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Thinking Out Loud

The Way of the Abbot

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2015

Lately I have been thinking about my vocation as a seminary president. After attending the recent annual meeting of Presidents and Board Chairs of Presbyterian Seminaries, I wanted to share with you my thoughts about a vocation which I share with some remarkable men and women. I'm not sure these reflections, incidentally, will be of any interest or value to anyone else, but I hope some aspects of these thoughts might apply to other vocations, for example, to congregational ministers as well as to those who lead social agencies and organizations that seek to promote healing and justice in our world. These may just be private musings, in other words, but I offer them nonetheless for what they are worth.


way of the abbotBeing a seminary president is neither fish nor fowl. Though I am an ordained minister and have served as a pastor, and though there are clearly pastoral dimensions to my current vocation, I am not a pastor. While I served as a professor and academic dean for many years, I do not now spend much time at all in a classroom as a teacher. A seminary president is, of course, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the school. And more and more, a president must accept the mantle of being the chief development officer of the seminary, though both the CEO and the lead fundraising roles deserve considerable theological reflection and should be used of a seminary presidency with care.

I have come to believe, in fact, that all four of these roles or aspects of the president's office (pastoral, teaching, chief executive and fund development) stand in need of theological reflection, especially at a time when suspicion of institutions is rife and the legitimacy of authority is broadly questioned in our culture. I have only begun the task of theologically reflecting on the seminary presidency during my first five years in this vocation. Already some insights have emerged as I have entered into conversation with a rather surprising source, at least for a twenty-first century Protestant seminary president, "The Pastoral Prayer" of Aelred of Rievaulx, who served as Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England, during the twelfth century. Teacher, pastor and "chief executive," as well as what we might call "chief stewardship officer," are humbly and nobly woven together in Aelred's practice. (You may recall my mention of Aelred some time ago.)

In so limited a scope as a blog entry (even so long a blog entry as this one), there's no way to do more than hint at the richness of Aelred's understanding of the Abbot's vocation, but I shall try to do that, at least by pointing to the principle that gives life to every role played by the abbot or abbess. I believe these roles have a lot in common, not only with a seminary and college presidencies, but with other vocations too.

The guiding principle at the heart of Aelred's thought is love. Easy to say, hard to do. Especially when one reflects on certain duties the abbot must perform. Aelred's prayer, what he calls oratio pastoralis or "the prayer of shepherds" speaks to each aspect of the vocations mentioned above. It is suffused with a spirit of humility, a hope for the office to which he has been called, and a love for those to whom he has been given charge.

The Teacher
Though he was born in 1110 in the Northumbrian town of Hexham, Aelred spent many years as a courtier in the household of King David I of Scotland. In his mid-twenties, he left the royal court to enter Rievaulx, a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire. Prior to becoming the abbot of this monastery, he had served as novice master, the principal teacher of new monks, responsible for their spiritual and vocational formation.

"To form a monk," writes Charles Dumont, "is something completely different from putting him into a mold or making him into a slavish copy of a model, even a saintly model." Ultimately, it is up to the novice to submit to what Aelred understood as a "voluntary self-stripping which consists of taking up the Cross of Christ. Ordo noster crux Christi, Aelred wrote ... “Our way of life is the cross of Christ." Aelred, the abbot, puts priority on those practices of faith through which the Spirit of God works in the lives of his monks. Aelred teaches not only with words, but through his example.

For instance, Aelred is known for his sense of humor, which comes through in his prayer with his vivid overstatement of his own unworthiness to be a teacher, reflecting a self-effacing lightness of touch that surely served him well with those he led. He prays:

And because you [God] have given them this blind leader, this untaught teacher, this ignorant guide, teach the one you have put in a teacher's position, lead the one you have commanded to lead others, guide the one you have appointed as a guide - if not for me, then for them!

Reading this passage, I couldn't help but picture the joyful face of Pope Francis and think of the power of humor and humility in leadership.

The Pastor
Virtually every line of this prayer exudes a pastor's heart, from its first to its final words. But section eight of the prayer particularly rises to a level of prayer that can only be described as priestly, praying on behalf of the members of his community in their life together.

