Spirituality in Public Service: A Dialogue

By Bruce, Willa; Novinson, John | Public Administration Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Spirituality in Public Service: A Dialogue


Bruce, Willa, Novinson, John, Public Administration Review


John

When I read your essay, I was far from comfortable with the idea that spirituality is a missing ingredient in public service. You anticipate some of my feelings when you discuss the reluctance of some to even entertain the idea. I even find it difficult to begin framing questions. Perhaps the first problem is the abstract nature of the suggestion.

Each time I try to operationalize the concept, I run into unpleasant options. For example, we, like many communities, are looking at ways to revitalize our central business area. As a relatively advantaged community, the motivation has more to do with a sense of place and aesthetic concerns for the advocates of change while those opposed are concerned about the right of individual property owners to control their own destiny.

As staff we are focused on a value: providing a process and services that ends with both sides willing and ready to say they were treated fairly.

As such, we try hard to put aside many other values and judgements that interfere with the primary goal.

I wonder how providing a safe haven for "spirituality" might affect an already difficult environment. Can you help me better understand your idea by relating it to this example or some other tangible circumstance?

John

Willa

Hi John,

Yes, spirituality is an abstract concept--much easier to talk about than to operationalize I expect. So, before tackling how one might apply spirituality to the dilemma you posed, let me see if I can make the notion of spirituality at work more concrete.

When I talk about spirituality, I'm defining it as a "search for meaning and values, which includes some sense of the transcendent." That is, some force or life energy beyond ourselves that is often identified with religions, but which may be simply a sense of interconnectedness with others and a desire to make meaning and live out one's own values about good and wrong. Elements of spirituality that I think can empower us in the government workplace are:

1. A call to integrity--that is, a self expectation that one will make an effort to discern right from wrong, act on the discernment of right, and say openly that one is acting on one's own understanding of right. It sounds to me like you do that, when you say that you want the resolution of what will happen to your downtown area to result in both sides feeling they were treated fairly.

2. Relationships--that is a recognition that people are intricately connected to one another and that each action has a ripple effect. When you refer to you and your staff as you "we" are expressing a sense of relationship. Your concern over how citizens with opposing views might feel about the outcome of the downtown dilemma says to me that you're concerned about relationships. If you weren't, you'd just say something like, "I don't care what anyone thinks, I've decided based on my expertise that X or Y is the best decision, and that's what I'll do."

3. Love--the kind of love that emerges from spirituality is what the Greeks called "philio" or brotherly love and "agape" charity. Love in the workplace calls us to do unto others as we'd hope they do for us. Your concern for an outcome of fairness suggests to me that you yourself value fairness and want to ensure that it exists for others. I expect you have other values as well that guide your sense of what is "right." Spiritual persons simply make decisions and act based on their sense of how others should be treated. That may be easier for someone in positions such as yours and mine where we have some measure of discretion and authority in our jobs. It may be more difficult for someone in a position where he or she is expected to implement a decision, rather than make it. I do think, however, that if one cannot act out of love and integrity on the job, one ought to reconsider one's place of employment.

4. Search for meaning--A search for meaning involves seeing the "big picture. …

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