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Writing a Covenant

Fredric Muir

In many of our congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Statement of Principles and Purposes is conspicuously hung close to the building’s entrance, included in the Sunday order of service, or even spoken during the Sunday service itself. It starts with “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote...” and continues with seven Principles and six Sources, which some have memorized and most would recognize as unique to our way of faith. Indeed our Principles and Purposes stand as an affirmation of who and what it means to be a religious liberal in the twenty-first century; for a creedless religion, it’s the closest we come to documenting our beliefs and intentions. But let’s be clear about this: The Statement is not a creed. A creed is a formal and permanent statement of religious belief that the faithful accept and testify to (often in weekly unison prayer or by some other congregation-wide acknowledgment). No, our Statement of Principles and Purposes is not a creed, it says so right in the opening words: “We covenant to affirm and promote...”

So it may come as a surprise to many that the seven Principles are not a Unitarian Universalist covenant: There is a covenant in the Statement, but it’s not the seven Principles. We hold the seven Principles close to our hearts because they compose our vision of a world made better; the Principles name our dream of the Beloved Community (what in orthodox language is called the Kingdom of God). This is the picture of the world that we affirm and promote (and the six Sources continue to shape this vision).

There is a path to this Unitarian Universalist vision of the Promised Land, the Beloved Community; there is a map that tells us how to get there. This is our mission. It is also found in the Statement, but many never read far enough to get there:

The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions, and implement its principles

Mission is implementation—how we will realize our vision. Our mission and vision are both in the Statement. Our covenant is here too. Like the mission, it’s buried but it’s there, right after the Sources, where it states,

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support.

This is the covenantal language that separates the Unitarian Universalist faith community from others. You see, covenants are about relationships. When we speak of Unitarian Universalism having a covenantal theology (rather than a creedal one), we can as easily say that ours is a relational theology. A covenant, then, speaks about the commitments and promises we make to each other about the journey (mission) we share on our way to the Beloved Community or Promised Land (our vision).

History

The idea of covenant is ancient. In our historical tradition, both cultural and religious, covenant dates back to God’s promise to the Nation of Israel that they are a Chosen People. God’s committed relationship with them permeates Hebrew scripture. In Myths America Lives By, Richard T. Hughes tells the fascinating story of how this religious covenant made its way from the tribes of Israel to the shores of North America. Hughes names John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as an instrumental figure in shaping our modern understanding. In 1630, before setting foot in New England, Winthrop explained to his shipmates what it meant to be in covenant with each other:

We must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work.

For Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams making such promises was simply the human thing to do. In “From Cage to Covenant,” he writes,

Human beings, individually and collectively, become human by making commitments, by making promises. The human being as such, as Martin Buber says, is the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature. The human being is the promise-maker, the commitment maker.

Uniting in the common bonds of relationship rather than in obedience to a religious dogma is a distinguishing feature of Unitarian Universalism. Most Unitarian Universalists have experienced and know about the level of theological diversity engendered from the absence of creed and dogma—it can be breathtaking. But theological diversity and the absence of dogma and creed are not to be understood as a philosophy of “anything goes.” The gifts and blessings of free inquiry, skepticism, and seeking bring responsibility. Our fourth Principle speaks to this with clarity: “We affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Yet for some, theological free thinking, religious progressivism, and spiritual seeking are translated as acceptance, tolerance, or ignorance of behavior that can undermine, even harm, the religious and spiritual life of others and the well being of our institutions. While we can take pride in the theological differences that unite us, these differences aren’t always the best foundation for building a strong institution; there must be something more.

It is unfortunate that Unitarian Universalism, like other faith communities, has suffered from alarming misbehavior on the part of its members and friends. Some violations in our congregations have been overlooked or tolerated under the guise of a creedless, relative faith that doesn’t impose belief or behavior on its followers. When there are questions of professional misconduct, codes of professional practice and other guidelines are clear about how conduct unbecoming a professional should be addressed, and most of our church schools have safety policies that protect our children and youth and safeguard all participants. But when adult members, friends, and visitors act in ways that are inappropriate, disrespectful, or hurtful, what can we do? Most congregations have no clear context from which to respond to uncivil, inappropriate behavior or disagreements.

Church historian Conrad Wright understands this dilemma. In “Congregational Polity and the Covenant” he writes, “Covenant emphasizes that the church is a community of mutual obligation which involves a sense of commitment. Even the freest of free churches needs that much discipline if it is to last long enough to accomplish anything of value in this world.” In the absence of a shared and uniting religious creed, we commit with each other through the promises we make about how we will walk our mission toward creating the Beloved Community. The promises and commitments we make become a covenant. A covenant can provide the context from which we can take action; a covenant can support the creation of an accepting, safe congregation.

