Four Signs of Healthy Community

Jean Vanier knows something about community.

vanierBorn in 1928 as the son of a high-ranking official in the Canadian government, Vanier traveled the world and served in the Royal Navy. Sensing that there must be something more to life, he resigned from his naval commission in 1950 to study theology and philosophy, eventually completing a Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Paris. Through his friendship with a Catholic priest, he renewed his faith in God and became deeply concerned about the plight of people with intellectual disabilities. In 1964, Vanier invited two disabled men to leave their institutions and move into his home. This led to the establishment of L’Arche (“The Ark”), a worldwide federation of residential communities where people with intellectual disabilities live, pray and worship together with caregivers in an atmosphere of friendship, mutuality and inclusion. Although L’Arche was founded as a Christian organization, the communities are open and welcoming to people of all religious beliefs. Vanier has studied, taught, and written extensively on topics related to faith, disability and community. He became a close friend and mentor to the late Christian author Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), who resided at a L’Arche community in Ontario, Canada for the last ten years of his life. In recognition of Vanier’s influence and achievements, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2015. (Previous winners of the Templeton Prize include Billy Graham and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.)

BecomingHumanFor decades, Vanier studied the inner workings of communities (especially religious ones) throughout the world. He learned what makes communities thrive and what causes them to fail. In his international bestseller Becoming Human (1998), he describes the enormous role that community plays in human development. Community is not the same thing as society. Society is where we earn a living, but community is where we experience belonging. Community is where we grow into full fledged human beings.

Belonging is important for our growth to independence; even further, it is important for our growth to inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us…

(Becoming Human, Kindle edition, p. 35). If a community is healthy, it provides the structure and security that foster personal growth. But communities can also be unhealthy. They can appeal to the dark, egotistic parts of human nature and sow conflict and discord throughout the world. Vanier continues:

However, the human drive for belonging also has its pitfalls. There is an innate need in our hearts to identify with a group, both for protection and for security, to discover and affirm our identity, and to use the group to prove our worthiness and goodness, indeed, even to prove that we are better than others. It is my belief that it is not religion or culture at the root of human conflict but the way in which groups use religion or culture to dominate one another. Let me hasten to add that if it were not religion or culture that people used as a stick with which to beat others, they would just use something else (p. 36).

In Vanier’s understanding, the key difference between healthy and unhealthy community is this: An unhealthy community turns inward and develops a superiority complex. A healthy community recognizes that it is only a small part of the human race and fosters a sense of interdependence with the rest of humanity.

A group is the manifestation of this need to belong. A group can, however, close in on itself, believing that it is superior to others. But my vision is that belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we all belong to a common humanity, the human race. We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all of humanity (p. 36).

Vanier writes from an international perspective. He knows that Western people tend to be individualistic, and Easterners tend toward collectivism. Having seen the strengths and weaknesses of groups operating in diverse cultures, he is constantly aware of the delicate balance that must be struck between limiting personal freedom for the good of the community and preserving the dignity and uniqueness of the individual. He is also keenly attuned to the inequalities that exist in our fallen world, where the strong usually dominate the weak. In healthy community, each person knows he is both strong and weak; understanding and accepting their individual limitations is a key part of what gives community members a sense of belonging.

In Chapter II (“Belonging”) Vanier lists four signs of communities that are healthy. The first sign of a healthy community is that it treats all of its members, including the weakest and most vulnerable, with respect, seeing them all as equally important, and deliberately includes everyone in decisionmaking.

In healthy belonging, we have respect for one another. We work together, cooperate in a healthy way, listen to each other. We learn how to resolve the conflicts that arise when one person seeks to dominate another. In a true state of belonging, those who have less conventional knowledge, who are seemingly powerless, who have different capacities, are respected and listened to. In such a place of belonging, if it is a good place, power is not imposed from on high, but all members seek to work together as a body. The implication is that we see each other as persons and not just as cogs in a machine. We open up and interact with each other so that all can participate in the making of decisions (p. 58).

In Old Testament times, most of the Jewish people had a deep sense of belonging. But through the prophets, God rebuked them for ignoring the poor, weak and disadvantaged in their midst, for treating them as less-than-full members of God’s family (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The second sign of healthy community is that it values differences of opinion and promotes dialogue. Vanier has sharp words for communities that enforce and manipulate.

