Friday, July 18, 2008

Obedience Despite Disagreement

I want to share a story. I apologize, but it is a mission story, I can't help that. It is something quite personal and sacred to me, but at the urging of a friend I shall share it here.

My mission president was the sort of man who was able to see straight through you and into your soul when he shook your hand. He was wise and patient, and able to interview and teach missionary work on levels suited to the individual missionary. He was quite strict, having inherited a somewhat chaotic mission. He was roughly halfway done with his mission when I entered the mission field. He also loved sisters and sister missionary work.

I was in four areas during my first nine months, transferred nearly every transfer, until I was sent to the most remote sisters' area in the mission. The nearest member priesthood wielders were in a town 10 minutes away by train. The nearest missionaries were 30-40 minutes away by train. We were effectively alone in our work. Moreoever, the ward did not like missionaries. They had some bad missionary experiences in their fairly recent past, and still largely thought of the missionaries as parasites with no benefit to them.

The work was difficult there. We were remote, and had no car. We walked and used public transit. The terrain was fairly hilly, and communities were spaced relatively far apart. With little member support and no other missionaries, it was lonely. We struggled to teach and bring investigators to church, only to have them shunned and ignored. It was difficult. After praying about it for some time and receiving strong Spiritual confirmation, my companion and I decided to recommend that the area be closed to missionaries for a time. It would give the members time to rest. Eventually, our desires were granted.

I was sent to a place I had always felt I would be sent. I felt I had some specific work to do. It was four and a half months before the end of my mission, as I had decided to take the later return home. Also, two weeks after my transfer, we were to change mission presidents and merge with another mission. I was placed in a companionship which was amiable for about two hours, but then fell apart when I looked over the book and, as the senior companion, prepared to direct our companionship's work.

My companion of the time was very headstrong, and though she was junior companion in her previous companionship, she made all the decisions. In the brief time observing the companionship before the other sister returned home, I saw a rather emotionally abusive relationship. This sister resented my outlook on missionary work, as I thought we should spend our time teaching and tracting, and not lounging around members' houses, having come from an area which was still suffering from such behavior. She felt the best way to do the work was to buddy up with the members.

As those who have been in these sorts of relationships know, when the parties agree, it is as if there is no senior and junior companionship. When the parties do not agree, however, it is the job of the senior companion to prayerfully and considerately make the decision. I admit I was not as considerate as I now wish I had been. To me, the mission was about work, not play, and I was still young in my position as senior companion. The companionship quickly became completely unbearable, and we spent more time split with the office sisters in our apartment next to the main office, and not together as companions. In this personal climate, we gained a new president and merged with the other mission.

The new president knew our previous president fairly well, as they had served missions together. Purely in speculation and feelings I gained, as they made little to no outward sign of it, I feel they did not particularly get along before. They were completely cordial to each other, however, and our beloved mission president left the mission in the hands of his successor. Perhaps because there had been some history behind them, perhaps because all new presidents feel they need to change things, perhaps because of the merger, our work quickly changed. The new president felt that triple companionships were a waste of resources, and since there were two sister companionships of that nature in the mission, within a week my previous companion and I were sent back to the area we had been relieved to leave.

I couldn't help but feel that it was a personal failure on my part. If I had been a better senior companion, had known how to deal with my angry junior companion, perhaps I would have been allowed to stay where I felt I should be and do the Task I thought the Lord wanted me to do. My failure, in my eyes, was spectacular. My companion was transferred out of the area in the next transfer and I was paired with a senior sister.

She was in her seventies, but extremely fit, especially for her age. It was good that she was so, because the terrain had not changed and we still had no car. Feeling like a failure, I redoubled my efforts to work hard and frankly pushed her far too hard to learn the language and keep up with the work. I was perfectly horrible to her. I felt completely crushed by my situation, and at a loss to know what to do. Each transfer I prayed to leave, each time I stayed I knew I was still a failure. I knew I had messed up beyond repair, and I was banished to a place I could do little further harm, paired with someone who could not help me prove I was worthy.

During this time of angst, the president decided that as a mission, we were not working hard enough and doubled our goal numbers. He strongly favored the other mission we had merged with and constantly lauded their efforts and their successes. They were a much smaller mission and had not been transferred very often. Most missionaries there would serve in one or two areas before going home, our average was more like four or five. They were the golden children, and resentment was building in our half of the mission. As the most senior sister remaining from that mission, I was the recipient of a great deal of complaining.

