At Silicon Slopes Summit, Elder David A. Bednar tells Jazz owner Ryan Smith how a global church works
The apostle answered the tech leader’s questions about church finances, education and whether the church will use artificial intelligence
A Latter-day Saint leader spoke Thursday at a major American tech conference and responded to questions about political polarization, church finances and how artificial intelligence might help the church.
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also said he thinks French may become the dominant language spoken in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints one day.
Elder Bednar made his comments in a wide-ranging, often informal conversation with Utah Jazz owner and Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith in front of thousands of people at the Delta Center in downtown Salt Lake City during the annual Silicon Slopes Summit.
Smith noted up front that this is a busy week for church leaders as they prepare to host an international general conference on Saturday and Sunday.
“I just came from a meeting of our worldwide leadership with folks from 69 different countries speaking 65 languages,” Elder Bednar said. The meeting finished 30 minutes before he took the stage with Smith.
“Then I scooted over here,” Elder Bednar said.
Silicon Slopes CEO Clint Betts told the audience he asked the church for a representative to speak because he always wondered what it takes to run a global community like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 17 million members in more than 180 countries.
The church accepted the invitation and asked that Smith lead the interview, Betts said.
Smith noted that tech gurus are impatient, and asked Elder Bednar how church leaders see time differently as they manage its affairs.
“In my particular responsibility, we’re always thinking 20, 30, 50 years down the road,” Elder Bednar said. From that perspective, he noted a possible change because of significant future growth in Africa.
“Today, the dominant language in the church is Spanish, not English,” he said. “I think in the future it may be French,” because of the growing number of members in African countries that are former French-speaking colonies.
Elder Bednar, who was an organizational behavioral scholar before entering worldwide church leadership, said the growing size and reach of the church has prompted leaders to decentralize some of its management. The church is now divided into 23 international areas, led by general authorities of the church under supervision of the Quorum of the Twelve.
“A big thing we are focusing on now is, ‘how can we get more that we do here in Salt Lake into the areas?’” Elder Bednar said. “Those leaders are in the best position to address the needs of the people.”
Smith thanked Elder Bednar because the Jazz will open their NBA training camp next week at BYU-Hawaii, one of four colleges and universities sponsored by the church. The Jazz will play the Los Angeles Clippers at the end of the week at the University of Hawaii, and donate the exhibition game’s proceeds to the Maui Strong Fund to benefit wildfire relief.
“You’re getting a lot of heat for how you spend the money in the church,” Smith said. He asked Elder Bednar to describe the scale of the church’s charitable efforts at a time when costs are rising.
Elder Bednar said the church has four overarching responsibilities — to help people learn about and live the teachings of Jesus Christ, to share that message with the world, to strengthen and unite families and to care for the poor and the needy.
“The scope, that’s the answer,” he said, adding that “the assets of the church are primarily income consuming, they are not income producing.”
He described the maintenance and utilities costs for the meetinghouses and facilities for more than 30,000 congregations and for the church’s 315 planned and completed temples.
Those numbers are expected to continue to grow.
“Pockets will have greater growth than others, but the church is growing,” he said.
The church also spends $1 billion a year on humanitarian aid and more than $1 billion a year sponsoring its colleges and universities, Elder Bednar said.
“When people say, what do you do with all that money,” he said that he points to the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt where there was seven years of plenty before seven years of famine.
“In the years of plenty, you better prepare for the years of famine,” he said.
Smith said some people have questioned the need for such financial reserves.
“I think it would be imprudent and unwise not to have a reserve,” Elder Bednar said.
Will the Church of Jesus Christ use artificial intelligence?
Smith asked about church leaders’ views on Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit that supports the growing tech industry on the Wasatch Front.
“I think it will continue to be one of the hubs of technological advancement in the nation,” Elder Bednar said. “A lot of the time, people think leaders of the church are uninformed, but we have the opportunity to learn about technological innovations like artificial intelligence” from the companies in the region.
