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Managing businesses in the name of God

Isabella Escobedo
August 3, 2021

Many religious institutions are often seen as traditional and a bit out of touch. But Germany's main churches are huge commercial enterprises and are using modern management methods to stay relevant and make a profit.

A picture of Edith-Maria Magar in her office
Edith-Maria Magar looks back at many decades of managerial duties in the Catholic ChurchImage: Isabella Escobedo/DW

From her office in Waldbreitbach, a small village situated in the Westerwald mountains of western Germany, Edith-Maria Magar has a breathtaking view across the Wiedtal valley. Her spacious workplace is suffused with light and belongs to a sprawling abbey that sits on top of the Klosterberg, or Cloister hill. It has been the home of the 67-year-old Franciscan nun since 1977.

Since 2012, Magar has run a small empire of 300 nuns and nonaffiliated employees as "mother superior," the official name for her position in the terminology of the Roman Catholic Church's Franciscan order to which she belongs.

"Sometimes I'm still surprised how I ended up here," the Franciscan nun told DW, making clear that she doesn't mean her religious calling, but her numerous responsibilities as someone effectively running a mid-sized business. 

The Catholic and Protestant churches are powerful forces in Germany, despite losing members in recent years. Still, for Magar, the reason for her call of duty in the commercial corners of the Catholic Church lies in her past as a business manager. Her resume includes positions such as vice president of the Caritas Association — which is Germany's largest religious charity — and head of the supervisory board of Marienhaus, the country's biggest church-based social employer with a staff of 13,000.

A view of the Marienhaus Abbey seen from the foot of Cloister Hill
Marienhaus Abbey is the home of the Waldbreitbach order of the Franciscan Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the AngelsImage: Isabella Escobedo/DW

Now, apart from running the commercial activities of Marienhaus Abbey, she is also deputy chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Marienhaus Stiftung, a charitable foundation that runs numerous hospitals, nursing homes and other social facilities.  

'Train the focus on the human being'

Over all those years in management, sister Edith-Maria said she learned how to deal with people, and how to remain faithful to her values even in the face of commercial pressures resulting from the need to make a profit.

She's soft-spoken and chooses her words carefully. And although she's not wearing the habit of a nun, but a business outfit instead, a necklace with a wooden cross betrays the foundation of her convictions.

Some call her a "feel-good manager," she said, rushing to explain that, actually, it was a different logic in her approach that would make her stand apart from "conventional managers." Leadership is what matters more to her than managerial skills, she said, because her attitude would "train the focus on the human being."

Being mindful of human interaction has remained a hallmark of her outlook on life ever since she graduated from high school and joined the Franciscan order and trained to be a nurse. "It was a calling," she explained, that guided her through careers as a teacher and later as principal of a nursing school, as well as a university course in sociology she did while she was already working. 

A Franciscan nun from the Waldbreitbach order showing a book to an elderly woman in a nursing home
The Franciscan nuns of the Waldbreitbach order are very active in caring for the elderly in GermanyImage: Waldbreitbacher Franziskanerinnen

An order is not an end in itself

A few years later, she took a course in management in Berlin to become a business advisor. For her, a proper understanding derives from the term "management" itself, which she said is rooted in the Latin words "manus" for hand and "agere" meaning actively doing. That's what she's seeking — to create, to act, to shape and finally do something meaningful.

"An [religious] order, just like economies, can never be an end in itself," she insisted, adding, "It's the human being who must be at the center of all commercial activity."

Maintaining close relations with her staff is, of course, time-consuming, Magar admitted, which is why the days at work can sometimes stretch well into 9 p.m. in the evening. "But if I wouldn't find the time for prayers and the congregation anymore, I'd know something is going wrong," she said.

ESG is a Franciscan concept

As environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have become the new mantra of modern-day managers, sister Edith-Maria said that all three tenets of sustainability have long been enshrined in Franciscan nuns' self-conception. The abbey's cattle herds are all made up of endangered races, and they graze on the organic pastures of Cloister hill.   

What bothers her a bit, though, is her car that's a hybrid and not fully electric, because she can't afford to waste any time for recharging, she said, due to her tight daily schedule.

What may also sound a bit surprising is the fact that she's never run into career obstacles in the male-dominated Catholic Church. Quite the contrary, she said, as strict gender separation there has avoided her hitting the proverbial "glass ceiling" — an invisible barrier set by men that prevents women from being promoted to managerial positions within an organization.

As a member of an all-female congregation of nuns, she was democratically elected by her fellow sisters for a term of 12 years. An open voting system is also what she said she would prefer to see installed in choosing other top positions within the Catholic Church, but for now, she will keep focusing on her many responsibilities.

The article has been translated from German.

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