Academic journal article Communication Studies

"Do All Things with Counsel" (1): Benedictine Women and Organizational Democracy

Academic journal article Communication Studies

"Do All Things with Counsel" (1): Benedictine Women and Organizational Democracy

Article excerpt

Whenever an important matter is to be undertaken in the monastery the abbot should call the entire community together and should set forth the agenda. After hearing the various opinions of the brothers, he should consider all and then do what he thinks best. We feel all should meet for the Lord often reveals the best course to a younger monk. (Benedict, trans. 1975, p.51)

If not for the gendered language and clear references to the religious life, the above passage could be part of the mission statement or employee handbook of a contemporary organization seeking to democratize. The excerpt is, in fact, taken from an employee handbook of sorts. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th Century governs the operations of monasteries and the lives of the women and men who make them their homes. Benedictinism has always professed a commitment to counsel and participation in decision-making, but the reality of practice varied over centuries and across communities. Since the middle of the last century though, communities of Benedictine nuns (2) have focused on renewing a commitment to democracy. In doing so, they have created structures and processes which go far beyond simply "taking counsel." Benedictine women are, as a result, able to operate large and complex organizations in a manner that upholds their most basic values.

Although organizational democracy is a topic of interest to communication scholars, few long-term models from which to analyze the successful implementation and maintenance of this form of governance exist. Although women's religious communities differ from non-religious organizations in many ways, a study of the structures, processes and foundations of organizational democracy among Benedictine women offers a chance to examine an established system. Despite their not-for-profit focus, and religious nature, Benedictine communities carry out the same functions as other contemporary organizations--they recruit and select members, assign jobs, oversee budgets and property, run subsidiaries such as hospitals and colleges, implement building projects and mergers, and manage large-scale organizational change. Since implementing their current system of decision-making in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Benedictine communities have faced significant change. They have experienced declining populations, addressed tough questions about the future and meaning of religious life, and redefined the educational missions of their communities.

An even tighter parallel can be drawn between Benedictine communities and other organizations--often feminist organizations, that do not have profit as a primary goal (Martin, 1990). In many ways, Benedictine communities much more closely resemble non-religious organizations such as co-ops or social service agencies than other religious institutions. They offer these sorts of smaller, value-based organizations, many of which may struggle to remain democratic, a fairly long-term model of successful democratic practice. In this essay, I identify a model useful for creating and maintaining democracy in a "relatively egalitarian" organization (Cheney, Straub, Speirs-Glebe, Stohl, DeGooyer, Walen, Garvin-Doxas and Calone, 1998), and present a case study of two Benedictine communities which illustrates the model. Finally, I draw conclusions and suggest areas in which further research can enhance understanding of these processes.


Cheney et al. (1998) define workplace democracy "as referring to those principles and practices designed to engage and `represent' (in the multiple senses of the term) as many relevant individuals and groups as possible in the formulation, execution, and modification of work related activities" (p. 39). As the name suggests, organizational democracy seeks to decentralize power and allow employees more control over operations. In general, scholars in communication and in management have asked what democratic practices look like both nationally and internationally (Cheney et al. …

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