Johanna Smith’s Interview of Sarah Elizabeth Jensen

By Maralise Petersen

Sarah Jensen is the author of “Women Proclaiming the Gospel on Missions: An Historical Overview” in our Spring 2006 issue. She lives in Washington D.C.

Maralise says you’re a Presidential Management Fellow; I’ve been to a dot gov site, but though I can tell when the class of 2004 reunion is going to be, I can’t for the life of me figure out what a PMF actually is or does. Tell me what it is you do.

As a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), I do what I love—find ways to use federal policies and programs to meet the needs of the American public, and of our children in particular. Although the PMF program (www.opm.pmf.gov) allows fellow to rotate within and outside of the government during their 2-year tenure, I have spent all of my time to date in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education. I feel strongly about our responsibility to provide all children with a quality education and have been directing a new Secretarial initiative to identify promising practices that—based on the best research available—show promise in improving student outcomes. While it is widely agreed that education is both an art and a science, this initiative is an effort to move the education field toward the use of practices that are backed by rigorous scientific research. It is also designed to help states, districts, schools and teachers implement effective practices with fidelity. The notion is, of course, that as we translate research about what works into practice, more and more of our nation’s students will meet proficiency in mathematics and reading by the year 2014, which is the ultimate goal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

So, in a nutshell, your work is to see what will work to make No Child Left Behind work?

Yes. As with most legislation, there have been some hiccups with implementation out in the field and we’re trying to help states, districts and schools do the best they can to meet the high expectations of the law.

Tell me about yourself—your background, family now and that you grew up in, interests, etc.

I am the daughter of two exceptional people, Larry Jensen and Terri Fisher Jensen. They raised me and my two sisters, Jennifer and Emily, in Woodbridge, VA and in Salt Lake City, UT. The gospel was the center of our family life. When Jenny, Emily and I were young women, we made a pact that we would all serve missions. And we were all true to it in one way or another. Jenny served from 1999-00 in the Florida, Orlando Spanish-speaking Mission; I served from 2001-02 in the Wisconsin, Milwaukee Mission. My younger sister, Emily, who suffered traumatic brain injury in a 1999 car accident, has served a different type of mission, building the faith of members and nonmembers alike as she has traveled locally and nationally telling the story of how her testimony of the Atonement has helped her endure.

I graduated from high school in Salt Lake City, and earned a B.A. from BYU in history with a minor in communications. During college, I was active in student government; spent a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem; traveled to Mexico as part of a Spanish-language immersion program; interned in the U.S. Senate for Senator Robert F. Bennett (R-UT) and, as mentioned before, served a mission in Milwaukee. After graduating from BYU, I moved to Boston where I completed a Master’s degree in Education Policy and Management at Harvard. I also co-directed the East Coast Young Single Adults Education Conference held at Harvard Business School in 2005, which was attended by over 700 LDS single adults. It was really amazing to see people come from as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida to be taught by spiritual and intellectual giants; Truman and Ann Madsen and Richard and Claudia Bushman to name a few.

I now live in an old row home in Georgetown, a community in the NW quarter of Washington D.C., 25 minutes from where I grew up and four miles from my office. A few of my favorite things about Washington include running on Saturday mornings along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal tow path; the view of the Potomac from the top of the Kennedy Center, and the Cherry Blossom Festival each spring. But as much as I love D.C., I’m always curious to see what else is out there and so make a point of traveling often. Most of my recent trips have taken me to mission companions’ weddings—San Diego; Spanish Fork, Utah; Alberta, Canada, and Ontario, California. I’m trying to make it to every one. Among my other passions: writing, reading, debating, teaching and entertaining.

How did you decide to go on a mission?

During my time at BYU, marriage and family were eventual goals of mine but I was restless, driven and anxious to be part of the larger world. My decision to serve a mission was, in part, a declaration of independence, a temporary release from any pressure I may have felt to follow a certain path.

It was also a decision that came as the result of divine direction. Never in my life had I received a more direct answer than I did when I prayed about whether or not I should serve a mission. Years later, I still have not had a more powerful witness. The power of that personal revelation was no coincidence; the Lord knew that I would need to draw strength from that experience time and time again. Throughout my mission, as I wrestled with the challenges common to so many missionaries—managing personality conflicts with companions, placing my wants below others’ needs, submitting to the counsel of those with stewardship over me, enduring long days and dealing with disappointment and dejection—I was able to take confidence in knowing that, as with Nephi, the Lord would provide a way for me to accomplish that which he had asked me to do.