There are at least five ways that a covenant can support and facilitate clear expectations and deepening of relationships in a congregation. A covenant

  • is a statement of agreement about how congregants choose to be in relationship with each other. When they live by these statements, they are modeling their Unitarian Universalist values for each other, their children, and the wider community.
  • comprises promises, not rules. Unlike rules, promises are discussed, lived, broken, and renewed. Promises and commitments describe how we wish to live together as a faith community, knowing that if these promises don’t work, the congregation may choose to rewrite them.
  • is a framework of expectations. Virtually every context we enter has behavior expectations. Our congregations should be no different; in fact, given the reason that we come together—to create a Beloved Community—clear expectations are vital.
  • is about behavior, not personality. Behavior that encourages, nurtures, and supports our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is important to the life of the faith community, not the qualities that have shaped and show a person’s character.
  • offers an opportunity to explore and deepen our spirituality. Promises made to others in a faith community and the relationships that can form from such a practice can strengthen and broaden commitment in deliberate, intentional, and disciplined ways.

Covenants grow out of and support any size of group. Following are several examples of covenants. Each was created using the process described in the two-hour workshop on page 110.

Safe Congregations Panel (8 members)

United by a shared mission, we covenant together to honor ourselves, our task, and each other by:

  • being fully present and prepared—spiritually, emotionally, physically, and intellectually
  • listening compassionately for and sharing generously of the wisdom and experience we bring
  • maintaining confidentiality while not perpetuating secrecy
  • holding each other accountable to our individual convictions and shared Unitarian Universalist Principles

Welcoming the cloud of witnesses who sit with us—listening especially for the voices of victims/ survivors, we join our hearts, minds, and hands to this continuing work recognizing the magnitude of speaking truth to power, transforming hearts, and bringing hope.

Men’s Covenant Group (10 members)

We are a covenant group that follows a nurturing path in order to grow as individuals and as a group. So that the group can function effectively, we commit to attend on a regular basis and to start and end our meetings on time. We will “show up” mentally, physically, and emotionally and vow to keep personal items confidential (erring on the side of confidentiality). The group promises to be a safe environment where we as individuals are able to open our souls to one another and go beyond our normal comfort levels so that we can truly know one another and ourselves better. In order to grow together we will practice aggressive listening. We will practice speech that is non-judgmental, open and heartfelt, compassionate, honest, and supportive. The group has permission to remind individuals when they go out of bounds; conversely, members have a responsibility to let the group know when they have been hurt by something that was said. We pledge to be there for one another in and out of the meetings. We pledge a commitment to the men’s covenant group, the congregation, and the greater community.

Board of Trustees (10 members)

As members of the Board of Trustees, we covenant to keep the best interests of the congregation at heart and to carry out the trust placed in us as guardians of the Mission and Principles and as stewards of the resources of our church. We will embrace and share our experience, wisdom, and gifts in carrying out this work. We will celebrate our diversity by working to create an environment in which all are heard and respected. We will speak the truth in love. As we seek consensus, we will give and accept constructive feedback.

We will faithfully attend and be fully engaged in board meetings. We will show our commitment by being prompt, prepared, and focused. We will support the decisions and policies of the board.

We will be honest and realistic in our expectations and commitments, both individually and collectively. At the same time we will accept and forgive our failures. As part of a faith community, we will seek to minister to each other, sharing our joys, sorrows, successes, and struggles.

In this spirit, we covenant to further the mission of the congregation as we strive to make real the vision of Unitarian Universalism.

Safe Congregation (540 members)

This church is a place of safety and integrity for each person’s mind, body, and spirit. We are a supportive and nurturing faith community, honoring and respecting the rich diversity of those gathered here. Recognizing that warmth, beauty, kindness, and passion will shape us as a congregation of goodwill, generosity, and presence, we covenant to affirm and promote:

  • honesty and authenticity in our relationships
  • words that are supportive and caring, not belittling or demeaning
  • a welcoming and non-judgmental attitude
  • respect for each person’s boundaries of mind, body, and spirit
  • listening to one another
  • refraining from displays of temper
  • honoring the gifts and blessings of thought and deed
  • This is our covenant of right relationship.

After developing a congregational covenant, a board may choose to develop a policy that includes guidelines for responding to and processing instances when the covenant is broken. Such a policy could include a Safe Congregations Team, which would have a specific process to follow when called upon. There are many kinds of policies and processes available. See more resources at Covenant of Right Relations.

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, created and sustained by relationships. We do not come together around religious dogma or creed, but we unite to walk together toward a vision of the Beloved Community as named in our Statement of Principles and Purposes as well as the vision that our local congregation has named. How we walk together, holding and honoring our congregation’s diversity, is the challenge and the value of covenant.

Read Next>> Boundaries and Confidentiality

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For more information contact safecongregations @ 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, April 22, 2011.

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