Chapter 21: The Deans of the Monastery

1 If the community is rather large, some brothers chosen for their good repute and holy life should be made deans. 2 They will take care of their groups of ten, managing all affairs according to the commandments of God and the orders of their abbot. 3 The deans selected should be the kind of men with whom the abbot can confidently share the burdens of his office. 4 They are to be chosen for virtuous living and wise teaching, not for their rank. 5 If perhaps one of these deans is found to be puffed up with any pride, and so deserving of censure, he is to be reproved once, twice and even a third time. Should he refuse to amend, he must be removed from office 6 and replaced by another who is worthy. 7 We prescribe the same course of action in regard to the prior.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Now we turn from the structure of the Divine Office to the structure of the monastery itself. Saint Benedict has given us very precise guidelines for the Divine Office and he will also give us clear guidelines for the running of the monastery.

First, the abbot cannot run a monastery by himself. This seems so clear to Saint Benedict and yet throughout our monastic history, many abbots have tried to run the monastery themselves rather than sharing out their authority within the community. All we have to do is imagine a table trying to stand on one leg! It simply will not stand by itself. We have to put a base at the bottom of the leg or we have to add at least two more legs.

Saint Benedict’s preference is to have a group of monks that he calls “deans.” The community should be divided into groups of ten and then each group should have a dean. This arrangement in the monastery has never been the normal one throughout all of monastic history, in spite of Saint Benedict recommending it. What generally has been the norm is to have a Prior who is second in command and often a Subprior, who is third in command. Then there are other “deans,” but they are not in charge of groups of monks in the way described here in this chapter. Rather there is usually a novice master in charge of novices. Sometimes there is a junior master in charge of the temporary professed monks. Often the Prior is in charge of the solemnly professed monks. The business manager of the monastery, in the Rule he is called the cellarer, is also a “dean” in this sense and summoned to give counsel to the abbot.

Leadership in the community is deeply important. The abbot won’t be abbot for ever, since he will die or go out of office like any other human! The abbot has to make decisions that will encourage other leadership to emerge in the community so that the monks have people from whom they can choose their next abbot. The next abbot also will find his task easier if there are many leaders in the community upon whom he can rely.

So our spirituality, flowing from the Rule, indicates that a normal Benedictine community should have a group of monks who are already leaders and who continue to learn how to be better leaders in the community. Our spirituality indicates that the abbot should have wisdom to appoint monks who can be leaders to various positions so that their leadership skills can increase. Wisdom also indicates that not every monk can be a leader, so monks must be humble enough to accept being named a leader or not being named a leader. May the make us all good monks who can accept being leaders or followers. May we do all for the glory of our Lord.