Elder Clayton: Teach People Not Lessons

September 9, 2015  - by 

Family history is a vital part in the work of salvation. Recently I was reflecting upon my experience as a leader learning to do family history so that I could testify and then teach others to do the same. There is a reason for all of this focus on you, the helpers.  We garden variety members need your attention, help, and patient encouragement with our sacred responsibilities.

When my wife, Kathy, and I were dating, she joined our family after Christmas for a brief vacation. One night the two of us, along with my father, were busy assembling a mammoth puzzle. We began to give order to what seemed to me like 5,000 bits of disconnected cardboard. My father and Kathy made quick progress as they easily found and placed pieces on the table in just the right places. Kathy noticed that I wasn’t doing very well. She studied for a few moments, then took several pieces from here and there on the table and put them in front of me. She showed me where they went and said to my father as I put them in place, “I wanted him to have a success experience.”

I’ve thought of that story in connection with my own assignment, the remarkable present and future capacities of FamilySearch, and you family history consultants.  Like many Church members with whom you work, I am just beginning to learn how to do my family history.  Because family history has been something I postponed and approached without much confidence, something I just never quite found time to get around to, I needed someone to help me have a success experience.

To teach me, I invited a family history consultant. On our first visit, he just sat down next to me at my computer, and we opened FamilySearch. He asked me what I wanted to do. I responded that we might start by finding my own family—Kathy, me, and our kids—and so he showed me how to do that. It was easy. We then looked at the families of my parents and Kathy’s family and parents. Within an hour we had gone back several generations and even identified several names Kathy and I could take to the temple. He showed a few basic features, and we tried them out. Whenever I asked him about how something worked, he invariably replied, “Let’s try it, and find out.” I would then click on that feature’s icon on the computer screen, and off we went, experimenting with that function until I asked some other question. Whenever I needed help, he was right at my elbow.

Occasionally he would introduce something we hadn’t yet tried but that he felt I would be interested in seeing and experimenting with. He returned to my office once or twice a week, each time for about an hour. Because I didn’t always remember everything we had done the last time, he often had to gently remind me about what we learned in our last meeting. He always remembered what names we had worked with the last time and where I had become “stuck.” He patiently helped me remember the earlier lessons, and then, using a style that I came to admire greatly, he let my questions and needs steer our meetings.

Every time I asked about something I didn’t understand, he would say, “Well, let’s try it, and see what happens.” He never once said that we should look at his family’s records. He didn’t have any apparent need to tell me about all the work that he had done or to demonstrate his formidable knowledge. He never drew any attention to the fact that I was an absolute novice and he was an expert. Instead, he focused on me and on my needs. He took me from exactly where I was as a beginner and helped me learn, consistent with my abilities, interests, and needs. He neither said nor did anything that made me feel embarrassed or inadequate. I already felt that way. His nonthreatening and approachable manner promoted my confidence and my desire to continue.

I have thought that what he did with me was just what missionaries are taught to do in Preach My Gospel. He understood that he wasn’t teaching lessons; he was teaching me. It would probably have been easier for him to simply start at page one of the lessons and take me through the material without thinking much about what I knew or didn’t know, and without worrying much about what I had understood or was remembering.  But he was teaching me, not the lessons, so he focused on me and on my needs and interests.

After a couple of his visits, I was so excited that Kathy and I sat down on the couch one night and I showed her what I had learned; together we found additional names we could take to the temple.  He spent enough time with me to help me overcome my lack of confidence and to leave me feeling that, with a little work, even I could do family history work.

As a family history leader, your similar efforts will help members open doors for their ancestors and relatives on the other side of the veil, people who are as real as we are, people who are waiting and yearning for blessings which only we can help them to receive. Because of your callings and expertise, you are the ones looking at the lid to the puzzle box. You see what the final picture looks like while I, and others like me, as novices, may only see hundreds of pieces we don’t know how to put together.

Learning how to do family history work can seem daunting. What matters for all of us is that we proceed with faith from where we are. I encourage you to see yourself as someone who helps kindle the faith by which members do this work, not just as a person who teaches skills. Family history is a work of faith.

That’s what my family history consultant did for me—helped me proceed with faith in a fundamental and saving gospel endeavor with which I was mostly unfamiliar.  He taught me, not lessons. In our effort to Find, Take, and Teach, he helped me learn how to find, take my own family names to the temple, and be an example of how I could teach others to do the same. I am grateful to participate with you in the tremendous latter-day effort to redeem the dead.  I testify of the redemptive power of these efforts in our own lives.  I am the personal beneficiary of the very services you are called to offer in your wards and branches.


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  1. We have all experienced good teachers and bad teachers. As a 34 year professional teacher myself, here’s what I believe. Some people relate well to students, asses their situations and abilities, but they just stay there. They are well liked, but if they have no skill in the content they are supposed to teach, they are not considered good teachers. On the other hand, some people are really strong on content (like history, English, or Family history) but just don’t know how to present the content to their students. They are also ineffective teachers. Really good teachers need to be strong in both aspects: relating to and assessing students, and well versed in their content field. While teachers should teach people and not lessons, they had better will know their “lesson” content too. Find, take, and teach implies that the teacher needs to know the lessons of the content material, and then turn around and teach it. Right?

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful message. It is sometimes difficult working with members who are not computer users but your reminder to focus on their needs is a timely reminder for me to be soooooo patient with people who have memories as poor as mine. I wish you success as you search out your ancestors and do Temple work for them. Those who accept this work will be ready to come with The Saviour when He comes again. Love Jim Marran

  3. Very useful as I felt beginner for years ! These words made me clear all about lack of memory and errors !!! It is common. Only faith will help and perseverance and knowing that this work is sacred !!!!! Am grateful for your article and thank you so much. Paola Fava (Genoa Italy)

  4. The article mentioned not showing the consultants work. I have used my own tree justs as an example to show what is available. I can see how sticking to their tree would be better as not to frustrate them. Let them have all the success . Tom

  5. Good thing the Lord sees our potential and allows us time to grow into being a good teacher and doesn’t cut us off after each mistake. No one comes already strong in both aspects. It takes time and practice to become the teacher described above!

  6. I applaud Elder Clayton’s message. Excellent advice all around.
    Genealogy is intriguing…there is the general search available online and by constructing what you know of your family tree…and then there is the search for what seemingly IS NOT readily available on line. Did Great Uncle Joe really come from Eastern Russia as Dad said? Where? How come Josephine spoke Creole? She never spoke of her family or upbringing, saying only that “English” is now her language. I wish she had told us more… Rana says that her great Uncle was half Canadian Indian! What do we do now? Where do we look?
    This is the most difficult part of helping clients, knowing sources and where to guide them. No one enjoys ‘dead ends’ and they are so defeating. We have to ‘all press on’ and encourage clients to keep looking by always being there for them.

  7. In our Brisbane Australia ward we regularly teach the online family history lessons and have great success through the spirit and the 12 Apostles talks. I use the principles as a foundation then build on it after the 7 lessons have been completed with follow visits. We continue to have success from members with theit research.