Illustration: Daniel Zender

Inside the Secret World of Covenant Communities

The tight-knit, restrictive, and obedient religious groups whose views shaped the country’s newest Supreme Court Justice

Sarah Stankorb
Published in
12 min readOct 28, 2020

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In the summer of 1974, John Flaherty, an 18-year-old high school grad, attended a Thursday night prayer meeting at a local Catholic parish in East Liverpool, Ohio. When the group slipped into glossolalia — speaking in tongues — Flaherty was transported. There were angels in the room, he recalled, singing together in harmonies that floated in every direction. That fall, when he enrolled as a student at the College of Steubenville, the young Catholic started attending prayer meetings on campus and was baptized in the Holy Spirit. He played guitar and sang at Thursday night prayer meetings, and eventually began speaking in tongues.

Flaherty met weekly with his group to worship and discuss community teachings, as well as their personal lives. What started as a small group soon evolved into a network of local bodies, or “covenant communities,” running parallel but separate from the church, each with its own hierarchy and claims to authority, and each with its own vow of Christian community and obedience to God’s direct command. By 1980, Flaherty’s group was dubbed “Servants of Christ the King,” which was under the umbrella of the Word of God community — groups often nested within each other as they grew to accommodate their flocks. In his community, Flaherty was advised by his pastoral leader, who reported to a district coordinator, who fell under the authority of a head coordinator.

Pastoral leaders and coordinators influenced everyday family decisions. If buying a home, members were expected to “cluster,” purchasing homes in a neighborhood around a pastoral leader. For birth control, they used “natural family planning” — tracking a woman’s ovulation by taking her body temperature, as well as abstaining or timing sex to fertile times, depending upon the desired outcome.

Flaherty’s then-wife was in a married women’s group and she was expected to submit to her husband’s headship. But in his family, he recalls, “we did it together… I could not fulfill that obligation.” Women married to pastoral leaders were under greater scrutiny to submit; whatever the wives discussed in…

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Sarah Stankorb
GEN
Writer for

Sarah Stankorb has published with The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic (among others). @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com