President Monson and the Importance of Hufflepuff Leaders

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As a member of the LDS faith, this week brought the sad news that our prophet, Thomas S. Monson, had passed away. As I’ve reflected on his life and legacy, I keep coming back to the unique example of leadership he offered both those in my faith and the world.

President Monson: The quintessential Hufflepuff

President Monson was the perfect example of a Hufflepuff. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of Harry Potter, Hufflepuff is one of the four houses at Hogwarts, a school for aspiring, young witches and wizards. According to the ceremony which sorts students into their respective houses, “You might belong in Hufflepuff where they are just and loyal. Those patient Hufflepuffs are true and unafraid of toil.” As an avid Harry Potter fan, my impression throughout the books has always been that Hufflepuffs are unfailingly kind and value people more than accolades. Doesn’t that sound exactly like President Monson?

In his obituary in the Deseret News, they highlight his commitment to “the one,” stating, “As a bishop, he befriended 84 widows who lived in his large ward, visiting them regularly and giving each one a gift at Christmastime. He remembered them long after he was released as their bishop and wound up speaking at every one of their funerals.” The Salt Lake Tribune’s obituary quotes his biographer, stating, “He [was] never too busy to pick up the phone to call a friend from high school who just lost her husband, never too busy to sit by the side of a friend as he passes on, never too busy to write a letter of encouragement to one of his friends.”

The case for Hufflepuff leaders

I should state for the record that I would never be categorized as a Hufflepuff, but I see in those who would be, important, often undervalued characteristics, especially in the ranks of leadership. Those who grace the political, religious, academic, and social halls of the world, among other traits, tend to be ambitious, competitive, and outwardly talented. None of these are negative characteristics on their own, but too often they can get in the way of what really matters.

Hufflepuffs have their priorities straight. Despite the fact that they are the most accepting of all four houses (they’ll take anyone, even if the other houses won’t), they’ve produced the fewest number of dark wizards. And J.K. Rowling shared on Pottermore that nearly all the Hufflepuff students stayed to fight during the final battle of the series against the big baddie Voldemort. She says, ‘They didn’t want to show off, they weren’t being reckless, that’s the essence of Hufflepuff.’ They have a deep commitment to morality and integrity, but it is practiced quietly and without fanfare. It is enough to know they’ve done the right thing, even without recognition. This lack of self-aggrandizement seems like an incredibly valuable character trait, so why do we have so few Hufflepuff leaders?

So much of attaining leadership responsibility depends on the recommendation of others: elections, office politics, and social capital all factor into success. You’re not going to be CEO if you don’t get the board on your side. You’re never going to be pope if you don’t convince the other cardinals, you’re not going to win an Oscar unless you campaign, etc. Despite the fact that Hufflepuffs are the most people-focused group of individuals, it’s easy to take them for granted in these situations because they don’t fit the typical mold of what we expect from our leaders.

I think the lack of Hufflepuff leaders says a lot more about us as a society and what we value, than it does about Hufflepuffs themselves. Susan Cain offers an interesting take on leader selection in her book Quiet: The Secret Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She says,I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance.”

If we truly want our communities to be places of safety and trust, we would likely find more success if we sought out leaders who exemplified these very traits.

What President Monson taught us about Hufflepuff leaders

President Monson was credited with being a minister instead of an administrator. Heidi Swinton, his biographer, cites a quote from Mormon apostle Neil L. Andersen, “He doesn’t act as if he is an administrator who has to get through all of the issues, he acts more like a shepherd. That’s who he is, someone whose impact on people is more important than are his calculations or strategies for the church.” President Monson led an organization of 14.8 million people by focusing on individuals instead of institutions. How many organizational and societal difficulties could be alleviated if our leaders prioritized the time they spend in the trenches with those who are dealing with the greatest challenges?

Despite his individualized approach, he did recognize the power of global strategy and expanded the LDS Church’s mission to include “caring for the poor and needy.” By adjusting the Church’s mission, he elevated social programs, service, and humanitarian work within the LDS agenda, he put the institutional power behind such efforts, increasing involvement significantly. What impact could organizations have on overwhelming economic inequity if they were willing to change the mission of their organization to address these individuals?