“I think it’s exciting. I think this is a hub and I think there’s a bright future,” he said.
Smith asked whether the church would use AI.
“I’m not at liberty to say, ‘here’s what we’re going to do,’” Elder Bednar said. But he noted that general conference talks are translated into more than 100 languages, and that translation is a bottleneck right now as the church rolls out its updated General Handbook and “Preach My Gospel” manual and next year’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. Artificial intelligence could be helpful.
“Few things that could help the work of the Lord advance more rapidly than that,” he said.
Smith said he watched the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night and that all the candidates yelled at each other.
Elder Bednar said the church remains politically neutral. He counseled against extremism and said President Russell M. Nelson, the church’s 99-year-old leader, was a model who last April called for more peacemakers.
He said President Nelson has repeatedly asked church members to strip away any form of racism and find common ground, which he exemplified by helping create the surprising working relationship between the church and the NAACP.
“You can find that common ground,” Elder Bednar said. “It’s very difficult, it takes some time and it takes all you’ve got to listen and learn.”
Smith laughed and noted dourly, “Nobody was listening at the debate last night.”
Elder Bednar returned to the subject when Smith asked him what most excites him. He said he’d visited 110 countries with his wife during his 19-year apostolic ministry, meeting people of every kind.
“We are far more alike than we are different,” he said. “That gets me excited. And the work I’m engaged in. People may disagree with our doctrine, but to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world is exciting.
“To share my California background, that just gets me juiced.”
Education and the church
Smith said the church’s annual $1 billion funding of higher education compares favorably to the largest gift ever given in American higher education, a $3.5 billion one-time donation by Michael Bloomberg.
Last year, Elder Bednar represented the church at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he relayed the amount the church spends on its schools.
“Education is at the core of everything you believe in,” Smith said.
“Education is a key that opens the door to growth and opportunity,” said Elder Bednar, who as president of Ricks College guided the school’s transformation from a two-year junior college to a four-year university renamed BYU-Idaho.
“When I’m talking about education, I don’t limit that to school. ... The goal is to learn how to love learning so that when you have no idea what to do, you can learn what to do.”
He said what students learn in school is four to five years old, the latest research and information, but it’s obsolete by the time they graduate.
“The question is, when you don’t know what to do, can you dig and research and come to learn what you need to do?” he said, prompting a large ovation.
He told Smith, who said his 10-year-old son is struggling to enjoy math, that the key is to make learning about discovery.
“When you learn how to learn and you love to learn how to learn, it’s the greatest place of excitement,” he said. “It’s uncharted territory. Let’s go!”
Smith and Elder Bednar also spoke about the international scope of online learning provided by BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide. The apostle said it doesn’t make sense not to leverage the church’s resources to provide opportunities for all its members, not just those who can enroll at a campus.
He spoke excitedly about the educational opportunities the church is providing in Africa.
“Ultimately, we will affect millions and millions of people who will become educated and learn how to learn so they can bless their families,” he said to another large ovation.
Smith talked with Elder Bednar about his managerial consulting work with Walmart founder Sam Walton and said he was curious how the apostle uses his background as an organizational behavior scholar in his ministry.
Elder Bednar said he learned as a young missionary in Germany that God changes people from the inside out. Organizational behavior is about changing people from the outside in. He said he’s never tried to use his organizational behavior background in his ministry.
“I’m informed by it, I benefit by it, but I don’t let it drive,” he said.
Instead, he relies on gospel principles.
Smith joked that leading the church is different from leading a company.
“You can’t fire these people,” Elder Bednar said of church members who lead congregations. “You don’t pay them. There’s no incentive. There’s a lay ministry. So most of what works in the world, doesn’t work in the church.”
Smith said it shouldn’t work.
“That’s the most amazing challenge to work with,” Elder Bednar said. “It shouldn’t work. Everything in my training says it shouldn’t work, and it works. It’s growing.”