A sister missionary shares lessons in becoming a leader

By Sharon Belnap Seminario

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

“I think we’ll be done soon,” I called out again, indirectly, but aiming every word at Sister Miles. If I called out sweetly the first time, this time I called out with candy-coated poison darts. No response. I glanced over and saw Sister Miles carefully writing in her journal! What made her feel superior enough that she could watch us all clean around her while she did what she pleased?! I began to feel the blood coursing through my veins.

I walked directly over to the living room, my hands dripping with the hard work I had been doing for the last hour. WITHOUT her help. WITHOUT her respect.

“Sister Miles!” I masked an even tone. “We are all cleaning and it is very important that we keep the house rules and that we all work together on this, so could you come and help us clean for a while?!” I stood back, proud of my restraint, considering her insurrection.

Sister Miles put down her pen. She put down her notebook. She looked me squarely in the eyes and with concerted effort to press the tears down and keep them from choking her message said, “Sister Belnap. I was having one of the most spiritual experiences I have had in my life. I was trying to record that and really understand and ponder the feelings and impressions I received. And now, because of YOU, I can’t!” And she thundered in a blur out of the room.

I stood there with my mouth and eyes wide as craters. If I had been slapped I would not have felt more stung. Every word she said burned into me like a cattle brand. I walked back to the sink, stuck my soapy hands back in the water, mindlessly scrubbed and cried.

For a minute, I crafted as many reasons as possible as to why I was innocent and she was in the wrong. But after a minute I gave up. Her words didn’t sting because they were mean. I didn’t cry because I was wronged. I felt sad and ashamed because I recognized I hadn’t been the leader I should have been.

I could have given the sisters more notice. I could have put myself in her place and imagined that she must have a good reason for her actions. I could have asked her, “How’s it going? What are you up to?” rather than informing her over and over again like a nagging goat that she was not doing what I wanted her to do when I wanted her to do it. I could have chilled out! I realized at that moment that I was doing a lot more pushing than leading.

It was true that in that setting I was supposed to be the leader, but maybe I was thinking of leading in the wrong way. I was too focused on results instead of method, on house instead of humans.

I apologized later and Sister Miles very generously let it go. I made a goal to jump to conclusions less and to try to be more focused on spiritual things. I realized that as a leader I had been choosing what I saw as the needs of the many over the needs of the one. I wanted to lead like the Savior would lead, and I knew that he was an advocate of just the opposite. From that point on, I was a different sort of leader.

Instead of harping on everyone to do chores, when I saw something that needed to be done, I just did it. I humbled myself and thought more about serving than leading, as in Doctrine and Covenants 50:26, “He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.”

We always entered the house through the kitchen, and our shoes left prints and film and guck. So I woke up extra early several mornings and tiptoed like a stealthy mantis down the creaky wooden stairs so I wouldn’t rouse any passed-out pioneer sisters. The sunshine flooded past the glaring gap at the top of the hill above our home where a temple once stood (and would stand again soon), glistened through our tiny, paned window, and spread over our trafficked linoleum floor. The effect of the light illuminated all of the floor’s flaws. At least I knew where to scrub.

I put on my headphones and pressed play. The comforting voices and hymns of the most recent general conference filled my ears and mind. I got down on my hands and knees in my T-shirt and my bloomers from my period costume. With a rag in my hand I polished that old, worn floor from corner to corner with hot, soapy water.

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