“Religion is personal to people and many times closely held,” says Charles Wight, a stake missionary in the Huntsville Alabama Stake. “On the other hand, nearly anybody will sit down and talk to you about their ancestors. You can ask people questions about where they’re from, and they enjoy letting you know about their heritage.”
Brother Wight is among numerous members, leaders, and missionaries in Huntsville who are excited about helping people explore family history. As members participate in the North America Southeast Area’s “Tell Me about Your Family” approach, the stake is experiencing not only increased enthusiasm for missionary and family history work but also measurable results.
The main goal is to make new, genuine friends and help them understand the Church’s emphasis on the family. Along the way, people sometimes become interested in the Church, but giving them an understanding and excitement about family history work is the focus.
“Family history is a nonthreatening way to have members of other faiths come into our homes and meetinghouses and build relationships with us,” says stake president Michael D. Knight, a Huntsville native and a dentist. “Sharing the gospel is not as simple as inviting somebody over to hear the missionaries or watch a Church video. We’ve struggled to involve members in missionary work. But we’ve had more member participation in this family history approach than anything else we’ve tried.”
A family history approach to missionary work is in line with what Church leaders would like to see members doing. “We do not use our family history work for missionary work nearly so much as we could,” said President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, at a 1998 family history satellite broadcast. During the same broadcast, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy said: “Family history is obviously a crucial tool in redeeming the dead, but it can also play an important role in proclaiming the gospel and strengthening members of the Church. With even minimal coordination between priesthood leaders, family history workers, and missionaries, it will not be difficult to use family history as a tool for conversion and retention of new members and activation of less-active members” (“Using Family History Centers for Missionary and Activation Efforts,” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 77).
In Huntsville, Alabama, stake and full-time missionaries visit members to motivate them to ask their friends and neighbors about their family history. Tell Me about Your Family cards are widely circulated for members to use in helping others begin writing down names, dates, and places.
Once the subject of family history is broached, the next step is for the member to invite the interested person to a family history open house or a family home evening about family history. The open houses take place as frequently as every month in Church meetinghouses, often on the same evening in all units throughout the stake. “We’ve found more members will invite a friend to an open house or hold a home evening if they are personally invited to do so by stake or full-time missionaries,” says President Knight.
After units hold family history open houses, stake mission president Dean Dexter follows up to find out what worked and what didn’t. “The most successful open houses include several elements: one, a brief, spiritual presentation on why Latter-day Saints do family history work; two, a demonstration of FamilySearch™ software, with the computer screen projected for everyone to see, if possible; three, an opportunity for each visitor to sit down at a table and be assisted in filling out the Where Do I Start? pamphlet and other forms.” Many of the units also set up displays of family history work done by members, including pictures and other visuals. “Visitors love seeing what other people have done,” Brother Dexter says.
Having full-time missionaries participate “is the most critical and important part of what we are doing at these open houses,” he adds. Missionaries give presentations, assist people in filling out family history forms, and help them search for names on computers provided at most of the open houses. “The key is to have the full-time missionaries sit at tables and work with people one-on-one and establish a rapport,” says high councilor Robert Swenson. “Otherwise it’s just another family history seminar. People naturally ask questions that lead to opportunities to share the gospel.”
Stake missionaries and members are vital to the success of open houses. “The helpers don’t need to know anything about things like microfiche or Personal Ancestral File,” says Brother Dexter. “They just need to help the visitors write down some names. It’s facilitating a connection. The visitor knows that Church members are interested in him and his family, and there’s a bond created. If the visitor is interested in pursuing family history, we have experts who can help with further research. We don’t want to make these first experiences too technical.”
President Knight adds: “We don’t want the open houses to get too big. The key is that visitors actually get to do things, that it’s very hands-on. Smaller groups allow us to give personal attention more effectively and follow up on any teaching opportunities that arise.”
Once a person has participated in a family history night or open house, following up is essential, not only to help them continue their family history work but also to give them the opportunity to investigate the Church. “We want the visitors to leave hungry for more, not overstuffed,” says Brother Dexter. Charles Drake, a member of the Cullman Ward who has invited as many as seven people to an open house, says, “We try to get the same people to come back by having something new for them each time. We want to get well acquainted with them so we can invite them to another Church activity and move them toward investigating.”
In the Fayetteville Branch in nearby Tennessee, members have followed up with prospective investigators by many means. “One brother exchanged e-mail addresses with several of the visitors before they left,” reported branch executive secretary Robert Topp. “A few days after the open house, one of the visitors e-mailed a thank-you note. A continuing exchange of correspondence resulted, and it has led to questions about the Church and its doctrines. An invitation has been extended to the new friend to take part in some Church activities.”
For a family home evening about family history, Byrd Springs Ward members Robert and Mia Swenson invited five families. “We had two yesses, one no, two maybes,” says Brother Swenson. “We showed a five-minute clip from the Family First video. Then we sat down and filled out family history sheets. Missionaries were there to act as consultants. At the end, some of our guests asked questions about the Church. The Spirit was there, and they were receptive.”
As a stake missionary, Jeanne Marlow focuses mainly on fellowshipping new members and activating members. “We’re finding that if we can get new or activated members involved in family history work and going to the temple to do baptisms for the dead, we have a much higher retention rate.”
And she finds that family history involvement has a ripple effect in the lives of new converts. “We recently finished the new member discussions with a sister and helped her start her family history,” Sister Marlow says. “Although she hasn’t found many of her African-American ancestors, it has been fun for her to learn to use the tools and the census and plantation records. She’s been sharing this with a lot of her nonmember friends, and one of them is close to taking the missionary discussions.”
For stake missionary Charles Wight, talking with others about family history has helped him reestablish relationships that became strained when he joined the Church. “I was born and raised here, and I know a lot of people in the community,” he says. “When I was baptized in 1997, some of those people were disappointed in me. But the family history approach has allowed me to get back to talking with some of these people, helping them see we follow Christ and we’re interested in making a connection with people in general.”
President Knight points out another way members are blessed by the family history approach: “When members start trying to interest others in family history, it motivates them to show more interest in their own family history. We’ve asked all our members to have an ongoing plan to process their own family file cards, and we’re making headway there. We’ve got family history consultants called in every unit who are actively helping members, asking those who don’t do much genealogy to make some effort.”
Brother Drake adds, “I think it’s the best missionary approach we’ve had in some years here and perhaps the best ever to reach southern people, because family is really important to us.” The focus is really to help family and friends become excited about family history work. In the Huntsville Alabama Stake, people are coming to understand why the family is so important to members of the Church, and many of these people are coming to understand why the gospel is so important to the family.