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the purpose of ‘rules of life’

November 12, 2009

So a friend of mine participated in an internship hosted by a missional order. His experience with this group was superb. He was growing in his faith, enganging with his neighbors and neighborhood missionally, and experiencing a rich common life with allies that he deeply cared about. Shortly after the internship ended, he along with his wife moved to a new city. Upon arriving he immediately began looking for another couple or family that he could share life with in ways similar to what he just experienced in his internship. They met a young family that seemed to be on the same page…. after 2 painful years of trying it became evident that they were not on the same page and they would likely never be… by and large it felt like they were spinning their wheels for 2 years and just waiting for things to click. It never did.

I’ve heard this story repeated several times in various forms. This is what motivates me to write a rule of life….

First, what is a rule of life? The most famous rule by far, the Rule of St. Benedict, has been the basis of the vast majority of monastic communities for over 1500 years. It clearly describes how a person can join the community and what they can expect and what will be expected of them once they do. A rule could also be described as a ‘curriculum of Christlikeness’ – a specific way that people are formed into the image of Christ by via common practices; for Benedict 2 common practices were paramount: praying the Psalms daily at seven set times and individually practicing ‘lectio divina,’ a meditative reading of Scripture.

The purpose, benefits and uses of a rule of life for a community could be summarized as orientation, formation, and replication.

Orientation: A rule of life is a written document that describes what is expected of the members of a community. It can be read and pondered before someone decides to join so they clearly know what they are getting into. The fewer the surprises the better.In Benedict’s community’s the rule was read out loud to incoming members. As you can imagine there isn’t a lot of “but you never told me I had to…” in Benedictine communities.

Formation: The rule is a tool for transformation. It sets the parameters of what the common life will look like and spells out the practices that will guide the member toward transformation.

Replication: When it comes time to start a new community the rule sets the standard for what it will look like, feel like, be like. It is a template for what new communities will be like.

One key thing (that deserves a post of its own) is that rules take a lot of pressure off the ‘leader’ to make things up as they go along. The template is there. The path is clear. The leader can focus on caring for the actual people of the community because nearly all the fundamental questions of “how do we…” have already been answered.

How have you seen written documents (rules of life or manuals or even job descriptions and operations manuals) function in ways that were helpful to you?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    November 12, 2009 6:13 pm

    From Gallup’s business management book “12: the elements of great managing” based on 10 million interviews. Here are a few of the 12 chapter titles:

    Chapter 1 – Knowing What’s Expected
    Chapter 2- Materials and Equipment

    From there the book looks more at interpersonal relationships – does the manager care about me, do I have friends, even close friends here, is my development encouraged, do I agree and connect with the mission of the company, etc.

    But it starts with simply knowing what’s expected and having the materials and equipment necessary to do the job.

    If Spiritual Formation is “the job” then I think this applies.

  2. Bob permalink
    November 12, 2009 7:49 pm

    I think the functional part of the ‘rule of life’ phrase is ‘life’. There are lots of guidelines that dictate how one is to behave/expectations/philosophy but a Rule, as you stated, “is a tool for transformation”.

    The three tenets of Benedictine spirituality–obedience, stability, and conversion–spell out how that transformation is achieved. The element that is missing outside of the monastery is stability. You mentioned how the person entering the monastery has the Rule read to them but there’s a little more to it than that, isn’t there? They are first left to “wait at the door” for 4-5 days without being acknowledged. Then they are under probation for 2 months. Then the Rule is read to them. Then they are under probation for another 6 months. The Rule is read again and, if they prove their commitment, they are allowed admittance.

    In Western culture, this type of rigor is unheard of. We have countless options and have no need to undergo this kind of scrutiny…nor do we have the patience to endure such long periods of waiting. We can always say “forget this…the guys up the street will let anyone come in”.

    The only thing I can liken this to in my life would be my marriage vows (although our culture’s divorce rate colors this) precisely because those vows were entered with the understanding that they were for life. There was an extended period before entering into them and, upon entry, all claims to my individual life (as a single person) would be swallowed up in my participation as a spouse. Transformation.

  3. November 13, 2009 1:52 pm

    see below the excerpt from jason coker’s blog post usonian church (, in which he talks about frank lloyd wright and formational living, i think it resonates with what you are saying here kevin:

    Formational Living – [Frank Lloyd] Wright’s approach to architecture was also viewed as somewhat tyrannical in that he believed the people should be sublimated to the house in which they lived. This was an insane idea during the height of modernity, where science, engineering, and technology are seen to exist primarily for the purpose of bending the world to our needs and desires. This had a tendency to infuriate clients and colleagues, many of whom apparently put up with his eccentricities only because of his stature of success. Yet interestingly, Wright understood perhaps better than anyone that the form molds who you become, a reality that can be rather uncomfortable at first, but ultimately, given the right understanding of true human needs, becomes more than merely comfortable, it becomes liberating and joyful. Consider this account of the Usonian “Pew” house and it’s owners struggle to learn to live in it:
    “She [Mrs Pew] described how, at first she hated the house. She felt that Mr. Wright had not listened to her requirements but merely built what he wanted. She was, at the end of her second year living in it, ready to sell it and move on – at great financial sacrifice. She told me that she decided that she would “give the house a year without struggling with it” before she made up her mind. In that year, a transformation took place. She discovered that “Mr. Wright had not built a house for who I was” – but for “the person that I could become. It turned out that Mr. Wright had listened well and understood me very deeply […] Now, I can hardly stand to be in other people’s homes.”

    We all say we want transformation into Christlikeness, but we generally don’t want the inconvenience and discomfort transformation requires. The reality is that all forms and structures shape us for better or for worse. Wherever you spend most of your time will determine what you become. That is true of our bodies and our spirits. What kind of people are we bound to become if our churches are crafted completely to suit our every whim and desire?

    What if we could build churches that pushed authority for ministry to the people at the edges, gathered its “materials” from the local culture, and then used those materials to create forms and structures that not only inspired us and met our needs, but intentionally shaped and molded us into the people we’re meant to become? What would such an “organic” structure look like? How would it be different than current forms?

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