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

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 their group, the women’s group leader reported to her husband. Each member’s confidences traveled to the top of the pyramid.

At the time, Flaherty didn’t think the pastoral care system was abusive. But there was pressure, written into the community’s policies, “to mold ourselves into a model of Christian manhood that at least for me was not possible.” Flaherty was regularly scolded for being too feminine, emotional, and urged to be more manly. He was told to take up hunting in order to learn how to kill things. “Every animal I shot at somehow escaped,” he said.

In the early 1980s, a series of prophecies from charismatic leaders in the Word of God community became more urgent: The “Days of Darkness” were looming, a time of spiritual combat where buildings would fall and glory would come for the church. Flaherty began storing water in his basement. Members took training courses preparing for spiritual battles, during which Christians would have to face down Islam, secular humanism, Western decadence, feminism, homosexuality, and modernity. The training culminated in an oath where members swore to lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters if the Lord called upon them. In the final oath, pastoral leaders were given a new title: “Commanders.”

The Days of Darkness never came. But the pressure to prepare for them continued to mount for nearly a decade. One day, a close friend of Flaherty’s stopped by with all the knives from his house — he was worried he couldn’t trust himself not to kill his pastoral leader, who’d taken to verbally abusing him. Eventually, leadership requested feedback from the community about their teachings. But when it came time to meet about the feedback, a Catholic nun was instead brought in by the leadership to recount predictions of dark days ahead. Seeing the misdirect for what it was, Flaherty felt the love he’d had for his community drain out of him: “I felt so numb.”

Since leaving Servants of Christ the King in 1990, Flaherty has been collecting and storing documents from covenant communities. In 2009, he began posting them online, and in 2011 started a Facebook group for people in or who’d left these religious groups. Flaherty now calls them “spiritual Venus flytraps.”

In the 1960s, the Christian universe convulsed with an energy that kept harmony with the decade’s rapturous experiments in communal living. In 1962, the Second Vatican Council shifted mass from Latin to the local vernacular and began with a prayer: “Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost.” An ecumenical movement was bringing Catholics and Protestants together in new ways, including Pentecostals. The charismata — gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing — inspired a pivotal group of young men who would build the foundations of the covenant community movement.

In 1967, Steven Clark and Ralph Martin, intensely religious Notre Dame grads who’d had spiritual awakenings, were among the young Catholic intellectuals moved by this new charismatic fervor. Clark and Martin started a prayer group in an Ann Arbor apartment above a liquor store and students from the University of Michigan and Notre Dame soon became regulars. One bedroom was for testifying to newcomers; another, for laying of hands in prayer for baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Members took training courses preparing for spiritual battles, during which Christians would have to face down Islam, secular humanism, Western decadence, feminism, homosexuality, and modernity.

It was in Ann Arbor that Clark and Martin founded the Word of God community, emphasizing a holy commitment that would bind its community members together. Covenant communities began to proliferate across the Midwest. In 1971, at Notre Dame, a young charismatic founded True House, which was disbanded in 1976 after allegations of spiritual coercion and unauthorized exorcisms. That same year in South Bend, Indiana, Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan founded People of Praise — the covenant community which included the father of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who also grew up in the community.

The annual conferences of these communities drew so many attendees they had to be held at Notre Dame’s football stadium. By 1975, Pope Paul VI welcomed members of the movement to the Vatican for a “charismatic mass.” “The big deal was to be able to speak in tongues — and in St. Peter’s Basilica — as a group,” explains Thomas Csordas, an anthropology professor at the University of California, San Diego, and expert in the Catholic charismatic renewal and covenant communities. “They felt like they had arrived at the center of the Catholic world.”

These first communities would grow like strong shoots and branch out to thousands of prayer groups and covenant communities globally. Some would thrive while others would rot back to the roots.

The tightening control John Flaherty experienced in Steubenville would become common across other covenant communities in the 1980s. The blissful closeness he’d felt discovering his intentional, Christian community became part of what Thomas Csordas describes as a “rhetorical spiral.” Wanting to cultivate a more intimate life, the communities became more deeply committed, and with that came structures for keeping people committed to their bond.

