Years ago when I was called to serve as a member of the bishopric (lay clergy leadership) of my local LDS Church congregation (known as a ward), the need for a way to manage Sacrament meeting worship service programs quickly became clear.
In these weekly congregational meetings, the prayers, ordinances, sermons, and musical numbers are performed by lay members. Any member of the congregation may be invited to participate. In LDS terminology, these invitations are “callings” extended by the congregational leaders — usually members of the bishopric.
As a busy bishopric member, how do you go about arranging for members to fill these callings in an efficient manner? How do you spread the opportunities around so that you don’t rely on the same people over and over while constantly ignoring others? Technology provided part of the answer for our bishopric.
The main members of an LDS ward bishopric are the bishop and his two counselors. Other members include an executive secretary, a ward clerk, and assistant ward clerks. In our bishopric, Sacrament meeting arrangements fell to the bishop and the counselors. The other bishopric members had their own duties to attend to.
Within weeks of beginning my bishopric calling, I devised two tools that proved immensely helpful to us, especially as time went on. First, I built a spreadsheet that listed the dates of the next year of upcoming Sacrament meeting worship services. I had columns for date, main topic, possible participants, musical numbers, the bishopric member that would conduct, and the bishopric member in charge of making the arrangements.
Every three months, we would sit down as a bishopric and develop pretty solid plans for the upcoming three months, somewhat firm plans for the following quarter, and loose plans for the quarter after that. So our spreadsheet consistently covered nine months. While meeting conducting duties shifted among us from month to month, each of us would take a three-month stint to arrange meetings. This three-month window allowed for flexibility to shift program arrangements around to different weeks, as needed.
This worked well for us. Once we had our plans written down, the arrangements weren’t too difficult to make. Occasionally we’d have to revisit the plan when something didn’t work out as originally charted, but it was rarely a big deal. Each of us would take care of extending meeting participation callings for three months. This was followed by a half a year reprieve from that duty.
My ward’s current bishopric manages this on a month-by-month basis. Each bishopric member arranges and conducts all of the meetings for a given month, and then they’ve got two months off from those duties.
The second tool I developed was a MS Access database that tracks who does what in Sacrament meeting. I populated the people table with pertinent data about each ward member. An association table hooks individuals together in families and provides address and contact info. The Sacrament program table lets me plug in the program date, each participant, and the type of service rendered (i.e. prayer, speech, musical number).
I developed a number of database reports that were useful to the bishopric. The main report lists details about prayers, youth talks, adult talks, and musical numbers. Each of these categories lists participants for the past five years ordered both by least recent date and alphabetically. Each list shows how many times each individual has participated in that activity during the past five years. In addition, the prayer and speech categories list available members that have not participated in that activity for the past five years. (I didn’t do that for musical numbers, because only some are capable of public musical performances.)
After wrapping up my stint in the bishopric, I continued to provide monthly printouts to subsequent bishoprics. This has been considered to be very useful. Some that have found out about my database have expressed concern that bishoprics might rely too heavily on the data instead of inspiration in making assignments. While there is some possibility that this could happen, I have not observed such. Access to historical information tends to augment inspiration rather than replace it.
Of course, all databases are only as useful as the data they contain. Like all other databases, this one needs to be updated continually. That task falls to me as a volunteer effort. I enter Sacrament program data weekly. I keep track of move-ins and move-outs, births, deaths, etc. Managing phone numbers is a big enough issue that I will treat the matter in a separate post.
While this kind of database upkeep is relatively easy for me, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A few years ago, the current bishopric decided to call a guy to take over this duty, since I have other callings that require my time. He was an intelligent man that was devoted to the church.
I developed training materials and loaded the application on this man’s computer. I trained him at his house and over the phone. But after several months, it became clear that this wasn’t a happening thing for him. So I continued doing the job. I think I’d have to develop an entirely new user interface to really make the application work for a non-techie. So far, I haven’t been willing to put that kind of work into it.
My database has evolved over the years to include a variety of information designed to assist the bishopric in developing the quarterly and annual historical reports. But the core remains essentially as I originally designed it.
This Sacrament meeting database has been a boon to my ward’s leaders for a number of years. While I know that the LDS Church is continually updating its computer offerings for local leadership, I haven’t heard about anything on the horizon that would replace my database. So I suspect my application will continue to be used by my ward’s leaders for years to come.
I have just finished revising the database to be much more streamlined. Since I had become the ward's unofficial historian for many years, I had added some features to the database to assist with ward history. That actually made it pretty messy. It also became clear over time that some database relationships were overly complex.
This new version is much cleaner and simpler. It focuses chiefly on two things: track sacrament meeting program participation and produce useful reports to help ward leaders make decisions about calling people to participate in sacrament meeting programs. I kept a couple of things in the database that aren't essential to this vision. But they are optional and don't have to be used.
Since I haven't upgraded my MS Office subscription, the database was built using MS Access 2010. It should work with any version of MS Access from 2007 onward. It won't work with older MS Access versions without special tools.
Despite simplification, you still need a good working understanding of MS Access to use the database. People with little database savvy will likely find themselves lost. It would be sweet to make the database more user friendly. But I'm just not willing to put that kind of time into it at present.
My current bishopric has me generate the five-year rolling report monthly. I save it as PDF and provide it electronically to each bishopric member. One member of the bishopric asked me about the possibility of making it available as a web page. That would make it much more useful. But I'm simply not willing to deal with the security and confidentiality implications. I don't want to do the work to build a system that would meet Church handbook requirements.
Many have used my database in the past. Some have improved on it. Others have ended up using it as an idea for something that works better for them. I think something along these lines could be helpful to any bishopric that is willing to use it to augment guidance from the Spirit rather than as a way to replace the Spirit.