Monday, May 6, 2013

The Benedictine Parish

A few weeks ago, I saw a reference online to a book called “The Benedictine Parish: A Model to Thrive in a Secular Era,” so I ordered it from the publisher.  I’ve read various books on Benedictine spirituality, but the title intrigued me because it promised something unique – it was not another volume devoted to the application of Benedictine spirituality to an individual or a monastic setting, but instead, to a parish. 

What did I think of it? This little (29 pages) booklet contained exactly what I have been looking for – an example of how to apply the Benedictine ethos in parish life.

The contents of the book are presented in question and answer format, with parishioner Matthew Dallman posing questions to the longtime priest of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Riverside Illinois, Father Thomas Fraser.   The result is that the book is engaging and full of anecdotes about how the Benedictine model was introduced into the parish, and the results from its gradual implementation over a period of thirty years.

St. Paul’s was a dying parish in suburban Chicago when Father Fraser proposed that they get radical and go “back to the roots.” What was causing the parish to die? Like many other congregations, it was desperately trying to hold on to the 1950’s model for churches – the conventional, program based model.   A conventional, program based model worked during Christendom, when the overwhelming majority of people desired to go to church.  Parishes could serve as clinics, offering religious goods and services to parishioners as needed.

But, with the end of Christendom rapidly approaching, that model was no longer working, so it was either time to die gracefully or do something radical.  Father Fraser and St. Paul’s parish chose to do the latter.

What does the Benedictine model involve?  It involves the gradual introduction of praying the daily office among not only clergy, but among the core of the parish.  The liturgy does not revolve around ceremony and performances, but common prayer and chant.  Programs are not offered for the sake of occupying people’s time and entertaining them, but are specifically designed for spiritual formation and preparation for ministry.

Regarding preparation for ministry, the laity are integrally involved in the ministries of a Benedictine parish.  The laity are not consumers of religious goods and services, but are trained and committed to the life and mission of the parish.  The role of the clergy is to serve as an Abbot does in a monastic setting – not as a crisis clinician brought in to solve problems as needed, but someone who has an ongoing relationship with each member of the community.

The book is specifically aimed at parishes in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, but Lutheran congregations could benefit from the wisdom of the Benedictine model.   In recent years, there has been a resurgence in praying the daily office in Lutheran circles (as evidenced by the publication of prayer books such as “For All the Saints” from the ALPB and “The Daily Prayer of the Church” by Phillip Pfatteicher) so for many congregations, parts of the Benedictine model are already in place. 

For more information, check out the Akenside Press website:  


  1. The book is available on Kindle. How has this book helped since you posted this?

  2. Thanks for the responses! Since I wrote this article, I began serving as 1/2 time priest at an Episcopal church, in addition to serving 1/2 time at an ELCA congregation. The disjointed nature of my life (2 churches in 2 different denominations the remnant of my 20 year law practice which I am wrapping up, plus family) has prevented me from doing more with the Benedictine model in terms of regularly praying the daily office with parishioners, for example. It was exciting to see the 2 congregations come together for Vespers during Advent, though, and we are planning on joint services again in Lent, with the goal of laying a framework for more throughout the year, instead of just those 2 seasons. I think the impact has been more in the mindset of the congregations - slowly but surely, I am seeing a recognition that Acts 2:42 is the model for the church, not the latest programming fad. My ELCA congregation remodeled and rededicated our chapel, and we have people using it for prayer, and some in my Episcopal church are going deeper into contemplative prayer practices, spiritual direction, and the like.

  3. Thanks - that must be difficult indeed. Even full time pastor's can find it hard to pray the offices themselves! God bless your continued efforts!