People of Praise, Word of God, and another group, Community of God’s Delight, grew closer over the years and considered unification, but by 1981, opted to maintain their independence. Word of God wanted a more militant approach than the others and enacted a kind of spiritual federal government over its covenant communities called “Sword of the Spirit,” which oversaw John Flaherty’s community.

Sword of the Spirit detailed rules concerning courtship in 1987: No recreational dating. No prolonged kissing or extended time together, even praying together, that could result in sexual arousal. The male partner led the process, and while a final engagement decision was up to the couple, pastoral leaders, district head, or handmaid should actively oversee the courtship.

One day, a close friend stopped by with all the knives from his house. He was worried he couldn’t trust himself not to kill his pastoral leader.

Leaders advised against any marriage where the man was not strong enough to dominate the woman he was pursuing. Women were taught never to deny sex to their husbands. In the ’70s, Steven Clark had determined the community’s teachings about pastoral counseling and headship ought to be kept quiet publicly, warning a friend in a written memo: “We are getting a reputation for a position on men-women roles and headship that is causing an evangelism problem.”

By 1990, Word of God was the largest and most hierarchical covenant community in the U.S. But cracks were beginning to show. Parents whose kids were struggling with a newly founded Word of God junior high school in Michigan reported that their children were expected to be flawless, lest they face corporal punishment. Meanwhile, in Steubenville, John Flaherty gave a letter signed by 27 members from his local Sword of the Spirit branch to their local Catholic bishop saying the covenant community’s pastoral care system had led to emotional and psychological abuse. The bishop launched an investigation, the results of which were published in the local Catholic newspaper the Steubenville Register, and ordered the group to disaffiliate from Sword of the Spirit.

Ultimately, Word of God fractured, with 230 members following Steven Clark and the Sword of the Spirit faction. Between 600 and 800 stayed in Word of God, led by Ralph Martin, who “repented” for his part in the authoritarian leadership. A smaller cohort joined the prayer group Christ the King, and between 400 and 500 people left the community and returned to secular life.

Years later, when authoritarian demands for obedience became too much, headlines around the country filled with the heavenly names of these groups and their twisted realities. In Baltimore, members of Lamb of God’s covenant community complained to their bishop about manipulation by the movement and a “Stalinist” spy network that interfered with their marriages. In 1990, two New Jersey archbishops formed a group for dissidents of People of Hope’s covenant community, who’d spoken up about the disastrous effects on themselves and their children.

In Gaithersburg, Maryland, Mother of God members were told how to eat, how to decorate their homes, and how to have sex. Later, former members would say their marriages were arranged by Mother of God leaders, forcing them to marry people they didn’t love. Members tithed 5% to 10% of their income to Mother of God — totaling $23.9 million over six years. People wrote “Buddy reports” documenting one another’s behavior, so most every detail of a member’s life could work up the community hierarchy. Through the mid-1990s, enough complaints had reached the archdiocese that the cardinal stepped in to demand reforms.

Participation in the Catholic charismatic renewal reached its peak in the U.S. in 1987, with roughly 10 million participants. Over the years, many Word of God’s spin-offs split or died. Local dioceses intervened. Children grew up and abandoned covenant communities; some of their parents retreated too. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal National Service Committee database listed just 97 covenant communities and 2,108 prayer groups nationally at the end of 2019. For scale, 22 of these covenant communities are People of Praise communities and have a total of about 1,700 members.

People of Praise isn’t some backwater cult inspiring dystopian novels, emphasizes Thomas Csordas, “it’s part of a large network of covenant communities that are in turn nested within the church.” A 1985 draft constitution for People of Praise explained, “Members of the People of Praise cooperate with the exercise of authority in all good things. Obedience to authority and submission to headship are active responses to the gifts of God.” People of Praise was a family of families, plus clergy and those who’d chosen to remain single and celibate. Unmarried people would live in a house with a family or other single members.

For years, Amy Coney Barrett’s father was head of People of Praise’s New Orleans branch and served on the organization’s all-male board of governors. Her mother was a “handmaid,” or female head over other women members. As a young woman, Barrett lived in a home owned by Kevin Ranaghan, People of Praise’s founder. His wife, Dorothy Ranaghan told The Guardian, “Let’s just say it was one of the better experiences of our life. She is just a gem.”

