As many of you know, I am an oblate, that is a lay member of Mt. St. Scholastica, a Benedictine monastery in Atchison Kansas. The leader of the monastery is called the prioress. Prioresses are elected by the community and hold office for 6 years. They can be re-elected to two consecutive terms.
This summer, the sisters elected a new prioress, Sister Esther Fangman. I was privileged to be present at the election and was impressed by the process they followed for the election. It complies with the wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedict that we follow every day, vowed religious and lay members alike. The results have been noteworthy, for the succession of incredible leaders that have guided the monastery for over 150 years.
Although the election was scheduled for Sunday, June 11, the election started to unfold at least 6 months before that. The election committee designed the process, and they all started praying, at every gathering, for the new prioress. Before the election, each sister who was eligible to serve as prioress was lifted up in prayer by name, at morning and evening prayer. Each step of the election was graced by prayer.
Not all of the members of Mount St. Scholastica live at the monastery. Some have jobs and live at a distance. For the election, they all came home. I was invited to be present for the election as a volunteer. From Tuesday evening until Sunday, the day the election was scheduled, the sisters are all on retreat. In order to make this happen, a number of volunteers stay at the monastery in order to relieve the sisters of their regular responsibilities. During the week, I answered the phone, worked in the library, did dishes and led morning and evening prayer for the sisters in the nursing home attached to the monastery. These tasks would normally be done by the sisters themselves.
On Tuesday evening, they all convened at evening prayer and began their election retreat. On Wednesday and Thursday they attended workshops together in the dining hall. During their workshops, with the help of facilitators from their conference, they they took time to decide what direction they wanted to take for the next 10 years. What were their physical, financial, spiritual needs? What programs were no longer sustainable, what kind of programming was needed? They worked in tables, each sister assigned to a specific table. The sisters in the nursing home were partnered with a direct participant who met with them and reported back during the day, so that those who were physically unable to be in the dining hall had a voice in the discussions.
After they had mapped out some goals and direction for the future, they spent time focusing on the strengths that would be needed to pilot their monastery through the threats they might encounter towards the horizon they had imagined together. This led to the surfacing of names of members who had demonstrated those strengths, and nominations.
By Friday afternoon, they had narrowed the number of possible nominees. At this point, silence reigned. They did not speak at dinner or in the halls except for guided discussions they held in pairs. All over the monastery, chairs were set up so that they could have one-on-one discussions with each other, with guidelines for the discussions. Partners met with the sisters in the nursing home, too. They were listening to the Holy Spirit.
These discussions must have been fruitful. At the end of the morning conference on Saturday, they decided that they were ready to hold the election that afternoon, rather than waiting until Sunday morning. They knew where they wanted to be in the near future, they had decided what skills and abilities were needed for someone to move them towards that goal, and they knew which of their members had the gifts they needed.
At 3 o’clock, the sisters went into the chapel to pray and to vote. The monastery was silent. One of the sisters came out to the guest house and asked us to avoid walking near the chapel, out of respect for their process. An hour later, sisters were dispatched to the nursing home to assist the sisters who lived there to cast their votes. By dinner, the decision was made. They didn’t announce it until after Sister Esther was able to call her family, and by 7 o’clock the results were posted on Facebook.
All through the process, the sisters focused on God’s will and how it was recognized in community. God’s will- as understood in the goals they chose and evident in the strengths of the sisters themselves. They weren’t swayed by personalities, by convincing words, by seduction or bribery or threats. The celebration at Sister Esther’s installation weeks later was hearty and genuine. They all believed that the right person had been chosen and would bless them with her service. It was a privilege to be present and I’m grateful to be a member of a community whose leadership is selected so thoughtfully.