Did your experience follow the pattern of contemporary sister missionaries you wrote about, ie, did you find that “men’s ordination to the priesthood was largely irrelevant to the quality or the nature of the womens’ missionary effort”?

The quality and nature of the women’s missionary effort in my mission was not affected by women’s lack of priesthood authority. The women I served with diligently did what they could do—worked hard, obeyed the mission rules, bore heartfelt testimony and loved those they taught—and then turned to the elders to interview baptismal candidates and perform the baptismal and confirmation ordinances. It was my experience that most sister missionaries very much believed the words found in Doctrine & Covenants 46:11-12, where we learn that “all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man [and woman] is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” It was clear to me, at least, that the elders profited the Lord’s work by righteously using the gift given them—the authority to act in His name—and that the sister missionaries profited the Lord’s work by using fully the particular spiritual gifts they possessed.

That said, the missionary system is for the most part designed to serve the needs of male missionaries. As a result, the mission setting is not always a comfortable environment for females to operate in. Many of us know well-intentioned sister missionaries who, for one reason or another, were not able to adapt and opted to return home. Fortunately, there have been some changes to the missionary program such that sisters’ unique needs are being better met. For example, in many missions, female missionaries are assured a car where public transportation is not available (because riding a bike in a skirt, as those of us who have done it will attest, is a difficult task). In addition, sisters who work hard are often provided opportunities to assume increased responsibility either as district leaders in all-female districts or as lead sisters. In other missions, the mission president’s wife is given a special assignment to befriend and support female missionaries or hosts bi-annual sisters’ conferences where all the female missionaries gather at the mission home to learn from one another and to build sisterhood.

Church statistics suggest that the percentage of Mormon women serving missions has increased over the past 20 years or so. Why do you think this is?

Because the Church does not commonly release longitudinal missionary statistics broken out by gender, it is unclear whether the number of women serving missions has increased over the past 20 years as overall Church membership has increased, or whether the percentage of women serving has increased. Assuming the latter, there could be several explanations. Certainly the fact that women in general are marrying later in life is one factor. More women are reaching the age of 21 still single and are able to give serious consideration to serving. Another explanation could be that female missionary service is more commonly accepted in the Church. Stereotypes that cast sister missionaries as unable to get married, overweight, fraught with emotional problems or interested in turning an elder into a husband have been replaced by the notion that sisters are some of the hardest working and most effective missionaries.

I would love to hear a little more about the life of one of the first sister missionaries, Amanda Knight or Lucy Brimhall. What interesting, courageous women they must have been. I bet they had some stories to tell. Do you know anything more about their lives, or the lives of any of the other early sister missionaries?

There were many women that served missions prior to 1898 when Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall ventured to Great Britain. For a complete chronicling of these women and their years of service, consult Calvin Kunz’s 1976 thesis, “A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898.” What made Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall significant is that they were single and they proselyted. Most of the female missionaries that served before them were married and those that were not married were involved in teaching, tending children or performing genealogical work but did not proselyte.

Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were called and set apart in April of 1898 and served under President Joseph McMurrin in England. Brimhall served for eight months and then was given an honorable release due to health concerns. She was replaced by Liza Chapman who continued to serve with Inez Knight until May 1900. According to official Church records, there were two additional single female missionaries set apart in 1898: Sarah E. Aspen who served in the Eastern States and Rhoda C. Nash who served in California.

Inez Knight lived from 1876-1937. She was the daughter of Jesse Knight, a farmer, miner, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He is also the man for whom the Jesse Knight Humanities Building (JKHB) on Brigham Young University’s campus is named. We know something of Inez’s missionary experience because she kept a diary from 1898-1899 while serving in England. In her diary—which is housed at the Harold B. Lee Library—Knight remembered that “We attended Priesthood meeting at which I was the only girl. I felt more conspicuous by the elders beginning their remarks, ‘My brethren and sister.’” She also recounts urging the elders to discontinue referring to their weekly formal gatherings as “priesthood meetings” and to use a more non-gendered name. Following Inez’s mission, she married Robert Eugene Allen and gave birth to five children.

What a woman! What a great example of a pioneering spirit. And while she’s certainly interesting to read about, how do you hope knowing hers and the rest of this history will help or affect the women who read it?