President Monson embodied the inclusive approach of Helga Hufflepuff in how he interacted with other religious leaders. According to the Tribune, the Monday after he was sustained as prophet, he spoke of partnering with other religious faiths saying, that Mormons should “eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute for it the strength of people working together.” Rather than feeling a competitive edge with his fellow clergymen and women, he saw people with similar values that he could partner with. How many more problems would we solve if leaders were better at working together?

This ability to seek relationships with those who were in very different circumstances was highlighted again in his Deseret News obituary. For “21 years, until the [Berlin] wall fell in 1989, despite the close scrutiny and wariness of government officials, President Monson managed to regularly cross into [East Germany]. He forged friendships where it was felt friendships could not be forged, while strengthening church membership, preserving records, gaining approval for missionaries to enter the country and paving the way for a temple to be built in Freiberg.” The talent for reaching out with respect and authentic consideration is one we will likely need with increasing frequency as technology brings the world closer together despite sharp cultural and ideological differences.

It is especially in times of contrasting views that we need more Hufflepuffs in roles of leadership. McKay Coppins, in his Atlantic tribute to the prophet, made a similar observation: “In a country plagued by atomization—where ever more isolated people are growing ever more suspicious of their fellow citizens—Monson’s was, in its own way, a radically countercultural message. ‘Often we live side by side but do not communicate heart to heart,’ he said in 2009, imploring church members not to let ‘the busyness of our lives’ get in the way of Christian charity.'”

A note to aspiring leaders

If you, like me, are not a Hufflepuff, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you in leadership. The very essence of Hogwarts was to emphasize the importance of different strengths and weaknesses in a community. We need Gryffindors, Ravenclaws, and yes, even Slytherins in addition to Hufflepuffs. Rather than replace all of the leadership positions in the world with Hufflepuffs, we should increase their ranks to a more proportional size and seek to emulate their admirable qualities.

You might encourage a talented friend who does not seek out the limelight to throw their hat in the ring for a coveted position. You might identify the Hufflepuffs on your team and make a special effort to recognize their contributions. Or you might take stock of Hufflepuff qualities that could help you solve an important challenge in your life and make a plan to develop that aspect of yourself.

History provides centuries of leaders to learn from, but few embody the depth of love and caring that President Thomas S. Monson did. As we lose his quiet example Hufflepuff leadership, may we seek out ways to preserve a little of it in our own lives, homes, companies, countries, and communities.

 

 

 

 

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Seeking Charity: A Study of the Heart

In a recent study of charity, I came across an unexpected pattern. I had expected references to service, love, and charity to be plentiful in the Book of Mormon, but found that they were generally isolated to specific contexts such as King Benjamin’s sermon. However, there was a word that is often linked to the concept of love that showed up with surprising frequency: heart. In fact, the heart is referenced on average every 1.17 pages in The Book of Mormon.

These references include the people of Alma expressing that baptism “is the desire of our hearts” (Mos 18:11) and then that their “hearts [were] knit together in unity and love” (Mos 18:21). We see individuals “pour out their hearts to [God]” (Mos 24:12) and are asked if we have “experienced a change of our heart” (Alma 5:26). The state of our hearts is an integral part of conversion, perhaps because of its close relationship with repentance.

We see the Lord “prepare their hearts to receive the word” before Alma and Amulek teach (Alma 16:16), then Alma states that “the word […] must be planted in their hearts” (Alma 33:1). Those who were taught by Ammon and his brethren testify that repentance had “taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the mercies of his Son” (Alma 24:10). And after conversion, it was the origin of incredible joy as Ammon exclaims, “my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God” (Alma 26:11).

But the most prominent usage of the word heart is in reference to the dichotomy between hard heartedness and soft heartedness. While we can dedicate our hearts to the Lord, time and time again, The Book of Mormon makes reference to those who have set their hearts upon riches and the vain things of the world. While it is at the core of conversion, repentance, and divine joy, it can also be at the core of hate, bitterness, and greed.

Instead of thinking about charity as a series of outward expressions such as love, kindness, and service, this line of study convinced me that is deeply internal. Although it manifests itself in these outward expressions, it is actually a state of being at the center of who we are and what we value.

This new insight made Sister Carol F. McConkie’s talk on holiness from April General Conference stick out to me in a new way. Like charity, holiness seems to be an internal state of being, and in fact, Sister McConkie uses similar language in her opening statements: “I see the beauty of holiness in sisters whose hearts are centered on all that is good, who want to become more like the Savior. They offer their whole soul, heart, might, mind, and strength to the Lord in the way that they live every day.”