The second sign of healthy belonging is the way a group humbly lives its mission of service to others. It does not use or manipulate others for its own aggrandizement. It does not impose its vision on others but instead prefers to listen to what they are saying and living, to see in them all that is positive. It helps others to make their own decisions; it empowers them. When a community is closed and fearful of true dialogue where each person is respected, it is a sign of death not of life (p. 60).

A third sign of healthy community is acknowledgment that the group’s distinctive views and values are not always right, and that in the final analysis, maintaining these distinctives is less important than learning how to love.

As we begin to see others’ gifts, we move out from behind the walls of certitude that have closed us up… A few centuries ago, different Christian churches were fighting each other. Their theologies were calculated to prove that one was right and the other wrong. Today, instead of seeing what might separate us, whether as churches or cultures, we are instead seeing what unites us. We are beginning to see each other’s gifts and to appreciate them and to realize that the important thing for each one of us is to grow in love and give of ourselves (pp. 60-61).

Finally, the fourth sign of healthy community is openly admitting its mistakes and reforming itself with advice from the outside.

Fourth, it is a healthy sign when a group seeks to evolve and to recognize the errors of the past, to recognize its own flaws, and to seek the help of experienced people from outside the group in order to be more true and loving, more respectful of difference, more listening and open to the way authority is exercised. The group that refuses to admit its own errors or seek the wisdom of others risks closing itself up behind walls of “superiority” (p. 61).

In conclusion, healthy communities are where people experience God’s goodness and become well formed human beings.

Groups that develop with these four signs are, to my mind, healthy groups; they are helping their members to break free of the egotism inherent in us all and to grow towards greater maturity and inner freedom. They are discovering our common humanity, allowing us to be ourselves, intertwined with each other, receiving and giving life from one another. Do we not all share the same earth and sky? Are they not for us as we are for them? We all belong to each other, we are all for each other. God, too, is for us as we are for God. We are called to grow in order to become fully ourselves and fully alive, to receive from others, and to give to others, not being held back by fears, prejudices, or feelings of superiority or inferiority (p. 61).


  1. Mark Mederich


  2. +1 This excellent quote, I believe, is close to the root of issues experienced by those who have been hurt and wounded by UBF over the past half century: “We learn how to resolve the conflicts that arise when one person seeks to dominate another. …power is not imposed from on high, but all members seek to work together as a body. The implication is that we see each other as persons and not just as cogs in a machine. We open up and interact with each other so that all can participate in the making of decisions.”

    The inability or refusal of the senior UBF leader to even just listen to or consider the opposing opinion of a junior person has led to tremendous amount of conflict, angst and frustration.

    My hope and prayer is that this begins to change when older senior leaders seriously learn to humble themselves (which they love preach to others!), and not think of themselves as though they are the indispensable members of UBF who know what is best for everyone else.

    • “Just give us more time! We are changing. We are not like that anymore. Empty words from UBF leaders. I cannot count how many times we former members have heard such fake promises. What we former members want is not so much to be apologized to as to be listened to. Instead of facing the facts of their reality and listening to what former members have been telling them for decades, the leaders at the group continue to cultivate a toxic environment filled with broken promises and increased effort to recommit to the UBF ministry. In spite of such doubled effort, the organization continues to spiral into chaos, even while putting on a good show.”
      Identity Snatchers, pg.117

      Ben, I don’t think such humbling will ever occur. And if it does occur, I seriously doubt that such humbling would bring about the freedom and respect ubfers are seeking. Such humbling will only be for the sake of more glory to UBF leaders and to the promoting of UBFism.

      What will bring about freedom?

      More books like mine. To coincide with the special week that this is, the one week that ubfers love to celebrate UBFism, that holy of holy founder’s day weeks, I am going to be offering my new book for FREE.

      Identity Snatchers: Exposing a Korean Campus Bible Cult (Kindle Edition)

    • What will bring about freedom?

      More books like mine.

      – See more at:

      But Brian, have you read Steve Hassan’s book? I’m not sure why you would fail to mention his seeing as how seminal and highly regarded it is. You should really mention his book every single time you speak of yours. Just saying… Lol, just kidding. Couldn’t resist. Looking forward to reading your book. Thanks!

