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Covenanting: a Process for Your Spiritual Mission Statement

Presenters: Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Revitalize your congregation’s spiritual bonds by covenanting together. We address such questions as discernment, timing, engaging the congregation, crafting the covenant and making it a vital part of your congregation’s identity.

Download the following handout materials (Word, 12 pages).

Introduction

Victoria Weinstein is a life-long Unitarian Universalist. She has served congregations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Massachusetts since 1997. Vicki has a degree in English literature from Northwestern University, a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Andover-Newton Theological School. Her dissertation was entitled, “Covenanting: Ancient Promise and New Life For the Contemporary Church.” She is a well-known blogger and social media presence as “PeaceBang” (see GA Workshop “Friendly Presence: Social Media and Ministry” on Saturday, 1-2:15 p.m., CC 213 ABC). She consults with congregations on covenanting and on social media. victoria.weinstein @ gmail.com

  1. What is a Covenant? How Does It Function For the Contemporary Congregation?
    • Historical Roots in Puritan Congregationalism
    • Contemporary Value
      • Don’t we already have a covenant in the 7 Principles?
      • We already have a Behavioral Covenant: how is this different?
         
  2. Deciding to Undertake a Covenanting or Re-Covenanting Process
    • Congregational Readiness/Discernment
    • When to do it, and when not to do it
    • Planning and Scheduling
    • Internal Communications (See Appendix A-C)
    • Choosing Leadership
       
  3. A Process for Covenanting (or Re-covenanting)
    • Covenant Conversations: How?
    • Crafting the Covenant
    • Congregational Vote
    • What We Learned
    • A Living Covenant
       
  4. Questions & Answers

Appendix A: Original Email Suggesting a Covenanting Process

First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, MA

To: _________, Parish Committee President
__________, Parish Committee—Membership Committee Liaison
__________, By-Law Revision Chair

From: Rev. Vicki Weinstein
Re: Covenant Process
Date: October 10, 2002

Dear all,

Here are my thoughts on a Re-covenanting process for your remarks. I am going on the assumption that we may be charged by the congregation at the October 20 meeting to develop a covenant that works for more of the congregation than does the current one. If the congregation votes to merely “de-couple” the covenant from membership, then we’ll have another set of issues to deal with!

I suggest at least three evening meetings for conversation and listening about ideas, language and imagery that people find meaningful. I recommend that I serve as the convener and facilitator for these gatherings, and will ask for a scribe and co-convener from among our leadership (either by-laws revision team or elsewhere). This may also be a role for the Committee on Ministry.

I suggest coffee and dessert meetings (7-8:30 p.m.) on these dates: 11/17/02, 12/8/02 and 1/19/03. Some of these are also James Library event days but they are the dates that work best for other reasons. I will plan to preach on covenant on 11/17 to “kick off” the sessions. Congregants will be invited to attend ONE session, not all. This instruction is intended to give broad voice to the conversation and avoid domination by a small handful of particularly impassioned members or friends.

I will craft covenants based on the suggestions of the participants following each of the sessions. Depending on the popularity of this project, we may want to schedule more sessions. If not, (and I would prefer not to, choosing to focus my late winter and springtime efforts to our new Membership Orientation and “New UU” sessions and other Adult Learning offerings), we can then either (a) schedule a special meeting to vote on a new covenant (or re-affirm the old one) or (b) wait until the Annual Meeting in June to do so.

To avoid another exhausting and possible rancorous debate, I propose that the minister and “covenant committee” (?) present two or three complete covenants for the final vote, asking for a thumbs up or thumbs down on either. We will not open the floor to wordsmithing at that time. It’s either “yay” or “nay”. If there’s a “nay” vote on all options, we will lather, rinse and repeat. If we’ve done our work well, this shouldn’t happen.

From a pastoral perspective, it seems essential to me that we frame this as a positive opportunity for our community, and really stress the importance of broad participation. Your thoughts on dates, process, etc.?

