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Community Maintenance

The tensions between our entropic laziness, pulling us back repeatedly into traditional ways of behaving or well-worn defensive patterns, and that part of our nature that stretches forward to new, better ways of creating things or relationships, are always present in community.

Because of these tensions, community once obtained is never obtained for all time. We naturally fall back. Even the most skilled groups will flow continually in and out of community. Anti-community divisive factors are always at work. To remain a community a group must forever attend to its own health. While external service may be its ultimate task, self-scrutiny and the other efforts required for self-maintenance must remain its first priority.

Until now, you will have read in these pages of the process of building community in the first place. No distinction has been made between short-term community (such as might occur in a workshop) and long-term community. What happens if a community is developed within an existing, relatively stable institution such as a church, school or business corporation? What happens if strangers in a group not only succeed in forming themselves into a community but find the experience so nourishing and important that they decide to continue the community? What are the major problems or issues in community maintenance? How can a community resolve the tension between the forces that work to quell or disrupt it and those that tend to maintain and enliven it?


Every living organism exists in tension. For there to be life, there must be tension. For a community to continue to exist, it must also live in ongoing tension. The parameters over which the tension will most frequently be experienced as communities struggle to maintain themselves are:

  • Size

If a community becomes too large, it may deal with the tension by dividing into smaller groups. For small groups, size is never likely to become a problem that interferes with the task of mutual support.

  • Structure

Ongoing communities must continually construct and reconstruct themselves according to the variety of parameters in order to remain vibrant. There will only be a moderate degree of structure. A community can function with this relative lack of structure only because of the time devoted to consensual decision making. It should be borne in mind that community is not possible with either no structure, where there is chaos, or total structure where there is no room for emptiness.

  • Authority

There will typically be a low degree of authority in its organisation and leadership and an insistence on decision making through consensus. Communities can exist with a greater degree of formal leadership, but authoritarian leadership is incompatible with true community in which everyone’s gifts are recognised and everyone leads according to them.

  • Inclusiveness

Most communities remain inclusive, but some only moderately so. Inclusiveness therefore remains a source of ongoing tension. Even a small group with a high degree of inclusiveness would find difficulty tolerating anti-social or disruptive behaviour.

  • Intensity

The group may be intensive, existing for several days at a time, or of low intensity, meeting just an hour or so each week.

  • Commitment

Some groups will require a high degree of commitment from their members. Other groups operate with a small committed nucleus and have other members attached on the fringe.

  • Individuality

Individuality in some groups remains a source of tension. Individual members may be required to get the group’s permission for independent action. Anti-social behaviour cannot be tolerated.

  • Task definition

Groups may perform multiple tasks or have a single task, e.g. mutual support.

  • Ritual

Ritual may be great or small. There is a fine line between ritual, liturgy and play.

Maintenance or Death?

Since its virtues are so great, the maintenance of genuine community over as long a time as possible is an ideal. However, it is an ideal on general principle, which means it is not necessarily virtuous for each and every community to attempt to be immortal. Communities, like individuals, are living organisms with differing life spans.

The longevity of a community is no more an adequate measure of its success than the length of an individual human life attests to its fulfilment. Communities have a proper, natural life span that will vary according to the reason(s) for their creation. Some communities do seem to fail to live out their potential. Others degenerate into institutional senility for a lengthy period after they seem to have outlived their usefulness.

How can a community discern whether it is properly ready to die or whether it is simply in a slump from which it can recover by making a change that will recaptures its spirit and help it to maintain itself. There are a few principles that can help:

  • First, ask the question. To bear in mind the possibility of death does not hasten one’s demise so much as help one live more fully. A long term community willing to routinely face the frightening prospect of its death is likely to either strive more vigorously for vitality and renewal or get on with the business of dying more efficiently and gracefully.

  • Second, take time over the discernment.

  • Lastly, in relation to its task, the community in slump should ask itself whether it is avoiding a task or whether in any longer has a task. It is not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes a group can be so frightened of its task that it would rather terminate itself than face up to what it is avoiding. If it can remember to ask itself seriously whether it is avoiding a task, it is not likely to fall into the pit of committing suicide rather than doing the work of remaining vital until the time comes for its natural death.

Enemy Formation

Questions of community maintenance and community death also revolve around the process called enemy formation. Groups that would not otherwise become a community have done, and frequently do so, in response to a threat, crisis, tragedy, natural disaster, enemy attack or war. This is hardly to be decried when the threat is genuine. The problem is when this instinctive response of cohesiveness in the face of threat is manufactured. The process of enemy formation occurs when a group that has lost its spirit of community attempts to regain it by creating a threat or enemy that otherwise would not exist.

If a group that was previously a community finds itself in the process of enemy formation, it should seriously consider whether the proper time has come for its own death or, at the very least, radical change in itself. The end of once fine traditions is preferable to the nurturing of decay and the forces of hatred and destruction.