Junior Ganymede
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Mitt’s Core, Part III: Mitt the Minister

May 13th, 2012 by Vader

Continuing with the discussion from Part II.

As with the previous posts in this series, this will be focused less on dissecting Romney than on discussing what it means to be a Mormon priesthood leader, and how this might bear on the kind of man Romney is and President he will be. I’ll bring in Mormon theology only to the extend necessary to illuminate some of the roots of Mormon culture. And, as in the previous posts, I’m dropping the Vader persona, though without revealing too much about myself, something my employer frowns upon.

One of the peculiarities of Mormonism is the heavy use of lay clergy. Almost every active member of your local Mormon congregation has a church calling, and none gets paid to carry it out. Even the routine cleaning and vacuuming of the chapel are done by the members as a rotating assignment. Only when you get above the local level do you start to see any paid professionals, and they’re mostly doing building maintenance or running the Church’s computer systems. And they’re typically assisted by an army of volunteer Church service missionaries.

This lay clergy seems to be something of a bragging point among Church members, and why not? It is impressive, and its contribution to the strength of the Church is priceless. I do understand that the great majority of non-Mormon churches rely on a fair amount of volunteerism as well, and that the majority of non-Mormon ministers are not exactly getting rich off their callings. My non-Mormon Christian friends seem as appalled by rich televangelists as I am. But the average Mormon doesn’t seem to view the reliance on lay clergy as merely one practical approach to Christian ministry; he seems to regard a paid clergy as a positive moral evil.

There are doctrinal roots to this attitude. Joseph Smith was told by the Angel Moroni that he must not seek the Gold Plates with any thought of getting rich. The Book of Mormon condemns priestcraft: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the Welfare of Zion…. But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish.”  Mormonism also takes seriously the New Testament doctrine of a priesthood of all believers, though with the twist that the believing brother is actually ordained to an office in the priesthood.

Almost all faithful Mormon men are ordained elders shortly after they turn 18, and they then take their place in the elders’ quorum of their ward. Officially, the elders’ quorum exists to train the elders in their duties and to coordinate their home teaching visits. Unofficially, in most wards in which I’ve lived, the elders’ quorum also serves as a complimentary moving service and dues-free sports club, with an occasional barbecue thrown in.  In other words, in addition to its formal ecclesiastical duties, the elders’ quorum fills a number of ordinary human social needs.

At some point in his life, a faithful Mormon man is likely to be ordained a high priest. This typically takes place so that he can fill certain callings requiring the High Priesthood, such as serving in a bishopric, a stake presidency, or on a stake high council. A bishopric leads a ward (local congregation) and consists of a bishop and two counselors. The bishop must be a high priest, and his counselors are almost always ordained high priests as well. A stake presidency supervises several wards and consists of a stake president and two counselors, who must all be high priests. They are assisted by a high council of twelve high priests. The name “stake” is shorthand for “stake of Zion”, from a metaphor of the Church as a big tent with stakes holding down its corners.

Thus, a typical Mormon ward has an elders’ quorum and a high priests’ group, with the elders’ quorum typically consisting of the unmarried and younger married men from the ward and the high priests’ group consisting of the older married men from the ward. Aside from its ecclesiastical purposes, this division serves some important social purposes: The elders’ quorum tends to specialize in the needs of young fathers, while the high priests’ group provides a good place for older men to doze during the final hour of church, uninterrupted by crying babies. –Did I mention that Mormons love to laugh at themselves?

