Dom Ezéchiel Agaté, OSB,
Abbey of Agbang (Togo)

The management of Monasteries in Africa,
 some priorities


Dom Ezekiel was awarded the degree of Master of Sociology from the University of Lille with the highest honours. He is a specialist in questions of the human and economic management of communities. His offering here is particularly stimulating, and his pedagogical method will bring communities to enter more fully into the logic of the need for good management to ensure healthy development.


FEzechielThe story of monasticism in West Africa, whose chapter extends from the 1960s till today, is rich in information about the life of the monasteries, notably the growth of vocations, leading to the creation of new foundations and their financial fragility, or better, their problem of lack of financial self-sufficiency. Granted that the first preoccupation of a monastery is more directed towards the spiritual than the material or financial, it is still useful to ask the cause of this fragility in view of the fact that monasteries conform to the definition of an organisation whose survival depends in principle on the quality of its management. This demands a reflection on the management of monasteries in West Africa. This, in its turn, calls for a description and an analysis of the principal functions or management considerations normally accepted in large organisations, and which could also be found beneficial to our monasteries. This description and analysis will be preceded by a definition of the theme and followed by practical suggestions.


Implications of the word ‘management’

Familiar as the word ‘management’ is to everyone, its definition is still problematic. It enters into everyday language through expressions like management of time, management of human resources, financial management, management of projects, the cost of management, good or bad management, and so on. But what does it mean?

The basic sense is taking some action which leads to the realization of some goal. It also means the totality of procedures taken to resolve a problem or effect a project. According to Anne Pezet and Samuel Sponem it means administering something for someone else, but also taking charge of one’s own goods or property. It is always concerned with objects, but equally it means ‘giving a direction’. The action is, then, oriented to control of human affairs; it requires a ‘manager’, and the object on which it operates is a human being. It is closely related to administration, governing, directing, with the related overtone that ‘administration’ refers to the state, to public service and the executive power of the state. It can also mean no more than giving some direction. With minor nuances, then, these four words, management, administration, government and direction, are almost synonyms. For our reflection on monasteries we will use them interchangeably. We should stress that management is not simply a story of finance and numbers, nor of accountability and economy, as is often supposed. 

Rather it is the whole of the actions of a leader, consisting in combining all the resources to their best advantage in order to achieve the best possible outcome in guiding an organisation to its objectives. According to Stephen P. Robbins and David A. DeCenzo, management is ‘a process by which results are obtained efficiently and efficaciously with and through other people’ (Fundamentals of Management, 2005). It brings together four functions, planning, organisation, direction and control.

Agbang1. Planning

According to Robbins and DeCenzo this phase is ‘the process of management which embraces the definition of an objective, the elaboration of a strategy, the development of plans to co-ordinate activities; it concerns goals as well as means’. It can be formal or informal, that is, written or unwritten. The definition of objectives presupposes a clear knowledge of what is wanted, a clear vision of one’s mission, that is, a vision of a better future. To formulate this, various questions must be asked, such as: What urgent or less pressing needs do I want to consider for my society/community which could change the course of life in the medium-term future? What is my mission for society? What do I need in order to achieve this? The answers to these questions will make it possible to fix general objectives which will then be digested into specific objectives. It is not simply a matter of fixing these objectives, for they must be SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realizable and Temporal). This is the phase for planning and choice of norms. Budgetting, investment plans and use of income belong to this phase. The planning stage includes what to do and when to do it. For example, for a new project this is the stage of analysing need, opportunities and feasibility. It may include also the aims of the whole community. It reduces the uncertainty without totally removing it, and reduces the impact of unexpected change on those affected. It limits loss from superfluous action, because redundant and superfluous activities will be reduced by co-ordination before any action takes place. Planning is the motor of management by objective, directed to the transformation of general objectives into specific objectives. This has the advantage for a community of creating unanimity and competition between different units of production or even between individuals.

Beyond the recognized advantages, planning can be criticized for the rigidity of the partners as soon as a sensible change of plan becomes necessary. It is always accompanied by a process of decisions, identifying the problem, the criteria of decision, prioritisation, development and analysis leading to a decision. It is better to allow time for decision rather than to make a hurried or knee-jerk decision, reached without such preliminary analyses.

2. Organisation

Organisation is the management function which concerns structures (Robbins and DeCenzo). It defines the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties. It sets out the rules of conduct for all, and fixes the levels of authority which will rule all the action. It requires a deep preliminary study by all the participants in order to decide who does what and where. It is at this phase that the leaders must show their love of community by adopting the Anglo-Saxon principle, ‘The right man in the right place’, and thus a team rather than a mere group of men and women. It is vital to remember (with Richard Templar) that ‘a team is an organisation with its own dynamic, qualities and rules’. It must also be remembered that a team is composed of very different persons, each of whom will pull the string in his or her own direction with more or less force. The merit of a community leader consists in the capacity to ensure that these pulls really do tend towards the realisation of the objectives. As Casey Stengel underlines, ‘It is easy to find good players; the difficulty consists in ensuring that they all play on the same side.’ One way of keeping them on-side is to arrange that they should be complementary to one another. It is essential to know one’s players, brothers and sisters. According to R. Meredith Belbin, there are nine roles in a team, conceiving  a plan, promoting it, co-ordinating it, driving it forwards, taking hold of it, maintaining it, organising it, finishing it off, and experts. The right person must be in the right place, each with the necessary skills and aptitudes. Each player must know clearly what to do, when to do it and what outcome is expected. Only so will each person know their own place and allow others to keep their place with their own competences; this creates an awareness of complementarity and mutual respect between the members of a community. Only when this organisation is well set up will observance of it constitute a trampoline for action. It is useful to recall that our vow of obedience (as well as the other two vows) is a trump card for management. In contrast, a bad organisation can foster disobedience which creates chaos. A large part of the Rule of St Benedict is, in this sense, consecrated to the organisation of the monastery. St Benedict insists that the second-in-command should be nominated by the abbot, to achieve close collaboration between the two.