Sweet Lord, by the action of your Spirit may they be peaceful, modest, and kind in their relationships with themselves, with each other, and with me. May they be obedient to one another, of service to one another, and encouraging of one another. May they be fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, in poverty, in fasting, in toils, and keeping vigil, in silence and quiet, and in all things patient. Drive from them, O Lord, the spirit of pride and vainglory, envy and sadness, sloth and slander, despair and indifference, lust and uncleanness, presumption and discord. Be in the midst of them according to your faithful promise.

The abbot is speaking of the monks in his charge, but every president would recognize in this intercessory prayer a plea for students, faculty, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni and the extended seminary community.

Aelred's time was an era of vast and often violent change. War broke out between the English and the Scots while Aelred served at Rievaulx. The war was led on the English side by the baron of the castle nearest to Rievaulx Abbey in opposition to the king in whose court Aelred had once served. (Aelred also wrote the history of that conflict.) The Cistercian order itself was in considerable turmoil. The Cistercians led an exceptionally successful reform movement, but as monks from other orders rushed to become members of the "reform monasteries," many of these new Cistercians resented the strict lifestyle and order of the reformers. Complaints reached all the way to Bernard of Clairvaux, who was "Father Immediate of Rievaulx," though he likely never crossed the channel from France. When Aelred prays that God will hold his people "in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace," he is praying for real, and he is praying for something beyond his control.

The Chief Executive Officer
The abbot, we are told by Aelred, seeks not to preside over but to profit his people. Aelred feels the weight of the impossibility of the responsibilities he bears. He prays:

For some good reason, you have placed me - or rather let me be placed - in this office, unworthy sinner that I am. For as long as you suffer me to be over your people, you bid me to be concerned for them and to pray so conscientiously for them. … Because divine law has laid down that it is the priest's duty to offer sacrifice for himself first and then for the people, I will first offer your majesty this sacrifice of prayer, such as it is, for my sins.

The first duty of the one who serves as chief executive officer of an organization, Aelred tells us, is to attend to his or her own spiritual health. Aelred reflects the wisdom of the airline safety announcement to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others with theirs. But his wisdom goes well beyond this.

The spiritual health of the leader is not an end in itself. The institutional leader's health is for the "end" of the health, wholeness and healing of others. Aelred’s prayer continues:

Our God of mercy, hear me for their sake! I pray to you for their sake, compelled by the duty of my office, urged on by my attachment to them, yet quickened with joy when I contemplate your kindness.

The Chief Stewardship Officer

As a person charged with the temporal and fiscal responsibility of the community, no less than its spiritual well-being, the abbot prays for his monks:

My God, inspire in them as well a willingness to endure in patience when you give nothing and to use in moderation when you do give. I am your servant and, because of you, also theirs; grant them the grace to trust me always and to feel that what I am doing is to their advantage. Let them love and respect me as much as you think is beneficial for them.

I beg this one thing of your most tender love, my Lord, no matter whether it is a little or a lot, make me, your servant, the dependable dispenser, the discerning distributor, the prudent provider of all that you have given.

Aelred anticipates some insights of modern organizational psychology, such as the benefit of creating a "culture of appreciation," an idea articulated eloquently last fall in our annual faculty retreat by Professor Loren Townsend. Aelred also reminds all of us of the central spiritual duty of the abbot, which every president would do well to imitate. He prayed regularly for the people entrusted to him. That may be the most important aspect of the abbot's role, and it might just renew the life of seminary presidents too.

Thus, I'll leave you with the closing paragraph of Aelred's prayer. It needs no commentary:

I, however, entrust them into your holy hands and to your loving providence, in the hope that not even one of them will be snatched out of your hand or out of the hand of your servant to whom you have entrusted them, but they may persevere joyously in their holy intentions. By persevering may they obtain eternal life. Grant this, our sweetest Lord, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.


[Notes on the sources: The edition of Aelred's prayer used is a bi-lingual version which helpfully provides good critical, annotated texts in both English and Latin. For Your Own People: Aelred of Rievaulx's Pastoral Prayer, critical edition, introduction and annotations by Marsha L. Dutton, translation by Mark DelCogliano (Cistercian Publications, 2008). Comments by Charles Dumont are from Aelred of Rievaulx: Mirror of Charity, introduction and critical notes by Charles Dumont, OSCO, translated by Elizabeth Connor, OSCO (Cistercian Publications, 1990).]

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