Saint Benedict on Leadership

Saint Benedict on Leadership June 21, 2012

Most people today are skeptical of institutions and cynical about leadership. Politicians make promises they don’t intend to keep. CEOs serve their investors at all costs with little incentive to take care of workers or promote the common good. Even pastors are often caught up in sex scandals or money-making schemes. Those who are most eager to find an alternative to the selfish power-grabbing of our culture are often the most anti-institutional. In response to bad leadership, some think we’d do better with no leadership at all.

But the answer to bad leadership can’t be no leadership. Benedict’s wisdom is helpful in this context, for he saw clearly that the point of leadership in community isn’t so much to get things done as it is to offer a specific context for learning to listen. The problem with a culture where everyone is grabbing for power is that no one is able to submit themself to another and hear the voice of God.

Take, for example, Benedict’s instruction to community leaders in chapter 2 of the Rule:

Let the abba always remember that at the final accounting, not only his teaching, but also his community’s actions will be examined. An amma must always remember that she serves as manager under the Lord, and she will be responsible when the true CEO finds that the workers have not been doing their best. Still, if a manager has faithfully attended to workers who won’t listen and tried her hardest to cure their unhealthy habits, she’s done her job. She won’t be charged for their debt when the balance sheet doesn’t add up.

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My selection of words and phrases from the corporate world was deliberate in paraphrasing this chapter for The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Contemporary Paraphrase. Benedict is subverting the way the “rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.” He is addressing the same human needs as an MBA program. Leadership matters, but it is always in service to—and in keeping with the peculiar means of—God’s kingdom. The amma’s job is more important than any Fortune 500’s CEO. But she must learn to do it in the way of Jesus. Again, Benedict:

An amma should always remember who she is and what she is called to, aware that more will be expected from the one to whom much has been entrusted. She has to be aware of the immensity of her task: she is directing souls on their way toward God, serving a variety of temperaments in the way they’re best able to receive direction—coaxing, correcting, and encouraging—depending on what each individual needs. She must so accommodate herself to each person’s needs that she will not only keep the community from falling apart, but will genuinely rejoice in the growth of each person. More than anything else, she must not be distracted by logistical details and management issues, stealing time from the dear children who are her primary responsibility. She should remember that her job description is Chief of Soul Care. This is the work she must account for at her annual review.

The answer to our lack of good leadership is not for everyone to listen to themselves. Our selves, after all, are each already shaped by the twisted desires of the culture around us. This is why, however noble their hopes, Benedict is convinced that the spiritual seekers and communal dabblers have little chance of growing into the fullness of what God wants them to be. Our only hope is for our twisted selves to be reformed by submission to a rule and refined by the fire of relationships with other people to whom we belong. Whether that happens in a marriage, in a congregation, or in a monastic community, this reshaping of our desires is what life with God is all about. As St. Augustine said, only when we have been re-made by grace can we “love God and do what we want.”

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