Stake President of the United States

A few years back, a hive of hornets decided to make its nest on top of a second-story air conditioner outside my cousin’s Boston-area home. My cousin made an ill-fated attempt to remove the hornets, which resulted in a two-story fall and a broken foot.

“This looks like a job for your home teacher,” said my cousin’s home teacher.

The home teacher brought over his own ladder and clothed himself in homemade beekeeping gear. He then made his way to the hornet’s nest and gathered the whole thing up in a garbage bag, avoiding any stings or the more severe injuries that had beset my cousin. He did this with no public fanfare, no accolades, and no thought of collecting payment for his efforts.

And who was this noble home teacher? A man by the name of Mitt Romney.

Now, unless you’re familiar with Mormon lingo, you probably got lost when I introduced the phrase “home teacher,” or you may have conjured up images of some kind of private educational tutor who was taking care of my cousin’s kids. That would have left you wondering why a tutor thought it was their responsibility to wrangle hornets.

But if you’re a Mormon, the phrase made perfect sense, as did the rest of the story. You would know that every month, every member of a Mormon congregation receives a visit from two “home teachers,” who share an inspirational message but, more importantly, are charged with the responsibility of looking out for the family’s welfare. So if a family is struggling, the home teachers are the spiritual “first responders,” and a good home teacher jumps at any opportunity to be of service.

Among other things, Mitt Romney is a good home teacher.

People who look to Mitt’s faith for clues about how he’d govern as president usually miss the target by a wide margin. They rip the more obscure elements of Mormon doctrine out of their theological and historical contexts – polygamy or underwear or planetary real estate – and think they’ve discovered or explained something. They haven’t. The world at large, as it focuses on unusual theoretical elements of Mormon doctrine, all but ignores the eminently practical aspects of Mormonism as it is manifest in each Mormon’s daily life.

Consider the fact that “home teachers” receive no compensation for what they do. In fact, neither does anyone else in a Mormon congregation. The whole enterprise is supervised by a lay clergy that will often work over forty hours a week in their unpaid positions in addition to their “real” jobs – you know, the ones that actually earn them money. Mitt Romney has spent his entire adult life in these kinds of high-responsibility, time-intensive positions. He has been both a bishop – a leader of a “ward” that consists of a congregation of about 500 people – and a stake president, who oversees a “stake” which consist of about six or so wards, giving him ecclesiastical responsibility for thousands of people.

So what does this mean? What, precisely, does a bishop or a stake president do that eats up so much of their time?

Go to a Mormon meeting on any given Sunday, and you’ll see three dudes sitting up by the pulpit. The guy in the middle is the bishop, and he’s already spent most of the day in meetings where he reviewed the ward’s staffing needs and organizing relief efforts for families who may be struggling with health, financial, or spiritual issues. He’s also been meeting one-on-one with members of the church who look to him for counsel and support for personal problems that would turn your hair white. Usually, he’s been doing all this since before the sun came up, so don’t be surprised if he nods off while the meeting progresses.

Please keep in mind, too, that there are no elections for bishops and stake presidents, nor are there reelections. Each leader is “called” to serve, and they accept the responsibility dutifully, no questions asked. They then serve for a period of time, usually between five and ten years, after which they are “released,” meaning they rejoin their congregations as lay members and have no more responsibility than anyone else.

The call to serve can come to any priesthood holder in good standing, but it usually comes to a certain personality type. Remember, bishops and stake presidents are confronted with massive organizational challenges accompanied by the most intimate, personal, spiritual struggles imaginable. So they must lead without being authoritarian; they must judge without being judgmental, and they must minister without offending. That means the people who get this assignment are often more even-tempered than exciting, more reassuring than revolutionary, and more competent than colorful.

Sound like any particular presidential candidate you might know?

Those who remain baffled by Romney’s cool public persona have not spent a whole lot of time with an LDS stake president, a role for which Romney provides the quintessential example. If one truly understands his background, one shouldn’t expect a President Romney to dazzle the masses with rhetorical virtuosity.

One should instead expect him to practically and quietly remove the hornet’s nest from the nation’s second-story air conditioner.

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