I’m going to have to explain the humor. Sunday services for Mormons last a full three hours. When I was a kid, these were broken up into three separate meetings each Sunday. That made for a lot of travel, especially in wards covering a large geographical area, and the Church switched to a solid block of meetings when I was a teenager. Typically the sacrament service comes first, followed by Sunday School, followed by priesthood meeting (for men) and Relief Society (for women.) Children have their own Primary meeting the last two hours, but sacrament meeting is an occasion for entire families to sit together. The breaks between the three meetings are occasions for much coming and going in the hallways, particularly on the part of the Primary children, much like X.J. Kennedy’s picture of Heaven: “Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing/The nimbus off the Venerable Bede…”

Hence, during the final hour of the meeting block, with the younger children safely ensconced in their Primary classrooms, the wives and daughters off to Relief Society, and the elders meeting in their own quorum, the high priests’ group meeting is a time for the older men to sit and pontificate back and forth on whatever the lesson topic is that day. If they can stay awake. I am reminded of the story of the high priest who suffered a heart attack in his group meeting. When the paramedics arrived, they resuscitated three high priests before they got to the right one …

Okay, enough old guy jokes. If you did not already guess, I was ordained a high priest many years ago.

A less obvious but very important purpose of the division of the younger men into the elders’ quorum and the older men into the high priests’ group is the opportunity for the elders to gain experience in Church leadership. The elders’ quorum has its own presidency, consisting of the president, two counselors, and a secretary. The elders’ quorum president is generally a promising future leader, often a young man who has returned from a mission, has married, and is now raising a family (though none of these are strict requirements.) The same is likely true of his counselors and secretary. They meet regularly with other ward leaders, with visiting Church authorities, and with their quorum members. They practice leadership skills that will be put to use later in other positions of leadership. An awful lot of bishops got their first training in adult Church leadership as elders’ quorum presidents.

Church leaders aren’t chosen by those they lead. They are chosen by authorities higher up the hierarchy. Thus, when a new elders’ quorum president is needed, a candidate is typically nominated by his bishop. The nomination is considered by the stake presidency, who present the name of the candidate to the high council for further discussion. All of these leaders are expected to prayerfully seek the guidance and confirmation of God in this process. The chosen candidate is then sustained by his quorum: The stake president tells the quorum that they believe the Lord has called Brother Smith to serve as the elders’ quorum president, and the quorum members are asked to raise their hand to show that they sustain the call. The quorum is also given the opportunity to dissent from the call, but this is so rare an occurrence that I haven’t seen it happen in decades. It’s a matter of faith in inspired leadership: as the joke goes, Brother Smith must have been called by God, because no one else would ever have thought of him … Once sustained, the candidate is set apart as the elders’ quorum president by laying on of hands of the stake president.

An elders’ quorum president typically serves from a few months to several years. Sometimes he is released in order to be called to another important position. Very often he is released simply because his leaders feels it is someone else’s turn. The latter is rarely perceived as any reflection on the former president. It’s simply how things work in the Church.

I do not know exactly what callings Romney has held in the church. He may well have been called as an elders’ quorum president shortly after marrying Ann, and as a promising young leader, he may then have been called to the stake high council and ordained a high priest. As a high councilor, his most visible duty would be speaking at different wards around his stake as a representative of the the stake president. Less visible but more vital duties include extending certain callings from the stake president, setting apart some of those so called, and participating in stake disciplinary councils. The latter is perhaps the weightiest duty of a high councilor. Members who violate church standards in sufficiently serious ways (committing a serious crime, abusing family members, committing adultery, or repeatedly preaching against settled Church doctrine, for example) can be put on probation, disfellowshipped or excommunicated. Since the lesser penalties are usually administered by a bishop, a high council disciplinary meeting is usually to consider excommunication, the most serious form of discipline in the Church.

Whether or not Romney first served on a high council, he was called at the tender age of 30 as a counselor to a stake president. This is not the usual progression; a counselor in a stake president has usually served as a bishop first. But it’s not a strict requirement and Romney had doubtless already distinguished himself as a Church leader.

