The Ministry of Virgins, Revisioned: Intentional Communities and the Parish

Tony SigWe see develop rather quickly in the Church within the New Testament people, often ‘virgins and widows,’ who are ‘set apart’ for what we might call ‘full time ministry.’  (The terms are anachronistic to be sure, but just roll with me)  So we see from a very early point a ‘mixed economy’ of forms of life in the Church.  Some work and produce and give, and some ‘mend tents’ while still doing such ‘full time ministry,’ but is has always been deemed necessary to have a group of people dedicated to the life of the Church who are fully dependent on her life, but who alone can give a fuller expression to her life.  We would be incomplete without the virgins and widows.  The development of monasticism and the incredible importance of the religous throughout our history only testify all the more to this.

Though not quite as prominent as it once was (or so it seems to me anyway), it is not at all uncommon to see a Roman Catholic parish system, including schools and ministry to the poor, supported by small groups of monks and/or nuns (heck we could even include the celibate priesthood here).

Yet, despite this decline, there has been developing since at least the Jesus People Movement, communities of Protestants who in rough ways approximate this mixed economy of life.  Anglicanism too has a small but not unimportant religious life – though we might pray for this to grow all the more.  Among the developments has been the flowering of “new monasticism” and “intentional communities.”

If, as I have said, the fullness of the Church’s life requires a group of people set apart from “working life,” then I wonder if we ought to be trying to test whether new monastic and intentional communities could serve an analogous function as the religous within our parish structures.  Maybe there would be only a few single parishes that could support such a group, but would it not be possible to imagine a relatively close group of parishes contribute together to support such a community for the sake of their own life?  I don’t see why not.  In fact I think this could be quite life-giving.

There are more than a few logistical questions that arise, but I have some ideas, and I imagine many others have some too.  This is a topic I’d love to explore more here.  So let’s tentatively consider this an ‘introductory’ post that could flower into more.  These also could see some strong overlap with my continuing reflections on seminaries.


  1. ADH,

    A few thoughts off the cuff:

    1) Recently, a Pentecostal denominational official suggested to me that he thought it was possible for Pentecostals to develop a monastic culture, at least of some kind. I’ve been thinking on that for a while now. Would that be possible? What would it look like? Would a Pentecostal monastic community really look different from, say, a (charismatic) Anglican community? Should it?
    2) It seems to me that you’re right to suggest that the church needs religious, primarily for the sake of prayer, but also for serious study and contemplation, primarily but not exclusively of the Scripture.
    3) Of course, as you know, the religious can be a “sign” of the church’s truly eschatological convictions, as well. As Hauerwas is fond of saying, celibacy (like martyrdom) makes the point that the church grows by conversion and shows up the idolatry of “family values.”
    4) Not that I’m in Nate Kerr’s camp, but I do think it’s important to think also of the ways in which monastics might serve the world at large, and not only the church. Maybe we would have to articulate a kind of monastic missiology or something along those lines? (If I remember rightly, Merton had a bit to say about this!)
    5) I’d want to guard against any articulation of the monastic life that seems to take the call to discipleship away from non-religious. All of us, whatever our vocation, are called by costly grace and the Sermon on the Mt addresses all of us, not merely those of us who can devote our lives every day to vows of obedience, poverty, etc.


    1. Chris,

      On 1) I don’t want to say too much in advance of one of the posts I have in mind but I am going to sympathetically talk about my experience in Master’s Commission as a form of temporary co-ed monasticism. I think it could in many ways serve as a model for our own groups. I will also be strongly critical as the experience also made clear (on reflection) that Pentecostalism simply doesn’t have the kind of developed prayer life necessary to sustain such a life – it will have to appropriate the Tradition, though obviously with such an appropriation, modification is likely and also likely positive.
      2) Yup
      3) Yup
      4) Totally agree. By “life of the Church” I mean to include mission. Though clearly I disagree with Kerr that the Church’s life is “missionary” without remainder.
      5) Agreed, but there are still some things that some can do and others can’t. We’ve been given different gifts and different responsibilities. I also want to resist any temptation to make “super saints” out of every believer like some kind of hyper-Methodism.


      1. As I’m sure you’d expect, I completely agree that Pentecostalism — at least in most of its manifestations in the U.S. — is desperately weakened and even diseased because of its lack of vital connection to the spiritual tradition of the church. I also agree that “hyper-Methodism” is a danger to be guarded against and that each of us possess or are possessed by unique vocations, so that not everyone is called to do everything everyone else has to do. (Here I’m reminded of the ways in which a wide range of diversity plays out in Lewis’ fiction.) In short, I’m fully on board and can’t wait to read more.

        Thanks, too, to Charismanglican for his observations and insights. This discussion makes me want to try to make this happen — at the least to pray in earnest to see this begin to develop in my lifetime.


  2. I’m curious about the logistics, too. I definitely think that a semi- or new monastic group attached to each parish would feed into the discipleship of the church and the surrounding communities.

    My family were just in the San Francisco Bay area, so we stopped in for a community meal/Bible study with Church of the Sojourners. They share a common purse, four houses, a couple cars…and it’s amazing how they’re able to live in a very expensive city when most only work part-time.

    A monastic community need not be a drain on church resources because of this. By sharing space, resources, etc. everyone would have all they need (wait, that sounds familiar).

    Then they could support the life and mission of the church, both by acting as a sign, by devoting themselves to common prayer, and by being a constant presence in the community and keep the hospitality/doors open while the majority non-monastics are at home.


    1. Joey,

      I’ll be addressing some of these in more detail in future posts. I agree with you completely on all fronts. Though even if such communities were to be able to “provide for themselves,” I assume there will need to be an initial investment by the involved communities and presumably these communities would “take over” some of the groups already running in the parishes and focus them. Sometimes a parish can have too many programs.


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