1. A working definition of intentional community is: “Groupings of people who have left their own milieu to live with others under the same roof, and work from a new vision of human beings and their relationships with each other and God ” (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p. 10). There are many other kinds of important communities we participate in, but living together makes intentional communities distinct.
2. Community is not an end in and of itself. Successful intentional communities have a shared vision that sustains the reason for living together and never forsake personal growth for the sake of the group.
3. People can commit to an intentional community for a lifetime (like monasticism) or a short period of time (like l’Arche). Neither is better than the other—it depends on your vocation.
4. Many intentional communities develop their mission slowly, in a few years. Starting off with a vision is important but that vision is not solidified immediately.
5. Most intentional communities don’t last more than a few years; and very, very few last more than one generation. We can learn from both successful and unsuccessful intentional communities. Intentional communities can fail because they never took off or because they became so successful that power and greed replaced austerity and sacrifice.
6. Intentional communities are not a utopia. Whatever exists in the world, or exists in the heart of men and women, will exist in an intentional community. Selfishness, the desire for power, greed, and any and all other personal and social vices exist in intentional communities.
7. You can’t have the goods of intentional community without sacrificing something, or many things.
8. Intentional communities cannot succeed without strong interpersonal relationships. And strong interpersonal relationships require truth-telling and accountability for failings. But gossiping about others will kill an intentional community.
9. Intentional communities based on shared religious commitments can draw on their religious beliefs and practices to build solidarity and trust. God’s grace is one more element that helps deal with the interpersonal and social challenges which inevitably arise. Very often in an intentional community will be called on to forgive others for major faults and required to develop forbearance about the many little faults that will grate your nerves.
10. The fundamental reason intentional communities exist is because of who we are as human beings. We cannot survive as infants alone. We cannot thrive as adults if we aim for full autonomy. Our personal growth requires committed relationships with others.
If you want to learn more, I recommend 3 books I assigned this semester:
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (founder of l’Arche communities, and in my mind, a living saint.) Long and dense but the most detailed review of what an intentional community is and what they can, and cannot do, that I have found.
Dietrich Bonhoffer, Life Together. Short and inspiring. Hits all the main themes. He was willing to give his life for his ideals, dying while resisting the Nazis.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community. An esteemed sociologist of organizations to study communes in the US—going back to the 18th century. Incredibly insightful and an entertaining read. She covers secular and religious communities and covers their strengths and weaknesses.
If you want to visit an intentional community, I’d recommend the Bruderhof. They are Christian, married and single, hold all property in common, produce goods useful to the rest of the world, and engage in community-level peacebuilding, such as by running workshops on forgiveness in high schools and communities affected by violence.