The Church and Computers: Using Tools the Lord Has Provided
June 1984

“The Church and Computers: Using Tools the Lord Has Provided,” Ensign, June 1984, 24

The Church and Computers:

Using Tools the Lord Has Provided

Computers can be scary. At least that’s what many people used to think, until computers became a regular part of their lives. The fact is, computers have become more “friendly”—easier for the average person to use. And they’re becoming more and more important and useful in many areas of our lives—including the Church.

In 1974, at a Regional Representatives’ Seminar, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “I believe that the Lord is anxious to put into our hands inventions of which we laymen have hardly had a glimpse. … When we have used the satellite and related discoveries to their greatest potential, … then, and not until then, shall we approach the insistence of our Lord and Master to go unto all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

Following President Kimball’s admonition, Church leaders are trying to take advantage of modern technology to further the mission of the Church.

“Our philosophy is to make wise use of technology to build the kingdom wherever it can best help,” said Dean R. Cannon, who, as managing director of the Church’s Information Systems Department, is responsible for computer and satellite development for the Church.

Helping build the kingdom is exactly what computers are doing. Computers have helped automate record keeping in the temples. They help draft plans for new church buildings. They index 70,000,000 names for the International Genealogical Index. They alert bishops when ward members are eligible for baptism or ordination. They typeset magazines and materials for Church members. They keep track of membership records, read and record financial documents listing donations by ward members, and help with translation of Church materials into seventy-two languages. In fact, they even plot patterns for temple clothes and then cut them out. And these marvelous instruments are doing much, much more—under the guidance of the Informations Systems Department.

The Church is using computer technology to solve problems, to save money, and to better serve the Church members on the local level, said Brother Cannon.

“We are decentralizing many areas of Church management,” Brother Cannon reported. Area data centers are now in England, Germany, and Mexico City. And the Church has computer systems in New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, and in other countries. This moves data processing closer to the local leaders.

“As a case in point, in the past, Church leaders throughout the world sent all financial transactions in to Church headquarters for processing. This often resulted in long delays. Now the Finance and Records Department is working to get the area offices to process their own data. They then send us summary data to meet our needs.”

Computers have also been very useful in handling the impact of Church growth over the past few years. According to Brother Cannon, the staff at Church headquarters would be growing much faster than it is without computer solutions.

Some wards and stakes are also using computers to help manage their responsibilities. Local units can buy microcomputers, buy time from a service bureau, or make arrangements for computer time with an employer who is a member of the Church. “We are presently formulating a policy regarding computer use by local units,” said Brother Cannon.

One reason for this evaluation is the varied computer sophistication of the Church population, said Paul Koelliker, director of Member and Statistical Records.

“The Church is anxious to use technology where it can best serve,” said Brother Koelliker, “but we must first understand the technology and know how it can be used. Of necessity we must move cautiously because of the obvious large expense and the frequent turnover of leadership in wards and stakes. We therefore can’t just decide that we are going to use microcomputers churchwide. We need to decide how computer systems best serve the whole population of the Church.”

Church leaders also need to be sensitive to how computerization affects them, as Brother Cannon is quick to point out. “Too much dependence on computers can cause a person to be less receptive to the promptings of the Spirit,” said Brother Cannon. “If a priesthood leader relies too heavily on computerized information at his fingertips, there’s a danger that he might not realize when an individual has a problem and needs help.

“We’ll need to train our priesthood leaders to be aware of that possibility, as we rely more on technology in helping to manage the kingdom. The management tools are available, but we need to use them properly. We must think in terms of the Spirit, and individuals, and ordinances, instead of programs and numbers. Priesthood leaders must be trained to think in those terms even more as they use computers to help them in their responsibilities,” said Brother Cannon.

Combining professional expertise with the guidance of the Spirit, various departments at Church headquarters have been working with computers to create efficient systems for helping with the Lord’s work. Some departments are more advanced than others in computer use, and some have been at it longer than others. But they are all striving in the most efficient way possible to use the tools the Lord has provided to help manage the Church. Here are a few highlights of what some of these departments are doing.


The Atlanta Constitution called the Atlanta temple a “space-age marvel of electronics,” referring to computer systems in the temple. Magnetically coded plastic computer cards identify the patron and his or her ward as that person enters the temple. Later, that same card is used to record the name of the proxy as ordinances are performed. Through the use of computers for ordinance work, hours of time and labor that once took place in the baptismal office are now reduced to ten or fifteen minutes per baptismal session. Sealers and baptismal font recorders can record ordinances with the push of one button. Endowment sessions no longer require four typists and four stake checkers. Reports on the number of ordinances done monthly by members of each stake in a temple district can be compiled in five minutes rather than three or four hours. And 11 1/2 tons of paperwork each year have been eliminated.

