Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why aren't more LDS members involved in Family History? Part One, Defining the Problem

Let's confront this issue directly. As I recently noted in a post, Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy was quoted in a Church News articles on 10 February 2014 as saying:
Past approaches in the Church have resulted in less than 3 percent of members submitting names of ancestors for temple ordinance work, Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy said Feb. 8 at a session of the RootsTech family history conference in Salt Lake City. 
“To reach the other 97 percent, we need to change how we think, how we teach, and what we teach,” he said. “The 97 percent need to be a priority for priesthood leaders and they are a priority for the [Family History] Department.” 
Elder Packer spoke in a session primarily for ward and stake priesthood leaders; and family history advisers, consultants and center directors, as a part of Family Discovery Day, a component of RootsTech geared toward Church members. 
In addition to attendees at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the session was viewed live via Internet or will be seen later by Church members in some 600 stakes holding family history fairs. 
“These numbers are a cry for change,” Elder Packer said regarding the statistics he cited, though he did say he was happy to report progress. “In the last year the number of members submitting names for temple ordinances is up 17% over last year. It has gone from 2.4 to 2.7 percent of the members,” he said.
Why aren't more members of the Church involved in family history? From my own observation and experience, I am certain that this question has been asked again and again at all levels of the Church. I have thought a lot about this issue and I would make the following observations that constitute obstacles to wider involvement of the members of the Church in compiling their own family history.

This is the first in a series of posts addressing these fundamental issues of involvement in genealogy and family history.

First, it seems easy to offer solutions for the problem before outlining and analyzing the nature of the problem. Problem solving is a very common issue. For example, there is a website called the Community Tool Box sponsored by the University of Kansas. They have produced a very detailed set of instructions on how to effectuate social change. The Community Tool Box is a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas. Unfortunately, they, like so many other university sponsored groups, are apparently preoccupied with credit for their work to the point that they limit the use of the material to such a great extent, you really can't figure out what you can and cannot do with their product without violating their copyright claims. They have a prominently displayed statement that their materials are "Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License." But also have a whole page of restrictions on the use. This is not helpful. So I won't try to use their materials in this context, but I suggest anyone interested in solving the problem of member involvement in genealogy might want to review the process of solving such problems.

There are two fundamental concerns. First, what exactly is the problem? Second, Why is the problem occurring? In the context of member involvement in family history, it seems easy to state the problem. But I think the problem has yet to be stated. The fact that members of the Church do not participate more in genealogy and family history is not the problem it is the results of many underlying problems. There are whole categories of problems and no one solution, no matter how emotionally appealing will solve all of those underlying problems. For example, using stories and photos etc. to involve members in family history is seen as a solution to the problem of lack of involvement. But, in fact, stories and photos are only a possible solution to a very small part of the overall problem. Although the participation of members in adding photos and stories is laudable, it does not address the ultimate problem of creating opportunities for members to find family members and provide information about individuals needing Temple work. Why is this the case? Because having people add photos and stories to does not address the underlying problems of doing the research to find additional family members. The activity is just another motivating factor not a solution to all the other problems.

In most Wards throughout the Church and for many years, involving people with family history has been almost exclusively considered to be a "motivational" issue. The instructional materials including the DVDs and manuals have focused on teaching the reasons why we do family history. In this sense, adding photos and stories, the most recent motivational program, is doing the same thing. Is the motivation of members the problem that prevents them from becoming more involved in family history? From my own experience, I would say that in most cases motivation is not the issue. Almost everyone I talk to about family history in the Church quickly acknowledges that they "need to do their family history." Many of these same people go to the Temple regularly and are very much involved in all aspects of the Church's programs except family history. The underlying assumption of having a program such as photos and stories assumes that the members will somehow "catch the Spirit" from this involvement and go on to do family history work. Why then have I yet to see anyone who has uploaded photos or even just seen them online, take the initiative to begin family history research. Why did I become involved in genealogy long before computers and long before the idea of sharing my photos and stories with others was even possible?

As I see it, the problem begins with the position family history occupies in the culture of the Church. The next level of problem is the attitude that family history is "easy" and can be done by everyone. Involved in this attitude is the assumption that once a person is motivated they can "do their family history." To this end there are hundreds of educations helps and references online and in print telling people how to "do their family history." Unfortunately the lack of such material is not the problem. The problem is much deeper than that.

Time to quit for this post. I will continue these ideas in subsequent posts.

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