After serving in a stake presidency, Romney was called as a bishop. This is A Big Deal. A candidate for a bishopric is nominated by his stake president to the First Presidency of the Church. If they approve the candidate, the stake president is authorized to ordain the new bishop after he is presented to his ward for a sustaining vote. In my father’s day, a new bishop had to travel to Salt Lake City to be ordained by the First Presidency themselves, but that’s no longer practical, and I think Romney was called after that change was made. The new bishop soon finds himself in a world of hurt schedule-wise; his list of duties is lengthy and many cannot be delegated to his counselors. Only the bishop himself is authorized to perform marriages, hear confessions of sins, interview members to receive their temple endowments, interview young men to be ordained to or advanced in the Aaronic Priesthood, interview children of record for baptism (converts are interviewed by the local mission), authorize formal welfare assistance to members in need, etc., etc., ad weary etc. It’s easily a 20-hours-per-week job, for which the bishop receives no pay, on top of his regular day job. (Though, as they say, the retirement is out of this world.) Bishops are accordingly held in extraordinarily high regard and affection by most of their ward members; unfortunately, every bishop discovers there are a few disgruntled exceptions. You can’t please everyone, so you remind yourself that God is part of the audience.

By all accounts, Romney was as extraordinary a bishop as he was a missionary. However, bishops have to do hard things. There is the story, widely enough told that it is likely true, that Bishop Romney had to give some hard counsel to a woman considering an abortion. The Church shrinks from labeling elective abortion as flat-out murder, but forbids it as “like unto murder” and considers it grounds for the most severe Church discipline. There are exceptions for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, but these are not automatic; the woman is expected to counsel with her bishop and receive confirmation by the Holy Spirit that the decision to abort is justified. In the case involving Bishop Romney, the mother apparently was inclined to end a dangerous pregnancy and Romney felt strongly that she should not do so. This is worth consideration by social conservatives who fear Romney is not sincere enough in opposing abortion.

Romney was apparently called as a stake president while still serving as a bishop. At the time, these calls were made by a visiting Apostle, who would interview likely candidates and make a selection, with the candidate being presented for a sustaining vote at a stake conference. When a bishop is called as a stake president, there is usually a slight delay before a replacement can be called to take over his bishopric, and for a short time the new stake president is holding down both callings. Just thinking about the burden involved makes my head hurt.

Stake presidents have considerable authority to lay down policy within their stakes, but they are still local leaders and they do not determine doctrine or deviate from the general policies of the Church. Romney was a stake president in an unusually liberal corner of the Church, and his members included an unusual number who considered a lot of settled doctrine and policy to be up for debate. Romney’s approach to these members suggests to me a man who was willing to listen to the other point of view, but who at his core was quite conservative.

In 1967, Richard Poll published an essay, What the Church Means to People Like Me, that introduced a metaphor that a fair number of my fellow Saints utterly despise but which seems to have resonated with many others. Poll divided the church into Iron Rod members, who looked to the Church to define a clear and well-defined path to salvation, and Liahona members, who saw the Church as a compass to help them find their own path to salvation. (The terms Iron Rod and Liahona are drawn from Book of Mormon imagery.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the breakdown roughly corresponded to conservative and liberal members of the church, and my own reading of Pope’s essay is that Pope was a Liahona member who was ever so slightly contemptuous of his intellectual inferiors among the Iron Rod members. It’s an old story and it’s still with us today, although the gap seems to have widened and the preferred labels seem to have mutated to True Believing Mormon and New Order Mormon.

Romney seems to have been an Iron Rod Mormon who nonetheless tried, as stake president, to be as accommodating as possible of Liahona Mormons. These Liahona Mormons included a number of feminists who questioned the all-male priesthood leadership of the Church and the traditional roles of women as wives and mothers. Romney looked for creative ways to give these women more of a leadership role in his stake without departing from Church orthodoxy in the matter, which doesn’t seem to have really satisfied anyone.

