Only a Clerk

September 4, 2008 | 18 comments
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Soon after I was made a ward clerk 20 years ago this month, I walked into the clerk’s office to find a xerox copy of an article posted there. The article was the text of a letter, sent by one of my predecessors, to the Church’s membership department, and had somehow found its way to Sunstone. It was titled “A Religion of Clerks.”

The author, Randal Quarles, has since served as Undersecretary of the Treasury.

I love his letter not only for its humor and its New York connection, but also for what it demonstrates about how the clerk calling has changed over the years. No longer are records mailed on paper, they are shifted around in the Church’s computers, associated with first this ward or branch, and then with that ward or branch, according to where someone lives, what language the member speaks at home, whether the member is single or married and even what calling the member has.

Some 10 years after I first saw this letter, I was again a clerk — this time at the stake level — and the Internet was already widely used. Fascinated with email discussion groups (aka email lists), I started running several, and got the idea that clerks might want to share tips and ideas of how to get their work done. The LDSClerks email group became the longest running of the lists I started (it is still working today), with more than 1,000 participants who subscribe to the list either through its home version, or through versions on Yahoogroups or on Googlegroups. The group also sponsors the LDSClerks Wiki, a guide to the nitty gritty of how to get the Clerk’s work done.

In the past year or so, coinciding, I believe, with the service of Church CIO Joel Dehlin, we’ve finally seen substantial action from the Church online regarding clerical duties and other technical issues. The Church launched a discussion forum, LDS Tech, and we’ve even seen some Church employees do more than lurk on LDSClerk and on the LDSClerk Wiki.

In the past it seemed like there was some hesitancy among Church employees to use the Internet in a very involved way. The Church’s websites were carefully prepared, reviewed and correlated with the Church’s program. And local units were first told not to sponsor there own websites, and then told to use the Church’s “local unit website” for their web presence. That policy even caused confusion for some members, who even sometimes believed it meant that no member should have their own Church-related website. [In contrast, the Church has recently begged members to create their own Church-related websites.] The past attitude seemed to imply that everything should be created centrally, and Church employees gave the impression of disinterest in anything ‘not created here.’

I’ve found the situation recently quite hopeful. The LDS Tech folks even established a new award, the LDS Tech Awards, which recognizes independent contributions that further the work of the Church. The 2008 LDS Tech Award was given to a home and visiting teaching statistics-gathering tool, Return and Report.

I’m not sure where this leaves LDSClerks. I think we will continue as long as clerks show an interest (although some list members believe that the LDS Tech forum will eventually make the LDS Clerks list obsolete). The list recently passed 20,000 email messages sent, and will reach its 10th anniversary in November. Assessing these past 10 years, I think the list has been incredibly successful. And I have quite a bit of sentiment for it.

I’m glad that the Church is now more open in this area, even if it eventually means that LDS Clerks isn’t needed any more.

But my hope is that both services can find a way to co-exist.

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18 Responses to Only a Clerk

  1. Bill MacKinnon on September 4, 2008 at 2:27 am

    Kent, as you point out those holding the title “clerk” are not always honored or appreciated in their own land. At one time, though, it was a powerful role and title in American civil and religious affairs. Just before the Civil War, when the federal government was extremely small and the title “assistant secretary” had not yet come into use, the executive departments were run by the cabinet secretary and his chief clerk — even the War Department worked that way, and so at times the nation’s military affairs were run by a chief clerk with the unappealing name of Drinkard. Even today, one of the two most powerful elected leaders of the Presbyterian Church bears the old-time traditional title of Stated Clerk.

  2. queuno on September 4, 2008 at 2:35 am

    One of the three most insightful callings I’ve ever held was that of an assistant ward clerk.

  3. Mark B. on September 4, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Being a clerk for a justice of the Supreme Court is no chump job. Besides, most of them are still young enough to participate actively in the highest court of the land, the basketball court on the top floor of the Supreme Court building.

  4. John Mansfield on September 4, 2008 at 8:33 am

    The name of that home teaching statistics tool is one rough edge that a little correlation (in the absence of personal discretion) would correctly knock down.

  5. Researcher on September 4, 2008 at 9:25 am

    I was going through my grandpa’s life history the other day and saw this comment about his grandfather.

    Henry was a very personable man…. He was a smart enough politician that he never ran for office. Instead of running for the Board of Supervisors and taking all the gaff, he was the clerk of the Board of Supervisors and lasted from administration to administration.

    He ran the Board for years and years…He was secretary of the ___ Water Company and actually managed the ___ Water Company, because he kept all the records. Other people had the positions, but he [had the power].

    That’s more applicable to Bill McKinnon’s comment than to the original post, but it gives a different spin on the depiction of a clerk being a tall, skinny guy with a long nose and wire-rimmed glasses who sits in the corner and draws doodles in a steno notebook.

  6. Nathan Bunker on September 4, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Wow! This is awesome, thanks. I just forwarded the Return and Report link to my EQ president.

