Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles answered a variety of questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Silicon Slopes Summit in the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.
Below is a topical look at Elder Bednar’s answers to questions asked by Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith during a 45-minute Q&A in front of hundreds of tech leaders from around the globe. Questions and answers have been edited for concision and clarity.
Please help us understand why education is so important to the Church of Jesus Christ?
“Education is the key that opens the door to growth and opportunity. And when I’m talking about education, I don’t limit that to just school. The goal is, in my judgment, to learn how to love learning so when you have no idea about what to do, you can figure out what to do. Anything you learn in school is four or five years old when you’re learning it — the latest conceptual developments, the latest research. By definition, whatever you’ve learned when you graduate — it’s already obsolete. If you’re relying on what’s in books and what other people tell you, you’re dependent totally on them. When you don’t know what to do, can you ask the questions? Can you dig in, research and come to know what you need to do? That’s what education is. When you learn how to learn and you love learning how to learn, those are the very places where you get the greatest excitement because it’s uncharted territory.”
Describe the scope of BYU–Pathway Worldwide.
“It never made sense to me that we would have a few brick-and-mortar institutions, bring a few students to those places in a worldwide Church where there is such a crying need for the key of education to open doors of opportunity. When Elder [Henry B.] Eyring was the president of Ricks [College], you find a very interesting continuity of people saying, ‘It can’t just be in Rexburg and it can’t just be for a few.’ That’s the birth of Pathway to leverage those resources at these institutions so that they’re blessing people all over the world who would never have the opportunity for education — not just school education.
“In Africa, many of the women are not allowed to go to school. They will speak tribal languages. And in Africa there are thousands and thousands of tribal languages. But, for example, to read the Book of Mormon or the New Testament, you’ve got to know English or Spanish or Portuguese or French. If they can learn the colonial languages, you then have women who can read scriptures to their children. That’s what Pathway is about. And it will ultimately affect millions and millions and millions of people all over the world who will become educated and learn how to learn so they can bless their own lives and their families.”
How People Change
You specifically chose to study organizational behavior at Purdue University. What intrigued you about that?
“When I served as a missionary in Germany [in the 1970s], the focus was helping people to change from the inside out as they learn the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Organizational behavior primarily is about helping people change from the outside in, and you need to do both in most instances. That blending has always been fascinating to me. But the ironic thing is I have never, ever tried to use my organizational behavior and management background in any of my ecclesiastical responsibilities and in the transition at BYU–Idaho. I relied on gospel principles, which are the best management instruction you can ever have.”
The Lay Ministry
How does the Church grow with a lay ministry?
“That’s the part where the Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. We have over 31,000 congregations in more than 180 nations. You can’t fire these people. You don’t pay them. There are no external incentives. They are a lay ministry. Most of what works in the world doesn’t work in the Lord’s Church. And that is such a remarkable challenge to work with. And this is the most amazing thing of all: It works. It shouldn’t work. Everything I’ve ever learned in my academic training says there’s no way this ought to work. And it works. Because the Church is growing, it is vibrant. Of course, we have challenges and of course we have problems we are dealing with — but it is growing. And if you look at many denominations, they’re decreasing or staying flat line. A lot of folks want to say, ‘Well, the Church really isn’t growing.’ It is. Pockets will have greater rates of growth than others. But the Church is vibrant.”
You’re getting a lot of heat for people telling you how to spend the money of the Church. What do you think about that?
“We have four overarching responsibilities. The mission of the Church is to (1) help people learn about and live the teachings of Jesus Christ, (2) to share that message with the world, (3) to strengthen and unite families and (4) to care for the poor and the needy. We do this all over the world. In terms of scope, that’s the answer. And the people who want to tell us how to spend the money, I would just emphasize one undergirding principle: The assets of the Church are primarily income-consuming. They are not income-producing.
“There are 20,000 meetinghouses and facilities. They’re all paid for when they’re dedicated. All of the utilities are paid for. They’re not passing the plate or collecting money in local congregations. That’s all done through the tithes that the members of the Church pay all over the world. But you’ve got fixed costs in the maintenance, the utilities, all of those things for all of those buildings. [There are] 315 temples in operation announced, in design, being renovated or under construction. [We also have] four major institutions of higher education. You don’t have to be an accountant to figure out those are some big dollars. So, when people say, ‘Well, what do you do with all that money?’ Well, there’s an episode in the Old Testament about Joseph, who interpreted a dream for the Pharaoh, that there were seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. And in the years of plenty, you better prepare for the years of famine. People want to speculate about the size of the reserve and all that kind of stuff. $1 billion assisting poor, needy people all over the world annually. $1 billion for education. It’s necessary to maintain the mission of this Church, which is to bless the lives of individuals and families. That’s what we do.
