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

Editor's note: This excerpt is from "Do Not Attempt in Heels: Mission Stories and Advice from Sisters Who’ve Been There” (Cedar Fort, $14.99), compiled by Elise Babbel Hahl and Jennifer Rockwood Knight. This excerpt is titled "Becoming a Leading Lady."

The wooden floor creaked and crackled as each of us knelt down clumsily in our dresses and skirts for our first bedtime hymn and prayer in Nauvoo, Ill.

Well, I knelt down clumsily. The tall, blond sister with sky blue eyes next to me was the picture of grace, surely immune to such inadequacies. Across from me, a Shirley-Temple-look-alike sat cozily in the circle, smiling from ear to ear. She played three instruments and clogged, so I was sure anything this mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints threw at her would be cotton candy.

I looked around at these strangers, people who would spend every day with me leading tours throughout Old Nauvoo and bearing testimony through song, acting and dance. The auburn-haired sister with classic film beauty suggested a hymn. I could instantly sense her musical confidence and strong sense of self. I guessed that she was the sister with one music degree under her belt and another degree about to begin at a far-away, prestigious college. I was sure she was qualified to give singing lessons to somebody like me. Another sister gave the starting note. I would come to find out that she had perfect pitch and heard music constantly in the sounds of life: the microwave beep (B flat!), the whirring of a car motor (A natural!), the buzzing of a bee (C sharp!). At least I had a ballpark idea of where those notes were on a piano.

We eight brand-new sisters were finishing our first day as performing missionaries in Nauvoo by gathering in our new quarters, the David Yearsley home (where the Young Men’s organization has its origins). Once we began to sing the hymn, I could tell I was out of my league. Way out. An operatic vibrato floated above the air, coming somewhere from this mix of sisters. I would have paid good money to listen to a voice like that in a concert! An alto voice, probably peeled straight from Broadway, rose forcefully against the melody. I knew some of those sisters had played every role known to womankind in professional musical theater, from "West Side Story’s" Maria to Maria von Trapp. My one lead role as a crazy nun in our high school musical wasn’t exactly ingénue level, and I preferred to sing in a choir setting where I could blend in.

In retrospect, my recording of our hymn that first night sounds a little to me like eight soloists outdoing each other. We were singing in harmony, but we didn’t sing “in harmony.” Not yet. We just weren’t one. And on top of that, I felt like the weakest link. I loved to sing, but I was very, very blessed to be among such talented and accomplished musicians.

The next morning our Visitor’s Center director (and future Mormon mission president), Elder Sager, asked me to serve as the “house manager.” My knees went numb and wobbly. I felt surprised and honored by the opportunity, but more than a little unsure. Having already labeled myself as one of the more meager talents in the group, I was not expecting a leadership role of any kind. I was younger than many of the sisters, I didn’t have any experience living on my own or with roommates, and only a week before had depended on my mother for clean socks. But for whatever reason I was asked. I was going to be expected to see to the order of the home and the cohesion of the sisters therein, address disputes with tact, and more or less problem-solve to achieve as many positive results as possible.

I have so many journal entries lamenting my abilities as house manager. I encountered challenges completely new to me. First there was group cohesion to think about. Although every single sister was wonderful and was dedicated to giving her all, we had glaring differences. One sister had only brothers, one had only sisters (so they were companions of course). One was the youngest in her family, a couple of sisters were the oldest in their families; one sister had lived away from home for years, and others were very homesick living away from home for the first time. We had sisters who came with special health needs and a sister who developed a serious health problem during our service. The main thing aside from the gospel that we all had in common was our involvement in music and theater. So the stage was set for infusing the ordinary with an extra measure of drama.

The other main challenges to my job as house manager were smaller, furrier, big-eared and long-tailed. The David Yearsley home sat next to a huge, open field. So naturally, we were in a full-on raging war with mice from the minute we set foot in the place.

Because we had a rodent problem, our rules for cleanliness in the Yearsley home had to be strict and precisely followed. We had mice trying to live in our clothing, eat our food and surprise us in the restroom. That’s not the kind of surprise most sisters enjoyed.

As house manager, I tried a few tactics to combat the mice. I bought a sound machine that was supposed to put out a frequency to drive the mice far from the house. Instead, I think the mice had a nightly dance party to the sound. We tried to keep crumbs swept, our garbage tied up and our laundry un-smellable. A very unsettled sister started ranting about a mouse-sighting one night. I was fed up with the little invaders. I dressed up as a mice-fighting superhero, sporting a spontaneous costume of headache-gel-mask, flyswatter, gloves and a scarf, and tried to intimidate the critters as I ran around up and down the stairs and in and out of rooms. I really showed them who was boss.

We had to be very vigilant about cleanliness, particularly with food, in order to avoid disease and a constant gross-out factor. We had spaces allotted for each companionship’s goods in the kitchen cupboards, and everyone was supposed to keep her food well contained in either that space or our one small fridge. (There really was only one fridge for eight sisters. And we only got to shop once a week. On the same day. Not exactly a pioneer hardship, but nearly.)

