Marisa Guerin, PhD - February 2, 2021
Calendars, meeting agendas, budgets….these are the workhorse tools of any business, planning team, nonprofit organization, or even volunteer group. Little did I realize at first that these tools also represent our values-in-action, a mirror for our own accountability.
I learned this from a wise and gifted woman that I was lucky enough to get to know: Sr. Mary Daniel Turner, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, may she rest in peace. Mary Daniel and I spent a fair amount of time together over several years at the periodic six-day meetings of one of our shared clients, a religious community leadership council. I was responsible for the meeting design and facilitation; Mary Daniel was engaged as the Spiritual Guide for the 35-person council. In that role, she observed the meetings and offered reflections to the group each morning and evening.
What I found inspiring about Mary Daniel’s approach was her ability to nurture the essential energy of the group while appreciating the value of everything they had to deal with, from the sublime to the mundane. I was glad of that, because I had lots of experience with nonprofit clients who had no time or respect for the dimensions of their work that involved business-like processes such as strategic planning or program evaluation. “Too corporate” was a common critique that seemed to imply that this or that organizational activity was deficient in values or ethics.
Mary Daniel didn’t split the working world of the group into “worth/unworthy” categories, and she didn’t dismiss the practical elements of organizational management vs more favorably-regarded activities such as visioning or contemplative dialogue. What I heard instead from Mary Daniel was the redemption and integration of everything that can be used for good. In particular, she brought new meaning to an agenda, a calendar, and a budget.
At the beginning of each meeting, Mary Daniel would lead the group in a brief blessing, hands on their agendas, lifting up for them that the agenda in their hands represented how they intended to use their time, their attention, their creativity, and their judgment over the next six days of the meeting. In Mary Daniel’s view, the agenda was a “sacred document,” the embodiment of their leadership ministry.
In a similar way, when the group work involved setting calendar dates or allocating budget amounts, Mary Daniel pointed out to the group that these two tools were moral accountability documents. How they would commit their days, what was worth their time, how and on what they spent their resources – all of these judgments were embedded in the resulting calendar and budget.
Mary Daniel offered many other wise reflections over those years: on the graced moral power that leaders were responsible to exercise; on the essential human, relational basis of all governance; on the perspective of history and creation as a context for the work of leaders; and a host of pithy, affectionate and humorous observations that leavened the seriousness and hard work of our clients.
I have never forgotten those lessons, and in particular I have learned to respect and be thoughtful about the choices that are represented in these three humble and useful tools: the meeting agenda, the calendar, and the budget. They deserve our realism, also our good judgment, and also our boldest aspirations. They are a mirror and a yardstick for our life’s values. Turns out the mundane is also the sublime!