Mary Altaffer, AP
Philip Barlow talks to a lot of reporters these days about events of 25 years ago.
Back then Barlow was a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School who worked closely with Mitt Romney. Barlow was one of two counselors to Romney when he was a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Boston area in the 1980s.
As Romney begins to open up a bit about his faith heading into the Republican National Convention this week, Barlow, now a religious studies professor at Utah State University, is a suddenly hot commodity in news outlets from the AP and ABC to the Washington Post.
Journalists are tripping over each other to report many of the same anecdotes of Romney's days as a bishop leading a congregation, or as a stake president overseeing several congregations, or as a home teacher visiting the homes of members assigned to him by his bishop. One widely repeated anecdote relates how Romney visited the home of a church member and climbed up on a ladder to help clear away a nasty hornets' nest.
The same way many want to know what kind of manager he was at Bain Capital or of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, many are interested in Romney's time as a Mormon leader. The anecdotes often miss the broader context of Romney's church service, a context that helped shape him as he evolved as a church leader.
Mormon congregations are often referred to not just as wards, but as close-knit "ward families" where 200-600 church members watch out for each other, serve each other and — like real families — occasionally get on each other's nerves.
Leadership as a bishop in an LDS ward, where the usual human frailties and even personality conflicts are evident — does not center on fine theological issues, Barlow said.
"A Bishop Romney, like a Bishop Anybody, is all about hands-on involvement in the lives of the people, when people come to him with broken hearts about the death of their daughter, or a diagnosis of cancer, job loss or threats to the marriage."
Romney served as Mormon bishop from 1981-86, during the same period he left Bain & Company to launch the private equity investment firm Bain Capital. He typically spent 15-30 hours a week, without pay, organizing and leading the ward and counseling ward members.
Romney, Barlow said, "had a brilliant mind, but as a bishop it had a practical bent in serving people, solving practical problems and human relations."
Mormonism at the ward level, he said, "has less to do with theology — especially esoteric theology — than with practical service and simple faith."
"The world wants to know not just Mitt the man and his religion, but how Mormonism would affect a man or a woman who would be president," Barlow said. The answer, he said, lies in "the character, training and service that comes from looking out for making the world a better place."
While Romney served as a bishop, and then as a stake president leading several congregations from 1986-94, sources say he was stretched and grew as a man and a leader. During those same years he juggled his church roles with his job, where he first was president and eventually CEO of Bain Capital, then returned to Bain & Company as CEO before making preparations to run for the U.S. Senate.
Barbara Taylor, an adult leader of LDS young women while Romney was serving in these church roles, said Romney had his struggles.
"I've known Romney for a long time and let's face it, Romney grew up in a sheltered environment — so as a young bishop it was difficult for him to understand some of the life circumstances he encountered," Taylor said. "But, I think his experiences as a bishop and later as a stake president brought him into real peoples' lives in a way that he'd never been brought into before — and I think that helped him learn to listen and understand others more."
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