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."
Taylor described a meeting in which Romney, near the end of his time as a stake president, addressed the concerns of women in the stake.
"He invited anyone who wanted to come, to come," Taylor said. "He had one of those big chalkboards and he divided the chalkboard into three areas: ward level, stake level and church headquarters. He wrote down all the concerns and comments in the area he felt they would be addressed. He committed to working to change those things on the ward and stake level that he could and promised to escalate those things to church headquarters that were on the list. I remember leaving the meeting feeling like I'd been heard."
Although there was initially plenty of skepticism that anything would actually change based on the meeting, Taylor remembered that most of the suggestions actually went into effect.
"Romney was extraordinary at making a quick study of assessing a problem and finding an imaginative way to go about solving it," Barlow said.
Barlow recalled how after a fire razed their church building, a diverse group of other local denominations offered their facilities to house Mormon worship services. Instead of accepting the offer of just one of those faiths, Romney chose to accept every offer from faiths that had sufficient room to house Sunday services. Barlow believes the decision built bridges between the denominations and fostered good will.
By most accounts Romney was known for his organizational management prowess and decision-making skills, but there was more to his role than that, said Kenneth Hutchins, a former Massachusetts police chief and a counselor to Romney during his stake presidency.
Romney selected Hutchins this week to give a prayer during the Republican National Convention.
"He was a great example for me of how a stake president should function, and he made sure not to run the stake like a business," said Hutchins, who succeeded him as a stake president. "Believe it or not, Mitt has a great sense of humor, he's always smiling; he's warm and gracious ... But, when we met as a stake presidency, everything was done in a very prayerful way, and we fasted quite often."
In 2007 Romney told the Christian Science Monitor that being a church leader was "a very weighty responsibility, which you take with a great deal of care and sobriety." Now, as the convention opens, Romney's campaign is preparing to again open a window to Romney's faith. On Thursday, during an interview on the Global Catholic Television Network, Romney said, "There's no question that being a pastor, if you will, a small ‘p' pastor, where you are working with people of all different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different economic circumstances, some employed and unemployed, as you work with those people, as you try to provide for them a positive path forward in their lives, you understand the very real concerns and pains people have, the struggles that they have. You want to help them... ."
To better understand Bishop Romney, Barlow suggests, one might start with Bishop Anybody.
Like Mitt Romney at a similar age 30 years ago, 37-year-old Tony Marsh has been bishop of his Los Angeles ward for more than two years now. And like Romney then, Marsh is a businessman, a senior investment banker with Credit Suisse, where he works roughly 70 hours a week, much of it on the road.
At home in Los Angeles, he is a husband and the father of four kids, ranging from 7 years old to an infant. Marsh spends between 15 and 20 hours a week on his bishop responsibilities, including almost a full day on Sunday. "And when I'm not traveling, I'm at youth activities every Tuesday from about 7 p.m. till 9 or 10," Marsh said by phone this week from Atlanta, where he had just arrived from Houston on business.
How does he manage all those roles? Marsh believes in heavenly support. "When you are called to be a bishop, you are given extra capacity to fulfill those duties," he said. "Your faith grows and your family is blessed."
One of Marsh's primary roles is to oversee his ward's welfare system, using money collected from ward members to help families work through un- or underemployment, and offering short-term aid to those in need.
"There is a lot to be said for the confidence you have when you can provide for your family and provide for yourself, and no one likes to get a handout," Marsh said, "It is difficult for people to ask. Some come in at the 11th hour in tears. It's not a fun thing to do, but to help them get them back on their feet is always rewarding for them and for me."
Marital counseling is one of his toughest jobs, Marsh said. "I tell them I am not a family therapist but I try to remind them of the promises they have made to each other and commitments they have made to each other and to the gospel." When necessary, he refers couples to LDS Social Services, a church-sponsored organization that offers expert counselors with shared Christian values.
Two counselors assist bishops in their work. "Counselors do everything the bishop cannot delegate: Scheduling events, arranging class instructors, tracking statistics," said Ian Puente, who served as a bishop's counselor in two Los Angeles wards in recent years.
"The bishop is then allowed to focus on personal counseling, whether temporal or spiritual — and to focus on the young men and women," Puente said.
Romney, Marsh and other LDS bishops rely on a larger network of support known as a ward council, a group of other ward members called to their volunteer positions by the bishop. The ward council includes leaders of two priesthood groups, or "quorums," and the Relief Society president, a female leader who is charged with the welfare of the women, or "sisters" in the ward. There is also a ward employment specialist, who helps members find jobs, and leaders of the Young Men's, Young Women's and Sunday School organizations, as well as the Primary president, who oversees instruction and activities for the ward's children. This council meets twice a month to discuss the needs of ward members and to coordinate efforts to help those in need.
"I found ward council one of the most inspiring parts of being a Latter-day Saint," Barlow said. "We would sit in a circle at Romney's house on Saturday mornings and go around to each organization head asking if there are any needs (of any ward member) that need to be addressed."
The ward council is assisted by the home teaching and visiting teaching program, in which men and women in the ward visit assigned families and individuals each month.
"Because of home and visiting teaching," Barlow said, "the ward council collectively has its finger on the pulse of the ward."
"Dealing with people's emotional, mental, physical and economic needs is incredibly grueling," said Puente, who served for four years as a counselor to two different bishops.
"There are resources available to help offset this, but these men are not trained counselors or professionals," said Puente, who works as general counsel for Samuel Goldwyn Films in Los Angeles. "But they do very generous service. It's impressive to see these different men handle it with such a degree of seriousness, thoughtfulness and love."
Now 38, Puente, a husband and the father of four children, is also the new bishop of a ward made up entirely of single college students and young married families at UCLA.
"These bishops are grappling with difficult issues while maintaining family life and professional life," Puente said. "I served as a counselor to two bishops, very different in age, education, background. Both wore the (responsibility) very seriously and it weighed on them very heavily."
In Puente's first L.A. ward, he said, there was "substantial and crushing, grinding poverty-related issues to deal with." The bishop there was a special education coordinator with the Los Angeles Unified School District who had "a crusty exterior" that Puente said eroded during his service as bishop.
"It was interesting to see him set aside that crusty exterior and become a loving and compassionate person," Puente said. "I was surprised to see how much he evolved on that front."
Like most church leaders, Romney encountered a few personality conflicts with some in his ward family and some have been detailed in various publications.
Not all who disagreed with him found him disagreeable. Helen Claire Sievers, a former ward Relief Society president who worked with Romney when he was stake president, is a self-described feminist, a Wellesley graduate, a staunch Democrat and the executive director of WorldTeach, a widely respected Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit. She is also a fan of Mitt Romney as a person and a church leader.
The essence of church service, for Sievers, is to look to lift the congregation, always asking, "How can I help each one have a richer life?"
"You find out a lot of that through visiting teaching and home teaching, (ward) council to hear the input from other people," Sievers said.
"That is what I love about Mitt," she added, noting that he was always looking for ways to "support his people and bring them up a plane, whether it's economic or social, spiritual. He looked at the whole package."
Growth and flaws are all part of the program for Sievers. "We are a lay church, and so we learn things by practicing on each other," she said. "We learn to be teachers by teaching, and we learn to manage things by managing things. None of us are very skilled at the beginning. Sometimes people can get hurt if our skills and sensitivities are a little lacking."
Sievers has occasionally encountered someone she was serving whom she doubted she could ever "learn to love."
"But you have to have that as the ultimate goal," she said, "You need to keep telling yourself: ‘I need to learn to be effective with this guy.' It's a great philosophy to have to carry around."
Contributing: Other Deseret News staff writers.