This is my sixth and final article offering reflections based on my reading of Judith Valente’s book, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing. 2018). You can see the five previous articles as follows: “Being Spiritual in the World Today”, “Striving to be Disciples of Christ”, “Overcoming Anger with Prayer“, “Community and Balance of Work in the Rule of St. Benedict,” and “Living Simply as Instruments of God’s Mercy.”
In my fifth article in this series, “Living Simply as Instruments of God’s Mercy,” I spoke some on leadership. Today, I would like to focus on what Valente offers from the Rule of St. Benedict on leadership. We are all equal before God. The Lord is our shepherd but we need earthly leaders who will lead us in compassion and truth to become what God calls us to be.
In a monastery one person is the authority, the prioress or abbot. However, this does not mean they should act unilaterally or as a monarch who is power hungry. Valente quotes from the rule’s third chapter, “The prioress or abbot shall call the whole community together and explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the members, ponder it and follow what she or he judges the wiser course” (151). The decision lies in the hand of one person but all involved need to be counseled. This is a model of leadership that all of us should consider, in the church, in the workplace, and in the home. For instance, in the home the husband and wife need to dialogue, even involving the children when appropriate, about what is going on but in the end someone needs to make a decision that all will respect.
For the workplace, Valente offers a personal example of a new boss she had who made a decision without consulting the employees. When he was asked why he said, “Because I said so” (151-152). Really? Yes, he was the boss and had the authority to make the decision but, especially as a new boss, did he have all the information he should to make the decision?
This is why the Rule of St. Benedict calls for consultation. Consultation is meant to be a process that brings all the information and concerns to the table so that a good decision can be made. No one, including the best leader there is, can make the best decision without having all the information.
One should also not needlessly rush to make a decision. Valente writes, “Monastic decision-making is a slow, deliberate process of discernment. Its goal is consensus” (154). In consulting others, not only does a good leader receive information. In the consultation process, people feel involved and appreciated. This can lead to broader acceptance of the decision when it made.
The information must flow openly in both directions. The people being consulted need open sharing of information so they may respond appropriately (Valente, 154). This may not always be possible. Sometimes the needed information is not always available or public. We still need to do our best to dialogue.
The leader needs to bring the decision to prayer. So does everyone else involved. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit is leading the entire process so that the final decision will be in accord with God’s Will. When we trust in God’s Will amazing things can happen. Valente provides the example of a group of sisters who were discerning whether to keep their school open or not (155-157). It was not an easy decision. There was much discussion, prayer, and discernment. They did not want to lose this ministry. Yet, they discerned it was time to close the school. While one ministry ended, they were able to begin new ministries that served the local community well.
Valente quotes from chapter 64 of the Rule on what are not good qualities in a leader, “Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or over-suspicious she or he must not be. Such a [leader] is never at rest” (159). A leader must be calm, open to what others have to say, and trust in what they have to offer.
One must consider what the leader is trying to do. A good leader does not lead to have power. Valente writes, “In Benedict’s management manual, servant is another name for leader” (161). A good leader leads for the good of the people in accordance with God’s Will, not their own. With this in mind, Valente continues, “In a Benedictine world view, the best leaders are teachers, not dictators” (161, cf. 162). In teaching, the leader helps those they serve to grow in understanding.
A good leader is responsible for the souls of the people they serve (see Ezekiel 3:17-21). Each person must ultimately make their own decision on what God is calling them to. The good leader helps them do that.
I try to follow what I have written above in my leadership of St. Mary’s of the Lake and St. Benedict’s. It is not always easy. A good leader does not seek to have everyone adapt to them. Valente quotes from chapter two of the Rule, “[They] must know what a difficult and demanding burden they have undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate. They must so accommodate and adapt themselves to each one’s character and intelligence that they will not only keep the flock entrusted to their care from dwindling, but will rejoice in a good flock” (165).
Some leaders choose to lead with power, expecting others to follow in fear. In chapter 64, St. Benedict writes of a leader, “Let them strive to be loved rather than feared” (173).
It is not easy to be a leader. Please pray for all leaders.
This concludes my series on Judith Valente’s book, How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing. 2018). I hope it has encouraged you as Christian disciples, perhaps even to read the book for yourself as there is much more than what I had offered in these articles.