Every community has a purpose. Sometimes it’s stated, sometimes not. And even if the community has a stated purpose, its actual purpose might be something different. And its purpose tends to evolve over time, intentionally or not.
Many communities are founded around a vision or ideology. For others the founding purpose is more simple, say, to be a close community of good neighbors. Either way, the founding and building of the community is an exciting time that brings people together, cultivates relationships, and in itself provides a sense of purpose.
At some point, successful communities achieve a certain level of stability and security, and the driving purpose of building the community falls away. In the absence of some other larger purpose at play, as communities become established, they have a tendency to default into maintenance mode. Even if there is a larger stated purpose, it tends to fall into the background. People start focusing less on the imminent shared project of building their community and more on living their own lives.
Now, you could ask, what’s wrong with this? Isn’t this kinda the point? Aren’t we trying to create places where people are able to just live their lives in communities that are based on a different set of values?
On some level yes, but this can’t be it. I mean, it can, but it tends to create some problems.
Also, to be clear, I’m making massive generalizations here. I’m certainly not saying this is true for all communities, but I do think it’s true to some degree for most communities, at least most secular communities. Religious communities, like the Amish, Bruderhof, and Hutterites have large networks of large communities that all together dwarf the secular intentional communities movement and don’t run into a lot of these problems. I think there’s a lot to be learned there.
So, what are the problems?
New people joining an established community tend to be attracted to the fact that it’s established, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Starting a new community certainly isn’t for everyone. The problem is the tendency to start taking the community for granted. It’s difficult to comprehend what it took to get the community to where it is if you didn’t live through it. There isn’t the same motivation to give it your all in the way that creating a community takes. Maintaining a community simply doesn’t take as much work.
But maintenance is deceptive. On a physical level, infrastructure degrades slowly enough that it’s hard to perceive. And whenever you joined the community, that’s what’s normal for you. You don’t see how much things might have changed over the years. The tendency is for standards to slip as things get more run down, and this can become a feedback loop.
On a social level, relationships also require maintenance. But if you don’t have a big project drawing you all together you’re not going to have as much reason to do that work, and the sense of intimacy and cohesiveness will also tend to degrade slowly over time in ways that are hard to perceive, especially for new people.
In the absence of a clear sense of shared purpose groups start getting into what I call lowest-common-denominator politics. If we’re not trying to do something together, other than just maintain things, the tendency is to have a more divergent set of reasons for living in the community. This can create very different, potentially conflicting priorities. As time goes on, the only thing the group can really agree on is the status quo, even if no one is particularly happy with the status quo. And the group doesn’t even really talk about it because they know they won’t agree. So people start focusing more on changing things in little ways to suit themselves, seek to meet their needs in more individualistic ways, make little decisions bigger deals than they need to be, and are more prone to engaging in petty drama.
There’s also a moral imperative to not rest in simply maintaining a community. The world is burning. Business as usual is killing us. Simply doing more of the same, even if it’s a lot better than what’s happening in the mainstream, is not going to turn things around. There’s also the fact that it is a privilege to live in an intentional community. At this point in the world, any privilege we have is coming at the expense of an increasing number of other humans and non-humans. Not working to address oppression, injustice, and climate change is simply not a morally defensible position at this point in time.
So, why is having a shared purpose important?
When I say shared purpose, I don’t just mean something abstract. It may start there, as a vision statement, but it needs to get more specific. Mission statements take that a step further. But what’s the project? What are the specific goals and objectives? What are we actually trying to accomplish together?
Humans are very narrative-based creatures. We always have a story in our minds about what’s going on right now, in our lives, in the world. Having a sense of meaning is a basic human need, and we will always make things mean something. It’s what motivates us. We need to have some sense of why it is we do what we do, why we get out of bed in the morning.
We will also always have problems. Partly this is just the uncertain, uncontrollable nature of life. But it’s also because of our need for narrative. What are the struggles that define us and give us a sense of purpose?
The question becomes, what story are we choosing? What are we choosing to make things mean? What problems are we taking on?
It’s entirely possible to exist without any of this being anything particularly inspiring, but if it isn’t, then people aren’t likely to be particularly inspired. They’re less likely to want to extend themselves and put in effort beyond what is required. Having a shared purpose flips this. It creates an inspiring context that will be more motivating for people to engage and invest themselves. It will create deeper bonds. It will bring out creativity and innovation. It encourages us to look for collective solutions to individual problems and needs.
On a mundane level, having a shared purpose creates a context for our collective actions and decision-making. It makes lots of decisions easier because everyone has a shared sense of how they fit into the larger picture. It also gives us more motivation to work out conflicts and issues.
Having a shared purpose can also help satisfy the moral imperative. But to do that, I don’t think the shared purpose can be just anything. Specifically, I think the shared purpose needs to involve building and leveraging collective capacity to correct injustice, decrease the harm we’re doing to others and the planet, extend the privileges that we have to others (to the extent they are sustainable, and give them up where they are not), and work towards cooperative governance, equity, and local resilience, not just on our particular piece of property, but in our local areas.
Of course, building, maintaining, and developing communities has to be fun too. I know I can sound very doom and gloom. But I think we have to be willing to face the tragedy and crisis in order to really have the depth of joy and satisfaction that living in community has to offer. Even if it’s hard work with huge implications, getting to do it together, with people you enjoy and care about, building a vibrant culture is what makes it all possible and worthwhile.
So, for established communities that might be stuck in various ruts, how do they get out of this? There’s not an easy answer. Institutional self-evaluation does not tend to be a strong suit of mostly communities. Which is kind of ironic, because it seems like that should be a core aspect to being intentional as a community.
There are lots of processes groups can engage in, and lots of people groups can hire to help them run these processes (myself included, though I promise this isn’t just an elaborate sales pitch). But there has to be a critical mass of people who want to come together to do this work, who recognize that even though it feels overwhelming and impossible and will be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually challenging, it’s worth it. And there has to be a sub-critical mass of people who are checked out or actively opposed to doing this work. Because fundamentally this is about coming together. The process has to reflect the outcome or any result won’t really be a shared purpose and you’ll be in the same place you started. For many groups I think the reality is that they are simply unlikely to be able to take this on short of some kind of crisis that forces them, and this is part of why we need people trying to start new communities. Groups that do want to do this kind of work probably won’t know they do until some number of people in them are brave, vulnerable, compassionate, adamant, and persistent enough to start the conversation.
Because on some basic level, that’s how this happens. Through conversations happening in caring relationships.
For me, as someone interested in helping start a community, the question is, can we foster the relationships and design the DNA of the community to be ongoingly self-reflective, to keep renewing it’s sense of shared purpose, and to keep showing up for each other and the world. I don’t know, but I’m excited to try.