Building Community Without the Commune

J. Money of Budgets Are Sexy recently sent me an interesting article about one nun’s experience of communal living. In her order, the sisters all take a vow of poverty in which they choose to contribute all their income (many have “secular” jobs) to a common pot, and own all possessions collectively rather than individually. It had some cool takeaways for anyone, and it also got me wondering: is communal living trending?

Because I’ve also been hearing buzz over Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option, which suggests communal living in less extreme forms. We, too, have dreamed of buying a large property with friends, living in separate houses but sharing outdoor chores and using the property to serve the larger community.

It seems the idea of communal living is back in vogue after a generation of building decks in the back of the house instead of porches in the front. And attached garages so you never have to see your neighbors, unless serendipity strikes during the half-minute walk to the mailbox.

It’s true that a sharing economy has emerged, along with a rising movement toward minimalism/simplicity. People are going “back to the land” in various ways.  The idea of communal living may be more of a dream than a reality for most, but there are practical ways we can all build community. I imagine this is what people are actually longing for in the most individualistic culture ever.

I’ve lived in close community perhaps more than the average person. First it was my family of five kids, plus all ones my mom babysat and neighbor kids coming to play. In college I always had multiple roommates. After college, we lived in an apartment building where several of our married friends resided. I started calling this place The Commune because they said the gas bill was split evenly among the residents (it wasn’t).

When the rent increased people started moving out. So we moved in with friends. While we didn’t pool our incomes or anything like that, we did share a shower and kitchen.

A year later we purchased a home on the same block. From there, we set out to continue building community. We invited all our immediate neighbors to our house-warming party. Which, by the way, is the best way not to have the cops called if the party gets too loud. I also took cookies to our neighbors within a week of moving in. Thank goodness they weren’t home. The cookies were a little on the crisp side, and I learned later that my neighbor is a pastry chef.

But enough about me. Here are a list of other ways we can practice community and sharing without getting all Animal Farm:

  • Swap babysitting with other parents.
  • Make errands more efficient. If you’re stopping by a store, text your neighbor to see if they need anything.
  • Share tools. Why does everyone need to own a ginormous extension ladder? How often do you actually use some of your tools?
  • Share skills. While you’re sharing tools, why not share your skills? Whether it’s baking, crocheting, or rebuilding your ant-eaten home, sharing DIY skills is invaluable.
  • Share meals. Invite people over for dinner. Or brunch. Or a fire-side s’more. Just remember to aim for hospitality rather than entertaining. That makes everyone feel more comfortable.
  • Share baby gear. Even before you’re done having kids, sharing is caring. I’ve borrowed and lent out everything from clothes to carriers.
  • Give stuff away. Even if you could sell something, consider giving it away in order to build community. When I think of all the ways people have shared with me, I’m more likely to dismiss the few bucks I might get for an item and just pass it on.
  • Share life. At some point it makes sense to go beyond small talk and discuss real life. That point is different for every relationship, but being there for people (and having others to lean on) is what community is really about.
  • Share money. Be generous. Give to good charities. Support your local church. Treat someone. Take the tool that money is and use it for good in the lives of others as well as your own.
  • Share faith or values. For us the deepest sense of community comes from our church. Did you know the word church literally means the assembly? It’s not about the place. It’s about people coming together. And the word fellowship actually means to share or to have in common. Much of the sharing described above happens in this context for us, and it’s a source of great joy.

As I type this list, countless examples  of sharing come to mind. My neighbor who has clothed my son for the last year or more, and just sent over cupcakes this evening. Our friends down the street who gave us a shop vac for our house-warming present. And much, much more. I’m at once humbled and motivated to continue striving to share and build community.

For Further Reading: Frugal Friends Don’t Let Friends…

What are other ways of building community? What do you think of the idea of communal living?

28 Responses to “Building Community Without the Commune”

  1. Tonya says :

    I forget which country it is but I saw a documentary once about how there is this one town or something that has kind of communal living and it works great for them. I know some people LOVE their privacy, but if you have to have neighbors, it’s a great way for your neighborhood to feel cozier. I really miss the guy who lived in my triplex who moved because we used to share stuff all the time. Now the people who live there live like hermits. 🙁

    • Kalie says :

      I know what you meant. I really miss our next door neighbors who had kids the same ages. We never see the new neighbors.

  2. J. Money says :

    I think i’m just going to start a personal finance commune 🙂 As long as you’re a finance blogger, you’re able to come and live with us!

  3. Connie G says :

    Recently my husband and I sold a business and bought a condo in the area. I wanted a large dining table and six chairs. With the additional leaves I should be able to seat at least 12 people. I wanted to be able to have people over for a meal and a time of fellowship around the table. So far, we have been able to do that on many occasions. It has been a good opportunity of sharing. I enjoy conversing around the table. We have also been able to use our guest bedroom toward that end. There are definite blessings in sharing what we have.

    • Kalie says :

      What great ways to build community! Lately we’ve been using our basement once a week to host the kids from a different Bible study in our church. They can play down there and some go to sleep in the guest room or office. It’s a nice way to use space that we aren’t always in.

  4. Harmony says :

    I love the idea of a commune, but can’t think of any other families in real life that wouldn’t drive us crazy after a while. J$ might have the right idea about a personal finance commune 😉 To be honest, we always talk about escaping to an island because it seems like we’re constantly bombarded by drama and craziness.

    You’ve got some great tips on how to share resources. I wish we could trade babysitting, but now that we have five kids, it doesn’t really seem like a fair trade. Maybe we could add something to the deal to compensate for extra children?

