Priest to profit: How the Mormon church teaches priesthood holders to lead

May 14, 2012

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.

Yet Joseph Smith believed that the priesthood does more than simply facilitate worship. It forms the strong sinews of the community, a sort of democratic governance that divvies responsibility broadly across the congregation. This is why Mormonism places in the hands of high schoolers the most foundational ritual of Christianity. The juxtaposition of the arcane latticework of priesthood with the mundane image of those shaggy-haired sixteen year olds - no priestly robes or clerical collars to be found - illuminates the priesthood’s dual impulse: It is dedicated simultaneously to ecclesiastical authority and also to democratic expression of that authority.

The democracy of the Mormon priesthood has nothing to do with politics --but everything to do with procedure. Service in priesthood office requires no education or training, but is distributed among the dozens of men within a ward. It brings them into cooperation, sympathy and service with people that they might otherwise have little in common with. All of this makes Mormon wards remarkably robust communities.

Priesthood leadership is exercised through a series of councils, from the First Presidency Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the highest governing bodies of the church, down to local councils. Every executive in the church has two counselors who share administrative duty and offer consultation. It is rare that a council will adopt a decision in the absence of consensus. This conciliar style of administration exalts meetings, negotiation and delegation. It is no mistake that successful businessmen like Mitt Romney rise high.

But if the Mormon priesthood is profoundly democratic in procedure, it is authoritarian in other ways. Most obviously, the priesthood is restricted to a single gender. Women serve in leadership in the women’s and youth organizations and on ward councils, but the lines on the organizational chart always eventually lead to men. There is little institutional mechanism for dissent. But, of course, in the theological, scriptural language of priesthood, pleas for “equal representation” or “civil rights” are in a foreign tongue. The priesthood is a benevolent patriarchy, but a patriarchy nonetheless. The church’s official 1995 Proclamation on the Family gets to the heart of the tension: Men are told they are to “preside” over their families, but in the next breath spouses are admonished to treat each other as equal partners.

All of this adds up to a concept of leadership that, for individuals like Romney, is rooted in the values and practices of the church and yet can have implications far beyond the temple doors.

The priesthood produces pragmatic, competent leaders effective at working within systems. Mormon scripture defines the priesthood as the power to govern through persuasion and charity. It condemns arbitrariness and power-seeking, and leaders are admonished to delegate and to seek unanimity. With their management strategies, clipped haircuts and paperwork, it would be easy to confuse the men of the Mormon priesthood with a corporate board - IBM in the 1950s, American Motors in the 1960s, Bain Capital in the 1980s.

The priesthood can be subject to the pitfalls of all such organizations: group think, insularity, rigid institutionalism. And yet these Mormon men see themselves to be far more. Likely for Romney, as for all whose formative leadership experiences took place within the church, in his dark business suits he still sees priestly vestments.

Matthew Bowman is author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

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