Prayer as a management tool

On my way home now from a fascinating and fun two day visit with Kay Walters to Brigham Young University. I’m going to write more in a little about some of the great ideas I saw there having to do with research and the Digital Humanities. But I also want to comment on something more systemic that I saw there.

BYU, for those who don’t know, is a Mormon University (in Southern Alberta, which also has a lot of Mormons, we tend to prefer saying LDS over “Mormon”; in Utah, “Mormon” was by far the preferred term, as far as I could see). It is a church-owned, private university with a religious as well as an academic mission (this is, of course, not unusual: Western Universities largely began in the same way, except as Catholic universities, and there are still many universities around the world that have strong ties to various religions).

The connection to the church is visible every where on campus. There is a strong dress and conduct code and one oc sees signs reminding people about them. There is religious paintings and iconography throughout the campus. The university has a standing devotional time each week (Tuesdays at 11). There is no coffee or alcohol on campus (both are forbidden by the church).

During our visit, however, the biggest evidence of the church connection (other, perhaps, than the lack of coffee) was the practice of beginning meetings with an prayer.

I was raised as a Catholic (and indeed, attended Catholic high schools and a Catholic college at the University of Toronto) and so to my eye, these were what I would have described as Protestant-style prayers: free-form and (a few set phrases aside) ad hoc rather than regular. At each meeting, the chair would call on a participant in the meeting to stand and offer a brief prayer and the person called upon would then mention some of the blessings the assembled hoped to gain from the meeting: increased knowledge, an opportunity to share views, to teach and learn, to enjoy some food together, and so on.

Our hosts had “warned” us about this practice, since it is certainly not what you tend to find in secular universities. But while I am an atheist, I certainly did not find the practice disconcerting. In fact, if anything, I found it invigorating: not because I felt that it brought blessings upon us, but because I found it to be a wonderful way of both reminding ourselves why we were meeting and what at least one person in the room hoped to get out of our gathering.

Academics are an idealistic bunch on the whole, but they are also purists by inclination and critics by training. One of the reason academic politics can be so rough is that a significant percentage of us have strong opinions and sharp tongues to go with them. We are often naive, but we are rarely spontaneous and completely unconsidered: we make our livings poking holes in others’ arguments and defending our own; this results in a kind of controlled discourse that is rarely “heart to heart” and can easily fall into a kind of rhetorical cynicism or performance.

What was really nice about this opening prayer was that it provided a brief opportunity at the beginning of a meeting to cut through that. By calling on somebody to offer a spontaneous request for a blessing, and to have a tradition of phrasing that request in terms of what one hoped the group would gain from the gathering, the BYU opening prayer created a moment in which one person in the room explained, in relatively heart-felt and idealistic terms, what we were all doing there.

This got me thinking how wonderful it would be if we could do something similar in a secular context: begin a meeting by having somebody remind us of the big picture in a way that allowed us to remind ourselves of the idealism of our collective endeavour (because, despite the politics, academia is in the end a very idealistic endeavour).

Of course, in this context, our inability to call on God as an “excuse” for this idealistic expression of goals and purpose is a terrific handicap. God provides the context that allows academics in a religious context to break out of their quotidian concerns and practices, even if the result is to establish a tone and frame for the non-religious activity that is about to follow.

But still, I suspect is it something that could be done (and maybe this is what lies behind those famous Japanese group exercises and the like on the factory floor). It might make a really interesting exercise to decide for a certain period of time that each meeting would begin with an invocation of some kind. A statement from somebody in the room as to what they hoped the collective would gain from the gathering—and preferably somebody other than the chair.

Probably not something we could ever actually do in as decentralised and non-hierarchical a place as a University. But it would be kind of cool if there was a secular equivalent of the opening prayer: a kind of idealism moment to remind us what we are all about in the end.

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