Very truly yours,
Vicki

Appendix B: Newsletter Column Sample

The SPIRE Newsletter

October 30, 2002

“In the Spirit”

Rev. Victoria Weinstein

It is so exciting to watch our democratic process in action. I felt so when I attended the Special Parish Meeting last Sunday and was deeply impressed by the eloquence with which so many of you expressed your various viewpoints. I was moved by your evident passion for our church. You had a complicated, challenging issue to decide together—whether or not to retain our church covenant as a condition of membership (i.e., “signing the covenant”). You were concerned for those who have not signed our book because of disagreement with the covenant language. Your were respectful of positions affirming the covenant as central to our congregational way of life, and you heard patiently positions that invited us to cast off the bonds of any traditions that do not work for us today. In the end, you voted to table the vote and to work at creating a covenant together—a new covenant that would, in my own words “be meaningful for more of us if probably not perfect for any of us.” I am gratified to be able to do this work with you. I am excited to have the opportunity to get to know you better as religious people.

Please, all of you, plan to attend one of our Covenanting Conversations. The dates are:

  • Sunday, November 17, 2002, 7-9:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 8, 2002, 7-9:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, January 19, 2003, 7-9:00 p.m.

Please plan to come to one of these sessions, having reflected beforehand about what language you employ to describe the nature of the church and our ultimate commitments to one another as a spiritually bonded people. What words or phrases speak best to you about the path of love we are called to walk together? We will offer dessert and coffee, and childcare will be provided. If you cannot attend you are welcome to submit your thoughts to me on paper or by email. After three sessions of careful listening and in consultation with the recording secretary at each meeting, I will put my pen to work wordsmithing. My efforts will hopefully yield something that sounds to you like our shared idea of church, and we will vote on a few options at another special meeting in the late winter or early spring.

This process will only work if there is broad participation by all our friends and members. If there is broad participation there is a much better chance that our covenant will have resonance and power among us. The discipline here is to reflect not only on “my” beliefs but also on those things we would articulate as “our” understanding. A noble challenge, indeed!

In the words of eminent historian Conrad Wright, “Between the extremes of stultifying conformity on one hand and of disintegrative diversity on the other we strive to find a place.” I am eagerly looking forward to the process and am grateful for your enthusiasm for this worthy project.

In faith, hope and love,
Vicki

Appendix C: Sunday Bulletin Announcement

Covenanting Conversations...

Dear congregation,

At our last Special Parish Meeting you voted overwhelmingly to re-covenant together, to update our statement of our church’s spiritual purpose and how we will walk together as people of faith.

All of the sessions will be held from 7-9 p.m. in the Fogg Parlor. We have added a weekday session on Wednesday, December 11 for two reasons: so that we can adequately prepare for the January 26 Special Parish Meeting and so that those who are unavailable on Sundays have another option.

The evenings are scheduled for:

  • Sunday, November 17, 2002, 7-9 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 8, 2002, 7-9 p.m.
  • *Wednesday, December 11, 2002, 7-9 p.m.

Please plan to come to one of these sessions having reflected beforehand about what language you employ to describe the nature of the church and our ultimate commitments to one another as a spiritually bonded people.

You may sign up to attend at this morning’s Coffee Hour, by calling the church office at (781) 659-7122, or via email to: office@firstparishnorwell.org. Registration is especially important as we need to plan for possible childcare needs.

If you cannot make one of these meetings please feel free to submit your remarks to me. We ask that you plan to attend *only* one of the sessions, and that all of you plan to attend at least one!

Thank you for letting us know which session you will attend so we can prepare coffee and dessert and childcare accordingly.

Blessings and thanks,

Vicki
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

*Please note that the January evening has been rescheduled to this December weekday night.

