James T. Summerhays, “Top CIA Exec is New Convert, Tells Story”, Meridian Magazine
Stephanie Smith received an MPA at Harvard University and worked her way up in the CIA to become Director of Support, managing the largest directorate in the organization. For 25 years she was at the highest level of the senior executive cadre managing intelligence, public diplomacy and defense —but for Stephanie, something was missing.
Before Conversion (BC)
So let’s go back in time a bit – to the period I’ll call “BC” – Before conversion. Let me begin with a clear view of my “before” picture. I had been raised by tremendous, faithful Catholic parents who scrimped and saved to send me to a Catholic school. I believed in God, in Jesus Christ, and in the Catholic notion of the trinity. I understood the Ten Commandments. I knew very clearly what sin was.
I went to mass every Sunday. That was a 45-minute ritual for me. It was part of my routine, like going to the gym, except it took less time and required nothing of me but attendance. I never read the scriptures independently; I never volunteered for my church; I never fully tithed; and in fact, I didn’t know the names of more than 2 parishioners at St. Michael’s in Annandale, where I went to church for 20 years. And I only knew those names because I worked with them.
Given this remarkably weak spiritual foundation, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that in my adult years, I transgressed very far from the commandments of my Heavenly Father.
Now if you looked at my adult years from a secular perspective – sort of like looking at my resume – you might be impressed. But you should not be fooled.
To be sure, I’ve achieved a fair measure of secular success, but with it came a very coarse way of life. I was a very hard-driving person, I believed in achieving my goals at all costs. And I did what it took to get there first: if it meant working 7 days a week, up to 18 hours a day, I did so. If it meant immersing myself in professional ambitions at the expense of my husband, I did so. If it meant adopting the language of a blasphemer, I did so. If it meant trampling on the feelings of others, I did so. If it meant breaking promises, I often did so. If it meant engaging in gossip, plotting, and office politics I did that too.
And the results were actually pretty astounding: I was often the “first” woman in my field to achieve something; I was promoted at a speed that astounded even me. And in the process, I came to live by a standard that is really pretty troubling when I look back on it and see it clearly now: Get there first, and clean up your road-kill later.
Along the way, I committed sins of pride, arrogance, ego, envy, greed, and great, great vanity. I took up the worst ways of the world. To make matters worse, I rationalized my sins. I reasoned that some of what I did really wasn’t a sin, because others did it too. Or it wasn’t a sin because I faced unique pressures and temptations.
Brothers and sisters, among Satan’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, I can tell you that rationalization is the most powerful.
Every once in a while, I told myself I would change and do better. But always that improvement was put on the back-burner until the next career goal was achieved.
My disturbing logic might well remind you of the passage in Alma, Chapter 5, verse 37:
O ye workers of iniquity; ye that are puffed up in the vain things of the world, ye that have professed to have known the ways of righteousness nevertheless have gone astray, as sheep having no shepherd, notwithstanding a shepherd hath called after you and is still calling after you, but ye will not hearken unto his voice!
Let me assure you that if you had observed me during a typical work day, you would never have been able to tell I was a Christian. By 2005, riding a wave of success that was built on compromised values and sheer exhaustion, I’m not sure I recognized myself as a Christian, either.
In that year, I began the pinnacle job of my career at CIA, as Director for Support. I was the first woman to hold that job. It was the biggest leadership job of my life. I had the best office at CIA Hqs, with all due respect to Director Panetta. And I worked very, very hard.
Yet even as I was enjoying tremendous secular success, my world was starting to crack. Within 2 months of taking that job, I landed in the hospital for 4 days with a nasty gastric problem and severe exhaustion, after working nearly 20 hours a day for far too many days in a row. But things got worse from there.
By the spring of 2006, CIA was embroiled in the usual stew of lurid headlines, and I found myself for the first time ever near the center of that storm – as two of my esteemed colleagues – men of enormous worldly achievement – fell into personal crises that resulted in their firings, a huge amount of media glare, and the beginning of a three-year criminal investigation that would require me to serve as a Government witness, and that resulted in a jail term for one of these colleagues.
Their crises were horrifying for me. But when God gives us a crisis, He also grants us an opportunity. And so it was with me. I began to inspect my own life pretty thoroughly, and I saw that I had fallen far from grace. I was forced to acknowledge that I was not simply a person who gave into sin every now and again. I had become a profoundly sinful person. I no longer knew what I believed or who I believed in. But I knew my life was shattering into a million jagged pieces.
Calling a Colleague
Then, and only then, did I turn to God. Feeling quite uncertain, I called a colleague I very much admired who was a member of the Church. Looking back, I believe that one of the reasons I called him – rather than dialing a Catholic priest — had a lot to do with who he was as a person, but it also had a bit to do with Gordon B. Hinckley. Let me digress to explain: several years earlier, during the Salt Lake Olympics, I was on a night flight overseas, and I picked up a news magazine that had the Olympics splashed across its front pages.
