Mitt and his faith: Remembering when candidate Romney was Bishop Romney
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Posted: 9:18 AM- BELMONT, Mass. - As a wildly successful American executive, wealthy capitalist and Harvard man, Mitt Romney might have lived out his life among the country-club set and never really encountered an ordinary citizen.

Mormonism made that impossible.

During more than a dozen of his key years at Bain Capital in the 1980s and early 1990s, Romney was also an LDS bishop (equivalent to a pastor) and stake president (presiding over several congregations in the same area) in Belmont. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no paid clergy; Mormon men take turns overseeing wards (congregations) and stakes while continuing their professional work.

Today, Romney spends his days seeking the Republican nomination for president. As a religious leader, Romney met weekly with students, teachers, immigrant converts and Utah transplants. He had to learn how to give sermons, counsel squabbling couples, organize worship services, manage budgets and address the unique and diverse spiritual needs of more than 1,000 church members in the region.

Questions piled up: How should the church help the new Vietnamese or Cambodian members learn English, get jobs and manage church rituals? Should it build a new chapel to relieve overcrowding in the Cambridge meetinghouse, and what should be done about feminists chafing at LDS policies? Desperately poor Haitians flocked to Romney because he spoke French, having learned it on his two-year mission to Paris.

By all accounts, Romney the religious leader was a good listener and an innovative manager who considered various positions before making any decision. He was occasionally willing to work around bureaucratic edicts from Salt Lake City to better serve his people. He allowed divorced men to continue in their leadership positions, rather than remove them as church policy dictated at the time. He did not discipline outspoken writers and activists within his ranks.

When LDS Family Services refused to place a baby with Brett and Janna Sorensen because Janna Sorensen planned to return to work, Romney supported them. Eventually, the policy against working moms adopting changed.

The young venture capitalist clearly saw the benefit of working with other faiths in the area.

After a suspicious fire in 1984 destroyed the beginnings of the Belmont chapel, eight churches offered to share their space. Instead of settling on one, Romney chose three - the Catholic Church, Plymouth Congregational Church and Armenian Protestant Church. After each weekly meeting, Romney insisted the Mormons stay behind to vacuum the floors, wash the blackboards and pick up the chairs.

It taught the members, even affluent ones, to value other people's sacred spaces and to do some seemingly menial labor, recalls Philip Barlow, chairman of Mormon Studies at Utah State University who was a counselor, or assistant, to Romney when he was a bishop.

Romney was "comfortable in his skin," Barlow says. He even showed off his "moonwalking" skills one day, gliding backward in a smooth imitation of Michael Jackson.

"Mitt was a wonderful leader because he really cared," says Helen Claire Sievers, director of the World Teach program housed at Harvard. "He gave every ounce he had, and he had many ounces to give. He cared about people, organizations and the experience people had in the church."

The problem of women

Not everyone shared that positive view of Romney. Though somewhat progressive in his approach, Romney was still a product of LDS male culture of the time. He didn't initially believe, for example, that there were any cases of physical or sexual abuse of women in the stake, though plenty of evidence pointed to it.

"He's not a people person," says Nancy Dredge, "he's so much an organization man."

Yet, Dredge says, she's seen him learn from his mistakes. "He's in a much better place than he was 20 years ago."

While a young bishop, for example, Romney got word that a woman in his ward was considering an abortion. This was the sixth pregnancy for the woman in her 40s, who had four teenage children, and she developed some medical complications.

Romney arrived at the hospital and forcefully counseled her against the procedure. She felt Romney misunderstood and mistreated her. The woman later wrote about the experience in Exponent II, a national newspaper for Mormon women that was published in Romney's Boston stake. Though she didn't use her name, many church members knew who she was.

The episode came back to haunt Romney when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 1994 as a "pro-choice" candidate. It also reflected some of the ongoing tensions he had with some Exponent II writers during his tenure.

Regardless, Mormon women in Boston still talk about an extraordinary 1993 meeting Romney called to address the women of the stake.

More than 250 members poured into the Belmont chapel. One by one they called out their issues while he stood at the front with three pads labeled: policies we can't change, practices we can change, and things we can consider.

Nearly 100 proposals were made that day, including having female leaders give talks in various wards as the men on the high council do; letting women speak last in church; turning the chapels into day-care centers during the week; letting women stand in the circle while blessing newborn babies; recognizing the accomplishment of young women as the church does of Boy Scout advancements; and putting changing tables in the men's rooms.

Many women left with a new appreciation of Romney's openness.

He was "so brave," says Robin Baker, who has worked on Exponent II.

Sievers, who worked with Romney to set up the meeting, was ecstatic.

"I was really surprised," she says. "He implemented every single suggestion that I would have."

Acts of kindness

Not long after Grant Bennett fell off a ladder while trying to dislodge a hornet's nest outside his second-story bedroom, Romney came to offer sympathy and show Bennett a smarter way to deal with the festering insects - from inside.

Before Doug Anderson had even finished getting family out of his burning house, Romney showed up with a brigade of neighbors to salvage beloved belongings from the remains.

Several Mormons affectionately describe him as a man who can't remember names and can't tell a joke, but did preach inspiring sermons.

"We loved hearing him speak," recalls Bennett's wife, Colleen. "He was so smooth yet so connecting."

Barlow is troubled by media critiques of Romney as "too perfect" or "plastic."

"For the record, let me say that the Romneys their neighbors and associates know are neither phony nor scary," Barlow writes in a forthcoming issue of Religion in the News, published by the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "Like it or not, Romney is naturally smooth, as much in private as in public."

The candidate has always "smiled faintly when listening and talking, even about serious or controversial matters," Barlow writes. "Romney smiled in conducting religious services or planning meetings. He smiled while hosting friends at his Cape Cod vacation home. He smiled when comforting a wounded congregant."

This was not a false persona, Barlow writes, but a "mixture of good will, confidence, optimism, enjoyment of intellectual challenge, and idiosyncrasy."

PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be reached at pstack@sltrib.com or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib.com.