How to Build the Community We Want

The late Donella Meadows at the New Hargate farm.

The late Donella Meadows at the New Hargate farm.

Recently, I came across an article about community life by the late MacArthur Fellow Donella “Dana” Meadows. She and her husband, Dennis, typically shared their Vermont home with four to eight other adults, some of whom were their students. It reminded me again that people don’t need to know the Bible to speak the same truths we learn from the Word. Here’s what Meadows had to say about the challenges of living in community:

“The more I talk with people about community, the more I see how afraid we are of our differences. We seem to want everyone to be exactly like us, except be a better plumber and take out the trash more often.

“I’ve come to believe that silent resentment is the worst enemy of community. So I have to learn to air my discomforts with other people, not as big deal, just as simple fact. I have to discuss problems when they crop up, work them out, find their lessons … I have to dig deep to understand my own intolerance, separate my moral principles from my prejudices and egotisms, and be willing to stick up for the principles while letting go of the rest. That’s hard. I need the loving help of others to do it.

“The physical rules of responsibility in a community are obvious: Clean up after yourself; put tools away; if you break it, you fix it.The psychological rules are similar. Clean up your misunderstandings. If you break someone’s trust, fix it. Those rules aren’t easy to follow, but it’s amazing how much better the world works when people even try.”

Donella Meadows. The Global Citizen and the Longing for Community. April 25, 2000.

What I get from Meadows’ description of community is that she experienced in their academic communities what we often experience in our churches. We want a church that represents God’s Body, full of complementary gifts that make for perfect service together. Except what we often feel in our hearts is that the only gifts a particular Body needs are the ones I have, plus a few stinky gifts that I don’t have, don’t want to have and wouldn’t want to use anyway. So we look for a congregation full of people exactly like ourselves, plus some nobodies who can serve coffee, set up chairs, teach children’s church and clean the bathroom. With luck, the congregation can afford a custodian. In that case, we pay a nobody to clean the bathroom.

Community means you belong to each other even if it isn’t easy to be with each other.

In community, Meadows says, people are different enough from each other to be uncomfortable. Some are neat; some are not. Some eat everything; some are picky. Some want it quiet; some play loud music. And Meadows says that community means dealing with it. Community means you belong to each other even if it isn’t easy to be with each other. Community means that you don’t exclude people out over preferences and you check yourself to make sure you’re not defining a preference as a principle. For church folk, this comes to such questions as whether that rock-and-roll contemporary worship service is wrong or just too loud for my ears.

Years ago, I attended an Episcopal church where the membership was divided among charismatic and traditional types. The early service was traditional, in a nod to the early rising elderly among the flock. The ushers — long-timers all — were among the traditional group, but stayed to look after the congregation during both services. Sturdy immigrant men at midlife or later, they carried their responsibility as seriously as their thick tweed suit jackets and Sunday neckties.

In the second service, Fr. Mark would play rock and roll on the pipe organ with the worship band and two or three people would call out impromptu messages they called “prophecies,” but Fr. Roger still walked into the congregation holding the Gospel high before he read it and everyone still rose or knelt, blessed themselves and took communion, just as anyone should in an Episcopal church service.

Only one thing was a little troubling, one of the ushers told me. At the end of the service, as people left the communion rail, some would go for healing prayer at the Ladychapel altar — the one where Christ the King in his robes and crown stands resurrected before the cross. And some of those who received prayer would fall to the floor — “slain in the Spirit,” in the charismatic vernacular.

“What worries me,” Bill said with a sideways glance, “is that one day someone’s going to fall down and everyone’s going to be saying ‘Alleluia! Alleluia!’ But they actually had a heart attack and nobody noticed.”

His eyes twinkled. We grinned at each other.

That’s community. It happens with love.

As for those basic rules of community — it never ceases to amaze me that they are so self-evident to non-religious communities while Christians are so inclined to shout “legalism!” if anyone tries to create any order at all. Even as Steve Macchia of Leadership Transformations encourages spiritual formation based on the concept of traditional spiritual disciplines, he has to shape them as personal disciplines. Protestants protest any corporate sense of order.

John Wesley, where are your revolutionary Methods when we need them? It’s time once again to do the revolutionary work of building up a Body that lives in loving obedience to our Lord and loving concern for one another.

About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at, and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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