Benedict’s Rule: Leadership

The Rule moves quickly from the kind of monk who benefits the monastery to the kind of abbot who leads the community.  Benedict knew that the quality of any community is directly related to its leadership.

Benedictine leadership is defined with utmost excellence, the abbot “is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery” (Chapter 2, v. 2)  But it quickly becomes clear that this is not so much a message to the monks, demanding their allegiance—but rather a message to the abbot, requiring his humility, accountability, and stewardship.

When we define leadership in any community, it is not a “signal” to the members, but rather a “sign” to the one called to lead.  There are leaders who use their definition of leadership to solicit (or require) the allegiance of their followers.  But the Rule sets forth the standards for leadership, so that the abbot will never forget what kind of person he is to be.  The Rule says it plainly, the abbot “must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words” (Chapter 2, v. 12).

There are “regulatory” leaders—those who solicit (or require) allegiance based on “keeping the rules” and “going by the book.”  And they evoke a kind of loyalty, but one which is often superficial and artificial—one that fulfills the duties but fails to find the respect the leader thinks he or she deserves.

The abbot is not a regulatory leader; he is a “relational” leader—leading by example and finding his authority ex-persona, not ex-officio.  The abbot derives leadership primarily from his relationship with God, and secondarily from his relations with those whom he is called to serve.  This kind of leadership does not ignore or minimize the “rules and regulations” which are necessary to order the life of any community.  But the relational leader sets the regulations in a larger context—the context of “life together” and servanthood.

This chapter is filled with golden nuggets which can enrich a leader’s life and work.  But nothing better summarizes the intent of the Rule for the abbot than these words:

“The abbot must always remember what he is and remember what he is called, aware that more will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted.  He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken; directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving, and encouraging them as appropriate.  He must so accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence that he will not only keep his flock from dwindling, but will rejoice in the increase of a good flock” (Chapter 2, v. 30-32)

Loyalty to this kind of leader will not be based upon demand, but upon devotion—born out of deep respect and joy in mutually serving the cause of Christ.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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