Insuring Lives of Service

Christians are called to live in the moment. To save up treasures in heaven, not on Earth. To trust God. But we are also not to be irresponsible and an undue burden on each other. It’s foolish to trust too fully in men, even if they profess trust in Christ. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

How do we design lives of service to God and neighbors without misplacing too much trust in humans?

I’m a student of Christian communal movements whose members take a “vow of poverty.” In context, this poverty typically means giving up claims to ownership and committing to modest consumption as part of a group. These people take seriously Jesus’ promise to take care of them – and the freedom it offers from worldly ties. But as my wife says, “If you give up your power, somebody else will take it.” The history of these movements is replete with abuse.

So-called cults are easy targets for criticism here, the flagrant dumpster fires of abuse that make for juicy story telling. But even successful, long-standing organizations are invariably marred by experiences of abuse and tragedy stemming from power imbalance. No organization is perfect. Can we insulate members from organization-specific risk while still enabling them to commit to a vow of religious poverty?

The solution I suggest is neither original nor complicated. Trouble for members of a religious community is an insurable risk. The trick is to distinguish between desirable and undesirable risk here. Some risk is useful as a commitment mechanism, which is why many communities require new joiners to get rid of all personal property before joining. But other risk is not – like the unavoidable possibility of leadership becoming despotic or communities disintegrating.

Every story of a former cult member or dissatisfied ex-Anabaptist seems to end with their yearslong struggle to establish a new independent life from the meager wreckage of their old one. Why not provide some type of insurance?

Members of an insured religious community might have two levels of recourse. First would be the option to transfer to another community. Communities could establish networks with reciprocity agreements. This might work especially well for communities that cater to one stage of life. Second would be an option for cash payments enabling members to leave community life. This is tricky since living costs within a community are typically much lower than for independent life, and taking the vow of poverty is an intentional commitment mechanism. These communities are purposefully hard to back out of. However, clear criteria for approving claims only in cases of abuse or failure can make it workable.

Large organizations already self-insure in these ways. Catholic vow-taking communities usually have pre-arranged relationships for old-age care and contingency plans when a community fails. The Bruderhof’s dozens of communities provide a pressure valve for interpersonal conflicts. A third-party insurance scheme can reduce the risks for joining smaller communities and help even large organizations insure away unwanted risks they cannot manage internally.

When Christians entrust themselves to God by taking vows of poverty, practical power over their lives is placed in the hands of human leaders. Jesus set a high bar of responsibility for leaders in that position of control. With such a long history of failures mixed with success in vow-taking communities, there is no excuse for failing to confront foreseeable and avoidable risks to members.

SZA - 20 Something
This World, Caedmon’s Call
Written on July 26, 2022