The Salt Lake, Jordan River, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Santiago (Chile), Provo, Ogden, Swiss, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. temples currently have computer support. “Our new temples are planned to be built with the computer system, though we don’t have a system for automating the recording of ordinances for oriental temples yet,” said Parley Fullmer, director of Recording and Ordinance Procedures for the Temple Department. “The use of computers dramatically increases our efficiency in running our temples, both from a management and a financial point of view. Even the atmosphere in the temple is more reverent with the new systems, since the sound of typing has disappeared. The recording still goes on,” he observed, “but it’s more in the background.”

Physical Facilities

Getting information and services to the field quickly is one goal of the Physical Facilities Department. And computers are helping. Decentralization is a key concept. Data processing is now carried out in area offices, according to Brent Plowman, director of Finance and Information Systems. As a result, building construction has become more efficient, with less paperwork required between Salt Lake City and the local unit. “With our department’s employees living closer to the sites, they’ll be able to be more responsive to needs in various geographic areas,” added Brother Plowman.

Even in the initial engineering of buildings, computers are simplifying the engineer’s job. Complex computations, such as determining how much weight a roof truss can hold or how much air can pass through an air conditioning system, are much easier with a computer’s help.

In addition, computers are used in producing building specifications. A laser printer, which can print a page in the time it takes other printers to produce a single line, prints the massive amounts of paperwork involved. The laser printer is more economical, too. And it prints out originals, not copies.

One of the most exciting uses of computer technology in the Physical Facilities Department is in producing plans for chapels and temples. Instead of exclusively using drafting boards and triangles to produce plans, draftsmen can also use a computer-aided design system—CAD.

“We’ve done complete chapel standard plans on the system,” reported Loren Bishop, development team supervisor for CAD. “We’re attempting to use this technology whenever possible for all of our new chapels and temple standard plans.”

Brother Bishop explained that a designer can modify a drawing on the computer screen by combining two completely different chapel plans, taking twenty feet out of a building, or adding more space in a recreation hall. “We’ve stored all the elements of architectural and engineering drawings—doors and windows, pianos and organs, pews, folding curtains, stoves, light fixtures—in the computer. The operator can choose any item he wants, call it up on the screen, and add it to the drawing.”

Computer drawing of a Chapel

Plans for chapels and temples are drawn on this plotter. Components for the plan are stored on a computer, then reproduced to scale on an architectural sheet. The machine, which produces high quality drawings, can plot up to eighteen full architectural sheets daily. Plans for a complete building can be finished in two to three days.


The Genealogical Department was one of the first major users of data processing technology in the Church when it developed programs to prepare ordinances lists for the temples, said Reynolds Cahoon, director of Projects and Forward Planning.

Recently, to provide names for temple ordinance work and other data entry projects, the Genealogical Department developed the Volunteer Data Entry system. In Salt Lake City and ten other cities in the western United States, volunteers enter into the computer information already extracted by thousands of Church members involved in the stake records extraction program. “We will need at least 2,500 volunteers to help with data entry as the Volunteer Data Entry program expands to a total of thirty-five sites,” said Brother Cahoon.

The Genealogical Department has also undertaken replacement of its library card catalog. Under the new computerized Genealogical Library catalog system, each book and film in the Genealogical Library is described in greater detail than in the old card catalog. The information on each item—as much as several pages worth—is transferred from the computer to microfiche, then sent to all branch genealogical libraries.

Another major project in the Genealogical Department currently is that of producing the International Genealogical Index (IGI), a mammoth task involving over eighty million names. The IGI is a microfiche index to the temple work performed or to be performed since 1970.

Some decentralization is also planned. “Eventually,” Brother Cahoon said, “members will provide names for temples without the names coming to Salt Lake City first. Names will be processed out in the field, ordinance work will take place, then the records of these ordinances will be transferred to Salt Lake City to be included in the International Genealogical Index.