Convening The Covenant Conversations

Planning and Materials

  • Publish the dates and times for the conversations in the church newsletter.
  • Have the minister or a lay leader preach on covenant the week before your first conversation.
  • Provide sign-up sheets and encourage all congregants to attend one session.
  • Reserve a room for a 2-hour session. Allow three hours for set-up and break down.
  • Assign someone to bring snacks and make coffee.
  • Arrange for child-care.
  • Set-up an easel, newsprint and markers for the scribe.
  • Provide paper (or index cards) and pencils for all participants.
  • Minister or other facilitators and scribe meet together to prepare and discuss expectations, and to familiarize themselves with the process.

A Model for Covenant Conversation

Developed by Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein and Deanna Riley, First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, MA

1. Welcome and Invitation

Setting the Tone: Sample Words

“We are gathered here tonight by our common love of our congregation, our desire to craft a covenant that will articulate how we shall walk together as a people of faith, and out of appreciation for each one’s perspectives in this important work.

Thank you for coming tonight. It is wonderful that you have all made time to be here.

The work we do here is special work, with important and lasting consequences for our congregation. Because of this, let us make three commitments for our process here tonight:

  1. First, let’s slow down our usual zippy repartee. We are here not here to debate, but to explore.
  2. Second, let’s listen deeply to one another. Let us listen to one another with generosity of spirit. My favorite quote about listening can guide us well tonight: “Listening does not just mean waiting your turn to speak!”
  3. Third, whenever possible, let’s try to hold a silence between people’s remarks. This will help us to slow down and practice deep listening.

These commitments can help this evening to be as special and effective as it can possibly be.

(You may choose to light the chalice and share a brief reading at this time)

For our first exercise together, let’s hear the words of our covenant in the spirit of meditation…”

2. Meditating on the Current Covenant

(If your church does not have a covenant in place, you might use a mission statement or a Unison Affirmation that you use regularly in worship)

The minister or lay leader reads the current covenant (or mission statement, etc) as a meditation, asking those in attendance to pay careful attention to how they react to all the words, images and phrases. Pass out written copies of the covenant so everyone would have it in front of them.

Questions for the Participants:

  • What one word is central to you in this covenant/statement? Write it down on your index card.
  • What are your favorite phrases in this covenant? Are there any that are especially dear to you and that really seem to speak for this congregation?
  • Are there words or phrases that do not resonate with you? (note: asking this question rather than “what don’t you like?” helps keep the conversation more neutral and less prone to degenerate into complaints)

3. Small Group Work & Large Group Conversation

Break the group into twos and threes.

Finding Language that Lives: Fresh and Dead Metaphors

  • Instruct the small groups to discuss “dead metaphors” and “fresh metaphors”—i.e., what in this covenant or mission statement/affirmation seems relevant to our congregational life today? Be aware that some people’s fresh metaphors will seem dead to others, and vice versa.
  • Invite the small groups to come back together to report back to the larger group. If the energy is high, the facilitator may remind the group of their commitments to practice deep listening. Scribe records findings on “dead” and “fresh” metaphors.

Articulating Our Loyalties (moving from “my” preferences to a sense of a covenant that speaks for “us”)

  • Ask the participants to write individually for a few minutes on the following questions:
    1. What are we dedicated to keeping alive and thriving in this congregation?
    2. To what and to whom would we be faithful in this congregation?
      (Individually? As a group? Why?)
    3. How do we express what makes the church different from any other institution to which we belong?
    4. To what, or to whom, are we accountable in our congregational life?
    5. What name, if any, do you give to the spiritual reality within which we “live and move and have our being?”
       
  • Taking these points back into small groups of two or three, invite the dyads and triads to create one or two phrases that express a covenantal commitment that they think works for the church, using this phrase (if it helps them):

    “Because we _____________, we mutually pledge to ________________.”

    If they are so inclined, and if they feel inspired to do so, encourage them to string together the phrases they create to form a draft covenant.

Bring the group together again as a whole. Each group shares their results. The scribe dutifully records each group’s input, and the facilitator offers to collect all the written work for the evening, as some of it may prove to be valuable in the crafting of a covenant.

Crafting the Covenant

When all of the conversations are complete, a representative team of between four and six people (including the minister) meet to discuss the findings, review the scribe’s notes, and to craft one or two covenant drafts.

