In Search of the Quiet Life Stressed Executives Swap Boardrooms for Monastic Cells

The latest management trend in Germany isn't paintballing or an Outward Bound course. Instead, stressed executives are enrolling for retreats and seminars at monasteries. For the abbeys in question, it's a great business opportunity.


Jan F., 37, a young executive at German automaker DaimlerChrysler, usually knows whether he likes a hotel room the minute he opens the door. Under normal circumstances, this particular room would be a definite no-go: All it contains are a bed, a table, a chair and a book of psalms.

The room in question is a cell in Bursfelde Monastery, a 900-year-old Romanesque building which doubles as one of the Lutheran Church of Hanover's "spiritual centers."

Jan F. switched off his mobile phone when he arrived here, as did the other 15 business executives who will spend the next few days at the monastery. At other monasteries, the monks and nuns even collect visitors' mobile phones at the door, keen to make sure that nothing will distract their guests from the purpose of their visit, namely self-examination and reflection.

Jan F. and his group of automobile executives are leaving behind their world of videoconferences and PowerPoint presentations for the duration of their retreat at the monastery. To get there, they had to drive through vast cornfields and a dark forest, down to the banks of the Weser River where the monastery's chapel stands.

A Protestant Resurrection

Bursfelde is one of 33 Protestant monasteries and seminaries in Germany that switched to the Lutheran denomination during the Reformation and -- after being neglected and forgotten for a long time, in some cases -- are now experiencing something of a renaissance. Frazzled business executives are not the only ones fueling the boom in retreats. Senior Lutheran Church leaders are also rediscovering the monasteries, eager to share in the spirituality and serenity they offer.

The Protestants are taking a page from the book of the Catholic Church, which long ago discovered the marketability of Catholic abbeys such as Maria Laach in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and Andechs in Bavaria. Even the chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Bishop Wolfgang Huber, is touting his church's new approach. Huber calls the monasteries a "treasure," and says that the church should make the most of them. According to an EKD document, monastic communities are "gaining new significance."

"Demand is booming at our monasteries," says Margot Käßmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hanover. The church stands to gain financially from an unusual legal arrangement. The Hanover Chamber of Monasteries, the umbrella organization for these spiritual centers, is a state agency that uses the revenues from four public foundations to pay for the upkeep of the buildings. Lower Saxony's Ministry of Science and Culture is charged with the legal supervision of the Chamber of Monasteries.

These servants of the church are reporting a demand for their spiritual retreats that stands in sharp contrast to the general societal trend away from organized religion. Last year the Hanover Chamber of Monasteries' facilities in the state of Lower Saxony (of which Hanover is the capital) counted 200,000 single-day and seminar guests, with the number of those staying overnight on the rise. The Protestants are also emulating their Catholic brethren by creating new pilgrimages. They have even created the job of "pilgrimage pastor" at Loccum Abbey in Lower Saxony.

"Protestants, in particular, seem to be hungry for spirituality," says Fulbert Steffensky, a retired theology professor and former Benedictine monk. Decades of "reason and somberness among the Protestants" initially spawned discontent, then a yearning for something different, he says.

Learning to Trust Yourself

Married pastors and deacons have injected a new energy into monastic life at Bursfelde. The seven nuns of the Brotherhood of Christ at Wülfinghausen Monastery have a different take on monastic life. They live together and practice obedience and chastity, in a similar fashion to an order of Catholic nuns. The women moved into the 800-year-old monastery, originally a convent dedicated to St. Augustine, in 1994.

Visitors to idyllic, rural Wülfinghausen can experience -- according to the monastery's brochure -- "a break from daily life." The busy nuns have been inundated with customers for seminars such as "Oasis Days" and "Silence Seminars." One retreat even offers "Spiritual Exercises for Riders," where participants can learn, through riding horses, to "lead and be able to let go, to trust myself, and to be present in the here and now."

Wülfinghausen had 2,700 overnight stays and 4,100 single-day guests for their programs last year. Sister Susanne, 41, is enthusiastic about the trend toward self-examination and reflection. "People are attracted to forms of piety that they can perceive with their senses," she says. She believes that the guests who come to Wülfinghausen are seeking to escape "the unbelievable stress and burdens of their hectic lives." Those guests include many teachers and, more recently, professionals in the media and advertising industry who "simply want to spend some time without any goals or intentions for once."

At Bursfelde Monastery, it is the sudden silence which immediately appeals to the Daimler executives. After their arrival, they are taken on a walk through the monastery gardens, followed by a six o'clock evening ritual with meditation and the recitation of psalms at the altar. Then comes dinner, a night ritual and bedtime.

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