By most accounts, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was effective as a stake president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One blogger refers to him as "the quintessential example" of an LDS stake president.
However, a recent study by the Brookings Institution indicated that even after all of the publicity and coverage of what has been called "the Mormon moment," fully 82 percent of Americans say they know "little" or "nothing" about the LDS Church. So the complexities of the church's organizational structure are likely lost on most people, who probably think a stake president is the guy in charge of the rib eye at Sizzler.
The LDS Church understands that, and has recently released a detailed discussion of the church's lay ministry — complete with infographic.
"In a church with lay leadership," the web document states, "the work of the individual congregations depends wholly on the volunteer efforts of the local members."
And in Boston, Mass., during the 1980s and early 1990s, that included significant, time-consuming volunteer efforts from Romney.
As a stake president, Romney served in an administrative position similar to that of bishop in other Christian churches. He was the spiritual leader for a number of LDS congregations in the Boston area. Those individual congregations are called "wards" and are led by a lay minister called a "bishop." Romney served as a bishop of a Boston-area ward from 1981-86. When Romney was president of what is called the Boston Massachusetts Stake, from 1986-94, all of the bishops in the stake as well as all of the members of the church who lived in that geographical area were within his jurisdiction.
If Romney was indeed the "quintessential" stake president, he spent anywhere between 20-30 hours a week — sometimes more — in his ecclesiastical responsibilites, which included administrative, ministerial, organizational and financial oversight for the entire stake. He might spend one evening conducting personal, one-on-one interviews with stake members seeking spiritual advice, financial counsel or personal guidance. Another night might find him playing volleyball with teenagers during a stake youth activity. Sundays usually began early with meetings with other ecclesiastical leaders in the stake, then extended through worship services in several different wards, and then concluded with more of those personal interviews. And twice each year he was in charge of stake conferences, during which all members of the stake gathered to hear him and other church leaders teach, instruct, inspire and motivate.
As with all lay ministers of the LDS Church, Romney invested all of his time in this church assignment without financial compensation, performing his professional responsibilities during the day and filling his evenings and weekends with duties in his church ministry.
"These are volunteers in the sense that they are not paid, but they are not volunteers in that they don't volunteer for the position," said Elder L. Whitney Clayton, a member of the LDS Church's Presidency of the Seventy, who oversees the work of stake presidents all around the world. "No one ever campaigns to be a stake president. I've never received letters, or seen any sort of organized effort to promote someone to be a stake president."
Instead, Elder Clayton said, the calling of a stake president "is a very private and inspiring process."
Unlike ministers from other faiths who feel they receive their call to the ministry directly through the inspiration of God, the calling of an LDS stake president is a formal, official invitation to serve from church leaders who extend the call after study, prayer and inspiration from God.
Process of revelation
The process to which Elder Clayton refers includes at least two general or area church leaders, who travel to the stake as part of a weekend of semi-annual "stake conference" meetings with stake leaders and members. In between regularly scheduled Saturday conference leadership training meetings, the two authorities schedule a series of seven-10-minute interviews with 20-30 men who are already leaders in the stake or whose insights would be valuable in determining the next stake president.
Despite the fact that the visiting authorities rarely know anyone in the stake, Elder Clayton said that by the time the interviews are over "we usually have a tremendous clarity of vision" with regard to who the new president should be. Occasionally there is some discomfort, and additional interviews are conducted until the new stake president is found.
"Keep in mind, we are not there to choose a new stake president," Elder Clayton said. "We are there to FIND the stake president the Lord has chosen for that particular stake at that particular time. That distinction makes all the difference."
The process that Elder Clayton describes happened 365 times last year, according to the announcements of new stake leaders published by the LDS Church News each week. With nearly 3,000 LDS stakes in existence around the world and with the lay leadership of those stakes being rotated regularly, new presidents are called for existing stakes, or new stakes are created throughout the world wherever the church is officially recognized and organized at a rate of about one per day.
So if Romney is indeed "the quintessential example" of an LDS stake president, how many of the new stake presidents called last year are like Mitt?
Quite a few, if you look at the occupation of the new stake leaders. While it would be an extraordinarily rare thing for a stake president to hold high political office, of the 365 new stake presidents called during the past year, 147 of them — or 40 percent — are involved in business as managers or executives, as Romney was at the time of his call to be a stake president. Other professions represented among the new stake presidents include educators (36), lawyers (22) and sales professionals (20). Fifteen of the new presidents are self-employed, while another 15 are employed by the LDS Church.
There are also new stake presidents who are police officers, firefighters, auto mechanics, plumbers, farmers, dentists and interior designers.
"There is no financial qualification for being a stake president," Elder Clayton said. "The only qualifications are that they are honest in their business and financial dealings and that they pay a full tithing. We have some stake presidents who are men of great wealth, and others whose lifestyle is anything but luxurious.
"The main thing we look at," he continued, "is that the new stake president's profession — whatever it is — allows him the time and flexibility he will need to be able to give the amount of time it requires to be effective in his calling."
Elder Clayton explained that the calling to be a stake president is time intensive, requiring even more time than what bishops give to their congregations. That time is spent in administrative meetings, attending worship services with the various wards in the stake, participating in service projects and youth activities and individual counseling sessions with stake members.
As far as age is concerned, 14 of the new stake presidents called last year were the same age Romney was — 39 — when he was called to be a stake president. The average age of a new stake president last year was 46.6 years old. The youngest stake president called was 26-year-old Vaianu Bruno Jon Tupai of the Papeari Tahiti Stake, and the eldest was Richard B. Kinnersley, who at age 68 was called to lead the Salt Lake Pioneer YSA Stake, a special stake for young single adults.