    • Yes indeed, Hassan is WAY more of a scholar than me. I will not claim to be an academic :)

      My book is experience based, from the insider view of a practitioner. Even Steve mentioned to me that we need more former member stories. We have much analysis from the likes of the late Dr. Singer and from Hassan himself.

      What we don’t have are personal stories that confirm cults still are thriving in the year 2015 in the West. Many people don’t even know the Moonies existed and have already forgotten about Jonestown. They think cults don’t exist on American campuses. So we need more witnesses!

    • “But Brian, have you read Steve Hassan’s book?”

      Yes. I quote Hassan in 2 of my books. His BITE model has in fact shaped almost all of my actions thus far.

      But I cannot analyze his work or do justice to it yet, as I don’t have the capacity. I am still reconnecting with my own identity and shedding the trap of UBFism/anti-UBFism.

      I will be sharing a review of Hassan’s latest book here soon. It is so eerie how much the Moonies and UBFism have in common. Hopefully I can also share my interview at some point.

  3. “The second sign of healthy belonging … It does not use or manipulate others (and) does not impose its vision on others but instead prefers to listen to what they are saying and living, to see in them all that is positive. It helps others to make their own decisions; it empowers them. When a community is closed and fearful of true dialogue where each person is respected, it is a sign of death not of life.”

    As I have often said, any view, opinion or perspective that does not line up with the so-called “core values” of UBF is more or less disparaged, despised and maligned. This is truly very sad, unfortunate and un-Christ-like.

  4. Thanks for sharing Joe.

    I would be curious to know what we call such a group? What identity does Vanier give to such controlling groups? Are they simply “unhealthy”? And what solutions and ways forward to change from dying to living does he give?

    “When a community is closed and fearful of true dialogue where each person is respected, it is a sign of death not of life.”

    Should we just say the groups are ok and not so dangerous? I think we need some concrete terms if the groups are ever to change.

    • The million dollar question, for me at least, is how can a community step back and analyze itself in such a way that it acts as a quasi-objective observer and subsequently rights its own ship. In my mind, this is the only hope for change (and it’s still not a sure shot). Think about the OT text. This is to me one of the most remarkable documents in history because it provides a profoundly insightful view into a community’s successes and failures. The authors would not allow history to be white-washed because they realized that doing so would unequivocally seal the fate of their community; they would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. And is Israel is not necessarily unique in this regard. There have been countless historians and keen observers who have sought to change the tide of their respective community, thereby acting somewhat as prophets. So when a community fails to realistically observe itself and also silences prophetic voices, what else is there left to do?

    • Joe Schafer

      Brian asked: “What identity does Vanier give to such controlling groups? – See more at:

      He calls them sects. And he says that sects are often religious in nature, but not always.

    • Joe Schafer

      David makes an excellent point. Much of the Bible was written by people who analyzed the shortcomings and problems of their own religious community. The idea of a community whitewashing its history and refusing to consider or evaluate its mistakes is profoundly unbiblical.

    • He calls them sects. And he says that sects are often religious in nature, but not always. – See more at:

      It’s like the old saying goes, if you want to be truly fruitful, in the religious sense, then have lots of sects…

    • OMG! I’m ROTFL! I thought this is supposed to be a family-friendly site :)

    • Joe Schafer

      No sects, no families.

    • See, Brian that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If we can’t talk about sects even in an environment like this, how can we ever hope to successfully educate our kids on this matter? Sooner or later they’ll learn it from someone, be it sects education in school or god forbid, learning about sects in some darkened alley. And Lord knows that secular society already has such a negative attitude towards sects. Why can’t we just talk about this openly and at least be advocates of practicing safe sects?!

    • LOL. Just watch out for those homosexual sects… I hear they have an evil agenda.

    • Joe Schafer

      I’ve heard the correct term is homosects.

    • What’s the difference between homosex and homosects?

    • Joe Schafer

      Homosex is… I’ll assume you know.

      Homosect is an appropriate term for a community that has turned inward upon itself (incurvatus in se). The group shows love toward people who appear be just like them, who have the same values and lifestyle. It may also show love toward nonmembers who are moving toward fully committed membership. Anyone who criticizes or rejects the group’s ideals is treated like a tax collector or sinner.

      Some are fond of proclaiming, “Homosex is sin!”

      Let me suggest that “Homosect is sin.”