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, it’d be hard to get along indefinitely in that kind of arrangement.

      Ah, yes, it gets hard to trade babysitting with newborns, and with a lot of kids. Especially if that means your 5 plus the kids of another family at once. I almost added “or just babysit for someone” because I don’t think building community has to be perfectly equal or “fair.” We babysit for people sometimes just to help out, and we’ve had plenty of people sit for us this way. Maybe you could just trade something else–firewood or dinner or your crocheted goods?

  5. Brian says :

    Our block is an interesting collect of people not sure this would work out so well. We had block parties for a few years before the bickering set in and they were shut down. I do like the idea. We have shared baby gear, clothes, and other stuff over the years.It always felt good to be involved in these activities.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s too bad that your neighbors bicker 🙁 We definitely have neighbors who are more or less social than others, but we haven’t had any drama that I know of. Maybe your community will come from elsewhere–groups you volunteer with, a church or school or sports team, etc. That’s great you were able to share goods with people. It does feel good!

  6. Amanda says :

    Like Harmony, I love Jay’s idea of a personal finance commune. 😉 I’ve found that even though we live a little differently from some of our neighbors and even some of our friends, we can always find a common bond! In our community, we share plants and veggies from the garden, food, and tools too.

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds like your community has some great sharing going on! Sharing garden veggies is such a classic neighbor thing to do.

  7. NZ Muse says :

    I personally hate the idea of communal living (I’m a total hermit!) but we currently have a friend living with us (has done since Feb) and I must confess it’s nice sometimes, especially now that we have two dogs who take a fair bit of work and time.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m too introverted and controlling for communal living, too! We have always been open to having someone live with us, if it was the right person and situation. I’m glad you’re enjoying some of the benefits of that in your home.

  8. Penny says :

    We are definitely trying to be better at this. We have some difficult neighbors, and we have some amazing ones. We’re really trying to make an effort to be kind to the doozies, too! I’m not sure it’ll pay off, but it’s better than me walking around the house aggravated all the time.

    I love the ideas you shared here in terms of paying it forward and helping others out. Great list!

    • Kalie says :

      I’m sure your efforts will pay off toward your own happiness if nothing else, like you said. We don’t really have difficult neighbors, just some who keep completely to themselves. Which is better than what you’re describing!

      Glad you enjoyed the list!

  9. Cheryl says :

    I love the ideals behind communal living, but it never seems to work in practice. Maybe I’ve just read too many dystopian fiction novels. Ms. Hereford seems to like it, but does she ever feel like she’s doing more work than others? I like your suggestions, especially sharing skills and sharing meals. Those seem like a good, happy medium.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that it’s gotta be pretty difficult to pull off in real life. There would be so many details to try to consider and arrange ahead of time to avoid unnecessary conflict. I feel like we’ve found our happy medium.

  10. DC YAM says :

    The more technology progresses the easier it is to avoid living in community. I’ve thought a lot about this, especially as an introvert, because I’ve had seasons of close community and seasons of distance from living in community. But I like the list you put together. It’s important to not overthink it. You can live in community in small ways and it can have a huge impact on your life.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. We lived in closer community in some ways before getting married, or having kids. But then we’ve deepened other friendships since then. I think the important thing is to have friends, and be a giving person in the ways that are right for your season.

  11. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    When I was a little girl, my plan was to live in the type of commune you describe – with shared land but separate houses. We would have no electricity or cars, and we’d all farm. Well . . . it didn’t turn out like that. We, alas, do live the highly individualistic lifestyle you mention. I find the full-time work experience – perhaps especially for an introvert – makes retreating into the home very appealing. At the same time, I do want more community as well. Fortunately, even little steps make a difference, and I like many that you have suggested.

    • Kalie says :

      Funny how our childhood ideals don’t always turn out in real life. I can see why people want to relax and retreat after work. But in the end I find community much more rewarding than relaxing all the time.

  12. Hannah says :

    I liked the Benedict option, but I thought that it emphasized the importance of gathering and preservation too much. After all, healthy churches must emphasize spreading too… that’s why there are dozens of Antioch churches and very few if any Jerusalem churches.

    As for living in a commune, it would be fun for me but Rob would hate it. Everyone would constantly want him to fix their roof or rewire their lights. I think your more modest proposals make more sense. Also if I were to add to them, I would say offer specific help when people are in need.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for your thoughts on the book, Hannah. I agree that we are called to go and spread. And great point about offering specific help when people need it.

    • Josh says :

      I agree with your opinion on The Benedict Option as well. The appeal of communes is that you can “be true to your roots” a whole lot easier than also trying to live in regular society.

      My wife and I have been talking about community recently as well. Other than our nearby family, we don’t know any of our neighbors. I think most Americans could say the same thing. I’m not ready to join a commune, but, I remember playing with the other neighborhood children growing up and doing things in the evening with other families. It’s something we want for our children, but, we are still looking for it too.

    • Kalie says :

      I imagine having a little bit larger property might require more effort to get to know your neighbors. We see ours all the time (those that don’t go straight from garage to house, that is), and the neighborhood kids go up and down the block on their bikes/scooters, so it’s quite natural for them to find playmates. I love it!

  13. Tub of Cash says :

    Thank you for sharing. As a Christian, I think community is critical. And regardless of your faith, human beings are social creatures. We need community. Which is also why in prisons the worst thing you can get (other than capital punishment), is isolation. That said, communal living is definitely pretty extreme sounding! I’m sure it works, but not sure how much I’d personally like that. Probably not a whole lot to be honest =)

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that we all need people, regardless of faith or personality. But yes, that does not usually mean communal living.

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