In its eleventh year, our community faced the painful choice of either
expelling a member, or dying. We had no procedures in place for telling
someone to leave, we made decisions by consensus, and the person didn’t
want to go.

How had this happened?

Sophia Community was formed in 1993 by four young women who had all
spent a year doing volunteer work in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods
living with Catholic nuns. Inspired by the sisters’ life and ministry,
but not choosing the vowed life, they instead created their own form of
community. The founders vision statement, written at the beginning of
their second year, proved to be robust, and still guides the
community’s direction.

Some key values:

  • Simple living – communal chores, mostly organic food,
    shared community
    space, furniture, common household fund
  • Presence to each other – commitment to relationships,
    shared meals,
  • Social Justice – most of us are theology students or work
    in social
  • Spirituality – diverse, but we share spirituality together
    twice weekly
  • Hospitality – we run a small guest business for travelers
    and have one
    weekly meal open to friends and guests

Known Candidates

For the first three years, every recruit came after living for
a year with the nuns, and was known to community members through
parties or mutual friends. I established the first break with this
pattern when I married Lisa, one of the founders. After a year living
away from the community, we moved back into the community. Despite
becoming the first male in the community (and necessitating the
rewording of the vision statement from “we are women of faith”), the
“screening” process consisted of questions over dinner, mostly
wondering how “a couple” would relate to the community.


Once the community had accepted a male, its next inclusion was
to accept an African-American known to only one member. Then came a
complete stranger. Brian was a theology student from out of town, so
someone suggested that he send a “bio” to give us a sense of who he
was. This requirement for a biographical statement became a standard
component of the recruitment process.
Another development was to invite him to dinner for an informal
introduction to the community. This was followed by an interview where
community members asked whatever they thought was significant, and he
found out more about community expectations.
When one candidate lived too far away to come to dinner or for a formal
interview, she was interviewed by phone.

Moving Houses

We originally occupied two floors of an apartment building,
but four years ago we moved to a large old house owned by the Religious
Society of Friends (Quakers). The people in this particular Quaker
Meeting no longer had the energy to manage its current residential
program, which involved two employees and several residents. Our
community offered to manage the building and its guest business without
employees, in return for living in the house. The Quakers accepted our
offer. Several of the current residents of the house wanted to stay
living in the house, so they applied for membership of our community.

This was our first real membership crisis. We knew enough
about these individuals to suspect that they would not do well in our
community, but we felt we could not just reject them out of hand. We
asked for their bios and interviewed them using a list of questions
that that someone typed up so we would be consistent (once it was typed
up, it seemed so official we kept using it). We added the new
requirement that they provide us with references from people who had
lived with them in community. After we had called their references, we
were convinced us that they not would fit in with our culture, and we
rejected them–the first time we had rejected any applicant.

Conflict Avoidance

While at least one community member moved out every year,
others were staying on for several years, and we started to talk about
how we individually handled conflict. The women were mostly
conflict-avoiders, so rejecting candidates, or even choosing one from
among several candidates, was difficult for them.

At the beginning of each year, we commit to staying in
community for another year. Some members have stayed for six to ten
years, while others find that the community is not what they expected,
and leave after their first year.

What happens when we accept a member who doesn’t fit in, but
who can’t see that himself, and stays? After three years, interpersonal
conflicts between two members whom I will call John and Sue, led to us
inviting in a facilitator. At the end of the two-hour session, the
facilitator left us with the statement from John, “I’m Black and I feel
excluded!” While the question of whether we were scapegoating him
arose, our only practical response was to suggest “couple counseling”
for John and Sue, even though they weren’t a romantic couple. That
didn’t take place, and Sue moved out after another year.

Facing Conflict

But Sue’s leaving didn’t solve anything, as soon other community
members were having angry outbursts at John. We tried extended family
therapy over a six- month period. After a few sessions in which people
became increasing honest about their feelings, we took the direction of
clarifying our community expectations. What were the agreed upon
commitments and rules for living together? This was then formed into a
Covenant Statement which all community members signed during a ritual.
Now that the rules were clear, we hoped the conflict would abate.

No such luck. Within a few months, the conflict boiled out of
control, engulfing both old community members and new ones. This time,
John selected a conflict mediator and two support people, and the
community met for four long, emotional, and painful evenings. What
emerged were two different kinds of expectations of what was central to
our community: keeping the rules, or relating to each other
harmoniously in spite of broken agreements. It also became clear that
the community would not continue unless John left. We were exhausted by
the conflict, unable to hold productive community meetings, and
unwilling to invite new members. Some members felt like leaving
immediately to escape “community hell.”

Personal Issues

To complicate the situation, John had his own deep issues
around being homeless, and at this point had been unemployed for
several months. He did not want to move out, but feared we would
summarily eject him. A day after our final inconclusive mediation
session, we went on our community retreat, during which John agreed to
leave the community at the end of the year (four months away). This was
a huge relief for us all. For me, it seemed that “a way had opened” as
the Quakers had opined it would, and released lots of pent-up energy
and hope.

More Process Develops

With much loving support from our landlords, the Quakers, John
did move out at the end of the year, and we have taken in several new
members who have not been “burned” by that on-going struggle. As a
result of our experience, we introduced a Provisional Membership status
for new members. For the first six months, new members cannot block
consensus decision-making (which includes membership decisions) and
need to apply for full membership after that period. This gives the
community the power to reject someone who is proving unsuitable, or to
leave him or her in the Provisional Membership status for another year
if there is still doubt. We’ve developed a list of criteria to help
potential members see whether they were looking at the right community.
The inspiration for this came from
Creating a Life Together
by Diane Leafe Christian.

Specifying Candidate Qualities

Our recruitment materials now state that, “In our new members,
we look for people who:

  • Are emotionally mature and capable of sustaining relationships
  • Have experience living cooperatively since leaving their families
  • Have
    a personal spiritual practice or path
  • Are willing to accept a vegetarian diet in the house
  • Have time for community chores, meals, meetings, the hospitality
    duties, and ‘hanging out’
  • Are flexible, and aware of cross-cultural issues
  • Have completed college or 2 years work experience
  • Are friendly”

We also developed a community manual for candidates to read
before interviewing. This contains our vision statement, community
covenant, a list of chores and duties, and a copy of the lease
agreement. For the first time, we required new members to pay their
security deposit within two weeks of being accepted as an indicator of
their commitment and solvency.

Recruitment Process

In our 12th year, as the result of trial and error and
responding to circumstances, our recruitment process has this shape:

  1. Visit the community for dinner, and check each other ou
  2. Submit a bio. or personal statement so we get a flavor of
    your life
  3. Be interviewed by the community
  4. Read through our mission statement, our community
    guidelines, the
    chores and duties so you know what you are taking on
  5. Provide references
    (former room-mates, community members, people who
    like you
  6. If offered a place in the community, pay the security
    deposit to
    secure it.

Fresh Start

As we begin the new year, I feel hopeful with the fresh energy
of the new members. Within a week of moving in, some were redecorating
the house and cleaning all the cabinets. We’ve held a long business
meeting to deal with an accumulation of decisions deferred over summer,
and started planning our first weekend retreat. I know that the
friction of living together will raise differences and conflicts that
we didn’t expect when we interviewed each other, but I feel that these
can be productive and may even bring us closer, rather than trap us in
a cycle of decreasing life.


Don Wedd lived for 20 years in a Catholic religious order in Australia, in a graduate student community
in New York, and now resides in Sophia Community with his partner Lisa and his daughter Julia.

This article appeared in
Communities: Journal of Cooperative Living, Spring 2005.