Little ducks and geese know how to follow mom, and she knows how to lead them to food and safety. They have a system, and it works for them. Christians too find ways to lead and follow, whether they organize themselves into a church or a para-church, a small group or a monastery.
The leadership styles and structures vary widely. There really is not one right way. But if a community doesn’t think hard and wisely about how to handle leadership they will likely fall into something fitting our culture’s expectations and their own neuroses.
Benedict of Nursia, the Father of Western monasticism, thought very clearly about leadership — and he created an approach that has lasted for 1500 years so far, and along the way equipped and sent many servants of Christ in mission and service.
He says something else is crucial too: the best kind of monks also live under an “Abbot.” Benedict’s ideal community had to be led by one person whose title means “father” and who in some way looked on the members as his children. And his Abbot has a lot of authority, enforcing obedience to the Rule, and imposing discipline when necessary.
Modern ears hear this and think “tyrant” and “patriarchy.” We don’t like one person to have that much authority.
Benedict had no such qualms.
His culture surely accepted the authority of people in high office more easily than ours, whether in government or the Church. But Benedict’s Abbot also succeeded as a leadership structure because of his careful way of defining it.
This starts with the Abbot’s assigned attitude. According to the Rule
“The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called, and to know that to whom much hath been entrusted, from him much will be required.”
Who is he? By his very title he is to be a loving father. His weighty responsibility was really quite like that of an ordinary parent: he is to help all the members of the household grow to maturity in Christ. Benedict adds pressure to this, saying that on judgement day the Abbot will be accountable not only about his own spiritual health, but also of the health of his monks.
And Benedict gives instructions and creates procedures that make the Abbot’s role work positively:
- He is to teach more by example than by words.
- He is to require nothing contrary to Scripture.
- He is elected by the monks — would they be likely to choose a tyrant?
- He must consult the other monks on big decisions.
- And the Abbot himself must submit to the Rule.
The Abbot is not an autocrat. He is under Scripture, both in his living and his teaching. He is under the same Rule as the people he serves. He is told to listen to the views of all. In short, he himself must go first in the life of discipleship, and that is where he needs to lead his community.
All this has pros and cons:
- On the one hand, there are plenty of modern movements under the vibrant leadership of one visionary. Often there is danger there, whether the leader abuses power or the institution fails once the visionary is gone.
- But on the other hand, it is possible that delegating authority to one leader in Benedict’s way might free the rest of the community to focus on their own core callings.
- But on the other hand, living under someone with an Abbot’s authority is very foreign to my Presbyterian sensibilities. I’m drawn to democratic ideals and decision by well-informed consensus.
- But on the other hand, my familiar approach creates problems too: Giving everyone an equal democratic say in everything can keep the gifted leader from leading as great ideas get shot down by a group decision-making process. Presbyterians get very stuck.
A lot of hands there.
- But on still one more hand: Having the most mature, wise, and loving member of my community responsible to help me and all the other members grow and thrive sounds pretty good sometimes.
In Benedict’s way of thinking the leadership of an Abbot has advantages for everyone’s spiritual growth. It creates a lifetime of opportunities to practice crucial monastic virtues: obedience and humility. And those are qualities at the heart of what monks and other Christians are intended to be.
I’m not going to say it is a good idea for your community to take on Benedict’s leadership structure. However, if your community is thinking about its leadership, wisdom may come from knowing the range of time-tested options. Left to their own devices many new churches and ministries will evolve systems that hold the community back from risk or otherwise prevent them from fulfilling their own mission. It doesn’t really help to complain that people are risk averse if that is exactly what their community’s leadership structure creates.
If you were planning a new Christian community, how would you structure the leadership?
Imagine your own church (or other Christian community) under the modern equivalent of an Abbot. What do you think would be the pros and cons?
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