RootsTech 2012: Doctrine governs work
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Elder Dennis C. Brimhall says if he died and went to heaven tomorrow "it would be a lateral transfer."
He was referring in jest to his recent appointment as managing director of the Family History Department, a position that entails his being the newest chief executive officer of the Church-sponsored FamilySearch International, the largest genealogy organization in the world.
At the same time, Elder Brimhall holds the position of Area Seventy.
"It's the best of all worlds," he said during a recent Church News interview. "I get to do some wonderful things with my calling as an Area Seventy, and I get to work at something that is so closely related to it doctrinally."
Elder Brimhall also prizes his close association with the staff who work for the Family History Department and FamilySearch and the army of more than 200,000 volunteers around the world, some of them not even members of the Church, who further the work of preserving the records of the dead.
"I think we ought to always remember the miracle of that," he said. "We have some 800 family history missionaries serving right here in Salt Lake City. That's two or three times the normal size of any mission in the Church, who are focused just on assisting patrons and helping this work move forward."
A graduate of BYU and Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Elder Brimhall worked from 1988 to 2005 as president and CEO of the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.
On Jan. 2, he succeeded Jay L. Verkler as CEO of FamilySearch. Brother Verkler is continuing in a consulting capacity for a few months for smooth transition.
That Elder Brimhall would find himself at the head of FamilySearch seems surreal to him. "I couldn't have imagined it," he said.
And yet, he can identify experiences along the way that have helped prepare him.
"Many would say that preparation ought to have been in areas of family history and technology, and I'm not entirely a pilgrim in those areas," he said. "Health care is highly technical, and I've done the things a good member of the Church would do relative to genealogy, though I'm certainly not an expert at either of those things."
What he brings to his position, he said, is the ability to organize and foster a setting that enables experts to perform their functions well.
"When you are CEO at a large hospital, you're not qualified to do the jobs of any of those who report to you," he noted. "You can't do surgery, do a lab test, fill a prescription or give an injection. So why is the CEO there? He's there to create a safe environment that collectively is focused on the patient."
Similarly in his new position, he works with genealogists, software engineers, writers and others, "and I can't do any of their jobs. But if I do my job right, I'll create an environment where all that can be done with the most efficiency, all focused on helping our members fulfill their desire to do family history and take a name to the temple."
Elder Brimhall comes to his position at a time when technology has brought previously undreamed of capability to the family history enthusiast.
Regarding preparing names for temple work, he said, "We used to have kind of a tortuous process" one that involved poring over microfilm records, filling out family group sheets, then sending them to Salt Lake City for clearance, often two or three times until the paperwork was done right.
"Now we have this technology available to us; you know what it's like," he said. "You can go on to new.familysearch.org, you put your name in there, and voila! There you are. And if you want, you can print one of these gorgeous fan charts that give nine generations of your pedigree right before your eyes." The charts immediately show gaps where work needs to be done to fill in missing family links.
The challenge going forward is that the process still is not as user-friendly as it needs to be, Elder Brimhall said. "We need to refine the experience so that the new user who goes on line has a delightful experience — that's a term I like to use, 'delightful' — and that seasoned genealogists can find what they want."
Another challenge is to enable Church members to take names of ancestors to the temple to receive the saving ordinances, Elder Brimhall said. "We don't ever want to get to the point where they say, 'We're done; we don't have any more names,' because we're not done. We won't be done for generations, probably."
Finally, the work of the Family History Department needs increasingly to be rolled out to areas of the world beyond North America, he said. "That's going to take some changing of thinking, resources and direction that we're going to have to think about. It doesn't have to be done tomorrow, but we need to be attentive to it."
Elder Brimhall said his position as an Area Seventy gives him a perspective that is helpful. That is because the work of redeeming the dead is governed by doctrine and by those who hold priesthood keys. "So everything I look at, because of my background, will be in the context of those doctrines because of having that responsibility as a Seventy. Now I don't want you to think that is unique; other people can have that perspective. But as a Seventy in this assignment, that's a bit unusual."