She was taught men and women should not wear large belt buckles because it draws attention to their crotches.

Justice Barrett did not list her affiliation with the group on her Senate judicial questionnaires, but she did serve on the board of People of Praise’s Trinity Schools as recently as 2017 and appeared in past issues of the group’s Vine and Branches magazine. A 2010 directory listed her as a female head, then called a “handmaid.” Vine and Branches carefully documents people “released from the covenant,” and an AP review of these notices confirmed Barrett or her husband were never listed as having left.

People of Praise avoided some of the public fallout, and explosive press, of covenant communities that spiraled to farther extremes. During Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination hearings, stories surfaced concerning emotional abuse and one alleged sexual abuse cover-up within People of Praise, according to The Guardian. To the Associated Press, women described being subjugated and one, being treated like a breeding horse — although these stories date back decades.

A former adult member of People of Praise in his thirties recently told me that he left the community on amicable terms. (He asked to remain anonymous.) He never made the covenant with People of Praise but describes an interdenominational, but predominantly Catholic organization focused on small group relationships.

It’s what you might find in any typical evangelical church, except that members of People of Praise are expected to be members of a church elsewhere and then come to the community for additional fellowship. The former member guesses that People of Praise’s leaders saw members abandoning abusive communities in the ’80s and ’90s and determined “this is not the vision for this community.” He points to term-limits on leaders and a public-facing emphasis on education and mission work to serve people living in poverty — the sort of thing that could help retain younger members.

“Certainly, some people in that older generation had much, much stronger ideas about what male headship looked like,” but he never got the sense at all that his wife was expected not to work. However, key elements remain the same: men’s and women’s groups were central. There is an expectation that after some years of “formation” (study and instruction), a person will either make the covenant or move on.

Elen, the pseudonym for another former member of People of Praise, who left when she was 22 and is now in her thirties, described the courtship system for singles looking to marry. All members are required to “pray through their state in life” when they are ready to get married. The member decides if they want to get married for the Lord, or remain single and celibate for the Lord; if the latter, they would join a Brotherhood or Sisterhood house for celibate singles where they share meals and sometimes pool income. Prior to this process, single members or those open to marriage will often live with or be assigned to live with a community family, typically their head’s family, sharing holidays, and watching their kids.

Elen explains that until ready for marriage, dating is strictly forbidden, as is sex outside of marriage. Violating any of those rules is grounds for expulsion. “Homosexual relationships are strictly forbidden, and any LBGTQ inclinations are seen as temptations that must be overcome through prayer, or they may lead a life in chastity,” she says.

At a People of Praise missionary site, Elen was taught men and women should not wear large belt buckles because it draws attention to their crotches. Cologne or perfume is prohibited because it indicates a desire to tempt others with pheromones. Members are encouraged to give up friendships outside the community, as these relationships may be pleasant, they do not have the same meaning as those within, “which are intended to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.”

Still, most of her interactions in People of Praise were positive. Many community members are kind, sweet people who believe they are making the world better, she said. “The main issue is that leaders are given way too much authority over other people’s lives… My normal bodily functions and feelings were described as demonic influences. And I was taught to mask my emotions. There are abusers in People of Praise and leadership often downplays or doesn’t believe survivors.”

While many stories have been written about People of Praise, Amy Coney Barrett, handmaids, and a dystopian Gilead, Thomas Csordas points to another possible narrative for the influence the group may have had on our newest Supreme Court Justice. Given that Barrett’s father was at the top of People of Praise’s hierarchy, that as a young adult she lived in the home of the group’s founder, and served on Trinity school’s board, was a female leader herself, Csordas argues that “she’s part of this community’s elite, and not just a member.”

People of Praise’s influence over Coney Barrett may not be patriarchal in the sense that she’s expected to be barefoot and pregnant, or be told how to rule in a specific case by her husband. “She already knows how to rule,” Csordas says. “She embodies this conservative, authoritarian, hierarchical, patriarchal way of being in the world. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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