My husband will tell you I am no fan of the Olympics, but I was prompted to pick up the magazine for some reason and read a story about the Mormons. I’m sure it explained Mormon doctrine, but the only thing I really remember is that the President of the church, this fellow Gordon B. Hinckley, was asked why so many people were turning to the LDS faith after 9/11, and President Hinckley said it was because they were looking for something “solid, strong, and true.” I’m not quite sure why those three words made such an impression on me back then, but I wrote them down on a scrap of paper and stuffed them into my wallet, where they remained in 2006.
So in 2006, in a state of crisis, I reached out to my Mormon colleague. His response to me consisted of two simple messages: first, he told me that my Heavenly Father knows me by name and loves me for who I am. And second, he told me that Heavenly Father has a plan for my success – but not success as I had come to define it. The next day he sent me hand-drawn directions to the DC Temple Visitors Center.
I share this with you because he did not teach me the gospel, he didn’t explain what Mormons believe, he didn’t ask a single question of me. Instead, he gave me two clear messages about Heavenly Father’s love for me, and he drew me a map. Looking back on it, I’d say those were pretty much the only things I needed to take on this journey.
Soon after I went to the Visitor’s Center, two missionaries visited my home. Several people in this room know that the first time Sister McDonald and Sister Clark landed on my doorstep, I was mortified. They were so young and innocent I had no idea how I would explain my troubled and headstrong life. I figured they would never be able to relate. They began our meeting by asking me if they could sing for me. They sang “I Am a Child of God.” From that moment on I was captivated. It became irrelevant whether they could relate to me. I began relating to them, and to the profoundly joyful message they shared.
I took lessons throughout the summer and fall of 2006. At first, my husband Bill had no knowledge of this and I was afraid he and my entire family would think I was crazy if I even mentioned it. I was running a covert operation. When he finally met the good sisters, he was immediately captivated as well. He is an investigator of this church, and a true friend to every missionary.
The good sisters paired with me several Saints at Annandale Ward who studied with me for the next 6 months. I struggled mightily to accept what they were telling me. I struggled to believe the Book of Mormon was an authentic testament of Jesus Christ. I struggled with the seemingly fantastical account of Joseph Smith’s vision. Everyone patiently answered my questions and encouraged me to read and pray and know for myself. There was no pressure, no coercion, no hard sell.
I cannot tell you for certain the first time I actually came to know that these teachings were true, but I recall one early clear moment that crystallizes so much. One evening I was hurriedly reading my missionary homework when I was stopped cold by Amulek’s great exhortation on prayer that can be found in Alma 34, and in particular, verse 26:
I realized then that Amulek was speaking directly to me, because I was definitely in a wilderness and I definitely needed to pour my heart out. From that simple passage, I came to know for certain the Book of Mormon was true. I knew it was of God. My testimony of the Book of Mormon was so strong that my other questions fell away.
If you ever doubt that members and missionaries can change a life, let me offer my testimony. I could not have made it this far – in fact, I do not believe I could have survived the summer of 2006 — without those young missionaries. But it was important for me to also learn and fellowship with members. I saw by their example that this was a faith that could be practiced. It could be lived each day, in the world as it is — in a world of work, commercialism, temptations, and distractions.
Of course a part of the journey I needed to take on my own. That part was repentance. That is the hardest part of the journey, as you know. It is also a continuing journey. My first prayers as an investigator were awkward and child-like, and began something like this, “Heavenly Father, I know you already know that I’ve made a mess of everything, but let me just tell you about all of it anyway.” There were times – and there still are – when my prayers amount to pleading for forgiveness, for guidance, and to be restored to a “clean heart and right spirit,” as Psalm 51 describes.
I was baptized in January 2007, supported by my entire family, who were happy that I found peace. My baptism was joyful and comforting beyond measure.
But conversion is a process. The Bible dictionary tells us that conversion is a conscious acceptance of the will of God. I also find the secular dictionary definition illuminating: it tells us that to convert is to change or to turn around. I like to think conversion is not simply about turning your life around but turning toward something more powerful than you – literally, the will of God.
So now let me tell you a little bit of what has happened “AC” – after conversion.
Let me say clearly: I did not magically change after conversion and baptism. I still struggle with vanity, pride, and ego. My conversion was not like the flipping of a miraculous light switch.
In truth, it has been better than that. For me, conversion has been more like an incandescent light that began slowly, almost imperceptibly, deep within me. The light gave off warmth, but I had to recognize it. Sometimes that feeling of warmth comes unexpectedly; at other times, it comes when I feel stressed, panicked, uncertain. I have come to know that this light is the Holy Ghost, and that I must fuel the light with prayer, scripture reading, and obedience.
