Cathedral Thinking


A few years ago, I participated in a regional study mission to the City of Vancouver, British Columbia. Our purpose was to learn about their business climate and approach to cooperative regional development. I was very impressed with the message of one of the speakers, Rick Antonson, the President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver. Rick described the multiple generations of Vancouver leaders who worked to attract the Olympics to their city and region and introduced me to the concept of "Cathedral Thinking."


Cathedral Thinking is a term that draws on the centuries long process of constructing European cathedrals in the Middle Ages. A thousand years ago, when architects, artisans, and theologians envisioned their magnificent cathedrals, and when masons, stone-cutters, and laborers began working to construct the glorious buildings, they embarked on plans that they knew they would never see to fruition. Cathedrals took hundreds of years to complete. Early workers on cathedrals worked toward a common purpose of building something lasting, strikingly beautiful, and sacred in every sense. Those who did the final work to complete a cathedral's construction did so without having played any part in its inception, design, or launch. The start-to-finish construction of a cathedral was an expression of shared purpose and a process that would always turn out to be larger than oneself.


In his talk, Rick summarized the essential attitude necessary to embody this perspective: "Think beyond your tenure and act beyond your mandate." Hearing those words allowed me to realize that this principle had guided my approach to our shared work, and it has been an element of my consciousness ever since. It has allowed me to view the work of those around me as heroic efforts. The founding of the Davis Food COOP, Communicare, Unitrans, the many faith communities that serve our people, the University of California at Davis evolution from a remote farm school, the Winters swimming pool and shared use library – all examples of local cathedral thinking and action.


For more than 45 years, I have served the public, working on projects big and small. And for most of my life, whether I was aware of it or not, cathedral thinking has been a driver in both my process and my actions. As a co-founder of the Woodland Davis Clean Water Agency and Valley Clean Energy, I played a part in building a future for thousands of people. As the President of the Spanish Parents Association at a key inflection point in the DJUSD, I worked with others to build on the work that came before and set the stage to establish Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Projects like the Yolo Food Hub and the I-505 Overcrossing near Winters have already required the time and energy of many, but will also demand the commitment and dedication of future leaders and visionaries to reach completion. In drawing the plans for projects like these, I have known that I will not drive the final nail or place the final stone, but I have also known that my contributions have played a part in building a foundation on which these critical projects can grow. These cathedrals will be built by the hands of many others.


As I near the completion of my elected office service, I once again reflect on Rick's talk and share with you all now another version that he delivered in a TEDX presentation in Stanley Park. I am once again moved by his message and by his statement, "It is not what we do that matters, but what we cause to happen. We should all be involved in unfinished work."


Watch Rick Antonson's TEDX Stanley Park talk: Cathedral Thinking.