I was raised in Intentional Community (capitals on purpose). What some might consider a cult or commune was really a group of people considering carefully how to live together. In our case, the Intentional Community was called Plow Creek Fellowship. It was a Christian church (Plow Creek Church) and a communally owned, shared living environment of 150 acres or so, some farmland along the creek and some upon the bluffs, in the countryside of Bureau Co., Illinois (Plow Creek Farm) with six or seven houses (some of them housing multiple family units) on the farmland and several houses in the nearby village (Tiskilwa). Most of our communal life was lived on the farm property. We children attended public schools in Tiskilwa.
The impetus for this degree of intentionality at Plow Creek came from a study of the book The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, which talks about people sharing food and goods in common. People who joined Plow Creek did so with a great deal of deliberation on both the part of the existing community and the prospective members, because joining meant sharing money and property in a common purse. It meant, essentially, a commitment that felt lifelong, even though it turns out that was rarely the case. Many of the members, like my parents, came from the Jesus Freak movement of the 1960’s, they were hippies who didn’t smoke weed or wife-swap. Love was free, but there was no Free Love. Oh, and they were pacifists. Yeah… That was popular in rural Illinois. You bet.
I have seen people being intentional about what sort of community they engage in, and give their lives to, to an extreme degree. Once you joined, decisions were made by consensus (though I won’t say there wasn’t coercion from time to time).
Communes have fallen out of style– there are significant social problems within the system, not the last of which is the problem of slackers (once people have joined, you’ve got to feed them even if they don’t produce much, whether cash or crops, which is an economic drain on the system. You’ve voluntarily and permanently laid down the choice to give out of your own personal abundance and generosity, which is a good thing to do, until you don’t have any recourse not to do it). It’s hard to hold people accountable if you’ve got so much grace invested in the relationship that you can’t just, well, ex-communicate them. And if you’re not willing to end the relationship, you’re sort of stuck in an enabling vortex. Another problem is the relative isolation. It’s sort of what they wanted, but in rural Illinois, there weren’t many neighbors who could relate to the lifestyle and ideologies Plow Creekers espoused. Perhaps for another day: intentional communities: open or closed?
One thing I did learn is that if you want to be a leader who finishes well, you do need some sort of intentional community. You need commitment to a group of people who can hold you accountable, you need an out for extreme circumstances, and if you need to duck out for some reason then you need to get plugged back in right away somewhere else. The key is that you’re the one being intentional. Others will inevitably not be as committed to you as you are to the concept, if you’re truly embracing it.
We see this now in the coaching world. Those who want authentic community and are willing to be intentional about it will sign a coaching agreement, with regular check ins not only for their own growth but for the progress of the relationship with the coach as well. This can be done with a peer coach (taking turns) or a professional coach, a mentor or “Paul” and a downward mentor or “Timothy” and with a variety of other people you commit to sharing your life with.
People are sometimes surprised to find that I have a coach too. (This probably stems from the misunderstanding people have that ‘life coaches have it all figured out and will tell you what to do with your life’ which couldn’t be further from what coaches really do.)
I work every month with Mark. Mark’s a professionally trained coach and we exchange peer coaching. I also have another friend named Mark who isn’t a coach at all, but we’re best buddies and we’re intentional about talking about the temptations we face. I have another friend named Jonathan who meets with Megan and I monthly to check in with us on our growth as artists, as a couple, and as people who are serious about community. We pay Jonathan. I meet with Ralph for discipleship (I’m the “Timothy”). I meet with K. C. twice a year for coaching supervision through an organization that I contract with. In total that’s five people, two of whom get paid for working with me and three who don’t. Two of them live in my town, one in another part of the state, and two in Colorado. It’s not unusual for me to have a meeting almost every week with at least one of them. This isn’t anything like Plow Creek, yet everything about it reflects how I grew up: you don’t float through life on your own. Not because you’re trying to be a slacker: in fact, precisely the opposite.
By the way, Megan and I attend church regularly. None of the people I mentioned attend the same congregation we do. It’s sort of ironic but right now I have a lot less formal, intentional relationships within my congregation. I also run a nonprofit and none of these coaches or mentors are on the board. But I’m intentional about communicating with both of those groups too: my pastors know what’s going on, and so does my board. The key is that in every area of your life; from your marriage and sexuality to your career and spiritual life; from the addictions you’re kicking to the dreams you’re pursuing, you’ve got somebody you check in with. That’s how we do intentional community. That’s the whole point of this series. There’s value here.