We as Mormon women have few female role models in the scriptures. This is especially true of the Book of Mormon where only four women are mentioned by name: Sariah, the wife of Lehi (1 Nephi 2:5); Mary, the mother of Jesus (Mosiah 3:8); Abish, a Lamanite convert, (Alma 19:6) and Isabel the harlot (Alma 39:3). As we know, the Book of Mormon is the cornerstone of our religion and the most correct book of any on the earth and yet we learn little about the lives and contributions of women from it. For this reason, I believe it is important for LDS women to study the heroines of modern church history including Inez Knight, Lucy Jane Brimhall, Liza Chapman and so many others. Certainly for young women considering full-time missionary service, it is important for them to understand that while they may not be encouraged to serve, if they choose to, they will continue a legacy of faithful female missionary service in the church and be used in unique and important ways to build the Lord’s kingdom.

I’ve always found it a little weird to tell my friends and family who aren’t LDS about the rule differences for men and women serving missions. Though I’m not sure my feelings have changed, it was a real insight for me to read the line in your essay, “are not the souls of those born in Zion as precious in the Lord’s sight as those who are brought from afar?” I’d never thought of it in those terms before, and put in that light it makes a lot more sense to me than just, “the best thing for women is marriage.” What are your feelings about that concept?

The quote that you reference above certainly resonates with me. Some women serve formal missions bringing souls to Christ wherever they may labor, other women bring their children to Christ within the walls of their own home and some women are privileged to do both. For them, the transition from life as a full-time missionary to life as a wife and mother can simply be regarded as a “mission transfer”—the location changes but the work remains the same.

Having studied some of the experiences of early sister missionaries and having served a mission yourself, what is the one most important piece of advice you would give to a young woman who is awaiting a call to serve?

Be humble. Be humble when you receive your mission call and it isn’t where you would have chosen to go. Be humble when you arrive in the field and your trainer is trying to teach you. Be humble when it comes to keeping the mission rules, never assuming that you know better or that you are exempt. Be humble when the people whose doors you knock on turn you away angrily or demean your faith. Be humble when your companion frustrates you. Be humble when your zone or district leaders–who are 2 years younger than you–try to help you. Be humble when your mission president counsels you. Be humble with your investigators: teach them but learn from them as well. Be humble when you write home, expressing thanks to your family and friends for the ways in which they’ve blessed your life. Be humble enough to listen to the Spirit–to go down a certain street, to share a certain scripture, to do something different than you had planned. Be humble.

About Maralise Petersen


13 thoughts on “Johanna Smith’s Interview of Sarah Elizabeth Jensen”

  1. Sarah–I loved hearing your perspective on a woman's role in missionary service. I think this topic could be easily portrayed as overly simplified or excessively complicated, and I feel that you bridged that gap very acutely. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. So, Sarah, you feel the No Child Left Behind is a good program, then? I'm totally without opinion, but I've heard a lot of criticism and wondered what to believe.

    I think Robert Bennett is a very good man. He is a true gentleman and statesman. I hope you enjoyed working with him, he was very kind to me.

    And you got to meet Truman Madsen! I heard him speak once at a Special Interest conference and how he made our hearts soar as he suggested that we could go to the Celestial Kingdom even if we had been divorced.

    I suppose "be humble" is good advice, well, I know it is. It's not my favorite advice, though 🙂

    You've had a fortunate life, do you realize that?

  3. Sarah, I'm jealous. I spent my Saturdays as a teenager traipsing around Georgetown, fantasizing about the row house I would own someday. Or at least live in.

    So, thank you again for your article, and thank you for the interview. You're inspiring. Will you tell us how your church service influences your public service, and vice versa?

  4. Sarah, this interview is exceptional. You covered many issues in a very thoughtful and objective manner. I especially enjoyed your comment about longitudinal study. It shows your breath of knowledge and command of broad subject matters. Again, exceptional!

  5. What a great interview with great insight from a truly exceptional woman! I have had the privilege to learn a lot from Sarah (full disclosure – we work together) and I am thrilled that she has found a forum to share with others who have not had the privilege to meet her.

  6. What a woman you are! I love you and am proud of you… for what you know, for what you understand, for how you desire to serve, and, most importantly, for who you are…

  7. Wow!!! What a wonderful interview. I am proud of you and even more proud of what you share in your interview. Sarah, you are blessed and will always be blessed with more knowledge because of your willingness to learn:) I love your advice to all the future sisters…You are totally right! BE HUMBLE!!

  8. Once again, Sarah: YOU ARE AMAZING!!! This is an exceptional interview. Wouldn't expect anything else coming from you. You are beautiful inside and out and this article only proves that even more. Love, Dawna


Leave a Comment