Despite the real risks that life in community might pose, healthy communities will ultimately give more than they take away.
A church sign near our home reads, "What's missing from Ch_ _ch? U R !" That sign reminds me of the millions of people across the country who skip church, and I wonder what drives people away or makes them reluctant to come in the first place. For many, I suspect that the idea of God is as much of a stumbling block as the idea of being with other people. As Dostoyevsky said, "I love humanity. It's the people I can't stand."
Although we receive grace from church communities — and as essential as they are to our health and growth — anyone who gets involved in a community is bound to get a little banged up in the process. Below are a few ideas about how to survive (and possibly even thrive) in a community.
There Are No Perfect Communities
I'm a member of a church that tends to be the last stop on the line. Visitors frequently regale me with tales about all the churches they've been to and how much went awry along the way. But no matter how much they were wronged here or there, they kept going, and they have finally found their way to the "perfect" church.
When I hear this kind of story, I always feel uneasy. I want to caution people that the church I love and attend happens to be full of humans like any other, and I am of the first of them, with my microscopic attention span, my thoughtlessness, and my inability to remember names and dates or where I placed my keys and cell phone.
After being a Christian for 20 years, I am amazed by the amount of resilience required to stay in a community. It is not unlike a marriage, with its many troughs and valleys and opportunities for growth through pain. This might be why some theologians believe that the only spiritually healthy life contexts are marriage and communities.
Communities — and the close relationships they cultivate — bring healing because they force us to encounter and deal with our inner demons. In our conflicts with other people, our hidden garbage surfaces, and we begin to see how weak we are, how far away from wholeness. When my husband was ordained, there was a prayer said over him that God "would complete all that was lacking and heal all that is infirm." This prayer is often answered in community, because we need others to help us see our own incompleteness.
While the truth spoken in love can sometimes bring positive change, there are other times when careless words cause unnecessary pain. Some of the worst, and best, experiences in a community can come through words — words unspoken and spoken, words we ache to hear and words that sting. I have been both a victim and perpetrator in this ugly word trade, but I am trying to learn to keep silent when I must and to speak healing when I can.
When I was at seminary we lived in close quarters with other married couples, and relationships were intense. I spoke words that I now regret, and I'm guessing that some of my classmates feel the same way. One of the most dramatic episodes that occurred each year was "The Rite of Forgiveness" which marked our entry into Lent, as each member of the community would bow before and ask forgiveness of every other member.
For the next few days, we had no classes, and we were expected to keep silent, to walk to chapel beside our friends without speaking to them, to maintain peace in our apartments. During these long, quiet days, I was amazed by how sweet it was to not speak or be spoken to, how much simpler it was to be in community without words.
The Pain Stops Here
Of course, when the words returned, the painful conflicts crept in as well. It's a vicious cycle — somebody causes us pain, and without even meaning to, we pass it on to another person, and they pass it on again. When people hurt us, instead of responding in kind, we can force a pause, think about what has happened and keep our peace. We can say, "The pain stops here."
We can take this idea even further by redeeming some of what is done to us by doing the opposite. If a person criticizes us, instead of criticizing them back, we can offer them praise. If we feel lonely we can look for others who might be feeling that way and invite them out for coffee. If nothing else, the alienation we experience can help us understand those on the margins.
Sometimes I'm tempted to present a case for why I am "more right" than somebody else. Although there are times when we really do need to confront people, there are other situations where confrontation does not bring healing, but just more pain.
Even when it's impossible to outwardly reconcile with another person, it is wise to try to come to some kind of resolution within ourselves. A friend recently told me that when she runs from situations without trying to work through them internally, she sometimes finds herself in a similar circumstance later on with different people. It is as if God repeats the lesson because we missed it the first time around. Because it takes two to tangle, it makes sense to try to work through our own side and to struggle in prayer for peace. Sometimes the peace we find affects others more profoundly than we realize. As St. Seraphim of Serov said, "Find internal peace and thousands around you will be saved."
When to Go
Although in many cases it is worthwhile to struggle to live in an imperfect community, sometimes the healthiest choice is to leave. Sometimes leadership can become abusive — should a community leader cause you to continually question your own intuition, or should they impose their will upon you, you might begin to question if you are in the right place after all.
Years ago I wrote an article on cults for my college newspaper. For the piece, I interviewed Kent Burtner, a therapist who had counseled thousands of people recovering from cultic experiences. He helped me understand that any community — Christian or secular — has the potential to become cult-like depending on the personalities involved. He told me that in cult-like communities the leadership encourages people to ignore the little "red flags" as they start going up — to squelch the feeling that something is just not right. Should people question the leadership they might be belittled, insulted or worse. Members of these communities quickly become overwhelmed by their feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness while at the same time they are told that this community is "the only way." In these communities fear and shame are coupled to cultivate feelings of helplessness.
Despite the real risks that life in community might pose — healthy communities will ultimately give more than they take away. As the secular humanist Kurt Vonnegut said, "What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities where the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."
Copyright 2007 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.