“I think it would be imprudent and unwise not to have a reserve.”
The Global Ministry
You get to see the world on such a global level. What excites you the most? What’s fun? What’s exciting? What makes you smile?
“My wife and I have had the chance to be in more than 110 different nations in the last 19 years and meet people of every religious background, culture, ethnicity. The thing that really gets me so excited is that we are all pretty much the same. Yes, there are lots of differences. But we are far more alike than we are different. That gets me excited. And to be engaged in the work I’m engaged in. People may disagree with our doctrine. But to teach the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ all over the earth — I love that that. My California term for that is ‘that just gets me juiced.’ I love doing that. That’s what I love.”
How does the Church plan for the future?
“We’re always thinking 20, 30, 50 years out. Presently, the Church has 17 million members. We are in more than 180 nations around the world. By 2050, 2075, [we could have] 30 [or] 50 million members of the Church. Today, the dominant language in the church is Spanish, not English. I think in the future it may be French because of the number of members of the Church in Africa in French-speaking countries.
“All over the world you’re trying to think, ‘Okay, 2050, if we have 35 million members of the Church and a significant number of those are in Africa or in the Philippines or in Brazil, you can’t run all of that out of Salt Lake City.’ We have 23 areas [around the world]. There’s an Area Presidency in each one. And a big thing that we’re focusing on now is, ‘How do we get more of what we do in Salt Lake into the areas?’ Not because it has to address cultural needs. That’s not the driver. But these are the people closest to the action in the best position to be able to address the needs that the people have.”
How does A.I. play into Church growth?
General conference this weekend will be translated into more than 100 languages. It’s a bottleneck to try to wait for translation into all of the languages for a ‘Come, Follow Me’ manual. That takes a long time. I’ve seen at Google some of the advancements in translation utilizing machine learning and A.I. There could be few things that would help the work of the Lord advance more rapidly than that kind of technological breakthrough with translation.”
Politics and Peacemaking
If you could say one thing to this audience about your view on politics, what would it be?
“Most people would know that the Church is politically neutral. We don’t try to indicate a direction that people should take or candidates for whom they should vote. Any church that can produce Mitt Romney and Harry Reid — I think it’s pretty good evidence of that. The thing I would say about the politics is that it’s very polarizing now and people are really kind of gravitating to one of two extremes. In the last general conference, President Nelson talked about peacemakers. He has admonished repeatedly and forthrightly the need for the members of the Church to strip away racism in any of its forms. He’s done that repeatedly. He’s talked about the need for civility. He’s talked about the need for people to find common ground instead of just accentuating the places where we differ.
“And not only does President Nelson preach that in a magnificent way, he walks the walk. His outreach to the NAACP has been stunning. I can’t think of two groups that, if you took a 1,000 people and said, ‘What two groups would never get together to work on anything?’ you would say The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the NAACP. But we are. It’s influencing inner cities in some of the projects that we’re working on across the United States and pilots that we’re working on. You can find that common ground. It is very hard work. It takes some time, and it takes all that you’ve got to listen and really try to understand. But in recognition of President Nelson’s outreach and what he’s trying to accomplish with the members of the Church, he recently was awarded a peace prize by Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Another example: You wouldn’t think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the LGBTQ community could ever talk to each other. We did, started in 2015. That was the genesis of ‘fairness for all.’ The LGBTQ community was concerned about discrimination protections. The Church is concerned about religious liberty. There are ways to make that work. And that model in Utah was a part of what gave rise to what we now have is the [Respect] for Marriage Act at the national level.
“[We need to] listen to President Nelson and look at the example that he has set. Utah was able to do that in remarkable ways in 2015 and it’s had an influence all over the country. So, if we stop yelling long enough to listen, I think we can work some things out.”
Can you give everyone a view and the scope and reach of this week’s general conference?
“Over the past number of years, we’ve been very successful on every continent of having general conference broadcast through local media systems. You’ll have in Sao Paulo, Brazil. They’ll have two or three sessions of conference on local TV stations. And increasingly this happens all over the world. It’s pretty exciting.”