      Some people were born into a homosect. Others willfully chose a homosectual lifestyle. If you have been deeply involved in homosect for many years, it will be very hard to change. But you can change if you really want to. Jesus can heal you of homosectuality. But you have to acknowledge your sin, repent, and abstain from homosectual behavior. You will have to stop attending homosect gatherings and stay away from homosectual friends, because they can be a source of temptation.

    • My confession and repentance: I was an affirming homosectual Christian from 1980. Only by God’s mercy and grace alone, I sincerely and humbly and wholeheartedly repent with fear and trembling and with humility and tears of my homosectual practices for a quarter of a century! Now I am free of all homosectual desires and tendencies for almost a decade. This is all glory to God alone.

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, thank you for coming out of the closet. I too am a former homosectual and was healed by the grace of God.

    • Yes indeed, I too am out of the homosectual closet. I am a recovering from my homo incurvatus in se.

    • So this means most ubfers are homosectuals.

    • Same here. But I wasn’t born this way. I fault ubf for being such a sect-sy organization full of brazenly sect-sy people.

    • Ben, is there such a thing as HOT sects? Kind of seems like a contradiction in terms, but it has a nice ring to it. (boy are we milking this for all it’s got.)

    • I prefer JohnY’s SHOT sects, because I like to be safe.

    • that certainly is a good alternative. human nature dictates that complete abstinence is simply a pipe dream for most. education and safety are the way to go.

    • National Park
      National Park

      People of Sodom practiced homosect. They attacked Lot because he was different. They said: “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge!” (Gen 19:9) They were all destroyed. God hates homosect. Homosect is sin!

    • Look at you, National Park, with yo sects-y self.

    • National Park
      National Park

      We must do heterosects not homosects. So it was recommended to read Fellowship of Different by Scott MacNight. Do you know this book?

    • Indeed I do, Mr. Park. I should be posting an article on it soon. I’ve just been a bit busy lately. Be forewarned, Mcknight is an advocate for HOT sects, so I hope that you can stomach the forthcoming discussions.

    • National Park
      National Park

      Although my name is National Park, my vision is to raise 120 member heterosect fellowship with all kinds of strange people from strange nations, all united by doing same mission together as one to one Bible teachers using same methods that came from God through the servant of God Missionary Dr Samuel Lee, Amen!

  5. I’m really thankful for this review.

    I know there’s a time for real criticism . . . but that gets stale on people with calloused hearts.

    Vanier is a person who really has set the world an example. Amazing (and is it really surprising?) that he would learn what he learned through people with special needs.

    There was *always* a part of me that felt concerned when my bible teacher talked about “Shepherd Heart”. There was something inside me that said, “Yeah, but . . . ” and I think what I see here of Vanier’s words really resonate with that part inside me.

    It’s a shame that to advocate for this kind of healthy community in UBF in an open way results in such shame and bitterness.

  6. I realized this just a few years ago: “Much of the Bible was written by people who analyzed the shortcomings and problems of their own religious community.” – See more at:

    Much of the OT consist of prophets pronouncing judgment on the sins of their own people.

    Virtually all of the epistles of the NT addresses some problem IN the church.

    But seemingly, today the church seems to be primarily focused on denouncing the countless ills and sins of society at large, as though the church is comprised of holy saints who sin “very little.”

  7. Kevin Jesmer

    I remember why I was not open to sharing authority in my house church setting. There were people with whom I could have shared authority and I could have attempted to instill an elder board. First, I never knew the importance of it.I never was taught that this is an important part of church planting. I guess it came with my ignoring the missionary team, aspect of church planting. But the big reason is that I truly felt that since I sacrificed so much to build the house church, with my own money and my own Bible teaching and the church was our family home, then no one had the right to have authority to have significant input. What if they chose something I didn’t like, will I still have to keep providing the home and the vast majority of the money for something that I didn’t agree with? In my mind the ministry was mine. I tried to not share the authority with elders. But in the end, look what happened. I was depressed to tears and the ministry came to not. But God came to my rescue. Praise Jesus.

  8. “I remember why I was not open to sharing authority in my house church setting. There were people with whom I could have shared authority… In my mind the ministry was mine. I tried to not share the authority with elders.” – See more at:

    Thanks for your honesty, openness and transparency in sharing this! I believe that your sharing is liberating for you and edifying to those who read it.

