This week the eyes of the world will be focused on a chimney above the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. The chimney will serve as the exclusive channel of communication to the outside world for the age-old pageantry of a papal election.
The Conclave will have the initial ballot occurring on Tuesday afternoon, once the 115 Cardinals of the Church are sequestered within the walls of the Vatican.
If no one receives a two-thirds majority, the cardinals will then vote twice in the morning and twice in the evening on all the days that follow. They will repeat the pattern with a day off after every three days until they elect a new pope, and all throughout their only communication to the outside world will come in the form of smoke.
Yes, after each vote, the ballots will be counted and bound together, then burned in a special temporary oven in the Sistine Chapel. If the vote is unsuccessful, the ballots will be burned along with a chemical compound that will produce "fumata nera" or a black smoke. This explains the significance of that special chimney that’s been recently erected and visible from St. Peter's Square.
However, once the vote is successful, the ballots will be burned alone, producing "fumata bianca" or white smoke. It’s this white smoke that signals the election of a new pope. At that moment, the bells of St. Peter’s will toll loudly and some 40 minutes later, the newly-elected pontiff will make his first public appearance to the world from the basilica's balcony.
Now, consider the entire process. For countless people, the role and authority of the pope is viewed to be without limits, and even, divinely sanctioned. He is not only the Bishop of Rome, but also leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, ruler of the Holy See (the government of the Catholic Church), and head of Vatican City, the sovereign state within the city of Rome.
So given the magnitude and authority of the Seat of Peter, why then in an age of mass media, from satellite communications to Twitter, is the world watching for a “smoke signal” to learn if the shoes of the fisherman have been filled?
What do these smoke signals say about the church and how do they color your perception of a centuries-old organization that’s seeking to be a relevant and influential force in the 21st century?
Is your credit union and in fact, the entire credit union system any different when we consider the language we use—share drafts—and our business practice—not for profit, not for charity but for service? Certainly, in today’s capitalistic, money-driven world, credit unions and their philosophy aren’t actually considered “the norm.”
Yet, there should be no doubt that credit unions are unique, modeled in ways that make them distinct in the marketplace; but are they seen and properly understood for the role they play within financial services and for the value they deliver to their members, the underserved and their communities? After all, the perceptions people have of credit unions—their knowledge and understanding—occurs only as a result of credit unions themselves and the ways they communicate; not just by the tools they use for communication but by the experience they afford to their audiences as well.
By their very cooperative nature, credit unions are meant to be much more than simply providers of financial services and competitive rates. They are meant to do so much more than fight the banking lobby on their tax-exempt status and lending authorities. In their role of service, credit unions are also called to meet the challenge of being educators, co-operators and advocates for the less fortunate.
Credit unions – or perhaps I should say “we” – have a responsibility for the way we meet these challenges in today’s world. Most important is our responsibility to continuously communicate who we are, what we stand for and what is right for the American consumer. We must be heard with one continuous and consistent voice, spoken not just for us but for all who because of their plight or social status are given no voice.
To be successful in meeting these challenges doesn’t always require that our efforts be spectacular and extraordinary. All we need to do is simply take a lesson from a common chimney, which this week will command the attention of the world.
It all comes down to serving your purpose and the color of your smoke.
Walt Laskos, CUDE, M. Div., is a credit union veteran in Temecula, Calif., with more than 30 years of experience in marketing, communications and public relations.