In his talk in April 2014 General Conference, Elder David A. Bednar commented that “sometimes we mistakenly may believe that happiness is the absence of a load. But bearing a load is a necessary and essential part of the plan of happiness.”
He referenced a friend with a new pickup truck who had gone into the mountains to gather firewood during the winter. When he arrived at his destination, he pulled off the road and the truck immediately became stuck in the snow. Not knowing what else to do, he proceeded to cut firewood and fill the truck bed. He then climbed back in the truck and to his surprise, was immediately able to get the truck unstuck and drive safely home. The load gave him the traction he needed to move forward.
One of the reasons I came on a mission is to stay busy and be involved in something really meaningful. Retirement was fun and we were keeping busy teaching early morning seminary, traveling, enjoying family and a raft of other activities, but I kind of missed having an overriding purpose. When we arrived in West Africa to head up the auditing function here for 18 months, with all the inherent challenges of financial record-keeping in this part of the world, it appeared to be a full and complete answer to staying busy and it has been seriously invigorating.
All good, but after ten months, I have been getting a bit restless again. Things are doing very well; since we arrived here, we managed to clear the backlog of audits and unresolved issues, build several tools to better monitor and report status to keep things moving on a steady keel, developed and rolled out a bunch of training and spent a bunch of time on the road across five nations working with team members and local leaders. The audit team here has coalesced really well and results have started showing seriously good improvement, both in terms of better timeliness and better quality work. We just got some unexpected feedback from Church auditing, that during the last audit round, Africa West auditing, the new kid on the block, which has been struggling for years with growing pains, just leaped from the back of the pack of the Church’s fifteen international areas up to a leadership position in most categories.
Our third round of audits since our arrival just started a couple of weeks back and things are going well, but it is the same routine we have been through before, with most of the groundwork already laid and our energized audit team doing the heavy lifting. So I talked with Elder Terrence Vinson, who has been the counselor in the Area Presidency with oversight of the audit program, and was just made the Area President and told him I had some bandwidth and would love to help out anywhere else he could use me. Part of me suspected that he might give me some gardening tools and assign me part-time to the Temple grounds crew. Which could have been kind of fun. Instead, he asked me to take on three projects that had not been getting enough attention and which are turning out to be a ton of fun.
First, since Michelle and I travel around the Area quite a bit, he said whenever we are headed out, let him know and he would send me with an assignment to spend a couple of hours training one of the local stake or district presidents needing help with various administrative issues, such as better use of high councils, understanding financial and membership responsibilities, boundary and leadership change submissions, etc.
Second, he asked me to work with him in developing messaging and presentations for visiting authorities, the annual Area Reviews with the first Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and other readouts. This is particularly important with budget cycles; to help those controlling the purse-strings appreciate and accommodate our facilities needs in light of the explosive growth we are experiencing.
Finally, he asked me to develop a scorecard or tool to help each of our districts better understand where they currently stand and what specific areas they need to focus on to meet the requirements to become a stake. We currently have 45 districts, each of which we hope will continue growing to join the ranks of our current 69 stakes in the area. We have created ten stakes in the first six months of 2016 and have a bunch more on the drawing board. Right after I got here, I developed an auditing dashboard that tracks progress across the 1,000 congregations on completing and quality of their semi-annual audits, which he liked and wanted something similar to focus efforts, stimulate the right actions and monitor progress with building and strengthening our local congregations.
So I told him maybe the pick and shovel idea might be a bit more manageable.
Actually, I have been having a ball. We had a training trip to Lagos, Nigeria last week and he had me meet with a new stake president who had submitted a plan to create a new ward, which met all the criteria, except that it sort of carved a donut hole out of the existing ward. The new president had listed his reasons for and wonderful advantages of the proposed boundaries, so my job was to review his rationale and the implications with him and explore alternatives. It took about 30 minutes with him to come up with what he agreed was a much better proposal and he really appreciated someone sitting down to help him work through the process.
On the presentations, Elder Vinson has a new counselor arriving from Salt Lake this week needing an orientation and Elder Bednar coming here a week later. He gave me the overview template he has used before and I dressed it up with some demographic trends of the area I had been noodling with on my own for a while, which he liked. He then gave me the forecast the Church has used to project building needs in the area, which is not keeping pace with our growth. After we discussed his views on where, how and why the forecast was missing (he has degrees in math, statistics and finance), I took the stake formation data here for the past thirty years, split it by country, started playing with fourth and fifth order polynomial functions and fit a curve that statistically blows the socks off the forecast the planning department has been using and shows that if we don’t ramp up construction big time in the next year or two, we will completely lose control of the situation. That slide made him really, really happy.
I’m now starting to brainstorm how to pull information together for a district-to-stake scorecard, trying to identify what we really need to communicate to both the Area leadership and then something that is actionable for the field, as well as where to get the data and how to present it.
Time will tell whether or not any of this makes any real difference, but for the moment, this old truck is engaged, feeling very energized and useful.