SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?
The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.
I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.
First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.
Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.
Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.
When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.
Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.
Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.
Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.
As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”
I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.
I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.
In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…
See PART III
Main image: Maryland flag