We are pleased to share the fourth article in the series from Matt Hartleib, City of La Porte, Texas. In the series, ELGL members talk about how they balance their personal faith with their public service careers. Sign up to write for this series here.
The phrase “a separation of church and state” (which is not actually included in the U.S. Constitution) likely means different things to different people. The prevention of a government led state religion. Freedom for individuals to practice their faith without fear of governmental interference. Or perhaps just an unwritten but oft broken rule to not talk politics at church. For all the things it may mean, one thing it has certainly not meant is an exclusion of people of strongly held faith from careers in the local government sector.
more awkward than incompatible
As the son of a proud Navy veteran dad and public educator mom, I’d love to share the story of how I sought out a career in local government as a way to carry on the family public service tradition. But in reality, I just needed a job. However, over a decade in now, I easily and frequently slip in to PR mode when talking about local government careers. Perhaps that is partly the recruiter in me, but it comes easily and sincerely because I believe what I am saying. Local government is a fantastic place to work.
I’m not as vocal about my faith, especially at work. Hopefully, I walk the walk better than I talk the talk. Part of my hesitation with being more vocal about my faith is shyness about a personal topic. Part of it is not breaking another perceived unwritten rule that frowns on talking about religious topics at work. Another factor is that as the ‘HR guy’ I’m setting the example for diversity, inclusion, and a harassment free work place. I don’t want anyone, of any faith, to feel that they can’t come to me with workplace concerns. So when I worked as a dispatcher 10 years ago and was asked by a caller to pray for them, and less than a year ago as an HR Manager when I was asked to say a prayer before an employee holiday lunch…I balked. I avoided. I begged off. That says more about me than the intersection between faith and public service though. Are there times when that intersection will be awkward for some? Sure. But are a life of faith and a career in local government incompatible? Surely not. It’s actually a very natural fit.
Public service: solving problems and helping people
I am used to fielding tough questions from my kids, aged 10 and 4. “What do you do at work all day Dad,” is far from their most challenging. But rather than delve into the intricacies of benefit plan design (boring) or sharing the details of a current employee relations investigation (often not boring at all, but off limits), I usually keep it simple and tell them I do two main things at work: solve problems and help people.
When it comes to my faith, I have the Bible as a source of God’s teachings. On Sunday mornings, my wife and I teach a class for kids aged three to Kindergarten. There are many rich and complex passages and lessons in the Bible we could choose to share with them. Many of them might go over the head of students so young, so our task is to present them in a developmentally appropriate manner, typically with plenty of fun songs and some coloring. I find that boiling things down for younger minds is a great exercise for myself. Keeping things simple helps with comprehension and application. So when I want to crystalize the most important aspects of my faith, I routinely reference Matthew 22:34-40. Of all the Commandments, guidance, encouragement, and warnings in the Bible, Jesus boils it down to two things: love God and love people.
How can I do that in my work? How can I love God in what I do as a municipal employee? I believe I can love Him by doing good work and doing it well. I can honor God and live my faith by doing the right thing and walking the walk even if I sometimes struggle with how to talk the talk. How can I love people as a municipal employee? This one is easy. How can I do my job and not love people? Remember I’m a problem solver and people helper. All of us in this sector are. Whatever our title, whatever department we work in, we are people helpers. Public safety, planning & development, parks & rec, finance, public works, human resources, etc. we are all in the business of making lives better for our residents, visitors, teammates, everybody. We help people.
So there’s the intersection for me. Loving people (faith) and helping people (public service). In a word…Service. As a Christian I am called to love God and love others more than myself. As a public servant, I have chosen a continually rewarding career that tasks me with doing the latter while allowing me to do the former. Over a decade ago, when I just needed a job, I did not realize what I was getting into…but I’m so glad I did.