Mr. Scott, a former writer at Life and People magazines, is the author of “Mitt Romney: An Inside Look At The Man and His Politics,” and a recently-released first novel -- “Closing Circles: Trapped in The Everlasting Mormon Moment” --about a writer’s life-long wrestling with Mormonism.
Around midnight a phone will ring on the bedside table of a Mormon bishop somewhere in America. The caller may be from a family on its way to a new job in an unfamiliar city that ran out of money along the way; or a runaway teenager longing for mom and dad; or a weeping woman dealing with an abusive husband; or a penitent or petrified but still intoxicated 20-something calling from jail.
Bishops are the Mormon equivalents of the parish priest, except that they, like nearly every other officer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints –are volunteers. They serve for five years or more during which they will contribute 30 to 40 hours each week. Typically, the bishop himself will respond to most emergency calls even though he is backed up by two counselors and cadre of volunteers who serve as Sunday School teacher, priesthood quorum leader, Relief Society (women’s organization) presidency.
There are no precise prerequisites for any “calling,” bishop included. The inspired calling itself is qualification enough. A construction foreman could be called as bishop of a ward brimming with academics and business leaders. Five years later, that bishop could be released and called to teach children in the Primary.
The bishop’s primary responsibility is counseling. When then 33-year-old W. Mitt Romney became bishop of the Belmont (Massachusetts) Ward he encountered daunting challenges almost immediately: a mother of four needed an abortion to preserve her health, and a single pregnant woman was determined to raise the child on her own (church policies forbid most abortions and encouraged unwed mothers to make their babies available for adoption). Confidant he had the facts, Mitt boldly tried to persuade the mother of four to carry the fetus to term, and the single mother to give up her child for adoption. Detractors suggest his impetuous actions then suggest he lacked empathy for ordinary people and their troubles. People who know the pressures of being bishop say he was he was young and inexperienced.
Because he was advised to steer clear of religious discussions, Romney has not responded to questions relating to his church service. Most insights have come from others: As a stake president he offered to write a very large personal check to calm a financial dispute between two respected local Mormon leaders; he helped Bryce Clark, son of Kim Clark, then dean of Harvard Business School, conquer a serious alcohol and drug problem; and he dispatched legions of colleagues to search for a co-worker’s daughter who went missing in New York City.
Many Mormons who have served as church leaders wonder why more has not been made of Romney’s Mormon leadership; they view it as a strength. Bishops tackle problems on an individual level, taking the call to serve to community onto their shoulders. And unlike in business, church leaders can’t fire people who are incapable of meeting the task at hand; they find ways to make it work.
It’s not easy for leaders to be all things to all people. Gordon Nebeker, an investment banker-turned-fine art photographer who served in church leadership in both the U.S. and Japan notes that some leaders – often those who regard themselves as “boot-strap self-made men” --perform well, but fail to connect deeply with the people they serve. “A few deliver service almost mechanically, with an attitude of, ‘Why can’t you be more like me?’”
And church leaders have to sacrifice not only their time, but often their privacy. When he was bishop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Patrick O’Loughlin, a Harvard-trained lawyer, and his Stanford-to-Harvard-to-McKinsey & Company wife Emily, a mother of three boys, virtually lived with the members of their magnet ward which drew students from all colleges in metro Boston. Sundays began with organizational meetings, then church services, followed by dinner and hanging out that routinely rolled on toward midnight.
“The important work was one-on-one. Serious situations always generated more compassion and tenderness,” he recalled, acknowledging that they dealt with issues ranging from religious dilemmas and struggles to depression and anxieties, to drug abuse and sexual experimentation, to routine cases of homesickness and adjusting to dormitory life.
The willingness of Mormons to support each other in their callings and life --“lead from behind” and “accept ownership” – plays out well in the corporate world. In fact, concepts that Mormons learn at home and church are effective leadership and organizational practices prescribed by respected business consultants like Steven Covey and Clayton Christensen, both Mormons.
“There are fundamental differences between business and church organizations,” says Kevin Rollins, Boston stake president and former CEO of Dell Computers. “In business, the leader is boss of all. In church, the leader is the servant of all, and the leadership model is Jesus Christ.”
The Pareto Principle – the notion 80 percent of the results comes from 20 percent of the people – “doesn’t work operationally at church because Christ instructs the 90 and 9 to go after the every lost sheep, every single one of his children, not just the 20 percent,” Rollins says.
Laurel Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and life-long church member, suggests that the church leadership system is not as rigidly hierarchical as it appears to be on paper. Why? She reasons: “Nobody gets paid. Jobs change regularly, and there are constant reminders of the need for patience, long-suffering, and love. Although bishops aren’t actually accountable in the way elected officials are, no bishop can really succeed unless the congregation respects him enough to do the volunteer work that keeps the ward going. He really has only moral authority and persuasion to get them to do the work.”
Like many, Christopher Blakesley, a graduate student in Boston when Mitt was at Harvard, wishes Romney would be more forthcoming about his church service. Later, as a law professor at Louisiana State University, Blakesley was first counselor of a ward in Baton Rouge, the “acting bishop” when the official one was travelling. He received a call one night that a mentally ill, homeless woman, not a member of the church, was in his neighborhood, in need of help.
“Thinking this would be a great teaching moment, I got my children together and we all went in search of the woman,” Blakesley wrote. “We bought her a meal and took her to a motel in the area, her choice. It was seedy, but clean. We gave her a hundred dollars, then sat in the lobby of the place until morning. It was wonderful experience. A man with a balloon giraffe on his head wandered in and made balloon animals for our children and gave me a t-shirt that read: ‘Balloon Man for Jesus.’ Next morning we called her family, then put her on a bus home.”
Are all such experiences transferable to Washington? “Perhaps not,” Blakesley said. “However, sharing a few of them might make any candidate appear to be something more than your basic bot believer in Jesus. It could persuade voters that you can really feel the pain of people in need because you’ve been there at their service, boots on, sleeves rolled up.”