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How To Elect a Prioress

Article from Pray Tell blog post Sr. Jeana Visel, OSB

Over the past year, my community has been preparing to elect a new prioress. The momentous day now is just about two weeks away, and the chosen woman will be installed in mid-July. For a number of years, like most Benedictine women’s houses in the U.S., our community has used a discernment-election process for electing superiors. It’s a model that could work well elsewhere in the Church. So how does this process work?

To begin with, an election committee is organized a little over a year in advance. The committee chooses a theme for the year, invites everyone to begin praying, and selects several articles on discernment for the community to read and discuss. These remind us about the nature of discernment, and that while we might talk with each other about the gifts or limitations of particular sisters, there is to be no campaigning in this process. Two sisters from other communities are chosen to be facilitators.

Several months before the actual election, the facilitators lead the community in a process of reflecting on where we are. Working at tables of about seven sisters, the community names areas that will be important for us to work on in the next six years, the current length of a prioress’s term. The ideas then are collated into related topics, and ultimately are drafted into direction statements. After a bit of back and forth on whether we can live with the drafted statements, or whether tweaking is needed, the community then votes to approve three or four direction statements. These become the major guide for the incoming prioress.

After months of praying with the list of all the sisters in community, finally the days for discernment-election arrive. Praying even more intensely for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the community enters into four or five days of working with the facilitators. First the community reviews the direction statements. Then we ask, “What are the qualities needed in a leader who can take us this way?” The qualities are named and shared. Then we ask, “Who are the sisters with these qualities?” Names are discussed at the tables, along with reasons for their being proposed, and then they are shared aloud for the whole community to hear. Sisters then are invited to submit in writing the names of two women they think would do well in the position.

The election committee then tabulates the names submitted, and returns with a list of numbers. For example, the list might begin “62, 45, 32, 17, 15, … 15, 10, 5, 1, 1, 1…” This would mean that Sister A had received 62 nominations, Sister B had received 45 nominations, Sister C had received 32 nominations, and so on. The community then would be invited to decide where to make a cutoff. Should we have a potential slate of four people or six? Perhaps ten? Usually the number distribution suggests a natural drop-off point, but the community may need to come to agreement. If in doubt, we go with the larger slate.

At this point the facilitators return to the community with an alphabetical list of the names of however many nominated sisters we chose to keep on the slate. These sisters then are given some time to think and pray, and then they let the community know if they are willing to remain open to being candidates. If for some reason a sister does not feel able to be open for consideration, she gives her explanation of why.

The discernment heats up at this point, and table discussion turns to the character of the particular sisters under consideration. Sisters may share past experiences of the candidates, or observations on particular gifts or limitations. At a certain point sisters may again submit their top preferences, and the slate narrows, and then narrows again. Prayer and conversation continue. If the community has particular questions for the candidates, they are given time to respond. At another point, candidates leave the room and the rest of the community can speak openly with each other about more delicate concerns regarding the strengths or limitations of those under consideration.

During the unofficial balloting process, the questions begin with “Who would I propose to nominate? Who do I sense God might be calling to be our prioress?” The question eventually shifts, though, away from one’s own perspective to the larger perspective of the whole group: “Who do I hear the community calling to be prioress?” By the time of the last unofficial ballot, it usually is obvious whom the community is calling forth.

When that moment comes, we are ready to go to church for the official election. The ballots are cast and collected, and then are read aloud one by one. Sister So-and-So. Sister So-and-So. Sister So-and-So. The elected woman then hears pretty much unanimous support as her name is called. (Occasionally an expression of dementia finds its way into the balloting, but no harm is done!)

The Federation President then announces the new prioress, and the community gathers around the elected sister and sings the Te Deum. It is a beautiful moment. Ultimately she will be blessed and installed, and each sister will offer the new prioress her obedience.

As we enter into these final weeks of preparation, we invite your prayers as well!