Fueling that light has not been easy, however. A central irony of my life, brothers and sisters, is that my post-conversion years have been the least successful chapter of my life thus far, if you judge only by conventional measures. Ironically, when I was living a faithless life, I was immensely successful – at the top of my professional game, with more friends and associates than hours in a day.
That changed abruptly. A new leadership team came into power at CIA in late 2006, and my tenure came to an end. Because of my seniority, I had no next job at CIA, so I sat jobless in an isolated office for 5 months, trying to figure out what to do next.
I had to rebuild my life brick by brick, precept by precept – aided by the gospel and a wonderful community of believers and doers. I found work in two other government agencies – State Department and the mighty US Navy — and started fresh – without credentials, friends, or peers. This experience turned out to be a tremendous blessing.
I also came to realize that Heavenly Father cleared my calendar for another kind of mission: His work. Heavenly Father needed to get my attention by silencing some of the noise in my life, so that I could finally hearing him calling to me.
I should also share that many colleagues whom I thought to be friends no longer speak with me. Perhaps for some it is because I am no longer in a position of seniority. But in some cases, I came to understand they were struggling to fathom my conversion to this church. I can understand this, because I was the most unlikely Mormon in the world—at 10 cups of coffee a day! I’ve actually heard 3 explanations for my conversion:
- First, and most obvious, I am having a midlife crisis.
- Then I heard I ran off with a Mormon guy and he forced me to convert. This will come as news to Bill!
- A third explanation – and this one is really priceless – is that somehow, back in 2006 when I first began investigating the church, I figured out that Mitt Romney would run for President in 2008, so I became a Mormon as a way to jockey for a key place in his Administration. You can see that people ascribe great predictive powers to me!
So it’s fair to say that a lot of the people around me believe I have LOST IT.
But it is my pleasure, my joy, and my duty to tell them that I HAVE FOUND IT.
So what have I found?
I have found the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. A gospel of pure love and abiding hope.
I have found the blessing, the peace and the safety of the temple.
I have found my place in a vibrant community of believers – brothers and sisters who nurture and inspire me and move me to tears on a regular basis.
I have found that repentance is hard, but it is possible and miraculous.
I have found that when we are serving others, we are healing ourselves.
I have found a living faith that compels more of its members than attendance….a faith that is solid, strong, and true.
It is fair to say that every conversion journey is unique. But for some converts, like me, that journey includes a fair amount of internal churning and turbulence. We do not join the church because the choice is easy or obvious. It is the most important decision we will make, and many, like me, make the decision without family members joining us. So the decision can be isolating.
Ultimately, I joined the church because I could no longer deny the truth of the restored gospel and I could no longer sustain the dead weight of my old self. In my mind, that is the deepest definition of true conversion: the undeniable reality that we must abandon the old self and give birth to the new self. And with that birth, most assuredly, comes labor pains. Those pains are like the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. That metamorphosis takes place almost invisibly to the human eye, so it can seem quite natural, seamless, and graceful. But in truth, that process is highly tumultuous. The caterpillar’s structure is basically broken down – reduced only to its basic nutrients — all else is stripped away. But from that difficult process – and only as a result of that process — a butterfly emerges.
Today I know that the work of the gospel — the goal of aspiring to Christ-like obedience and service — is a work for all of us. We are all called to this life. A life of faith, obedience, and service is rarely convenient, however. But it a life aglow – literally incandescent – with purpose.
So, my first ascent took me to the top of an organizational chart, and that view was not all that it was cracked up to be. My second ascent, which has only just begun, gives me an even better view — of eternity. There are no organization charts, offices, or parking spaces with this ascent. We travel much lighter when we travel with Heavenly Father.
If you are investigating this church, I humbly encourage you to pray to know the truth. Search the scriptures. I bear you my testimony that you will come to know for yourself.
If you are a member, please take the time to understand, and embrace, the evolving butterflies among you. The impacts of their metamorphosis may not be fully visible to you, but believe me, they need you.
Now that you know more about me than you wanted to know, it is my turn – as a trained intelligence professional — to ask you:
What is your conversion story?
Have you thought deeply about your own journey of faith?
What do you believe, and why do you believe it?
If you have not yet begun this journey, what are you waiting for? If you are not turning to the will of God, what are you turning to instead? If you are not seeking to live eternally with Heavenly Father and your families, what are you seeking instead? As we account for our days, it really is true that some things are simply more important than others.
Brothers and sisters, my heart is joyful as I declare to you that I know this gospel is true and this church is true. I know our Savior died for me, and his Atonement is powerful enough for all of us. THIS IS WHY I BELIEVE.