WASHINGTON, D.C., — Tomicah S. Tillemann, a senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, told interns of the BYU Washington Seminar in Washington D.C. that “deciding to go on a mission was the single most important decision” in his life.
Speaking March 19 at the Barlow Center, where the students live during their internships, Brother Tillemann explained how his missionary experience set the trajectory for his personal life and his professional career, where he has become a catalyst in helping others realize their potential.
He said that as he served in the Hungary Budapest Mission he observed the country’s relatively young democracy and learned about the importance of nurturing such democracies, getting civil society and the private sector involved and reaching out to bring people together. That experience laid the groundwork for his later service on Capitol Hill and for the U.S. Department of State.
Brother Tillemann, a member of the McLean 2nd Ward, McLean Virginia Stake, grew up in Denver, Colo., the eldest of 10 children and a grandson of former U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos. He is a Fulbright Scholar who received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his Ph.D. from the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
After working as a policy advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brother Tillemann became a speechwriter for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She later appointed him senior advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies. Continuing in that capacity under Secretary Kerry, Brother Tillemann’s job is to identify ideas that can be translated into worldwide initiatives to strengthen new democracies and civil society. His work is at the core of the State Department’s efforts to redefine the traditional power relationship between government and citizens.
“If you think of democracy as an operating system, you need someone to help install it and someone to help improve the user interface,” he explained. “We want to give citizens the tools to turn their ideas into outcomes.”
Brother Tillemann’s staff engages the talent and technology of private sector partners, including business leaders and media entities like Facebook, to help citizen groups build their communities. A particular focus is on finding ways to give citizens more access to information, although he noted that “some governments embrace this phenomenon, but others push back.”
One of the most important initiatives under Secretary Kerry has been the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, which enables the State Department to work with churches on humanitarian and other issues.
It’s an intense job that requires extensive travel and time away from home, but it has given Brother Tillemann opportunities to share his faith and more fully recognize the spiritual component of his efforts.
He recalled that on a trip to rural Mongolia with many senior State Department officials, Secretary Clinton requested he tell the group more about the LDS Church. For one hour, Brother Tillemann had the opportunity of explaining his beliefs and Church programs. Secretary Clinton noted that the Church is a remarkable example of a civil society in which people look out for each other and work to improve each other’s lives.
On a diplomatic trip to Israel, Brother Tillemann felt compelled to visit Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall where he prayed and read the scriptures. He said the experience gave him a deeper understanding of the importance of being a peacemaker. But his workload and travel schedule require him to constantly seek balance in life.
“There’s no silver bullet, only silver buckshot,” he joked, suggesting there is no easy answer to effective time management. “There are times when being a father comes first, times when being a husband comes first, and times when the job comes first.” He is helped, he said, by trying to stay attuned to the promptings of the Holy Ghost and to be open to inspiration about how to spend his time.
Brother Tillemann and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Beal Tillmann, have three sons and a daughter. Sister Tillemann served in the China Hong Kong Mission, holds a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, and worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as a specialist in East Asian Affairs.
Wherever they go, the Tillemanns are focused on serving others. But Brother Tillemann believes service opportunities abound for those wanting to build and support communities while encouraging others to develop their potential. He urged that “as we help build up the Lord’s kingdom, we need to reach out beyond our congregations to do good in the world.”
Brother Tillemann’s remarks were part of the Faith and Public Service Series sponsored by Brigham Young University Washington Seminar, LDS Seminaries & Institutes, and the Office of Public & International Affairs of the Church.