My companion and I had the only lower cupboard space, so we knew that hoards of the lazier mice would try to snack on our Mini-Wheats. One mouse kept breaking into our cracker box, so we finally taped it shut at night to be safe. In the morning, we woke up and went to our cupboard, eager to gloat and glory in our victory. What did we find? A personal message from the little guy! He left his droppings squarely on top of our securely taped box. It’s hard to say who won that battle.

These fractious conditions set the stage for one of the most difficult experiences I had as house manager. Because of busy mission work and P-days spent seeing the historic sites, we had reached a point where the house was more than untidy. All of us had food out of place in the kitchen. The whole house was turning into a clutter swamp and there could be no more. On the morning of the following preparation day I announced we’d have a group clean-up.

I ran around to every room and requested with the subtlety of an alarm clock that everyone needed to come, now, to the kitchen and clean. After a few minutes most everyone had gathered and sisters began straightening and wiping and eliminating. Progress! I was washing dishes vigorously when to my dismay, I suddenly noticed that one of the sisters was not cleaning. She was sitting, sitting, in the living room. Didn’t she hear me say it was time to clean? Didn’t she know that we were waiting on her to remove her stuff from the cupboard counter?! How could she sit calmly in the eye of this disinfecting whirlwind and do nothing?! I took a deep breath.

“Sister Miles,” I sweetly called. “We’re having a group cleanup, just letting you know.” I felt it my duty to gently correct her. After all it was my responsibility to lead, especially in situations like this!

Pause.

“OK, thanks for letting me know,” she said with a dismissive lilt, not making eye contact. I tried not to react. I washed more dishes. I watched peripherally as sisters came and went with clutter from their rooms, organized their cupboards and pulled moldy cauliflower from the fridge drawer.

“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.

The linoleum squares went from muddy, to hazy, to white during Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s “Hope Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ” (see Ensign, November 1998). Somehow, the physical labor I did as I listened helped me to concentrate on the words, and they lingered in my mind long after the duration of the chore itself. Elder Maxwell, then a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, gave the talk while bald from cancer treatments: instant context to every word he spoke. He taught me that often “we who wear wristwatches seek to counsel him who oversees cosmic clocks and calendars.”

As I moved the rag across the floor, he testified to me, teaching me about my role as house manager with applications the stretched much further in my life. “Because God wants us to come home after having become more like him and his Son, part of this developmental process, of necessity, consists of showing unto us our weaknesses. Hence, if we have ultimate hope we will be submissive, because, with His help, those weaknesses can even become strengths.”

As I followed the Spirit down a new path of leadership, I began to feel my weaknesses fade and to see strengths develop. Springing out of better relationships with my sisters came new ideas.

I had a thought one day to have Christmas in July. The words no sooner left my lips than everybody jumped on the idea. Together we infused the holiday with excitement and merriment, stockings and carols and expressions of love. It was a wonderful, unifying day that made a lasting memory.

In general, I stopped over-worrying about the house and the rules and made the most of our time. At the end of many hot and hurried days, we sat out on our porch looking over fields (filled with sleeping mice), wrote poems, sang songs, giggled and watched fireflies waltz through the air and fade into the stars.

I also decided to listen more. Every day an opportunity would arise to walk or sit or cook or study with one of the eight sisters. I was able to laugh and think with them — to learn more about the life and struggles of each one. It gave me the chance to know these amazing daughters of God in a deeper way.

I learned so much from the wisdom with which they handled their problems and in return, I received advice from them on how to face my own challenges. I felt how important it was to each one to please her Father in Heaven and to do His will no matter what.

I had the opportunity to sincerely compliment them on the spiritual gifts I saw in them that blessed my life, the lives of the other Mormon missionaries and even the visitors to Nauvoo. I look back in time and these moments of one-on-one listening and sharing are treasures in my memory: crystallized and glittering and sacred.

I came to feel that each sister could truly say I was her friend, at least. In retrospect, those relationships became so much more important to me than any great act as a leader. Instead of saying “lead one another,” Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:12-14). Any degree of effectiveness I had as a leader, as house manager in Nauvoo, was directly proportional to the love I had for my friends and the ability I had to let my love for them eclipse myself and my will.

By the time we tearfully sang “Farewell Nauvoo” before flying home, our sound had changed so much from that first night. Some of our more timid singers now sang with confidence. Many of us had learned to improvise new alto or descant lines with each other during our many hours of service together. Our opera-singing sister could easily meld her vibrato with the other voices so that it was unrecognizable, adding richness to the texture of the whole.

We weren’t thinking about words or tone or pitch. We felt the music. We were in tune. There were no soloists, but there was one voice. We sang in harmony in every way, and it was as natural as the steady flow of the wide Mississippi River

Sharon Belnap Seminario graduated from BYU and has a master's from Utah State University. She loves to travel with her husband, Fernando, home schools her four children, teaches English composition and is a new member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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