A covenant community is a religious group whose members bind themselves to one another and to the group by a solemn agreement called a covenant.
The group may be members of one religious faith, e.g., Roman Catholic or Episcopalian or the group may be diverse in religious affiliations.
Usually, members maintain affiliation in their own Church or denomination while also belonging to the covenant community.
While an individual normally belongs to other groups outside his parish or congregation, e.g., Knights of Columbus, Right to Life, United Religious Community. etc., the covenant community claims to be the central commitment of the individual supplanting the relationship which already exists with one's Church or denomination.
Covenant communities have their own ecclesiatical structure, rituals, rights of passage, mores for prescriptive and proscriptive behavior, identified roles for each individual, a common understanding of language within the group, a "consciousness of kind" and a "we / they" mentality. Sometimes members live in "common" either in the group as a whole or in individual households. Households in this context, are often composed of a group of singles, a married couple with their family and some singles or a number of families. Everyone has someone to whom they are personally submitted in all aspects of one's life. Women usually hold a subordinate role and are rarely leaders. An exception to this was the Mother of God Community in the DC area which was founded and led by two women. This group was disbanded by the local Catholic bishop. In this case, the local bishop had the authority to do this as the group claimed to be Roman Catholic. Ecumenical groups recognize no such authority except within their own groups.
The Covenant Community movement began in the late 1960's and early 1970's with the founding of The Word of God Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, True House Community and the People of Praise in South Bend, Indiana. Related communities grew up in Newark, Augusta, Minneapolis, Pittsburg, Phoenix, LA, Honolulu, San Francisco, and several other places. There were some communities not related to this tradition founded in Dallas and Cincinnati.
They took their inspiration and many of their ideas and practices from the Church of the Redeemer (an Episcopal Parish) in Houston and from the Gulf Coast Fellowship (non-denominational), which introduced the ideas of shepherding and discipleship.
The impetus and key to the original success to these groups was the Charismatic Renewal. Not all individuals who were or are part of the Charismatic Renewal, however, were drawn into covenant communities. Originally, the founders of The Word of God and the People of Praise tried to use the Cursillo Movement as a basis. This was not successful. When the Charismatic Renewal came about, the opportunity arose for the Renewal to supply the needed individuals for the formation of the major covenant communities. Charismatics were looking for a way to live out a more charismatic Christian life.
The Charismatic Renewal itself is a movement marked by experiential and enthusiastic approach to the faith, manifestations of Charismatic spiritual gifts (tongues, healing, prophesy, etc.), prayer groups where prayer is often personal and spontaneous. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have recognized the Charismatic Renewal as an authentic enrichment of the Church's life. Initiation into the Charismatic Renewal for individuals was often through Life in the Spirit Seminars which culminated in being "Baptized in the Holy Spirit". Another name for the Charismatic Renewal is "Catholic Pentecostalism".
As Covenant Communities developed, various problems emerged:
1. Authoritarian self-appointed leadership;
2. Excessive control of individual's lives and consciences;
3. Elitism and an attitude of superiority with respect to "ordinary" Christians;
4. Subservient role of women;
5. Devaluation of Church hierarchy and sacraments;
6. Financial exploitation;
7. In some cases sexual inappropriateness and arranged marriages.
These problems have been addressed in a variety of places: National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, Washington Post, Cultic Studies Journal.