What is true of human resources is true of all resources. A budgetary packet intended for an investment must not be diverted into running expenses, nor vice versa, at the risk of creating a financial disequilibrium which will interfere with the whole life of the community. As an African proverb says, ‘Don’t paint black on black or white on white; neither can be seen without the other.’ By this means each individual will keep in mind the common purpose of the mission, rather than his or her personal objectives.

3. Direction

Still on the basis of Stephen Robbins and David DeCenzo, direction is the phase of management which touches personal motivation, the administration of activities by other people, choice of lines of communication and resolution of conflict. It depends most of all on the character of the leader. After a good planning stage and with a good organisation, it is up to the leader to make full use of charm and skill to motivate and draw along each person towards the goal. The leader must offer colleagues the opportunity to enlarge their capacities and improve their performances in every respect. The leader must be interested in each individual and be available to listen to them. The leader must create a stimulating climate by showing how much the contribution of each to the objectives of the community is appreciated. Members will be encouraged to change their behaviour by allowing them to identify and choose options for improvement, just as St Benedict suggests: ‘In the monastery, whenever an important decision is to be made, the abbot will call together the whole community and himself explain the matter. After having listened to the views of the brothers he will deliberate on his own and decide what he thinks is most useful. We say that all the brothers should be consulted because often God reveals what is best to the youngest’ (RB 3). The leader must, of course, be convinced that the objectives can be realized and that the others continue to believe that a sustained effort will allow them to reach the proposed objectives. The system of management must also be seen to be fair. In many cases the success of the venture depends on leadership, and the leader must build on personal honesty – which is indispensible – sincerity, but also knowledge and technical and spiritual qualities, loyalty, coherence of judgment, without forgetting to share ideas and necessary information with colleagues. To achieve this, the leader must be as transparent as possible, and inspire confidence in the collaborators and colleagues, brothers and sisters. These last must be able to count on the leader to keep promises and protect confidences received between them. It is also important to arouse the admiration and respect of others by maintaining self-confidence and respecting colleagues. The leader must know not only how to communicate but also how to listen and show interest in what the speaker says. Beyond this, one of the qualities of the leader is to find a good solution to the conflicts which are inevitable. This involves being sufficiently impartial to avoid exacerbating the conflict, but at the same time viewing the conflict from the point of view of the interests of the community.

We have planned, organised and directed; are we at the end of our management? No, nothing guarantees the success of our management. It must be verified, that is, checked out.

4. Checking

Checking is the final phase of management. Robbins and DeCenzo see it as the follow-up of the action to ensure its conformity to the initial plans and correct any important deviations. It is not a police check nor coercive, but rather a quality control. We have already alluded to the confidence which is an essential quality of the leader. It is equally important for the followers. As the famous saying of Lenin confirms, ‘Confidence does not exclude checking.’ Checking consists, then, in verifying that the operation planned and organised is on the way to realisation, so that, if this is not the case, the necessary modifications or corrections may be applied. It leaves room also for checking that delegated authority has not been abused.

Failure to check always leads to stoppage, and for monastic communities this checking is more than indispensible, in proportion as the spirit of confidence which should prevail in a monastery should facilitate its consequences. There are several ways of conducting this check. One particular form of check is characterised by the procedures which give a special place to authority, and depend on the norms, regulations and procedures of political administration. Once the criteria and norms of procedure have been established, the process of checking includes three distinct stages:

Firstly, the measurement of performance achieved. Richard Quinn reminds us, ‘You cannot manage anything without measurement’. H. Michel emphases the same point, ‘You cannot manage without measuring what has been initiated. Measurement is the antidote to ambiguity; it demands clarity of thought and action.’ Measurement of performance uses four sources of information: personal observation, statistics, written and oral reports. This is why it is imperative for a monastic community to insist on accountability at the end of reports, accounts given to other members of the community, to leaders of the Congregations, and above all to benefactors and financial partners. This is a matter of the proper consolidation of confidence and of the continuance of partnership.

Next, a comparison of performance to previously established norms and criteria, and thereafter either action to correct any deviations or revision of the criteria. Checking consists in rendering a service, discussion with interested partners, feedback with regard to reports made. One of the priorities of checking for any enterprise or organisation is financial check of stocks, sales, costs and debts. This is why in monasteries a financial report must be regularly submitted to the superior.

