records about what you do, you are more inclined to do it better. Keeping and using records can help bishops be better bishops, Relief Society presidents be better Relief Society presidents, and members be better members.
Shepherds know their sheep. The Lord is our Shepherd; he knows us individually, knows our specific needs, and gives us individual love and attention. Bishops and other leaders are called to follow the example of Christ in being modern-day shepherds. They are to know their sheep and give individual attention to their needs.
But our leaders are mortal—and most have imperfect memories. They need records that show the names of all the people for whom they are responsible. Records help a shepherd know who his sheep are and what their level of progression is.
Remember the parable of the good shepherd who left the ninety-and-nine and went to find the one? Modern-day good shepherds can identify and keep track of each lamb only with the help of accurate records.
The Nephites understood the importance of record-keeping: “And after they had been received unto baptism, … they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.” (Moro. 6:4.)
Today, in thousands of wards and branches throughout the world, clerks are taking the names of those who are baptized, and a membership record is prepared for each one. Thousands of bishops and branch presidents are using those records to remember their sheep and nourish them by the good word of God. Record-keeping leads to good shepherding.
Clerks and secretaries play a unique role in keeping the records of the Church. They work mostly behind the scenes, often unnoticed. But their work determines to a large extent how smoothly everything else in the ward or organization runs.
One bishop said, “I must have a good clerk. It is amazing how many things go well if the clerk does his job—and how many things fall apart if he doesn’t. My clerk takes much of the burden of administration so I can concentrate on being a shepherd.”
I recently read with interest about F. Dennis Thatcher, who was honored for thirty-five years of service as a ward clerk. He said, “This is the Lord’s work, and there’s nothing more important in this work than people. What I do is keep track of people.” (Church News, 23 Sept. 1989, p. 12.) This clerk has the vision of shepherding, the vision of record-keeping.
Record-keeping and shepherding do not always go smoothly. Obstacles arise. Challenges are encountered. In the early days of the Church, the Lord revealed that someday the gospel would fill the whole earth. There were few members at that time, and they must have been amazed by that prophecy. But today, we truly have a worldwide church, with more than seven million members in more than one hundred countries.
Record-keeping and shepherding must be adapted to fit different languages and alphabets, different customs and cultures, different attitudes and education levels, different political and economic systems, and rapid growth.
Rapid growth is a wonderful challenge, but a very difficult one. Growth often results in inexperienced leadership. It means rapid turnover in leadership and clerk positions. Newly baptized, newly called leaders struggle to learn the principles of leadership as they also struggle to learn principles of the gospel. Shepherding sometimes suffers, as does record-keeping.
How can leaders and clerks cope with the challenges of a worldwide, fast-growing church? Certainly prayerful dedication to their callings is a part of the solution.
A number of years ago, I visited a branch president in New Mexico. He had no counselors, no clerk, and very little education or church experience. But he knew how to approach the Lord. We sat in the office in his little chapel and talked about record-keeping.
He said, “I am not capable of doing this report. When I come to this office each month to do it, I can’t understand the form. I can’t understand the instructions. And I have nowhere to turn for help.
“So I go to my knees, here in front of the desk, and I pray. When I get up, I understand the report. I understand the instructions. I do the report. Then someone comes and asks me to unlock a classroom for him. I leave, and when I come back in a few minutes, I look at my work and I can’t understand what I have done. So I go to my knees again, and when I get up, I can finish my work.”
Similarly, a ward clerk in a small town in Chile worked hard on a report but couldn’t get it to balance. He looked for his error for several hours, getting more and more frustrated. Finally his six-year-old daughter asked, “Daddy, did you pray?” Humbled by her simple faith, he prayed. Calmed, he again reviewed his work and soon found the error. Prayerful dedication to the calling resolves many problems.
Computer technology also offers some solutions. Computers are ideally suited to the task of keeping track of large numbers of members. Most of the membership records throughout the world are now on computers. Membership records can be stored, updated, and moved faster and more accurately than ever before.
But, of more importance, bishops and other leaders now have easily accessible computerized lists—of families, converts, youth, children, sisters, and priesthood holders. These lists and other shepherding tools let leaders concentrate on remembering and nourishing.
A bishop in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was concerned about some missing members of his ward. He had membership records for them, but he had never met the people and couldn’t locate them. He called in his best home teacher and said, “Would you take a special home teaching assignment?”
“Of course, Bishop.”
“Here is a list of your families. The only problem is, before you can visit them, you have to find them.”
So the home teacher set about finding his families. He went to an apartment building and knocked on the door of the apartment where a member whom we will call Alberto Silva had apparently once lived.
The man who answered the door said, “No, I’ve lived here for two years, and I’ve never heard of Alberto Silva.”
The home teacher went to the apartments on both sides and got similar answers. He “tracted” the whole morning, knocking on every door in the building. No luck.
Next, he asked a resident for the name of the person who had lived in the neighborhood longest, and he went across the street to visit her.
“Alberto Silva?” she asked. “No, I’ve never heard of him. But you might try the newspaper vendor whose stand is on the corner. He knows everybody.”
So the home teacher went to the newspaper vendor. “Have you ever heard of Alberto Silva?”
“Alberto Silva. … Alberto Silva. … Yes! I remember him. He used to live up in that apartment building about five years ago.”
“Do you know where he lives now?”
“Are you kidding? I just sell newspapers. But I do remember that he used to go to church every Sunday morning. Then on Sunday afternoons he got on a bus right there at that bus stop and went to visit some relative down in the next town. I heard that his relative was quite a character; in fact, he had the reputation of being the town drunk.”
So the home teacher got on the bus and went to the next town. Bolstering his courage, he walked into the local pub. In a loud voice, he said, “Does anybody here know Alberto Silva?”
A little man in the corner said, “He’s my nephew. Why do you want to know?”
“Well, I’m from his church, and I’m trying to find him. Do you know where he lives?”
“I’ve got it written down at home.”
“Could we go get it?”
“Sure, why not?”
This home teacher went an extra mile, and then another extra mile—and found the lost sheep.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is rolling forth among the nations of the earth. And as it does, we can keep track of our flocks and find those who stray—bringing all to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.