Allow two to three 2-hour sessions for this work, preferably in a friendly environment where you can spread out all the newsprint.

When we did this in Norwell in 2002, this was the request the Covenant Crafting Team made to the governing board in regards to the warrant for the Special Parish Meeting voting on the new covenant:

“We ask the parish for a vote of ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to the covenant we will wordsmith. We are happy to be asked to go back to the drawing table for another go at a draft, but we will not take recommendations from the floor. We ask that the congregation recognize the serious and sincere effort we will make together to write a covenant that truly speaks to the ultimate commitments as the congregation has articulated them. We hope they will understand our desire not to have our phrases re-worked in committee, and promise not to be insulted if the congregation discerns together that this covenant needs more work.”

(The minister used one phrase frequently through this process, which was: “we hope to develop a covenant that will be meaningful for more of us if probably not perfect for any of us.”)

The Congregational Vote

In Norwell, we presented our new covenant at the special meeting, and after a moment of hushed consideration, the congregation promptly voted unanimously to approve it.

In the bonds of fellowship and love,
we unite,
To cultivate reverence,
To promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment,
To minister to each other’s needs and to those of humanity,
To celebrate the sacred moments of life’s passage,
And to honor the holiness at the heart of being.

—Covenant of the First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, adopted March 23, 2003

What We Learned: A Lay Leader’s Perspective

  • Our existing covenant words were not universally understood!
  • Deciding how we wanted to “wa on holy ground together” was hard work—more than an intellectual exercise.
  • People were genuinely open: willing to disclose thoughts, feelings, beliefs; willing to suspend judgment.
  • For many people, the depth and the spiritual nature of this communal conversation was a unique experience.

A Living Covenant

The Covenant in Worship

  • Liturgy
  • Rites of Passage

Membership (articulating expectations of members)

Evangelism and Outreach

Spiritual Practice

Recommended Reading (* = especially recommended)

*Barton, William Eleazar. Congregational Creeds and Covenants. Chicago, Illinois: Advance Publishing Company, 1917.

Beach, George Kimmich. “The Dedicated Community.” In If Yes Is the Answer, What Is The Question? Boston, Massachusetts: Skinner House Books, 1995.

Beach, George Kimmich, ed. The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998.

Beach, George Kimmich. “James Luther Adams’s ‘Covenant of Being’ and Charles Hartshorne’s ‘Divine Relativity.” The Unitarian Universalist Christian 58 (2003): 57-70.

*Birch, Bruce C. “You Shall Be My People: The Shaping Of A Covenant Community.” Sojourners 12 (1984): 33-35.

*Brueggemann, Walter. “Covenant as Subversive Paradigm.” Christian Century 97, no. 36 (November 12 1980): 1094-1099.

Carley, Burton D. “We Covenant: An Exploration Of the History Of Covenant From the Mayflower and the Cambridge Platform To the Principles and Purposes of 1985.” A paper presented to the Prairie Group, November 12, 2007.

The Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997.

Finkelstein, Roberta. “Towards a Theology of Membership in the Liberal Church: Covenant or Something Less (and More?). In Unitarian Universalism Selected Essays 1994, ed. Thomas D. Wintle. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 1994.

Miller, Perry. Errand Into the Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1956.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1983.

Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1972.

Rouner, Jr. Arthur A. The Congregational Way Of Life. New York: Hammond Pub. Co., 1972.

*Wesley, Alice Blair. Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures. The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and Promise of Our Covenant. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Theological School Press, 2002.

*Wright, Conrad. Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998.

*Wright, Conrad. Congregational Polity (PDF, 274 pages): A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997.

*Wright, Conrad. “Congregational Polity and the Covenant.” In The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion, edited by Dan O’Neal, Alice Blair Wesley, and James Ishmael Ford. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995.

Covenanting: A Process For Your Spiritual Mission Statement is General Assembly 2011 event number 2044.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, June 24, 2011.

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