Checking is indispensible to management. It can obviate dysfunction and re-orient the conduct of individuals towards the objectives of the community. There must be a certain flexibility, and reasonable norms or criteria must be established. These are the vital pre-conditions of any management. Obviously different management approaches are possible, according to the nature of the objective or project.


A Word on the Management of Projects

Management of a project is the ensemble of activities consisting in the planning, co-ordination, guidance and surveillance in view of the objective. In this definition co-ordination and guidance belong to the direction, and surveillance is merely the daily control of all activities to ensure their effectiveness. Checking consists in measuring and controlling the data by comparison to the conditions foreseen and, if necessary, correction. There can be no checking without previous formulation of a plan.

The leader of the project must, therefore, be responsible for the whole flow of activities in the project. But it is important to mark out beforehand the outline, and clarify expected outcomes of the project, for the purpose of any project is to improve an existing situation. In other words, it is important to know how to analyse a need or problem which the project is designed to solve. The success of the project depends on it. For success, time must be taken to conduct a feasibility study. A church is not built simply for the sake of building. A tractor is not bought simply because the next-door community has one. A cheese-factory is not set up simply because the whole economy of another abbey depends on one. A brewery is not built simply because the brothers like beer. The importance of a project depends on its contribution to the aims of the monastery. Therefore a number of questions must be asked[1] which issue in a feasibility study, then the elaboration of a plan and appointment of tasks to each participant party. For this study experts should be consulted if the community lacks them. The guidance must be left to a committee formed for this purpose, which will then be responsible for the project. It is advisable to delegate the guidance of the project to experts, just as in the case of the central control of a large undertaking. After planning, organisation, co-ordination and guidance, there must be checking. What should be checked?

Checking according to the English method PRINCE2 is based on six quantifiers:

Costs of the project: There are always changes and surprises which modify the initial budget.

Completion date: Delays are a frequent problem, which undermine the relationship with partners in the project.

Quality control: There is no point in stinting on resources and ending up with a product below the necessary quality.

Extent of the project: It is important that all parties concerned should define this at the beginning. For example, a monastery orders the construction of a church and imagines that the sound-system is included, while the builder supposes that the sound-system is the object of another contract. Agreement must be ensured from the start.

Risk Management: Management professionals insist that risk-management should be a constant pre-occupation of the leader of a project. There must be constant question of the risks run in the particular phase of the project, risks to the work-force or to any participant, materials and machines employed, methods and even the environment. Once these are identified they must be avoided, limited and even transferred to insurance agencies. There is, for example, the risk of losing a benefactor if, after financing a project, the benefactor receives no feedback from us, providing an up-to-date report on progress. There is often an impression that the study of risk is unimportant to monks who can count on Divine Providence. There is nothing wrong with counting on Providence, but counting the risks is not bad either!

Expected benefits: There is simply no point in multiplying efforts on a project from which one realises at a certain moment that it will confer no benefit. Once its viability is questioned, it is better to halt and save further expense. It is pointless, for example, to continue building a monastery situated in an area where access to a water supply is impossible – however much has already been spent on it.

The context of this article prevents further development of this point. Study has put at our disposal innumerable management tools largely dedicated to these questions. I invite you to consult them and, if necessary, appeal to an expert for the appropriate answer to your needs and your situation.



Management is a necessary element of all life and all activity. Everyone manages something daily, more or less well. The quality of the management depends on how the four basic functions are integrated: planning, organisation, direction and checking. Whether one is abbot, economus, novice master, project-leader, novice, messenger, monk, teacher, President of the Republic – in short, anyone who gets a title is immediately involved in managing something or someone, as the Rule underlines, ‘Anyone who accepts the name of abbot must therefore govern his disciples by a double teaching’ (RB 2). One’s own self is the first object of management. Everyone must therefore see themselves as a manager and keep in mind the group of four functions. No economy can prosper long without healthy management. And for monasteries, especially those of West Africa, an effort must be made at the management level to avoid multiplying good projects which rest on fine ideas but have disappointing results.

A good economic project well administered is sufficient to stabilize the economy, the spiritual life and the influence of a monastery. This is why we advise to take the time to make a feasibility study for any project, to organize the project well from beginning to end, with the involvement of all the participants, through clear communication accepted by all parties. Clear communication about the vision of the project, the benefit which it will produce and its management system are important for its success. This will avoid a strategy of ‘me too’ in initiating a project because others are doing so, or a project which presents one aspect but hides others. This never yields good fruit from the project. It is impossible to end without advice to superiors: every now and then include a session of formation for management in the framework of continuous formation of the community! In the last analysis, it is all a question of management.


[1] Do we want to take on a parish, and does our church therefore need more seating? Or does our present church fail to give a climate of recollection? Would a re-arrangement provide a solution? Would we have room for a tractor? What do we want to do with it? What are the aims of our monastery? How could this project help to realize them? What resources have we? What is the budget allotted to this project? What are the risks of failure? In how much detail should the project be worked out? To whom should the plans be submitted? How much time would it be sensible to take on management? What sort of report should be prepared? Who will steer the project? Who will do what? When? How? Etc.