Charity and holiness go beyond righteousness that can be described in a list. Referencing the story of Mary and Martha, Sister McConkie teaches, “Sisters [and I would add Brethren], if we would be holy, we must learn to sit at the feet of the Holy One of Israel and give time to holiness. Do we set aside the phone, the never-ending to-do list, and the cares of worldliness?” In other words, upon what do we set our hearts? She continues, “Prayer, study, and heeding the word of God invite His cleansing and healing love into our souls. Let us take time to be holy, that we may be filled with His sacred and sanctifying Spirit.” It isn’t enough to do these actions, we must let them change us. That internal transformation is what leads to outward expressions of love, forgiveness, patience, gentleness, meekness, long-suffering, and compassion.

She concludes with a hope for all the sisters, “May our lives ever be a sacred offering, that we may stand before the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

I would venture to say that the state of our heart is linked with our holiness and I particularly loved the imagery of a sacrificial offering. As we think of charity in terms of the pure love of Christ, Christ’s love was manifested in how he consecrated all he did to the Father and then gave his life for each one of us, it seems to follow that charity could be seen as offering our hearts and lives to the Father as well.

One of the most beautiful discussions of this concept is a poem written by George Herbert, an Anglican priest in Wales during the 16th Century.

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,

Made of a heart and cemented with tears;

Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;

No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.

A HEART alone

Is such a stone,

As nothing but

Thy pow’r doth cut.

Wherefore each part

Of my hard heart

Meets in this frame

To praise thy name.

That if I chance to hold my peace,

These stones to praise thee may not cease.

Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,

And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

I pray that each of us will have heart-changing experiences, that we may choose to set our hearts upon the things of the Lord rather than the vain things of the world. I pray that this soft-heartedness will be manifested in all our actions and that we will exemplify the pure love of Jesus Christ.

Reflections on My Mission: Purpose and Grit

The beginning of my mission was hard. Soul-crushing, lonely, the stuff resilience is made of hard. Everything I had been excited about, so sure about came crumbling down around me with every investigator who flaked us and every person who sped by me without so much as a glance. I came to appreciate people who would actually say “No, thank you” or “I’m not interested” as they walked by because at least they were acknowledging me as a human being.

Then one day on a crowded bus I had a brief conversation with a graduate student. I told him about my missionary service and he told me about his research. He was from somewhere in Western Europe—the Netherlands, I think—and was studying how humanitarian relief efforts were approached in different countries. With every word, I was filled with more and more envy. If I’d written down a dream life on a piece of paper at that time, it would be exactly what he was doing. As far as I could tell, he was doing something big and important and interesting and noble and I knew that that was what I had given up to come on a mission.

The conversation ended when one of us got off the bus, I think it was his stop, and I was left with this lingering feeling of emptiness and the questions that had been on my mind for weeks flooding back with incredible magnitude: “Why was I here? Was I even accomplishing anything? Couldn’t I be making a bigger difference doing something else?”

Almost as soon as those thoughts crossed my mind, for the hundredth time, another one rose to meet them: “What he is doing is good, but what you are doing is essential.” Humanitarian aid would help people survive and hopefully thrive, but what I was sharing would transform lives eternally. I was offering people the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. In the parable of Mary and Martha, I was choosing the better part. And in that moment, I knew that no matter how many people ended up listening to me while I was on my mission and no matter what I ended up doing after I got home, that this was one of the most important things I would ever do.

After that day, my mission didn’t magically become any easier, but the realization shaped the way I dealt with frustratingly fruitless days, heart-breaking disappointments (because having an investigator call off their baptism is heart-breaking), and not give up in the face of mental health challenges. It gave me a reason to keep fighting and made the small miracles all the more sweet.

Autumn

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Growing up in Las Vegas where there are only two seasons (blazing hot oven and sort-of bearable), moving to Utah opened my eyes to what seasons could really be. And ever since the moment I looked up on my way home from class and the mountains had started changing colors and the cold nipped at my nose and ears, I have loved autumn…until this year.

For whatever reason, I was NOT ready for fall this time around. Summer is about rest and adventuring. Fall is about returning to school and friends and setting goals, and for whatever reason, I was not quite ready to be responsible just yet. I didn’t feel ready for the balancing act of homework on top of work work and social responsibilities. It’s not that I didn’t want it to come, I just wasn’t ready for it to come quite so soon.

