Community: Reflections from VOL’s Resident Peacemaker

Making the decision to form an intentional community is no small task. There is a lot of work that goes into planning and building community. When we decided to launch the Valley of Light, for instance, we researched and brainstormed. We read books on community, such as Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a Life Together, which is required reading for any potential member of VOL. Groups of us studied the websites of other communities and even wrote to several of them for more information, in order to analyze their policies and create databases comparing joining fees, building fees, monthly dues, and time tithes. We have edited and updated VOL’s Constitution, By-laws, Rental Agreements, etc., many times over the last few years as we have learned more and experienced more about the reality of being in community.

From all of this, I would have to say the most important lesson we've learned is that communication is the key to community. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is the apparent simplicity of the concept that makes the execution so problematic, where we don’t realize how much effort healthy communication actually takes. What I do know is that it’s a mistake to overlook the importance of communication in community building.

When you get down to it, building community is an exercise in trust and respect as members get to know one another, feel out boundaries, and enter the responsibility of managing affairs as a group. It is imperative that members adapt to communal living in an environment of openness and respect. Communication is crucial for such an environment to flourish.

There are those of us who often compare joining an intentional community to committing yourself to a spouse because it is so very much like getting married. It is important to go in with open eyes and reasonable expectations and to be able to express your feelings and needs in a healthy way. You can't join a community and be the type of person who threatens to leave whenever complications arise. You wouldn’t expect a marriage to last if that was the go-to response for every problem, and communities won’t survive that kind of attitude, either.

In a healthy relationship both spouses are equally invested in their marriage. Each partner trusts that the other wants the marriage to work just as much as they do and understands the importance of being able to speak up when something is not working. When it comes to community, it is just as important for all members to be equally invested and to trust that everyone wants the community to work. Communities need to be aware of the importance of cultivating an environment where that investment is clear, where members can feel confident that their concerns matter and that their fellow community members are committed to taking their needs seriously. Without it, tensions can fester and resentments can grow. Small problems can evolve into issues that are harder to work through than they would have been if people expressed concern or frustration at the outset. Members need to trust their fellow communitarians enough to address those problems, even if it is initially uncomfortable to do so, though it is important for communities to try to make such conversations as comfortable as possible.

Many communities create what is called a Clearing Process to facilitate the cultivation of such an environment. I think, however, our most humbling mistake has been assuming that simply having such a Process is enough of a safeguard for hurt feelings and community turmoil. You see, a Clearing Process is only helpful if people actually use it. It’s about more than the document just existing – it has to be lived and practiced. We need to be able to translate the spirit and intention of the document into our behavior, how we respond in the moment, instead of seeing it as some resource to fall back on when problems become obvious.

So how do we train ourselves to embody that spirit and intention? And how can we ensure we have a firm hold of that vision as more personalities are added to the mix and the potential for misunderstandings increases? I will admit that we haven’t quite settled on the answers just yet. But I do feel more confident moving forward knowing we have been made aware of the questions, and I trust my fellow communitarians to be paying attention and seeking solutions alongside me.