When I was a budding youth advisor way back in 2008 my religious educator/supervisor instructed me that having the youth group write a covenant was the first step to building inclusive community and tasked me with walking the group through the process of covenant building in one of my first sessions with them. I'm going to admit something embarrassing to you. Even though I'd been Unitarian Universalist since I was 15 and was an obsessively active member of the the youth group, then young adult group and was now serving as a religious education volunteer, I was not able to put into words what a covenant was, and had no idea how to create one. So, I pretended like I was exercising a teacherly moment and asked the youth.
"So, can someone explain to the group, what is a covenant and why do we create them?" Thankfully, they'd been through the process year after year and felt pretty confident in their answers.
"A covenant is an agreement," "It's a promise we make to ourselves and one another of how we want to be together," "It's a sacred contract that we enter into voluntarily," "It's a way of being where we understand that we might mess up, but that we will continue to do our best."
"Yes, that is correct, and how do we go about creating a covenant?" And so they unknowingly guided me through the process of brainstorming a list of catch phrases that embodied the spirit of the expectations of the group. And that is the process for covenant creating I used for many years with youth groups.
On my own path, as I began to really consider my commitment to the people of my faith and in my community – especially at times when I was frustrated, disheartened, bored or didn't feel represented – I realized that being bound by covenant means that I continually made the choice, as Rumi says, that wherever I am, and whatever I do, to be in love.
And so I came up with a few of my own ways to build a covenant. I added a session on this to Pacific NorthWest District's GoldMine Youth Leadership School curriculum and Mountain Desert District's QUUest Camp experience, if you want to experience the processes in person.Before you begin, I encourage you to read Ariel Hunt-Brodnwin's article, The Sacred Oops and Ouch: What UU Youth Have Taught Me About Covenant, and Victoria Safford's article, Bound in Covenant, to get some deep background on why we covenant. Also watch the General Assembly 2013 workshop The Theology of Covenant with Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Rev. Jeanelyse Doran Adams, Douglas Zelinski.
Youth groups rely heavily on covenant making and keeping, but they're obviously not the only ones. These models can be used for young adult groups, campus ministries, committees in congregations and small group ministries.
In using each of the following models, challenge yourself and your group to think about living in covenant beyond just adhering to a list of behavioral guidelines. The Unitarian Universalist Association video What Do We Promise One Another calls us to ask deeper questions about what it means to be in covenant.[youtube MIDgXWRzDjE]
What responsibilities do we have and to whom? What is your ultimate concern? To what do you owe your loyalty and commitment? What promises do we make to each other? How willing and capable are we of commitments that ask us to live our high aspirations? What promises do we make to our faith? What sacrifices are we willing to make to create and sustain communities of welcome, hope and service? What promises do we make to the world? How do we become the people who others can count on to stand on the side of love?1. SCAFFOLD MODEL of BUILDING a COVENANT- add/change/rearrange
The facilitators of the group provide a starting point for the covenanting process. This is a very basic list of “good ideas.” The group can agree to accept this covenant in total or choose to edit it by adding elements unique to the group, changing elements that don’t fit for the group and/or rearranging the elements to fit their needs and priorities.
This model works best for a group of people that has never covenanted before and need a lot of guidance or a group who has a very short amount of time to build a covenant. 2. BRAINSTORM MODEL of BUILDING a COVENANT - from nothing to something
The facilitator of the group guides the group through the three stages of brainstorming: 1) throwing out any ideas without judgement, 2) synthesizing by grouping like ideas and discarding ideas the group agrees are not needed, 3) making a decision to accept the final product. The scribe supports the group by writing down verbatim what group members say.
This model works best for a group that has the luxury of time or a group that would benefit from going through this process as a community building exercise.3. HOCKET MODEL of BUILDING a COVENANT - from many to one
Each person, or small groups, writes down a few key points they would like to be included on the group covenant on a piece of paper or a note card. This is done in silence or with minimal talking. The group elects a small number of delegates to synthesize the items and write a draft covenant to bring back to the group. The whole group provides feedback and adopts the covenant by consensus.
This model works best for a large group, a group where some people are dominant speakers and others’ voices go unheard or a group that has difficulty coming to agreement.
Note: Even though my last name includes Hockett and I did create this model, it is not named after me. Hocketing is a form of singing or playing music where notes sang or played by individuals form a continuous melody. The band The Dirty Projectors play in this style.[youtube iDUTNUof-Mg] Let me know in the comments below which of these models you've tried with your youth group or have other models that have worked for you!