But yesterday, a fellow autumn-lover taught our lesson at church. The topic was the sacrament, which normally makes you think about spring and Easter, right? But she shared something I didn’t know about fall. You see, if all the trees didn’t turn bright orangey-hues and let go of their leaves, they would die. They wouldn’t be able to survive the winter and they wouldn’t be able to generate new growth in the spring. Fall and the sacrament is about shedding our burdens and growing deeper roots so that we can get taller and be green again.

If you’ve ever had a time in your life when you’re just kind of living day-to-day and weren’t sure what you were doing or if God was even that interested, and then something subtle jumped out at you and you were like, “This! This was for me! This is what I needed to hear right now,” that was me during this lesson yesterday. Not only did I need to hear about the sacrament, but I needed to hear it in terms of something really personal to me. As stupid as it sounds, I think God knew that my negative feelings about fall were bugging me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and why something I normally love so much, was bringing me the opposite of joy. And so He reached into my heart and gave me a new reason to love this time of year.

People always say that God is in the details of our lives, but sometimes I don’t give Him enough credit. Happy Autumn everyone!

 

Reflections on My Mission: Fear and Faith

 

Buckeye

Every mission has its challenges, and every missionary has their challenges. One of my challenges was street contacting. In Poland, a staunch Catholic, post-Soviet nation, we didn’t have a lot of investigators, or members to visit, so we spent the majority of our time on the street trying to find people to teach.

This entailed walking up to strangers, trying to start a conversation, and bringing up things like their relationship with God, their hopes for their family, and what role religion played in their life, an intimidating task without a language barrier.

This turned out to be significantly more difficult for me than I’d anticipated. Every time I saw another person, an internal battle would rage inside of me about whether or not I was going to contact them. I knew it was the right thing to do, that I had flown half-way across the world to do just that, but every muscle in my body told me it was too scary, too awkward, and I wasn’t very good at speaking Polish anyway.

Then, after I would walk past them, I was filled with guilt for not following through. I mean, I even had a companion right next to me to help me out if I stumbled.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first, but what became even more difficult was the fact that it didn’t get better with time. Months went by, and it was still a terrifying battle just to walk on the streets or sit next to someone on a bus. I didn’t understand why God’s response to my struggle to serve Him wasn’t to help me out.

I arrived in Poland at the beginning of Fall, and during one of my first weeks there my companion and I were going for a walk with a member named Ania. On our walk, Ania bent down and picked up one of the buckeyes that were all over the ground in the park. She explained that they were lucky, and that many Polish people would take them home and keep them on shelves, in drawers, and in their pockets. So, of course, I picked a few up and put them in my pockets.

What this meant was that every time I was having one of my internal battles about whether or not I was going to contact a person, I was clenching the buckeyes in my pockets. In order to talk to a person, I needed to let go, take my hands out of my pockets, and open my mouth.

Every time I let go of the buckeyes, it was an act of faith. Of letting go of my fears and trusting God and trusting myself. Of allowing myself to make mistakes. If I could just let go of the buckeye, I would have the courage to take my hands out of my pockets and talk to the person passing by.

I have some good news and some bad news about how this story ends. The good news is that I survived my mission and met some of the most amazing people, several of them by street contacting.

You see, over months and months of missionary work, I trained myself to let go of the buckeye as soon as I saw a person. But that didn’t mean that it was any easier or that it didn’t take just as much faith. I remember contacting on the very last day of my mission and consciously realizing that I had just as much fear and anxiety about contacting as I did at the beginning of my mission, and yet it was my automatic response. Why?

For starters, my desire to do it had increased because I had seen the impact of the gospel in several people’s lives. And once I got passed the initial contacting phase of the conversation, meeting new people and learning about their lives was one of my absolute favorite things about my mission, even when they decided they didn’t want to learn more about Mormonism. Although the fear never really went away, I was still able to move forward and have good experiences.

A few months ago I was taking a walk during my lunch break and when I looked down I saw a whole bunch of buckeyes on the ground. It made me smile. Being from Las Vegas, I’d never seen them in the United States before, so naturally I knelt down and picked one up.

It’s funny how it somehow made its way into my pocket on days when I had to teach a lesson, a big meeting, or the day I started graduate school. Every time I put my hands in my pocket, it reminds me that I can do scary things, that I can trust the Lord even when I’m afraid, and that I can’t let the fear of making mistakes stop me from moving forward with my life.

