I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed, but in the decade between age 18 and age 28, I shared living space with 28 different women. Here’s the breakdown: 10 roommates (for a minimum of a summer), 13 suitemates, and 5 different apartment-mates.
Wow! When I put it that way, it sounds like I don’t play well with others. While that may be true for some, for me, I spent that decade in dorm rooms and campus apartments while I was in college and seminary and I even worked for 4 years in residence life. I’m now in campus ministry and have many conversations with students who struggle with roommate challenges. As the new school year is starting, I offer a little about sharing living space, compromising on climate control, and even about what it means to be a more faithful follower of Jesus.
Communication is Key
While I initially loved having friends around every corner in the residence halls at my two schools, after 7 years, I finally got out of the dorms and moved into townhouse-style housing. Our 3-bedroom space ensured the most privacy I had experienced since….ever, due to sharing space with my twin sister for our whole lives! Upon moving into our townhouse, I was the one who anticipated living there the longest due to my roommates’ graduation, marriage plans, and jobs, so I called a house meeting and we discussed several things: 1.) pet peeves, 2.) mealtime expectations, and 3.) temperature of the house. I knew that while one of my roommates didn’t like dishes left in the sink, I couldn’t stand someone putting a mostly empty ice cube tray back into the freezer, or using all but the last two squares of toilet paper. (I mean, how much energy does it take to put on a new roll of TP?) With our pet peeves discussed, we were able to not let “little” things crowd into our relationship with one another.
I also knew that we would have a kitchen for the first time in quite a while. We were all looking forward to being able to cook, but with different schedules, we needed to discuss whether we wanted to share cooking responsibilities and eat together, share expenses, plan a weekly meal, or each person do her own thing. While it may seem like a moot point—just let it happen and do what you want—we agreed that we wanted to share certain expenses, have weekly meals, and keep our hands out of each others’ food unless specifically invited. With each new roommate, we discussed the expectations, and each time we let our schedules, diets, and habits be our guide.
Finding a happy medium on room temperature was a bigger deal in my experience in dorm life, but when we were suddenly paying utilities, some of us were hyper vigilant about not wanting to pay to air condition the outside, or were more willing to put on a sweatshirt. Again, everyone has different preferences and the key is to be respectful of one another and be willing to give a little.
Don’t miss an opportunity for Christian Community
There is a lot of writing out there on intentional Christian community (Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and their predecessor , Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and while you may just be looking for someone to share expenses with, there may be an opportunity to take steps toward living out your discipleship by living with others. Some general commonalities of many intentional Christian communities include sharing expenses (and even possessions), hospitality, engagement with the poor, and a shared, prayerful life.
Perhaps roommates aren’t all that interested in the spirituality of life together, but if they are, it can be an incredible opportunity to cultivate habits that stick with you, even after you no longer live together. Over the years, I prayed with roommates and suitemates through a posted prayer list, other times it was occasional times in which we gathered for prayer. One happy school year, I even prayed the bedtime Compline prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours prayer books with my college-aged niece who lived with me. Having a rhythm of prayer in community with others even for a season shaped my own prayer life, but it also taught me about how others connect with God in prayer, too.
Being aware of the values of living in community has ripples even when you no longer live in that community. As I transitioned from living with roommates to being a homeowner and sole resident of my 2-bedroom house, I decided that my spare bedroom would be ready to host guests any time, which it has. I keep a guest book in my extra bedroom and count at least 30 different guests over the last 8 years. Learning to live in community while in college and grad school has prepared me for a life of opening my home to old friends, students in need, family members, and visiting ministry groups.
Living with others, whether in college, summer internships, or even starting off in a new city, can be stressful…and it may be necessary. Don’t despair: it can also be a time of rich community, of learning about yourself and others, and you might even be surprised at how much fun it is! You don’t have to want to be best friends with your roomie, but if you have clear communication and even engage a little spiritual intentionality, you’ll likely learn lessons about how God is working in you and in your community that you wouldn’t otherwise learn, even if you don’t always agree on the thermostat setting.