    Only by God’s grace alone, when WL started in 2008 we had about 7 original families. My first word to everyone was “This is NOT my chapter, but YOURS.” Still, with our ubf background and ideas, people inclined toward leaning on me and waiting for my lead, since I am the oldest and have been around the longest. I did so for over a quarter of a century. But I decided it had to end.

    But the old culture of a top down paradigm with one person calling the shots takes time to dissipate.

    So I resisted garnering the authority to myself and did my best to cut the cord of dependency. Now I have a sense that the ministry and chapter is no longer mine, but that everyone has a voice. In fact, it often seems that when I’m not around for a month or so, the ministry seems to be better!

    Also, anyone can critique me (and they do, and sometimes not so nicely!). Anyone can openly disagree with me, and everyone is encouraged to take the initiative regarding any venture.

    • Your comment here Ben is a good example of why I included an entire chapter called “Finding Redmeption”, entirely focused on you and Westloop. To find redemption is stage 7 in the identity transformation process I outline in my book.

      I really hope and pray more of us can face reality:

      “This facing the facts of reality is not a loss of faith. It is rather, the first step on the path of redemption. The Biblical example is Abraham himself. The book of Romans in the Bible, chapter 4, tells this story. For example: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Romans 4:19 ESV. Considering the reality of our lives is an important part of Christian faith.”
      –Identity Snatchers, pg. 118

  9. So then, setting aside the sects jokes for a moment… Those communities who do not foster open dialogue earn the label of sect, or as I say, cult.

    I hope ubfers will process my new book. Maybe I’ll share the Forewords (from Ben and Joe) in an article.

    The cult label was earned by ubf leaders practicing UBFism. This is not so bad– the bad thing is not addressing the label.

    “Brian left the Univeristy Bible Fellowship after 24 years of deep and passionate membership to wake up and discover that in fact it is a mind control cult. His book is a must read for anyone who is currently involved with UBF and also for former members, friends and any others who are interested in the cult phenomenon. There is a healing path out of a group that one was involved with for decades, but it takes research, good counseling, honesty and time. A good support system too!

    As a former member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, I welcome more accounts like Brian’s to shed a light on the many cult groups who misuse the Bible and human authority to control people and make them into slaves.”
    Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guidebook​ to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults

    “To current UBF leaders and members, I say this: The cult label is not something that Brian drummed up. It’s something that you earned by decades of boorish behavior. When any organization does the things that you do, the outside world will call it a cult. Instead of complaining, I suggest you deal with it.”
    –Joe Schafer, Identity Snatchers – Foreword, pg.11

    Identity Snatchers – FREE Kindle for a limited time

  10. “Maybe I’ll share the Forewords (from Ben and Joe) in an article.” – See more at: I was considering doing this, but please do it.

    Do you know why Hassan’s review did not appear on Amazon. Did he post it anywhere?

  11. Joe, thanks for this post. I really liked this article. I’ve been reading “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. It made me think also about community, especially having a sense of belonging. She talks about the difference between belonging and “fitting in”. We need a place where we are affirmed for who we are, not for what we do or are expected to do in the church community. Just fitting in is actually a hindrance to belonging and is unhealthy.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thanks for your kind words. I know that some evangelical Christians distrust Brene Brown because she doesn’t speak in Christian-ese. But her insights have been a great help to many people, and she communicates many deep truths of the gospel.

    • I agree, her research has been very eye-opening to me and has shed light on the power of the Gospel truths even though she doesn’t talk about the Gospel per se.

  12. Thanks, JD. This is worth restating again and again!: ” We need a place where we are affirmed for who we are, not for what we do or are expected to do…” – See more at:

  13. The difference between a healthy church response and a UBF cult response.

    Pope Francis to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests: “I hold the stories and sufferings and sorrow of these children deep in my heart. I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry. God weeps.”

    Multiple UBF leaders and there response told me and the victims: “You will say it never happened and we will never speak of this matter again. Besides it was your own fault for putting yourself in that situation…”
    “Don’t bring the church down because of your sins. If you were writting testimonies maybe this wouldn’t have happened to you. You should carry this experience as part of your cross.”
    “Look, we’ve forgotten about it so why can’t you just get over it?”

    Most of these responses were from the parents of children who were molested… these parents are current leaders in the UBF cult.