There are many in the modern church keen on modern management techniques. They might be interested to learn that management consultants are nos studying the Rule of St Benedict. Margaret Laird commends their wisdom

The election of the new Pope has encouraged a renewed interest not only in St Benedict, but also in his monastic rule, one of the most important influences on western civilization.

Not long ago, a brief item in the national press reported that a group of management consultants had attended a conference in order ‘to study the sixth century Rule of St Benedict.’ This seemed surprising, if not incredible, but it was certainly not a pointless exercise, for the Rule sets down the basic principles of community life and demonstrates a superb understanding of human nature.

Who was St Benedict?

Who was St Benedict? His biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, writing fifty years after the saint’s death, would have experienced some difficulty in disentangling facts from legendary accretion. It seems certain, however, that St Benedict was born in Nursia in Italy and educated in Rome. Tired of the corruption and immorality of city life, he withdrew to the hills, where he established several monasteries. In 525, as Abbot of Monte Casino, he wrote for his monks ‘a little rule for beginners.’

That there are few biographical details about the saint is unimportant, for it is his character which is of greater interest and this is reflected in his Rule. Some scholars suggest that it was not the original work of St Benedict but that he drew upon an earlier anonymous source, the Regula Magistri. Even if this were so, his adaptations to that rule reveal much about his character.

St Benedict emerges as a gentle, considerate man who could be firm, but whose firmness was tempered with moderation. He described his Rule as ‘a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to order nothing harsh nor rigorous.’ For example, knowing that younger monks found difficulty in getting up for night prayers, he states: ‘The younger brethren shall have their beds in dormitories mixed with the seniors. When they rise for the night office, let them gently encourage one another on account of the excuses to which the sleepy are addicted.’

Compassion was also shown to the elderly and young boys in the monastery: ‘Let there be constant consideration for their weakness and on no account let the rigour of the Rule in regard to food be applied to them.’

No soft touch

St Benedict however was no soft touch. He insisted on punctuality for the Divine Offices, and on accuracy and precision. Careless reading in chapel was punished. Above all, he hated idleness, describing it as ‘the enemy of the soul.’

It is in the advice given to abbots that St Benedict himself is most clearly portrayed. The qualities listed there describe what is required of anyone in authority. The management consultants would surely have recognized this. ‘Let the abbot: always set mercy above judgement; hate ill-doing but love the brethren; act with prudent moderation; always distrust his own frailty; study to be loved rather than feared; not be turbulent or anxious, overbearing or obstinate, jealous or too suspicious, otherwise he will never be at rest.’

But what of the monks? Do the Rule’s instructions to them bear any relevance to those controlled by the managerial class or to those under authority in a modern institution? St Benedict expected obedience and cooperation from his monks: ‘What has been commanded must not be done slowly or tepidly, nor with murmuring nor raising of objections. Obedience must be given with good will.’

A willing response to orders is required of any workforce but how does one encourage such an attitude? St Benedict believed that this could be achieved by creating a stable and harmonious community. He know that even in monasteries, there would be tension and personality clashes and so he advised his monks, ‘not to yield to anger, nurse a grudge, hold guile in one’s heart or make a feigned peace.’ Sound advice for anyone who organizes or works within a team.

Conditions of work

Certain aspects of employment or community living are usually difficult and monks often found the religious life hard and limiting. However, they were never ignorant of the demands placed upon them for these were clearly stated in the Rule. St Benedict encouraged them to face up to the restrictions of their lifestyle: ‘enduring all, without growing weary or giving up.’ Similarly, in any business or company, it is vital that managers or employers spell out the terms and conditions of work to anyone accepting a new post.

If an institution is to run efficiently, the principles of order and balance are essential and so the Rule states: ‘Everything must be done at the proper time. Everyone is to keep his proper place.’ St Benedict wanted his monks to be balanced personalities. They were not expected to work so hard that they damaged their health to a point known in management circles as ‘burn out.’ The Rule gives a vivid description of someone suffering from this condition: ‘Under stress as a result of overwork, a monk becomes excitable, anxious, overbearing, obstinate, jealous, over suspicious and never able to stop. Such a man is never at rest’, observes St Benedict.

Another principle of the Rule was moderation. No-one was expected to undertake the impossible: ‘If a brother is commanded to do what he considers impossible, let him receive the command but if he sees the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the measure of his strength, let him explain the reasons why he is unable to perform the tasks to his abbot, calmly and at the right moment, without obstinacy or contentiousness.’ St Benedict was obviously ahead of his time in this respect. Only comparatively recently has the secular world established a similar system whereby employees have the right to receive just hearings when they register complaints.

Above all, the Rule stresses that the abbot must ‘show compassion in adapting himself to the many dispositions of his monks.’ just as anyone in authority should show regard for each individual for whom he is responsible.

The management consultants would certainly have concluded that the best institutions are based on the principles of harmony, balance and moderation, where leaders value the importance of the individual, and individuals are aware of their distinctive contribution to the organization of which they are part. Such principles are equally applicable to any community – even to parochial life.