On Saturday of just over a week ago, I was honoured to join my family for the internment and memorial to my mother, who ‘crossed over’ a couple of weeks ago. She was an extraordinary woman – wit and wisdom, devotion and commitment to a cause, and a remarkable cohort of friends and colleagues who were powerfully dear to her, along with her family – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. One of the themes of the memorial – I mentioned it, along with others [most notably my son, Micah, who also brought a tribute] was her commitment to care and precision in the use of language.
For Eunice Smith – my mother -- words mattered, language mattered, precision in our speaking and articulation mattered and, of course, made a difference. Sloppy language for her meant sloppy thinking. And sloppy thinking meant that our work suffered. For her, language and quality language undergirded every aspect of our work and, I would add – given the focus on institutions in these blog postings – the quality and character of our work within our organizations.
On the more playful front, this meant that her favourite of all games was Scrabble. And it also meant that she always had a dictionary at hand so that the meaning of words could be confirmed and so that she could challenge all of us to be using the right word for whatever it is that we were trying to express. More seriously, the language of the biblical text – New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew -- caught her attention; she recognized that the meaning and nuance of words and phrases required diligence on the part of the reader so that the meaning was clear and so that those who taught the Scriptures did so in a way that was truly faithful to the text.
But more, I know that one of the ways in which I can honour my mother is that in my speaking and writing I lean away from “winging it” and rather tend to my words and my phrases: attend to and consider what I am going to say before I say it, including the words that shape my public prayers. I wonder if it is from my mother that I have come to disdain cliché and religious jargon, especially in organizations that are intentionally Christian. Perhaps this is why I have little patience with hype within our organizational talk and see it is not only not helpful but actually a distraction from the good work we need to be doing.
For those of us in senior leadership roles there is no doubt that rhetoric is one of the key tools of the job: whether those who are giving senior leadership to churches or in my case, where my public speaking, but also my work as a university president where I am speaking to the mission or to some core value, our public and private speaking matters. It makes a difference; it defines reality; it is crucial to cultivating a hopeful realism. Those who given leadership to organizations recognize the power of language and learn to tend carefully to the words they speak or write.