Margaret Marcuson: Learning about leadership from Brother Cadfael

Here are four lessons for church leadership from a surprising source: a fictional medieval monk.

In my pandemic reading, I found mysteries comforting. I revisited the Brother Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters. One weekend I devoured three of them. The books are set in the early 12th Century in a monastery in western England, in the middle of a struggle between the forces of King Stephen and Empress Maud, cousins who were rival claimants to the throne of England.

Sound far away? Irrelevant?  On the contrary. After spending a few days with Brother Cadfael, here are four things he can teach clergy leaders:

1. An outside perspective helps. Cadfael didn’t join the Benedictine order until he was 40, after a military career including a sojourn in the Crusades. He came out of it with more flexibility of mind than some who had been in the order since childhood. He realizes that many of the monastery tempests are of the teapot variety. His wide experience helps him step back and see the bigger picture and be less reactive, even to big events (like murder--these are mysteries, after all.) He also has compassion for those with a narrower view.
Almost all clergy leaders come in from the outside. You have experiences beyond your congregation. Experiment with using those experiences to help yourself step back and keep your own perspective broad (as opposed to talking other people into broadening theirs.)

2. Cadfael knows what he can and cannot do. He knows he is not in charge, and is in a hierarchical community. He pushes the limits of his authority, and sometimes looks for forgiveness rather than permission. However, he recognizes when he has to let the community processes work themselves out, and accepts limits when they are set for him. In one book, Prior Robert confines him to the monastery grounds, and he accepts it.
No clergy leader has absolute power (at least, none that I know). There are always restrictions to what you can accomplish. There’s a board which has varying levels
of authority. Or denominational decisions may reduce your options. When others make a decision which is within their authority, do your best to accept it with grace.

3. Cadfael knows there are some personality limits within the community, as well as structural ones. He faces some realities, like the aging, weak abbot Heribert and the scheming Prior Robert. In addition, some are suspicious of him because of his unusual background for a monk, and some because in his role as herbalist he has more freedom to come and go than others within the community.
Let’s face it: some people will like you and some people won’t. Some of your collaborators will be able to take a stand, and others won’t. Some will want to maintain their personal fiefdoms, and others will be ready for something new. Over time, the players will change, as also happens in Cadfael’s community.

4. He knows what his principles are. As Cadfael investigates the murders he is committed to seeing that justice is done, even if there is risk for himself.
Knowing what your own life and ministry principles are will help you navigate the realities of church life. That doesn’t mean you have to announce them at every turn, but that clarity will help you think through how to respond to the inevitable ups and downs of church life (even if investigating a murder isn’t part of it).

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