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Unique Clergy Network Empowers Religion Sector

By Paul Chaffee

Engaging the Whole Multi-Faith Community

Here’s the challenge.

  • Engage all of the 440 clergy serving a northern California region of just under a million people.
  • Structure different kinds of gathering so that clergy of every denomination, demography, and geography get to know one another and participate in dialogues about leadership, local community, and collaboration.
  • Network clergy with civic leaders, including city mayors and managers, elected county and state officials, reaching into city and county agencies, school districts and local schools and colleges, business groups, nonprofits, arts and sports organizations, police and fire departments and more… all the while making sure the interaction develops mini-networks within cities and towns as well as regional connections. Work to make religious leader/civic leader interaction regionally systemic, constructive, engaging, and ongoing.
  • Provide trainings and consultation on the religious diversity within the community for interfaith collaboratives, faith-based organizations, and community agencies in the region and eventually throughout the state.
  • Along the way, develop core projects which have been identified in clergy and civic leader dialogues as critical shared community needs. For instance, implement a disaster response plan in conjunction with the county office of emergency services and the regional Red Cross utilizing PCN’s database and existing relationship established with the full cadre of clergy and congregations. In addition to the existing preparedness educational programs, create a structure of neighborhood clusters anchored with core and support congregations as response centers and shelters ready to mobilize the moment a disaster arises and providing sustained response until emergency responders are available in each area.
  • To do this, establish a diverse clergy board of directors, a community advisory board, an executive director, and support staff.

Leaders who have been active in any aspect of the religious community, locally, nationally, or globally, will tell you the same thing: this challenge is flat-out impossible. Impossible to create, to program, to budget, much less to sustain. For half a dozen reasons, the answer remains, No way!

Ten years ago Rabbi Jay Miller, with a long history of promoting clergy involvement in community issues, was asked to challenge that conclusion. In January 2002, following his coordination of a pilot event of the Peninsula Community Foundation (today the Silicon Valley Community Foundation), he was invited to be executive director of a new agency, the Peninsula Clergy Network (PCN). Since then, the PCN has gained national recognition for being a model that overcomes religious polarization and bridges the gap between faith communities and the larger community.

 Rabbi Jay Miller addresses a Peninsula Rotary Club.

Rabbi Jay Miller addresses a Peninsula Rotary Club.

Jay has been involved with interfaith activities for decades, and he saw the opportunity to build on what he praises as a history of projects large and small that have served communities in this country for over 200 years. But he was drawn to the model of a clergy professional association as an response to the 21st landscape of religious life the United States. “All the other professions have their own peer organizations, educators, CEOs, city managers, doctors,” he points out. “But we don’t have organizations that engage clergy as a professional group.” The core innovation of the PCN is its capacity to engage all clergy in the region. For traditions without a designated clergy, a designated congregant with ‘clergy’ responsibilities shares in the network.

What Makes the PCN Unique

“Our intention was to enroll every clergyperson in San Mateo County and North Santa Clara County,” says Miller. PCN succeeded in this through defining its unique mission, goals, and policies. It identifies itself as a multi-faith professional network, distinct, but not replacing any existing entities in the religion sector. From the start, the PCN pledged not to advocate, urge a particular faith, or seek religious solutions to civic and secular issues in their activities. “We are not involved in specific responses to political or theological issues. Many legitimate platforms exist for that. The PCN though, like professional associations in every other sector, enables clergy to get together in collegial friendship, talk about doing their job better, and share their challenges. They also explore opportunities for being a positive influence in leading their congregations, the religion sector, and their local communities.

Miller endorses the right and importance of religious leaders taking positions on controversial issues. As a congregational rabbi and a university rabbi for more than 20 years, he has taken his share of stances. But he thinks sometimes the prophetic role is also served in sharing in broad community leadership and being a partner in civic engagement. “Clergy dialogue within the PCN addresses the most serious of issues. Clergy have reflected, for instance, on their responsibility when a congregation has members who are outraged by a war and other members with a son or daughter on the battle front. “We want to be there to serve both.” Similarly, the broad inclusiveness of this alliance opens the door to full participation by regional clergy, providing an established understanding of a framework for constructive interreligious collaboration on multiple local fronts.

The PCN serves the whole community but has a limited public profile. One truly public gesture came in conjunction celebrating 150th anniversary of San Mateo County the PCN collected the founding dates of congregation. They published a full-page ad in the San Mateo Times which listed the names, cities, and founding dates of 150 of San Mateo County’s congregations. Three columns of small type fall under the banner, “The Congregations of San Mateo County Celebrate 144 Years in the Community,” starting with a Redwood City congregation founded in 1882. At the bottom of the page came this simple statement regarding the PCN:

The Peninsula Clergy Network is an interactive network of all clergy in San Mateo and Northern Santa Clara Counties, building knowledge, understanding and working relationships. The PCN provides interaction between clergy and civic leaders and within the communities they jointly serve.

