General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

In Covenant: How Do We Work Together in Healthy Congregations?

General Assembly 2006 Event 2036

Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association


  • The Rev. Dale Lantz, Community Minister, First Unitarian Church , Wilmington, DE
  • The Rev. Kate Bortner, Community Minister, UU Congregation of York, Pennsylvania, and Crime Prevention Coordinator, York City Police
  • The Rev. Susan Archer, MRE, Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Bethesda, MD
  • Beth Norton, Music Director, First Parish, Concord, MA

About one hundred participants attended this workshop on how to enter covenantal relationships, especially among congregational staff members—that is, how to enter into right relationships intentionally.

Covenants may be written or unwritten. Covenants provide for intentional relationships, that is, relationships which are respectful, help all to be safe, and enable staff members to do lay and ordained ministry.

The Rev. Susan Davison Archer, a religious educator, said that she sees covenants not so much as a structural or governance issue, but as theological, philosophical, and educational. “This work is about salvation,” she continued. She began her work in this area to address issues of two-year turnover among religious educators.

Archer described covenants between staff members and congregations. Such covenants must be mutual, with all able to depend on the agreements made, and with mutual accountability. Her vision is of parish and religious educators getting along and becoming partners in ministry.

Both Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) and the Society for Community Ministries (SCM), have developed sample documents to help with writing such covenants. The handout included in the workshop described the process and promise of developing covenants.

The Rev. Kathy (Kate) Bortner described her work with the York City Police, noting that it is different from the work of a chaplain. Relationships, she said, are not enough to build organizations, especially when the people involved may change over time. “Covenants can help create vessels, space for unlikely partnerships,” she said, where the very different partners can find common ground.

Covenants, she stressed, must be living documents. They should be developed with agreements made in a face-to-face meeting of stakeholders, and should be renewed at least annually, or more often if necessary.

Covenants should exist for the good of the whole, beyond the two parties involved, and so should be based on the values, principles, and agreements included in guiding documents such as bylaws.

Covenants become teaching documents, Bortner continued, as they develop a culture of articulating needs and expectations. The covenant document models and pattern, and that pattern eventually becomes culture. Others begin to apply the ideas to the way they work.

Beth Norton, a music director, described her work in a multi-staff congregation as using unwritten covenants which “articulate a way of being together” in formal and informal ways. Based in part on learning among the staff about family systems theory, the common language or catch words used include:

  • Shared vision—where the congregation is going and where it's been
  • No triangles ground rule—the staff encourages direct communication and the ability to name difficult issues with one another. Where necessary, the staff facilitates direct communication rather than getting triangled.
  • Come to the table without portfolio—staff members are encouraged to look at the big picture and see the connections beyond their own area of expertise, while the staff also respects areas of expertise in each other.
  • Apologize and forgive—mistakes will be made, feelings will be hurt, projects will be thrown off, and it's important to be able to move on
  • We're here to make each other look good—each staff member sees her or his work in the context of helping others do their part well
  • Cultivate a culture of appreciation—thanks are important, both for volunteers and between each other on staff

During discussion among the presenters and some audience members, they stressed the importance of “no surprises.” Nothing erodes the sense of trust like being taken by surprise. Socializing together is important, using opportunities like lunchtime to talk about something besides church work. Weekly staff meetings were also mentioned as crucial to share information and fact and for maintaining staff cohesiveness.

The panelists also noted that technology has changed the way people communicate, and there may need to be covenants about email use, such as using it for information sharing but not for decision-making. Congregations may need to make behavioral covenants about cell phone use in meetings and at worship.

During the questions and reflections, many audience members were eager for information about congregational behavioral covenants and their relationship to vision and mission clarity and to staff covenants.

In response to some questions, the panelists stressed that covenant work should be proactive, and that covenants are not usually successful when they are done in reaction to a crisis. The panelists responded to another question by clarifying that covenants are not substitutes for personnel policies. To questions about whether there need to be covenants with each volunteer, panelists suggested that it might be “overdoing it,” and that not every subgroup needs a covenant—those which are ongoing, have goals, and need to work together may find them useful.

When asked about how to deal with a violation of a covenant, the panelists stressed that direct and immediate feedback is important, and the “it is your responsibility. You're in this huge relationship that it's your responsibility to help maintain.”


Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis; edited by Margy Levine Young.