I do not know enough about the specifics in Romney’s case to draw very many conclusions, but I do know something about orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the Church generally. I am quite confident that critics of the Church who characterize it as the “Morg Collective”, whose members give robotic obedience to their leaders, don’t know much about how the Church actually works. I am even more confident that critics of the Church who depict its women as Stepford wives have had very little actual contact with real live Mormon women. The truth is that Mormons love to talk about doctrine, love to speculate about doctrine, and love to argue about doctrine. Every Mormon ward I’ve lived in has had a member or two who furiously galloped through life on his gospel hobby horse, to the bemusement of his fellow Saints, some of whom probably hurt themselves struggling to keep a straight face. Get a group of randomly selected faithful Mormons together and ask them whether evolution was part of the creative process, whether the Flood was a literal universal flood, whether the original Hill Cumorah was in upstate New York or in central America, or whether a murderer is forever barred from exaltation, and you’ll get about as many opinions as there are Mormons in the room.

In theory, a Jewish man is master of his home. Yeah, right. Tell that to his wife. Mormons are more like that than you would guess. If Mormon women do not occupy highly visible ward leadership callings, their callings are nonetheless vital in less visible ways. A ward Relief Society president is the closest female counterpart in the ward to the bishop, and she works closely with him in the administration of welfare relief: A bishop may have no clue what groceries a young family with an unemployed father needs, so it’s the Relief Society president who fills out the bishop’s storehouse order form. A fair number of bishops, including my current bishop, invite their Relief Society president to attend the regular priesthood executive committee meeting, where she sits as the equal of the elders’ quorum president, high priests group leader, and other ward leaders. And any Mormon can tell you that the Relief Society president is wired into an intelligence network that would put Mossad to shame: If a ward member goes into the hospital, the Relief Society will have a sister at the family’s door with a hot casserole and freshly baked bread before the hospital admissions have finished verifying insurance.

Some folks find this smothering. They shouldn’t.

Notwithstanding their fondness for theological debates, there are some things almost all faithful Mormons are agreed on. All look to Christ as Son of God and Redeemer. All believe God has answered their prayers and that the Holy Spirit has touched their lives. All believe that they have seen the hand of God moving in the Church. If you can get close enough to a Mormon to get him to really open up, almost any Mormon will have a story or two about a Church leader who really screwed up. But those stories are not tossed lightly about at the elders’ quorum barbeque, because faithful Mormons fear to lift up their heels against the Lord’s anointed. Not because they fear the wrath of their leaders or the vengeance of the mythical Morg Collective, but because they really believe they will have to answer to that God whose hand moves those leaders.

So your average Mormon is a perplexing mixture of heterodoxy and orthodoxy, in which respect he is probably not so different from other Christians or Jews. The difference is that the average Mormon believes that, ultimately, the Church is led by a group of living prophets who anchor the Church to Christ Himself. Destroy that belief, and at some fundamental level the man ceases to be one of the Saints. But the Lord warned Joseph Smith that we would not always be able to discern the hypocrites, and that poses a bit of a problem for a Church leader. Are the dissenters Saints through whom the Lord is also working in His own manner? Or are they hypocrites in whom the core Mormonism has been extinguished, who wish to transform the Church into something that would be alienated from God?

I’m not sure how much this tells us about how a President Romney would approach his office. Romney would doubtless listen carefully to the opposition. I believe he also has a hard core of basic principles he will not compromise. Just how the balance between the two plays out in office will be interesting to watch. I suppose it should be obvious by now that I consider it a better gamble than the alternatives.

Comments (3)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , ,
May 13th, 2012 19:12:27
3 comments

Adam G.
May 14, 2012

Funny, judicious, and insightful. Excellent post.

Note: This–“Only the bishop himself is authorized to . . . interview members to receive their temple endowments” is no longer true, as I understand it. Its part of the Church’s efforts to give the Bishop more time for pastoral care for the wayward (called “rescue” by Mormons).


Vader
May 14, 2012

Must be a recent change. Last time I was in a position to know, the counselors could do interviews only for temple recommend renewals, not first-time recommends.


Adam G.
May 14, 2012

No, you’re right. I wasn’t reading what you wrote very carefully.

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