Servant Leadership

Sister Judith Sutera | June 7, 2017

This week the sisters at the Mount have been gathered in meetings to discern who the next prioress, our “superior,” will be.

Sister Anne Shepard has been an outstanding leader for the past 12 years, and that is a full term, so we have to move on to someone else from among us. Some of you may recall the election of Pope Francis and how the reporters were frustrated that it was such a “secret” process. The secret is how different it is from other types of elections and what reporters might or might not see if they were in the room.

Like that election, the central and most important thing for us is long periods of prayer (not very interesting for a reporter to watch). We believe that it is not we who set the direction, but the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to be so prayerful and attentive that we can rightly discern the will of God and do it.

The second thing we do is to work out together what we think the community should be, and be doing, as we go forward into the next six years. In the public realm, people who act like they have all the answers present their beliefs and plans. They try to persuade others that this is the best route to take and that they can do everything that they think is best for us. Of course, we know that they often can’t accomplish what they want because others have other ideas about how it should be. In some cases, they don’t follow through on what they promised and the voters end up unhappy or disillusioned. We’ve all been disappointed by dishonest or incompetent leaders who talked much better than they delivered. Benedictines, on the other hand, start with deciding as a group what God is calling us to be and then, as the last stage of the process, search for the sister among us whom we think can best inspire and lead us there.

In worldly government, candidates that most people don’t know put themselves out there and claim all kinds of things about themselves. When we elect a prioress, there is no one in the room but us, and no sister would be able to claim things about herself that we have not seen in action for the decades that we have lived with her. To be chosen is very humbling because we already know not only her talents but also her weak spots. Benedict has a lot to say in his rule about the abbot or prioress. He expects a community to choose someone of proven virtue and he likens the leader to a physician (who diagnoses and heals), a parent (who nurtures and loves), a teacher (who instructs and corrects) and a shepherd (who guides and protects).

Both Benedict and Scripture turn the world’s images of leadership upside down. They insist upon what today is called “servant leadership,” a term we hear in church communities and even in some businesses. True leaders are those who believe that they were called to serve, not to dictate. Their role is to listen to the group, discern the truth and goodness of their desires and, if it is God’s will, to find the best way to take them there. Jesus bends to do the lowliest tasks and says that his disciples must be the least of all and the servants of all. Nothing is to be done for one’s own glory but to lead others to holiness. Whether we lead a business, a family or just our own lives, each of us must practice serving, not self-serving.