Apr 01 2008

Preaching to Our City Council!

Published by at 7:29 pm under Minister's Musings

City Councilmember Sam Liccardo, from our congregation’s District 3, asked me to offer the invocation for the City Council’s meeting last Tuesday, March 25. This is one of those honorary invitations, with both the inviter and the invitees rotating among the council members and the local clergy, respectively. Last year I was asked by Supervisor Blanca Alvarez to offer the invocation before a meeting of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, so I had some sense of what the procedure might be, even though the location and the specific audience were different. It’s always fascinating to step into this secular world of government, bringing our Unitarian Universalist message! Let me describe the experience for you.         

It was going to be a big day at the City Council; the agenda included more discussion of the controversy over naming a largely Vietnamese business section of our city “Little Saigon.” The council was expecting about 2,000 people to show up for that portion of the meeting, and although attendance was sparse as the meeting began at 1:30 p.m., special security measures were already in place, causing us all to walk a labyrinth of special hallways and elevators and doors and stairs to get into the council chambers. I was met by Sam’s assistant, Khan, and an intern from San José State, whose name escapes me at the moment (forgive me!); we had time for a warm and lively conversation. Then Sam came over and gave me a hug before taking his place on the dais, and we laughed about his last appearance in our sanctuary, in preparation for last Thanksgiving’s Turkey Trot. (I promised that we would bring more of a First Unitarian team to the Turkey Trot this coming year!) As the meeting began, he offered one of those lengthy introductions for me that’s kind of embarrassing, while I perched on the edge of my seat ready to trot up to the podium as soon as he paused.

The podium was facing out toward the audience on this afternoon, instead of toward the raised row of elected city officials. This was dismaying since I had written my invocation specifically to them, and now they would be sitting behind me, shuffling papers or nodding off or whatever they wanted to do while I “preached.” Because, yes, although I knew this pro-forma invocation was supposed to be short—still, if you know me, you won’t be surprised that I offered what I felt called to offer, and damn any limitations on length. This meant that I had to summon up reserves of determination when I hit the fourth paragraph or so and was faced with the distractions of aides and assistants who began to walk about and talk, not even sotto voce, amongst themselves, mere feet away from me. I wondered if the mayor had some prearranged signal that set them in motion, to give invokers a clue that they should draw their invocation quickly to a close! Nevertheless, I stayed the course to the end of my message, after which the mayor immediately asked, in a monotone, that we rise and face the flag (which, again, was behind everyone) for the Pledge of Allegiance—and then I beat a hasty retreat.         

Here is the invocation I offered, followed by the few “responses” it received. I hope you enjoy! 

Invocation: 

Good afternoon! I want to thank Councilmember Sam Liccardo for inviting me here today, and I want to thank each and every one of you, our mayor and city council members—because, although you are sitting behind me today, I am speaking directly to you!—and I want to thank you all for serving this city that we love. Would you join me now for a brief meditation? 

I invite you to do something radical. I invite you to sit comfortably, and breathe deeply, and in your mind, to get up on the balcony, where we can see, once again, what we are truly called to be and to do. Teachers Ron Heifetz from Harvard and Gil Rendl from the Alban Institute remind us that there is a difference between being a manager and being a leader. Our jobs—yours and mine—ask us to be both.

As managers, we help to define problems, to consider possible solutions, to pick the best one available, and to take action. As managers, we ask ourselves, How do we fix this? … and then we delegate the fixing. But ultimately we are judged based on how smoothly things are running. Managing is a good and important part of our jobs.

But we are also called to be leaders, and as leaders, we face problems where the possible solutions are not clear, where even the problem itself may be hard to define. In the face of such challenges, we must enter into a wilderness of not-knowing, a terrain where the future is not certain and the Promised Land may seem very far away. As leaders, we must ask ourselves—and those we serve—not “how do we fix this?” but what do we need to learn? Whom do we need to listen to? How do we need to grow? What do we need to learn? As leaders, we hold our people in the questions, we inspire them to participate in creating change, we model the faith that we can get where we long to go, and we stay in the wilderness alongside our people, learning and growing and changing with them. For my friends, servants of this city, you and I are in the business of transformation, and ultimately we will be judged based on how much we and those we serve have learned, on how much we have all been transformed in the direction of more life.  

May you have the courage to set yourselves free from old ways of thinking, to enter into the wilderness of transformational change, and to be the leaders that the citizens of this beautiful city have called you to be. Shalom, salaam, amen, and blessed be. 

Responses: 

One policewoman caught me as I hurried out the door of the council chambers, saying sincerely, “Thank you for your message”; down the hallway, a security guard turned from an animated conversation he was already engaged in, to add his thanks, too. It was moving to feel that these folks had heard some words that meant something to them; we never know who our real audience is, do we?         

Later that night, I showed the invocation to my spouse Kevin. Kevin, having been in government for over twenty years before becoming a minister himself, is a tough critic in these situations—so I didn’t show it to him until after I had delivered it! He chuckled a little and said gently, “Gosh, you were giving them a lot of things to do.” And then he explained, paraphrasing the words of a famously short blessing before a meal: “Well, you know, they were expecting ‘God is great, God is good, now we thank God for this City Council’—and then you gave them a sermon.”

Yep! I know. Oh well!         

Councilmember Sam Liccardo’s thank-you note was more reassuring and very kind. After some adjectives of the kind that every minister really does want to hear, here’s the part that means the most to all of us: “I loved the emphasis on leadership and learning and growth,” he wrote—he was listening! (did he write the note while he was still up there on the dais?)—and he went on, “You’ve inspired me to re-read Heifetz! … Please let me know if and how I can be of any use.” Thanks again, Sam!         

And that, my friends, is a little window onto one part of a day-in-the-life of a minister. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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