The resentment only grew worse as rumors began to circulate that the new president's favorite sister missionary was calling her previous Zone Leader (across two countries) after curfew. Other similar rumors began to fly. As telephone records came out, so did the truth. This sister and the elder involved were sent home honorably, from what I remember, as it was time for her to return home anyways. That was not the end of it. Perhaps because of the infrequent transfers or smallness of that mission, most of the rumors were true. It quickly became common knowledge that the Golden Child was in a state of decay, and the whipping boy was boiling in anger over it.

I thought it would be a good idea to let the president know the state of feeling among many of the missionaries, including myself, before it boiled over. I was recalled from my remote area, riding 5 hours alone to return to the area I felt I was supposed to serve in. I had no idea what was going on. When I got to the office, I sat for some time before being invited in. There followed a long, tearful, emotional interview in which I was informed that the Mission President was sending me home in the next transfer. I was to be given an honorable discharge, but was not to stay the extra month I had felt strongly I was to serve, despite my personal difficulties.

He felt I was breaking under the stress of the mission and could not handle another month. I plead with him as I have never done so with anyone else. I knew I was supposed to stay. I promised I would no longer complain and would do all I could to disperse the ill feelings of others. I can't remember everything I said in that interview, but by the end, he let me stay (on probation.) I returned, completely humiliated and broken. I served my last month without the zeal and energy I had before depended on.

In my time after being sent back, we had completely ceased doing member meals. At first this was only our companionship's choice, but the president had meanwhile told the missionaries that member meals were to be done on their free time and were not to count as missionary work, unless a nonmember was present. We tracted. Fairly early in my return, a referral came in from a member in another mission. This lady had gone through a divorce and had one son, about two years old. She was utterly sweet, and lived in the furthest reach of our area. We had to travel an hour and a half by train to teach her. We had been teaching her every week when I was recalled to the office, and after I returned, she set a baptismal date and ended up being baptized the Saturday before I left for home. She was the only baptism of someone I had taught which I saw in the course of my mission.

Gradually, during my last month, my humiliation became mixed with humility. I began to see all the many things I had done wrong in the latter course of my mission. I began to understand that I had no right to take upon myself the responsibility of informing the mission president what he was doing wrong. I certainly should never have participated in all the ill feeling towards him. Even if I had felt it, I should have kept it to myself.

I believe his efforts, though misguided, were deeply sincere. He had been trying to do the right thing. It was some time after my mission that I saw that his situation was not so different from what mine had been as senior companion to a girl who resented me. In my own small way, I had been in a leadership position I was ill prepared for. I had made serious mistakes, despite trying to do what I felt was right and trying to follow the Spirit with all my energy of soul. How wonderful it would have been, and how much more I could have learned, had my companion chosen to support me with gentle discussions of how she felt I was wrong. If she had given me time to grow and learn, we could have been a stellar companionship.

I'm sure the new president learned some life-changing lessons in the course of his service, despite its stormy beginnings. I still cherish him and his wife, and wish I were better at keeping up with them. I know he is—and was—a man of God, called by Him to be there in that place and time, despite his imperfections and insecurities.

There is a time, place and manner in which to disagree with our priesthood leaders. They are imperfect, but I have never once met one who wasn't trying to do the right thing according to their understanding. It is so vitally important to treat them with charity and understanding. Love them, even if you don't agree with them. Realize that the Lord has called them to their position for reasons you don't know. Through their leadership service, they will learn charity and humility. In the meantime, support them with a whole heart, even if you cannot agree with them. Disagree respectfully and lovingly. You never know when you will be in a place of leadership where you will wish that you had one person willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Some valuable lessons to be learned. We should not expect local or general church leaders to be perfect.

  2. SR, on a different thread you wrote of the difficulty of a task being be worth it and throughout knowing that God knows your heart.

    After reading this story it is clear that you know difficulty, it seems that the power of your well articulated comments flows by reaching deeply into you personal experience.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Thanks for sharing this. I read someone's comments elsewhere about a seniorish priesthood leader saying simply, 'Be patient with us.' I think sometimes that kind of patience and compassion and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt and space to be human can go a long way.

    Elder Oaks talks about how supporting our leaders is not just about them -- it's about our own hearts and keeping the Spirit with us. I feel that is so key.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  4. Thank you. I needed this reminder, our little spanish branch is struggling and I mutter about needing more help from our stake leaders.
    I thought this lesson was ingrained when I had a counselor who was 'disagreeable'. I resolved then to never be so critical of leaders. Obviously I needed a nudge. Being critical is so destructive.


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