Watch What You Say, Someone Might Listen
Justus Baird is an alumnus of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XV and the rabbi and director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Seminary in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In recent years I developed a new respect for the idea embodied in the line of prayer ‘Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be’ (Baruch she-amar v’hayah ha-olam). My younger self saw creation through speech as odd, silly, metaphorical, or at best, mystical. But in the last year, I’ve found myself using it in real life.
As my wife, colleagues and kids can tell you, I am a man of few spoken words. Not as a result of any deep personal growth process – it’s just how I am. I’ve always related to the terseness of the biblical narrative, for instance. One of my growing edges during my time in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship was learning to speak up more, especially in new groups. Recently, I had to push myself to speak up at work.
Auburn Seminary in NYC is a storied institution, founded in 1818. We are going through a deep strategic re-visioning process. It all started when our president of 30 years decided it was time for new leadership, and a new president was appointed – an internal promotion. Our new president’s personality and vision for Auburn was quite different, and more than two years later, we are still becoming something new (Auburn is historically Protestant, and my Christian colleagues call this process discernment. I call it wandering, in the best sense of the word.)
At one point in this wandering, discerning process, I must have decided I had something to contribute to our new vision. Some time later, I started to speak up about it. And then it started to happen: people started to listen. Colleagues began using language I had introduced in other meetings. My boss started taking the vision and making it his own. Words and ideas I had brought to life through speech were becoming real as the critical concepts we were struggling with. The path forward is still being worked out, but the vision has been deeply influenced by my own ideas, in ways that both excite and scare me (veterans of entrepreneurial and/or change work will probably recognize that pairing of emotions).
I used to think that those who used language to create (myself included) did so through force of personality or exercise of power. This felt different. Perhaps because of the high degree of trust and collaboration that had developed among our senior staff, or perhaps simply because of our desire to figure this out as a team (we already knew that none of us had the complete vision), words and language and ideas were taken seriously no matter their source.
My daily spoken word count is still on the very low side, but I am rarely silent today if I have something to say. And my respect for how to use spoken words to create is much deeper. Actions will always matter a lot, but there are some challenges that require great use of words. Auburn’s re-visioning process has been one of those moments for me, and it has helped me understand better how leaders use words to create the world we wish to see.