Yesterday the residents’ association of our village held elections. There was quite a tussle over the position of Chairman of the Social Committee, with arguments about the Constitution and fights about procedure. The sub-text was reasonably easy to discern: two strong people clashing and both leading with their shadows!
This made me reflect on the nature of power in Christian communities. You can’t avoid the reality of power and it usually plays out in the dance between leader and community.
When St Benedict wrote his Rule – or re-wrote that of the Master – he envisaged the Abbot as God for the monks. They owed him total obedience and he was elected for life. His absolute power was balanced by the requirement that he act to further the needs of the community.
The Rule of St Benedict
Benedictine communities could become dysfunctional. When they did, some believed it was because of the lifelong dictatorship of the Abbot. When St Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century, some four hundred years later, came to set out his ideal community, he made sure that its leaders had limited terms. When they had finished as leader, they went back to being a little brother again. Franciscan leaders are called Ministers, and their focus is to serve their brothers and sisters. Power, for St Francis, was exercised always by giving it away.
The downside of Franciscan leadership is that it can be chaotic, and when Franciscan communities are dysfunctional, it often manifests in fights that no-one has the authority to resolve.
Roger Shutz arrived in France from Switzerland during World War 2 looking for a site near Lyon to establish a community of reconciliation. By 1945, the community at Taizé was working, with Brother Roger as its founding Prior. Leadership, for him, was that of Prior, first among equals. He was evidently aware of the shortcomings of both Benedictine and mendicant leadership, and his Rule shows a new emphasis. Not only should the Prior consult with the majority of the community, but should also pay special attention to those in the community without power: the young, the voiceless, the marginalised, and allow those voices to be celebrated and followed.
Brother Roger’s style of leadership resonates well with our era. Its downside is that it requires a great gift of discernment to hear the voice of Christ when it is not the voice of mainstream members of the Christian community.
I beleive that the heritage of Christian leadership has much to teach us. We are, we claim, the Body of Christ, and the way in which we exercise power should reflect Christ’s way of power.
Firstly, Benedict teaches us power is for the community more than the individual. Francis teaches us that power becomes oppression when it is held for oneself. Roger of Taizé reminds us of the ways the Bible holds up the little one.
These styles of exercising power can be seen in parishes and all Christian communities. There are some parishes where the priest is Father, and Father knows best what is in the interest of his parish. Father initiates people in Christian faith, particularly in the sacrament of baptism, and Father prevents the nasty nature of some people from dominating the parish agenda.
Other leaders are very conscious that their time in the parish is temporary. The minister is there to coach the ministries that were there before she came and will continue after she leaves. She is an enabler, and an encourager, and above all, she models the way in which Christ gave away his power to others.
In other parishes, the smallest member is heard. Children are on worship committees, clients of the soup kitchen design the ministry for the hungry, and the majority give way to the smallest voice with grace and gratitude that in them they have heard the voice of Christ.
Of course,no parish is purely one or the other of these leadership styles. But I hold them up like this partly as a warning that each can be dysfunctional. If we know that Abbots can become dictators, Ministers can be disengaged, and Priors can so honour the voice of the little one that they desert the way of common sense.
Power can spoil any community, and understanding how it works in the Body of Christ can lead to vibrant community living.