In this work, the PCN does not advocate, urge a particular faith, or seek religious solutions to civic issues. The PCN provides the relationships and framework for fostering awareness, understanding, and community engagement. Key to the success of the PCN is the creation of a database, unique in the country, of the 440 clergy and 310 congregations in San Mateo and Northern Santa Clara Counties.

Being in California’s high-tech Silicon Valley’s environment, it was a natural for the PCN to tackle the challenge of creating a database of all Peninsula clergy. Faith, interfaith, and faith-based organizations typically do not have comprehensive databases about their constituency and its relationship to the rest of the community. When journalists or academics call about grassroots religious information, they typically hear that “no one has a list of all the congregations or religious organizations in our area, much less one with leaders’ names and addresses.” Savvy grassroots interfaith groups today are beginning to take advantage of databases and the power they wield. PCN was a forerunner.

It maintains a complete database of clergy and their congregations, along with a database of the nearly 400 civic leaders in the local business, education, government, and nonprofit sectors. For their annual series of dialogues or when the PCN gathers clergy and civic leaders around a shared concern, the list of clergy and community leaders critical to that gathering is at their fingertips. No need for posters or a press release. Academics and those formulating public policy have shown up and published papers garnered from their database information. In short, the database and the internet give PCN the means for communicating comprehensively with the Peninsula’s religious and community leaders.

How Does PCN Operate?

On its website, we read…

The mission of the Peninsula Clergy Network is to establish an interactive network of all clergy in San Mateo and Northern Santa Clara Counties in order to build knowledge, understanding and working relationships… PCN promotes increased interaction between religious and civic leaders and the communities they jointly serve.

This happens in five different ways;

 A PCN regional dialogue over lunch.

A PCN regional dialogue over lunch.

Twice a year the PCN coordinates clergy Regional Dialogues, two-hour sessions. These are roundtable conversations, not lectures or panel presentations. On a third occasion each year they sponsor Area Dialogues at four different sites. Half of these Dialogues include civic leaders from the region, particularly city and county managers, elected county and state legislators, and school superintendents. Clergy by themselves might discuss “A Calling and a Profession.” When civic leaders join in, they might talk about “Education: Enhancing Our Collaborative Efforts.”

  • The PCN regularly organizes similar local discussions, meetings for leaders in individual communities and towns. Local community clergy and civic leaders thereby benefit from the larger network while focusing on their particular local concerns.
  • The PCN brings together leaders of local clergy support groups, found in so many communities, to be mutually supportive, to get acquainted with their nearby peers (often representing a faith diversity larger than their own), and to develop natural synergies.
  • The PCN sponsors clergy education through programs on faith topics and professional issues, with an emphasis on interreligious understanding and the capacity to share information about each other’s faith and practices.
  • Finally, the agency offers consultation and technical training for religious organizations and civic agencies in education and government, augmenting the multi-cultural training many already have with multifaith awareness, issues, and understanding. Their clients include a number of city and county governments in California as well as the 2010 Shanghai Expo in China.

Out of all this discussion, half a dozen core projects have emerged. These include Diversity Training in Multi-faith Awareness; Education-Linking Schools with Parents to Support Student Academic Excellence and Personal Safety; Disaster Preparedness Response and Recovery; Healthy Congregations/Healthy Communities; Community Service; and Clergy Leadership Seminars.

Initially the PCN relied on foundation grants for support, an income stream that is not reliable in the long run. So, like most multifaith organizations, Miller and the board of directors and the community advisory board are devloping strategies to make this work sustainable. What may distinguish PCN and help secure long-term funding is having cut the Gordian knot limiting so many interfaith enterprises: being able to gather not just representatives of the different religions, but all the clergy within a region. Not having to take a stance on political, theological issues makes it safe for everyone to participate.

This formation of a leadership alliance within the Peninsula’s religion sector has galvanized and empowered the individual segments of the religious community and provided a greater capacity to re-establish a critical place serving the people of our communities. This suggests that interfaith organizations doting the globe, challenged by the complexity and diversity we live with, may discover that what was ‘impossible’ can slip into possible and then actual.

Rabbi Miller sums it up: “We chose not to take an advocacy stance on issues, and that has allowed Peninsula clergy and the congregations they lead to broaden their capacity to stand side-by-side establishing themselves as community partners, concerned and engaged in core community issues.” Who would have imagined that a new model – the clergy professional association – could achieve these results? Much more of the detail can be found at PCN’s website. Also, you can hear Jay talking about the PCN on three short You Tube clips – one, two, and three.