Is Religion the HOA of Spirituality?

Picture this: It’s the year 1077 in Canossa, Italy. A German king stands outside a papal castle barefooted and dressed in beggar’s clothing for three days, begging the Pope for an audience so he can be restored to his kingdom and re-admitted into the Church.

The reason for the king’s being excommunicated and deposed? He refused to acknowledge that the papacy had as much power and authority over the region as the king.

King Henry IV lost this fight when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated him. The citizens of his region refused to obey him, and his kingdom became unmanageable.

The trip he took across the Alps to Italy was the only means of “grace” Henry had to return to power and once again gain the trust of his citizens.

Now picture this: It’s the year 2000 in a planned community somewhere in the U.S. Maria and Kathy, homeowners in their planned community for more than a decade, decide to paint the exterior of their home a color outside of the “approved” color choices of the local  homeowners association.

The HOA board warns them to change to an approved color or face severe penalties under the association’s covenants. The couple insists that the color chosen does not cause undue harm to the community.

The association fines the couple for every day that they do not comply with the covenant’s agreed-upon colors. The clash escalates until the threat of foreclosure on Maria and Kathy’s home by the association itself is a possibility due to the penalties and legal paperwork filed by the association.

Maria and Kathy back down and change the color of their home’s exterior and pay the fines.

What do these two stories from very different times have in common? They share a theme of a covenant between people and how that covenant can be used to inflict pain as a way of enforcing the rules and ensuring compliance with the wishes of an organization that they have joined.

These stories remind us of what happens when a group ceases to be a force for good in the lives of its members and becomes a powerful controller over their lives rather than a force for good within their lives.

This is the inevitable result of a rules-based approach to life rather than a living out of a mutual covenant in love and respect for one another.

Both religion and homeowners associations can fall victim to the seductive pursuit of power and complicity in the name of “purity” and rule-following. Both HOAs and religion cease to be a force for affirming lives of the community for the better when they become dysfunctional and abusive to their adherents.

When this happens, they demand conformity but do not offer mercy. They cease to be instruments of goodness and grace. Instead they offer rules and regulations by which all must live or suffer the consequences.

They move from being instruments of well-being and benefits to the members to dictatorial rulers over the members they covenant to care for and protect.

A homeowners association is an organization with a governing board composed of citizens from an apartment complex, planned community or neighborhood, created for the purposes of governing and maintaining the area under its care.

In 2023, there were an estimated 350,000 homeowners associations in the U.S. representing some 40 million-plus households and around 57 percent of the population of homeowners. This number is expected to increase as more planned communities are developed in the future. These organizations offer members amenities they would not otherwise be able to afford, a sense of belonging and community, and protection of the value of their property.

At their best, a homeowners association provides its members with a great place to live and raise a family. It provides the members of that apartment building, planned community, etc. with amenities they might not otherwise be able to afford.

They create a sense of community and belonging through their community events and programs.

However, at its worst, a homeowners association can devolve into a mini-dictatorship run by power-hungry people who have taken over the board for the purposes of micromanaging the members “their way.” These power-driven board members shift the covenant in ways designed to demand conformity.

The dysfunctional, power-driven citizens in charge of that homeowners association then become a detriment to the sense of community for the whole group. They cause irreparable harm and cause the community to crumble as the members sell their homes and move away.  Hopefully, the displaced find a place to live with no HOA so they can truly be free to live their lives on their terms.

In the same way, religion can be an organization governed by a group of people who have a similar mindset who are often chosen to lead a faith group for the purposes of governing and maintaining the organization. This group creates a creed or covenant of beliefs and practices with members of the group.

This covenant dictates how the group functions, what is considered proper and improper behavior within the group, and how others may join, usually along with a plan for expansion. It also determines how that religion will be funded and passes on that funding mechanism to its adherents to offset the cost of running the group. In exchange for their support of the religion by way of attendance and paying for its meetings, functions and properties, the membership is granted access to these services.

According to some estimates, there are approximately 40,000 religions, faith groups, and denominations in the world today. I am certain that this number does not consider the number of fringe and independent groups. If those were considered, that number would be significantly larger.

When religion functions in a healthy way, it offers its adherents a place of belonging and a place for building community. It shares programs to strengthen and enrich the lives of its followers. Programs that they might not otherwise be able to offer for themselves or their families.

Religion offers a place to mark life passages and events for its members.

However, religion can lose its way and become the HOA of spirituality. When religion functions in an unhealthy or dysfunctional manner, it becomes the dictator over the members in all areas of their life. In a quest for theological or doctrinal “purity” and conformity, it can harm the very people it was created to help.

It can offer rules without forgiveness, it can pursue untethered power over the lives of the people who make up its ranks. It can lose its way and think that partnership with secular power is the “righteous” path to win the world to their leadres’ way of thought through forcing everyone to follow their version of the covenant or creed they created.

They forget their reason for existing and seek to become something they are not. In these situations, people leave their group to look for a better place that is less restrictive and more loving or they leave the HOA of that particular faith group altogether to look for a faith outside of the confines of the religion.

They may look for a more broad sense of religious faith and belief with no “HOA” to dictate its boundaries.

Spirituality and the pursuit of the Holy, however that may be defined, is far too important in life to live under the thumb of a dysfunctional organization bent on making you into a carbon copy of everyone else.

Just as a dysfunctional homeowners association can make life miserable in a planned community, so organized religion can drain the life and joy out of living for its followers.

Spirituality at its best offers humankind a means of self-discovery. It provides us with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world that often leaves us wondering and wandering. It offers a sense of grounding and belonging in a community that is more loosely based on a shared pursuit rather than a formal structure.

Sometimes, it simply makes sense to look for a spiritual home outside of a “Religious HOA.”

Are there drawbacks to this? Certainly! Sometimes, in our pursuit of the Holy, we will meet people with whom we will not agree or who do things in the name of spirituality we may not like.

Just as in a non-HOA neighborhood, we may have to contend with the across the street neighbor’s penchant for lawn gnomes or a John Deere-inspired paint job on a house.

Spirituality beyond boundaries comes with its share of what I will call “woo woo” that may or may not fit your own pursuit of the holy. However, in the end, I believe that the spiritual over the religious, like the non-HOA neighborhoods over the HOA neighborhoods, is a pursuit worth exploring.

Our pursuit of life’s meaning and our sense of purpose — our Spiritual development is far too important in life to live under the thumb of a dysfunctional organization.

If you have been harmed by the HOA of spirituality, I am truly sorry. My hope is that you will find healing and happiness in life.

I would like to invite you to a place of healing in the larger spiritual community. It is a dimension beyond the rules and fear-based religions of the world. It is a place of hope and is open to how you want to practice being a spiritual being on a human journey. A place where acceptance, peace, and Love (God, the Universe, etc.) is waiting to heal and walk with you to discover who you really are and your reason for existing on this planet.

May you find the courage to step into the light and love of this dimension to become all you were meant to become while on this planet. May you discover your bliss as you walk the path of spiritual well-being.