Intersection of Faith and Public Service with Eli Ritchie

Posted on February 14, 2017

We are pleased to start off our new Intersection of Faith and Public Service series with this great post from Eli Ritchie who is the ICMA Local Government Management for the City of Mountain View, CA and a recent MPA graduate of the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. In this series ELGL members talk about how they balance their personal faith with their public service careers. Sign up to write for this series here

Back in 2010, the world was still calling me and my friends “Generation Y” and “Generation Me”(“millennial” hadn’t quite caught on yet… those were the days). I graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a laughingly impractical dual-degree in Creative Writing and Religious Studies. With the nation still reeling from the effects of the housing market crash just a few years earlier, I took the only job I could find outside of the service industry as an AmeriCorps member at a small, faith-based college in Portland.

For the next six years, I worked within organizations that claimed faith identities as fundamental to their mission, before completing my graduate degree and making the shift into the public sector. In most ways, that shift has been less dramatic than I anticipated. I am still providing a valuable service for my community, so the values and the ethical commitments I hope to live out in my work are satisfied. The stressors – unproductive meetings, co-workers and community members, personal short-comings, resource deficiencies, tough commutes, seemingly intractable problems – are basically the same. In reflecting on how my experience has changed, my mind keeps returning to a single, notable difference in practice. In this area, faith-based organizations may have something to teach their government counterparts.

Imagine walking into your most recent staff meeting.

Make a note what you were thinking and feeling… distractions, worries, whatever else you carry with you into the room. Make a mental note of each person who is sitting around the table. Consider what they also bring with them from the daily grind of work, family, or relationships. The meeting starts. Maybe there are some quick announcements, updates, an ice-breaker. The group works its way through the agenda. When you can (finally) leave, you pack up all those things you carried into the room with you and take them back to your desk, or your next meeting. You might even carry them home at the end of the day.

Yet, some of the most powerful moments of my career happened in such a mundane setting, at a moment when I was distracted, worried, bored, or tired. One of my former bosses was particularly skilled in transforming such moments. Instead of starting down the agenda, he would shake his long hair out of his pony-tail, then immediately put the band back on. He would then take a breath, close his eyes, and lead the group in a moment of prayer.

In that pause, I was always reminded of the greater purposes for my team’s shared work, our deep responsibility to each other, and the important reasons why each person in the room dedicated their lives and careers to service. In such a space, it is hard to hold a grudge against a co-worker, dwell on a personal failure, or get bogged down in the details. I open my eyes, and I see that some of what I have been carrying is unnecessary.

This intentionally-facilitated, reflective practice is missing in my experience of local government. Of course it would not look the same, invoking a higher power or introducing a spiritual component would be clearly inappropriate in a government setting, but the moment can still be powerful when removed from spiritual language and purposes. When was the last time you can remember a reflective moment in your workplace, together with your peers? In professional development settings, we are focused on skills and models. In post-mortem meetings, we critique the project and make improvements for the next time.

Much of the conversation on ELGL, which has captured the imagination and creativity of local government employees all over the country, is really about finding the spark that led each of us to choose public service, and connecting with others on these shared values and experiences. My faith was important in my process, but all of us have something that compels us to serve (and it probably isn’t the money). ELGL is a great online resource for reflection on these big topics, but I hope that we all find more opportunities to pause and reflect in our work every day.

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