  7. bfwebster on September 4, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Orson Scott Card summed it up well: “clerk — The invincible and the invisible. If you ever want to move a mountain, parcel it out to all the clerks in the Church and it will be done by the last Sunday of the month.” (Saintspeak)

    “Clerk” has probably been my favorite calling after “Sunday School teacher”. Even when I’ve served in the bishopric, I’ve often ended up doing a lot of clerk work (especially membership clerk work), usually because I knew more about computers and software than any of the actual clerks. ..bruce..

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 4, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I was just called as membership clerk. Thanks for all the information!

  9. Kent Larsen on September 4, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    John (4): I’m not sure what the problem is with the name “Return and Report” (not that I care very much).

    I guess part of the issue is whether or not correlation should be involved in a case like this. Its one thing when the Church is creating the tool, quite another when its created by others.

    Are you suggesting that correlation should be applied to groups that aren’t run by the Church? Or that the Church shouldn’t be so open to using tools created by others?

    Or is it something else?

  10. Kent Larsen on September 4, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Researcher (5): I agree its off topic, but your story reminds me a little of New York City’s “Dictator,” Robert Moses. He managed to virtually control the city for almost 50 years starting as the administrator of the Parks Department.

    Its an issue of understanding where power comes from. As both stories indicate, its not always with the top job or with the position held by the person in power.

    Perhaps fortunately, Clerks in the Church don’t usually have much power.

  11. John Mansfield on September 4, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Kent, I’m suggesting that it’s not a good idea “to use phrases from the language of the temple in a frivolous way.” (link)

  12. Sarah on September 5, 2008 at 3:00 am

    John Mansfield, the uninitiated who pointedly go out of their to avoid learning such things about the temple before they go themselves had no way of knowing what you said in #11 until you said it.

    I love that “Religion of Clerks” letter. Maybe because for years my records never seemed to catch up with me before I moved — it turned out that my records were never sent to SLC in the first place; I was baptized in 1988 but my record number was generated in 2004, after our membership clerk became determined to find out why my records hadn’t arrived. And having been a secretary and clerk in the working world, I can say with absolute confidence that a good clerical worker can work miracles (and a bad one can inflict tremendous pain.)

  13. John Taber on September 5, 2008 at 9:44 am

    “Orson Scott Card summed it up well: “clerk — The invincible and the invisible. If you ever want to move a mountain, parcel it out to all the clerks in the Church and it will be done by the last Sunday of the month.” (Saintspeak)”

    I’d forgotten that quote. But maybe more than six years as an assistant stake clerk has me a bit jaded about depending on every ward (or branch) clerk doing anything by the last Sunday of the month. Or the next month. Or the next.

  14. Ken on September 5, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Re: “Return and Report” being a frivolous use of temple language:

    Marion G. Romney didn’t seem to agree: http://tinyurl.com/553l2q
    Neither does President Uchtdorf: http://tinyurl.com/6y7jpq
    (You’ll need to search the respective talk in each case.)

    What’s the LDS equivalent of “more Catholic than the Pope”?

  15. Steve Eagan on September 5, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Actually, \”Return and Report\” is the language of the church not just the temple. We are mandated to \”return and report\” all priesthood assignments. In my stake, it has become formal as all leaders are required to make home teaching assignments and wait for the members to \”return and report\”. The leadership uses that exact phrase in their public talks. I think it is a very fitting name to give to a home teaching tool since home teachers must \”return and report\” their assignments.

  16. Eric Bunker on September 5, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    \”Return and Report\” has been a section on our stake agenda for every presidency meeting, stake PEC and Stake Councils for the six years I have been a clerk in the presidency

  17. christopher j on September 11, 2008 at 12:43 am

    why is it that tinyurl.com links always take me to a screen that says “Failed to Connect”? Do I have to click some special button in my browser settings for tinyurls or something?

  18. Kent Larsen on September 11, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    In case someone comes across this and wants to know, here is the status of the LDSClerks Wiki.

    The LDS Clerks wiki is an growing compendium of knowledge about how to do the Clerk’s job. The site is a comprehensive guide not only to the job, but also to practical ideas about how to implement the instructions from Church headquarters.

    The editing of the wiki has continued steadily, thanks principally to the work of Alan Brown and Rob Smith. A number of others have also registered on the wiki and made some tentative changes, including at least one user from one of the Church departments that work with Clerks.

    This past week, we’ve seen an uptick in editing, as a few new users have come on line and as those working on the wiki have redoubled efforts. I’m pleased to report that the wiki is better than ever, thanks especially to the hard work of Alan Brown and Rob Smith this past week.

    The updates this week include 4 new pages and 1 new documents uploaded. 77 edits were made in the last week.

    I’m sure they could use some help, so take a minute and read the suggestions at the bottom of this message so that you can lend a hand.

    Statistics: (+ is increase since last report in June)

    Total Pages: 138 +19 + 4 new in the last week
    Categories: 19 + 0