So here’s one of my stories of fear and faith. What are the buckeyes that have given you strength to succeed in your life?

The Widow of Nain

A couple of weeks ago I walked into my New Testament class as usual on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:00 pm. I had done the reading, but sometimes I have a hard time really internalizing the magnificence of the New Testament. There are so many commandments and miracles and sermons and more miracles jammed into a few pages that I get lost in it all and the individual stories loose their meaning.

It was that way with the Widow of Nain. It’s a shorter story in which Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead. It’s relatively brief, and is often overshadowed by the Daughter of Jarius. But I’m really grateful for an insightful religion professor who took the time to teach me about this woman.

What you need to know about the Widow of Nain is that in Jewish culture, if you were a widow then your son was responsible to take care of you. With the death of this woman’s only son, she now had absolutely nothing and no way to take care of herself. That is why everyone in the little village came out to the funeral- they felt so bad for her and her desperate situation. She was at rock bottom and wondering what she had ever done to deserve this.

What you need to know about Jesus is that he was miles away in a city called Capernaum. There was no really direct route to Nain. He would have had to be meaning to go to Nain to be in Nain. It’s a town several miles off the beaten path. He did not know the Widow personally. But somehow in the middle of the night he woke up, got dressed, and started walking. He walked all night long so that he would reach Nain at the time of the funeral so he could raise this widow’s son from the dead. Somehow he knew her situation and her faith and did everything in order to bless her.

What an amazing testimony to the character of Jesus. I know that even when I feel like I’m cut off from everything, alone, and desperate he knows where I am and what I’m feeling and will come to me.

Tracy is Coming Home!

Dear Family,
I don’t think that it’s set in yet that I’m going home… this week. That this is my last e-mail to you all as a missionary. So strange. I just feel normal because this is exactly what I’ve done every P-day for the last year and a half, like clockwork. I’m having a hard time understanding that it’s going to end. But end it will. My closet is looking very bare as I pack things up.

I did receive my Christmas package. Thank you sooooo much. I love the makeup and everything fits nicely in that little bag. I’ll probably send a couple books home so that I can buy some Polish pottery on my last day in Warsaw. I’m taking the train into Warsaw on Thursday and heard that Sister Bailey and I are going to meet with Anna. A woman I taught last year and then got transfered a couple weeks before her baptism, Sister Bailey came in and finished preparing her for baptism and so we both have a special place in our heart for her and I’m super excited to see her before I leave.

We’ve mostly been working with three investigators this transfer:
Emilia who moved to Canada today actually, so we won’t meet with her this week, but I have her contact information and we’re going to stay in touch.
Teresa her granddaughter went into the hospital today so we’re going to go by there this evening and see if we can lend some comfort and joy
Magda who lost her phone and so we haven’t had contact with her since before Christmas. She lives 30 minutes outside of Lodz and so we tried to visit her last week, but she wasn’t home when we dropped by. I’m super sad that I might not get to see her again, but I will definitely send her some letters.
Teresa and Magda have been investigating for a while, so this isn’t strange for them to have missionaries change. Plus they saw Elder Smith go home a few weeks ago.
Besides investigators we’re going to meet with a few members this week: We’re helping Sureeat, a Thai member, prepare to go to the temple and Ania. Besides that, we’re going to contact and trakt like normal. So it’ll be a normal week sort of.

I am so excited for Scott. Based on his clues, there are only 4 missions I can think of: Mongolia, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. He will do great whereever the Lord sends him.

I love you all so much. I want you to know that I have a testimony of this church. I love it and I love representing my Savior everyday. I know that as we come closer to God we are happier and that the Book of Mormon is one of the most powerful ways of doing that. I can’t wait to see all your smiling faces at 11:30 at night. Have a great week. See you Friday.

Siostra Allen

WARNING: Weird things I will probably do
Give Polish hug, kiss on the cheek greetings
Try and feed guests the minute they walk in the door
Comment on how people should dress warmer and fix peoples scarves so they cover their whole neck.
Speak Polish at strange times and expect everyone to understand what I’m saying
Be overly honest. Ex: How do you feel? American response: Great! Polish response: I’m tired and my back hurts
Feel like I have to plan out my day the night before and use a planner
Follow you around because I can’t be alone