Dave Sundwall of A Soft Answer alerted me last week to a very informative article in the Salt Lake Tribune about Mitt Romney’s religious ministry. As has been well documented, Romney served for several years as a leader in the Boston area Mormon Church, first as a Bishop, or leader of his local congregation, and then as a Stake President, or the higher-level leader of a collection of congregations. But while these titles have appeared in many biographical profiles of the candidate, their meaning may have flown silently over the heads of most readers, who likely do not understand the depth of commitment and discipleship these roles require of anyone who takes them on.
Earlier this year, Richard John Neuhaus wrote that while he does not consider Mormonism to be a Christian faith, he is open to the possibility that many Mormons could be Christians. This likely means that setting aside strictly theological questions, those who lead lives fully of charity and Christlike compassion may be thought of as Christians in a broad sense. The picture of Mitt Romney painted in the Salt Lake Tribune portrays someone who fully deserves that distinction. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:
Regardless, Mormon women in Boston still talk about an extraordinary 1993 meeting Romney called to address the women of the stake.
More than 250 members poured into the Belmont chapel. One by one they called out their issues while he stood at the front with three pads labeled: policies we can’t change, practices we can change, and things we can consider.
Nearly 100 proposals were made that day, including having female leaders give talks in various wards as the men on the high council do; letting women speak last in church; turning the chapels into day-care centers during the week; letting women stand in the circle while blessing newborn babies; recognizing the accomplishment of young women as the church does of Boy Scout advancements; and putting changing tables in the men’s rooms.
Many women left with a new appreciation of Romney’s openness.
He was “so brave,” says Robin Baker, who has worked on Exponent II.
Sievers, who worked with Romney to set up the meeting, was ecstatic.
“I was really surprised,” she says. “He implemented every single suggestion that I would have.”
Not long after Grant Bennett fell off a ladder while trying to dislodge a hornet’s nest outside his second-story bedroom, Romney came to offer sympathy and show Bennett a smarter way to deal with the festering insects – from inside.
Before Doug Anderson had even finished getting family out of his burning house, Romney showed up with a brigade of neighbors to salvage beloved belongings from the remains.
Several Mormons affectionately describe him as a man who can’t remember names and can’t tell a joke, but did preach inspiring sermons.
“We loved hearing him speak,” recalls Bennett’s wife, Colleen. “He was so smooth yet so connecting.”
(By the way, for those worried that Romney would be too beholden to Mormon dogma or policy to govern independently, that meeting regarding the concerns of women should go a long way toward settling the concern. That Romney even held the meeting shows a departure from how many other Mormons leaders would have dealt with these issues; that he was so open to wide-ranging, and sometimes heterodox proposals shows that he was far from a blind follower even as a church officer. He could hardly be expected to be less independent as the nation’s president).
While these anecdotes don’t give the full view of what it means to be a Mormon bishop or stake president, they do indicate that Romney’s service must have required a real depth of spirituality and humanity, attributes he is not often assumed to possess. In order to give a better sense of what those positions required, I asked my older brother, a Mormon Bishop in the Bible Belt to describe his duties. I believe that Romney’s job description as bishop would have been very similar to the following:
As a Mormon Bishop, I am the leader of the local congregation. That means I am ultimately answerable for the physical, emotional and especially spiritual welfare of the members. This involves a great deal of time spent counseling those with serious issues such as marital problems, addictions, or emotional problems. I also spend time working with those who are seeking a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.
Because we have no paid, full-time clergy, leadership at every local level is composed of volunteers. As Bishop, I oversee their efforts and coordinate with other congregational leaders, those who work with the children, the youth, as well as the men’s and women’s ministries. I am also responsible for the administrative matters–overseeing budgets, collecting and depositing offerings, the maintenance and use of the building and so forth. The church operates a large welfare program that assists struggling members with their needs, and that is also administered by the Bishop. Occasionally, I am given special assignments as well, for example, I am the designated contact person for transients passing through the Metropolitan area and am responsible to assess their needs and provide them with such help as may be prudent and useful.
Among Mormons, it is well-known that to be called as a Bishop means the end of one’s free time, and calls for huge sacrifices from one’s family. Bishops give great amounts of time to very complex and emotional problems with no pay and very limited training. If you find it impossible to picture Mitt Romney selflessly giving such personal, Christian service, then maybe you need to reevaluate what you think you know about Mitt Romney.