When a man takes the name of Abbot, he should govern his
disciples by a twofold teaching; namely, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words… Let him so adjust and adapt himself to each one according to his character and understanding–that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold. And let the Abbot always bear in mind that he will be held accountable by God Himself for both his own teaching and for the obedience of his disciples.
For a monk, the abbot takes the place of Christ in this world. His monks owe him respect, love, and above all, obedience. But unlike Christ, the abbot is imperfect. In one sense, therefore, every abbot is a hypocrite, because it is his job to teach his monks how to do something that even he can’t do. I’m guessing this is why Saint Benedict named this chapter “What Sort of Man the Abbot Should Be” and not “What Sort of Man the Abbot Is”. No matter. We owe him obedience anyway, because God put him in charge. This is why we call him “Abbot,” an ancient word for “Father.”
The abbot, like any parent, receives his authority straight from God. Every culture in the world recognizes that, unless parents do real harm to their children, no one has the right to take this authority away from them. But right around our teenage years, we begin to realize that this authority is neither earned nor deserved nor even effectively managed. Our parents demand things of us that they themselves would never do. They forbid things that they would never give up. All sorts of rules apply to us, but very few seem to apply to them.
Saint Benedict understands this. So he warns the abbot that he will be held accountable by God. This can be comforting to those of us who are put under someone else’s authority, but it can also be very frightening when we assume that authority ourselves. Of course, you may not find yourself wielding the sort of influence that an abbot has, but there are other positions of leadership that carry the same obligations: the team captain, the club president…even just being popular carries the weight of considerable responsibility because your peers look to you as a mentor and as an example. They will imitate your virtues, but they will also use your vices to excuse their own misbehavior. So beware. One way or another, you will be held accountable—and more so by the example you set than by the words you speak.