27 Jan A Different Kind of Election
by Paulette Curran
At lunch on November 2nd, a symbolic thing happened. It happened so simply and quietly that I’m not sure everyone noticed—at least not right away.
Elizabeth Bassarear sat at a specific seat in the dining room—a seat which doesn’t stand out among the others. Her sitting there was the first public sign that she was now the director general of women. It was the last public step in the process of the changeover of the leadership of Madonna House, a process that has lasted almost a year.
This past year, at different times, the terms of all three of our directors general—Mark Schlingerman, DG of laymen, Susanne Stubbs, DG of women, and Fr. David May, DG of priests—came to an end. Or should I say their three terms? For each had served for three terms or twelve years—the limit that a person can serve in that capacity.
So we had elections, and one by one, each part of Madonna House elected its own director general. The laymen elected Larry Klein to be DG of laymen, the priests elected Fr. David Linder, and the women elected Elizabeth Bassarear. One by one, as the term of the previous DG ran out, each took office. Elizabeth was the last.
Perhaps this would be a good time to tell you a little bit about how we conduct our elections—for it is a very unusual way. In fact, as far as we know, it is unique in the modern world.
How do we elect a director general, a DG as we call them? We do it by what’s called sobornost.
Sobornost, like poustinia, is a Russian word and a Russian concept, one taught to us by Catherine Doherty, our foundress, who brought it to us, her spiritual children, from her native pre-Communist Russia.
The word, “sobornost,” she told us, means “unity”—a very specific kind of unity.
It means a very deep unity of heart and mind, a unity that can only come from God, a unity that comes through seeking together to know God’s will for a particular situation. And, she repeated to us over and over, it is only for very important things—such as the election of our director generals.
It is important to note that sobornost is not democracy. With sobornost, you vote not according to your wishes and opinions, but according to faith, trust in God, and surrender. Faith that God has a person in mind for the position, trust that he will let us know who it is, and surrender to that will when it becomes clear.
Here, briefly, is how, in practical terms, this is done in the election of a director general of Madonna House.
Each “group” within Madonna House, the laymen, the women, and the priests, elects its own director from among its members.
There are no candidates; one can vote for any member of the community. And there is no campaigning. In fact, no one talks about the election—at all. Especially no one says who one is voting for or why.
For the idea, as I said before, is not to vote for the person we think will make the best DG, much less the person we want or would like.
The purpose is to discern the person God wants for the job.
How do we do this? We fast and pray, and we ask God to tell us whom he wants for the job.
One of the unique things about voting by sobornost is that the vote has to be unanimous. Not a majority vote, not even a high majority—but unanimous. All of us together need to discern the will of God.
What happens when the results are not unanimous, which they generally aren’t the first time?
We are given the results of the vote by the other two directors general who count the votes: the number of votes cast for each person. And we vote a second time.
Receiving the results helps. If, for example, I voted for X, and I am the only one who did so, and 80% of the people voted for Y, it’s not impossible that I am the only one hearing God. But it’s very unlikely.
If I am the only one, or even one of just a few who voted for X, I need to really pray and listen deeply. Did I hear wrong? Is it Y whom God wants?
We all pray and vote again, having as many ballots as necessary until the vote is unanimous. When that happens, God has spoken to the community. We have sobornost and we have a director general.
Thank you Mark, Susanne, and Fr. David May, our former directors general, for having loved and governed us so well for the past twelve years. And may God grant you, Larry, Elizabeth and Fr. David Linder, all the graces you need to listen to the Spirit and lead our community as He wishes.