"In some parts of the world where the church has been established for years, there are so many men who can serve as stake president, men with such experience and capacity that it is rare that you'd find a very young stake president," Elder Clayton said. "On the other hand, you can go to some places where the church is much less established and the people with the most leadership experience are relatively young men who have served full-time missions for the church. In such areas, it's not at all unusual to find men who are quite young serving as stake presidents."
The international growth of the church is also reflected in the locations where new stake presidents were called to serve. Two of the three most common locations were outside the United States: Brazil, with 29 new stake presidents, and Mexico with 24. Utah, predictably, had the most, with 52 new stake presidents called. There were also a number of new stake presidents called in Idaho (18), Peru (16), the Philippines (13) and Arizona (13). And three new stake presidents were called in Massachusetts — the same state where Romney served as stake president.
All of that said, it appears Romney would actually not be "the quintessential example" of a stake president based on the sample of stake presidents called during the past year. Based on the average age, the most frequent occupations and the most common locations for the stake presidents called during the past year, that honor would probably go to Kenneth Taylor Gibby, a 46-year-old business executive who was called as the new president of the Saratoga Springs Utah Crossroads Stake last December.
"I don't consider myself to be an 'average' stake president," Gibby said. "I think most stake presidents are much better at it than I am. I'm still learning."
That learning curve since he was called to the position last November has included a crash course in church organization and administration. Like Mitt Romney, he had served as a bishop prior to being called to serve as stake president. But unlike Romney, he was called to lead a brand new stake, which means he didn't inherit an existing organizational structure from his predecessor; rather, he and his colleagues in stake leadership have had to create an entire stake organization from the ground up.
"We're getting there," he said. "But it's taken a while."
Gibby agrees with Elder Clayton that he spends more time on his assignment as a stake president than he did when he was a bishop. And the work he does is more administrative than ministerial.
"You work so intimately with people when you're a bishop," he said. "I still do that as a stake president, but there are a lot more administrative duties to go with it."
Still, there are joyful times for Gibby in his assignment. Recently he spent three days at his new stake's first girl's camp for teenage girls. He helped to haul equipment up to the camp, he helped to chaperone an overnight hike with some of the older girls and he helped with some lake-front activities.
"Some of the girls tried to throw me in the lake," he said, chuckling, "but I'm much bigger than they are."
Although the time Gibby spends as a stake president means time away from his wife, Lisa, and their four children, he considers it a blessing in his family's life.
"I've had a very happy life, and I attribute that to God," he said. "As a family, we feel a tremendous obligation, because of everything with which we've been blessed, to do whatever the Lord asks us to do."
Blessings of heaven
And that, Elder Clayton said, is one thing all stake presidents have in common: the desire to serve their God.
"These are men who love the Lord and want to serve him," Elder Clayton said.
"I've often said that if anyone aspires to be a bishop or a stake president, they ought to make them one," he joked. "Whatever compensation there might be to the ego, it isn't sufficient for all of the time and energy and stress. But if you love the Lord and you truly appreciate all that he's done for you, then there's no question about your answer when he calls you."
For Grant Brimhall, that call came twice: once to be president of the Newbury Park California Stake, and once to be president of the Thousand Oaks California Stake. Now retired from his professional work as a city administrator and recently released as president of the LDS Church's Los Angeles Temple, Brimhall looks back on his service as a stake president during the 1980s as "a very holy, very educational experience."
"There are so many marvelous experiences that you have, working with bishops, working with members, developing personal relationships with people during significant and meaningful times in their lives," Brimhall said. "There was the tremendous time demand, but the Lord kept blessing my family in my absence."
As a city manager, Brimhall worked closely with numerous politicians through the years. He said there are a lot of things one learns as a stake president that would also be beneficial to a political leader.
"A stake president has to make hard decisions, and you have to be concerned about the impact of those decisions on individuals and families," he said. "I think that would be very important to a political leader.
"Also, a stake president has to learn to listen a lot more than he talks. You have to listen to people, discuss their thoughts and consider their ideas before you make a decision. That ability would be of inestimable value to a political leader, I think."
Although Brimhall didn't come right out and voice his support for Romney, he did mention that his granddaughter-in-law, Tricia Tanner Hyer, was part of the Tanner family that was visited every month by Romney while he was serving as stake president.
"He was their home teacher," he said, referring to an assignment given to most adult Latter-day Saints to make monthly visits to encourage, assist and pray with other members of their respective congregations. "He had a busy professional life, and he had the added time commitments of being stake president, and yet he found time to make that visit every month. That tells you something about the man."
Aside from the practical lessons learned as a stake president, Brimhall said the spiritual growth that came into his life as a result of his service was even more profound.
"You can't help but be touched as you see God work in the lives of his children," he said. "You say things, you do things that you know didn't come from you — you know they came from the Lord."
Such blessings, Elder Clayton said, go with the territory for LDS stake presidents.
"When a stake president is set apart (similar to the ordination of a priest), all the blessings of heaven are available to him to help him in his calling, whether he serves in Monterrey, Mexico; Malad, Idaho; or Moscow, Russia," Elder Clayton said. "While there will be some significant differences in their respective ministries in different parts of the world, the experience for all of them will be very, very similar in many ways. They will feel the same inspiration, the same love for the people and the same direction from the Lord as they learn and grow as new stake presidents."