May 2017
Evangelism and Discipleship

Surviving and Thriving in Community

Editor's Note:
While the author writes about best practices for raising new disciples within a monastic community, it is clear that the principles of planning, hospitality and community building he shares are all critical when forming new groups and disciples in a variety of contexts.

As a member of a monastic community for over thirty years, I have been deep in the lab of human community, watching and participating in experiments for half my life. I’ve experienced the best of times and the worst of times. Life together is first a challenge to survive, and then it becomes an invitation to thrive. “Our Father,” Jesus taught us to pray, not “my father.” Because the journey of discipleship is always a shared one. We meet God together, in and through one another, in the struggles we share as much as in the successes we celebrate.

Summer approaches, and the season of temporary communities is upon us – summer camps, and youth group trips, and university students poised to enter residential communities come fall. At our monastery, we are about to welcome a new group of monastic interns, young adults who will live and work alongside the Brothers for the next nine months. Perhaps your parish or diocese awaits a similar beginning. I want to share some very practical observations on how we can begin well in leading such communities to engage, learn, and thrive together. While my comments are directed specifically toward youth or young-adult residential communities, I hope that these principles will also apply more broadly to all communities that bring us into close contact with one another.

Begin Well

Your participants’ life together will be one of the richest and hardest experiences of their lifetime. They will arrive with high hopes and expectations. They will also arrive with some anxiety about both the known and the unknown. You will have many opportunities to encourage, adjust, and intervene. Their “learning laboratory” of life together will need to be complemented by the experience of sustenance – where each participant experiences a daily dose of respectful dignity, kindness, and gratitude – and where their shared residence is a sanctuary, a place to feel safe and to rest deeply.

From the outset, name:

  • Important people and their responsibilities & authority

o the group’s immediate liaison or supervisor
o the peer leader (whether someone is pre-designated, or whether leadership rotates)
o a companion (a therapist or spiritual director who will meet on a regular basis with the group to help process their inner experience)

  • Norms and non-negotiables. Solicit input from past participants and/or from similar programs on what’s important to have in place from the get-go, or to get in place soon through discussion with the incoming participants, e.g., menu planning and cooking; dirty dishes and house cleaning; repair needs; sound & silence; designated times for shared meals, prayer and worship, conversation and play; transportation (public) and communal/personal car (gas, maintenance, insurance, accidents); social media and confidentiality; health care and insurance; “Safe Church” training and practice; family and friends as house visitors; sexual relationships; alcohol and drugs; addiction and recovery. What’s negotiable; what’s not? Prepare a “Customary” which names both the norms and the non-negotiables by which they share their life together.
  • House Meetings oil the gear work. Scheduled on a regular basis (probably led or attended by the liaison or supervisor), these meetings invite a review of the life together: what is going well; what is not going well, is unclear, or conflicted; what are desired changes to try. If a change is desirable, seek agreement to try change(s) for a certain period of time, then review. House meetings name and claim the good, and help keep conflicted issues from escalating into crises. Keep the Customary up-to-date.

What Are They Getting Into?

Your participants’ best qualities will be discovered and tapped; meanwhile most all of their character flaws will be exposed. Your participants will arrive with both eagerness and anxiety:

  • Anxiety because of the “baggage” they bring from their family of origin, from other experiences living in community, and/or from their very personal vulnerabilities. Anxiety is extremely creative and can compromise or enervate living abundantly in community if allowed just to fester privately.
  • Eagerness in their hope for the adventure of new life: a fresh chance to integrate who they are and what they value, and the freedom to reinvent themselves. They will be both surprised and disappointed. Their first disappointment(s) will likely be projected outwards towards their fellow participants, towards you their hosts, or onto who knows what: the food, the accommodations, the church, politics. Their second round of disappointment(s) will likely be about their own self: their old patterns of life re-surfacing, their own fraudulency, their personal “baggage” which may seem more like freight. Meanwhile, their delight will come in new ways to experience old things, their freedom in losing the control from some of their neuroses; their love in being accepted despite the “deal breakers” in their personalities; and the unexpected boon: the teacher.
  • Their teacher will be someone (probably a fellow participant) who could otherwise be labeled an irritant or an adversary who, like none other, may elicit their anger, judgment, and disdain. People who get under our skin probably belong there. They will expose us like none other. They will likely shatter our glittering image. When Jesus says, “bless, don’t curse,” he’s talking about the teacher. Your participants will need help – collectively and individually – to claim their teacher, and with gratitude. It’s very difficult, absolutely transformative, and possible with help. Help is helpful.

This Matters!

Everyone will arrive carrying their values: what they find enjoyable, comforting, meaningful and, conversely, what they find particularly difficult, irritating, or offensive. These values are hugely important, though they are largely hidden from one another at the outset. Create an occasion for the sharing of personal values in a way that is safe, revealing, enjoyable, and sensitizing. Prepare a handout for your participants: “This Matters to Me,” which will require some homework in advance. Ask a series of questions, allowing blank spaces for the individual’s responses, e.g.:

  • I really feel cared for when:
  • My birthday is on ___________, and my favorite meal & favorite cake is:
  • My favorite foods are:
  • I’m allergic to or don’t eat:
  • These dates are significant to me (positive and/or negative):
  • When I’m feeling exhausted or discouraged,

o I often exhibit:
o I often need:

  • What makes me anxious is:
  • What I find particularly irritating is:
  • What you probably wouldn’t know about me is:

Invite the participants to an occasion where you serve food and drink they will all enjoy. Open the conversation for each other’s sharing what matters. The conversation will be fascinating. Your participants will have a significant experience sharing the person they are with a community to which they now belong. They will better face the inevitable irritations in life together as invitations. Keep these completed handouts in a notebook in a public space, and invite the participants to keep their “What Matters” up-to-date. Paying attention to what matters bequeaths dignity to one another, invites a collaboration of care, and helps avoid unwittingly “inflicting good on one another” (Mark Twain’s phrase).

You will have only one opportunity to begin your participants’ life together. Say your prayers and make your plans to begin well.

Br. Curtis Almquist came to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) in 1987, having served previously as a parish priest. He was the Superior 2001-2010 and now lives at Emery House, the Society's rural monastery.


This article is part of the May 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Evangelism and Discipleship