A couple of weeks ago we held an election here at the Monastery. But it was a very different type of election than most of people are used to. No money was spent on campaigns, there were no signs, no angry or even particularly stirring speeches and the election was over when everyone came to agreement and felt good about the process. In most elections in our country it frequently seems like the process brings out the worst in everyone but here at the monastery the process seems to bring out the best in us.
In our community the prioress is elected for a six year term and can be re-elected for another four years. Several months before the election the community begins to prepare through prayer. Every evening for at least a couple of months before the election a special prayer is said by the whole community asking for God’s grace and wisdom for the sister to be elected and for the whole community to be open to the movement of the Spirit.
The election process is formally opened in a ceremony in the chapel by the president of our federation, (a group of affiliated Benedictine monasteries that come together for mutual support and accountability.) This beginning reminds us that all decisions are rooted in prayer and the presence of God. The presence of the federation president and two sisters from other monasteries who will facilitate the election reminds us that we are part of a much greater whole, of all who live this Benedictine way of life.
The process begins with a review of the goals the community had already established in previous meetings. The process moves on to discussing the names of sisters who have gifts that may make them good leaders for the community. This discussion is done at tables, respectfully looking at the qualities of quite a few sisters and how they have gifts to serve the community. This is a process of affirmation, there is no debate about who is better, there is no discussion about why someone isn’t suited for leadership.
Out of a long list of names the sisters whose names have been mentioned most often are asked to prayerfully consider whether they would be willing to serve as prioress. This isn’t the same as asking her whether she wants to be prioress, but whether she can see herself serving in this role at this time. This small group of sisters is given time to think, reflect and pray about their decisions.
Those who are willing to serve are then invited to speak briefly about their leadership style, their gifts and limitations. The community members can then ask clarifying questions. The facilitators work with the sisters who are open to being elected and with the community so that the process is smooth, respectful and peaceful. After everyone has had a chance to speak and questions have been asked community members begin to vote. This process continues in silence until the community comes to “convergence” in selecting a particular sister.
In the final step everyone convenes in the chapel, where the process began, and a formal vote is taken. The process is again grounded in prayer, in the place that is the heart of the community, and chairs are arranged in a circle to symbolize the egalitarian nature of our life. Each sister who is mentally able is invited to submit a ballot. After the voting is finished everyone lines up to hug the newly elected prioress and to offer her their support in the days ahead.
In his Rule Benedict says that the leader should be someone elected on the basis of her “goodness of life and wisdom in teaching.” Desire for the job, ability to make grandiose promises and gifts of inflammatory rhetoric are not part of the qualifications. Being prioress is about the gift of service not the desire for power, it is a humble openness to listen, to help, to call others to be their best selves, for the community to be about the Reign of God. For the community it is a process of being open to see the gifts in one another and willingness to allow someone to exercise those gifts. Everyone in the community knows that in order for this process to work she must be her best self in order to serve as a leader or as one who supports the leader.
In a world where many people have no opportunity for any kind of choice in their governance and many others do not appreciate the choices they have perhaps the Benedictine way can be a model that calls us all to be our best selves as we serve others.