“The Genealogical Department has just completed development of a new genealogy software program for those who own or have access to personal computers,” he added. Personal Ancestral File™ is now available and is designed to help simplify genealogical record keeping. It offers a lineage-linked program, which helps you assemble your pedigree and compile information about your ancestors, and a data sort utility, which helps you manage large volumes of original research data. Brother Cahoon stressed that “development of Personal Ancestral File* does not mean that one will have to have a personal computer to do genealogical research, nor that anyone should buy a personal computer just for genealogical research.” Personal Ancestral file was designed for the IBM** PC or IBM PC/XT computers. Versions of the Apple II+*** and TRS-80 III are planned. For more information, contact the Ancestral File Operations Unit of the Genealogical Department, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.

About fifteen other major computer-related projects, including computerization of the Ancestral File, are now being developed in the Genealogical Department to help eliminate duplication and simplify the process of genealogical research.


The Welfare Department is revising its computer system to assist in managing welfare production units and other welfare units.

“We’ve determined that there is a need in many of the welfare units for a certain amount of computing,” said Gerald Harrison, manager of Management Information Systems. “Deseret Industries is now using microcomputers to do financial accounting. We have systems under preparation for storehouse and farm management, as well as area office support. We do have other systems planned for other welfare units as time and resources allow.”

Materials Management

Computers are having a tremendous impact in the Materials Management Department, said Farrell Benson, controller of the department. Bishops know, for example, that they no longer send money with their orders to the Salt Lake Distribution Center. They now send in a request, their order is filled, then the bishop receives an invoice from the Finance and Records Department. This system eliminates refunds for out-of-stock items, saving a good deal of paperwork. Individuals must still send in checks with their orders. But orders from units are billed each month.

Translating Church materials into various languages is another area of computer expertise. “We’ve put the scriptures in various languages on word processing, so when a general conference talk or study manual quotes a scripture, we just enter the referenced chapter and verse, and the computer calls it up in the appropriate language. Also, with word processing we’ve been able to eliminate retyping many of the documents we translate,” said Brother Benson.

At Beehive Clothing Mills, a computer helps determine the most efficient way to lay out temple clothes pattern pieces. On a television terminal, an operator moves the pattern pieces until they’re as efficiently distributed as possible; then the computer digitizes the pattern and tells the cutting blade how to cut through about 150 layers of fabric.

Member and Statistical Records

“Since about 1972, we’ve been producing management aids for priesthood leaders in the United States and Canada,” said Paul Koelliker, director of Member and Statistical Records. This includes membership listings for bishops and stake presidents, “action lists” showing ward members of age to be baptized or receive the priesthood, and—upon a bishop’s request—mailing labels of a ward’s membership.

A computer listing of all Church members and membership records of every member in the United States and Canada are kept at Church headquarters. But the master membership records for members outside the United States and Canada are now kept in area offices. Records in those offices will be computerized as technology and membership numbers grow.

Without computers, processing membership records would require almost three times as many employees. “Because of computer efficiency, it cost less per member in 1983 to process records with computer help than it did in 1963 without the computer,” said Brother Koelliker.

Brother Koelliker emphasized the importance that privacy plays in Church record keeping. “Although the computer makes member information readily available, it is important to stress the confidential nature of certain records, even on the local level. Information about Church members at the ward and stake level, even if it’s just an address or telephone number should not be used for non-Church purposes.”

Financial accounting for member contributions also falls under Brother Koelliker’s supervision. All donations made by members in the United States and Canada are recorded at the ward level on an information document, which is sent to Church headquarters where it is read by a machine called an optical character reader. The information is stored in a computer, and accounting reports are produced and sent back to the ward on a quarterly basis. Annual tithing reports are also produced through the computer.

Altogether, computer technology has become an integral part of running the Church today, helping to meet the challenges facing a worldwide Church which has some growing pains. Computers are definitely not the cure for all of those pains—but they are certainly helping to keep the patient healthy.

  • Personal Ancestral File is a trademark of the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • IBM is a registered trademark of the International Business Machines Corporation. The licensor is not affiliated with the above named corporations.

  • Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Computer, Inc. The licensor is not affiliated with the above named corporations.

  • TRS-80 is a registered trademark of Radio Shack, a division of Tandy Corporation. The licensor is not affiliated with the above named corporations.

  • Kathleen Lubeck is a manager in the International Division, Church Public Communications Department. She is a member of the general Young Women board and lives in West Valley City, Utah.

Photography by Eldon Linschoten

This computer, used in the Translation Department, has a large Japanese dictionary. The operator inputs Japanese words and phrases phonetically, then the computer converts them into the proper Japanese characters. Though the computer is used primarily for correspondence, it may also be used for larger projects.