This piece is part of a joint On Faith - On Leadership series exploring the Mormon experiences that have helped shaped Mitt Romney’s leadership style, with pieces contributed by prominent Mormon writers and academics.
Every Sunday in chapels across the world, the Lord’s Supper is administered by teenage boys of the congregation, nervous or bored, in sometimes ill-fitting white shirts and poorly knotted ties in youthful imitation of their dark-suited fathers. They kneel before trays of bread and water, recite formal prayers and solemnly pass the communion to the congregation. Then they return to their families in the pews.
Who are these young men and what can we learn from the way that they are taught to lead?
They are representatives of the Mormon priesthood, taught from their youth that they bear responsibilities for their congregation, its physical and spiritual well being, and trained to take their part in the administration of their church. Through the church, they are taught to both respect authority and to value democratic participation in leadership.
In tasking ordinary believers with the most sacred religious rituals, Mormonism demonstrates its particular facility for constructing the holy out of the mundane. Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vested the farmers and carpenters who followed him with the titles and authority of the King James Bible. The Mormon priesthood is still lay and usually part time. College professors and car salesmen alike hold offices like “bishop” or “elder.”
Among the church’s most famous lay priests is one of our country’s candidates for president, Mormon and one-time bishop Mitt Romney.
The priesthood structure is complicated and deeply hierarchical. The church’s founder established two orders of priesthood, the Aaronic and the Melchizedek, after figures in Hebrew scripture. Each order is subdivided into a series of offices like “priest” or “deacon.” At the age of 12, Mormon boys are ordained into the Aaronic priesthood. Then usually at age 19 they are ordained “elders,” the lowest office in the Melchizedek priesthood. All men who receive subsequent leadership positions -- such as bishops, who lead a congregation (or “ward”), and stake presidents, responsible for overseeing several wards -- are made “high priests,” the senior office in the Melchizedek priesthood. The rough equivalent of Catholic priests and bishops, respectively, bishops and stake presidents serve for five or ten years, as Mitt Romney did while he held the positions while working for Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s.
The priesthood’s primary function is the administration of rituals Mormons believe necessary for salvation, like baptism or the Lord’s Supper. It is common practice for fathers who hold the priesthood to baptize and confirm their children and those close to them; Romney’s father George baptized Mitt’s then-girlfriend Ann in 1967. They also frequently administer priesthood blessings of healing, comfort or strength to their wives and children who are distressed, heading off to college, or ill. Romney’s biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman report the governor both receiving and administering such blessings.