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Creating Congregational Covenants
General Assembly 2008 Event 3035
Presenters: Eunice Milton Benton, Connie Goodbread
What is a congregational covenant? Eunice Benton, District Executive of the Mid-South District, and Connie Goodbread, Program Consultant for the Florida District, answered this question, and gave some tips for creating a congregational covenant.
"It's about making respectful behavior the norm," said Benton, describing a congregational covenant in plain language. "It's about good manners, what your momma taught you when you were small.... It's about valuing your religious community."
Benton added, "It's a good investment" in helping maintain the individuals and the whole community.
"We've struggled with this word [covenant] for a long time," said Goodbread. "Why is this so?" Because Unitarian Universalists come out of the Abrahamic religious traditions, the idea of covenant can be traced back to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible. "We don't like this story," she said, because Abraham offers to sacrifice his son Isaac to Yahweh in order to maintain the covenant with Yahweh. "We don't want to be submissive in this way," she said.
But the definition of covenant has changed considerably in the thousands of years since the Hebrew Bible was written. Goodbread said that Unitarian Universalists directly inherit the definition of covenant set forth in The Cambridge Platform, a document drawn up by Puritans in Massachusetts in 1648. The Cambridge Platform is available in a contemporary reader's edition through the Unitarian Universalist Association bookstore.
"The piece we understand completely," said Goodbread, speaking of the definition of covenant set forth in the Cambridge Platform, "is that you're not the boss of me." But the Cambridge Platform also defined covenant to include promises for mutual support. Goodbread said that means that covenant also means "We are all in this together, building a better world."
Today, Unitarian Universalists also understand covenant to mean that each Unitarian Universalist congregation is in covenant with all other Unitarian Universalist congregations. The Principles and Purposes of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) explicitly state this, according to Goodbread.
"Covenant is a promise, not a statement of belief," Goodbread said. Unfortunately, the children's versions of the UUA Principles and Purposes often begin with the statement "We believe...", but this is incorrect wording which tends to make the Principles and Purposes sound like a creed. Instead, the Principles and Purposes are "a spiritual path we try to follow," according to Goodbread, "and when we fail to live up to them, we beg forgiveness and begin again."
After defining covenant, Benton and Goodbread then turned tips for implementing a covenant in a local congregation. Benton suggested that the first step to implementing a congregation-wide covenant is to begin by implementing a covenant among church leaders, specifically the governing board and staff. She suggested that church leadership start by naming "common values." She said that it is important to come to a common understanding of values, before putting a covenant into writing.
"A board and staff can practice and maintain a covenant," Goodbread said, setting an example for the rest of the congregation. Goodbread said that it is important to include newcomers who join the board or staff after a written covenant is implemented. "Read the covenant together regularly," she said.
Both Goodbread and Benton emphasized that establishing cultural norms takes time. Congregational leadership has to understand and practice covenant before the whole congregation can do it. "It ain't the finished document," said Benton ."It's the talking about it and the practicing it."
"This is a sacred document," Benton added. "Talk about is as new folks come join your congregation." Revisit a written covenant every five years or so, to be sure it still applies to the congregation.
After the congregational leadership has worked on establishing a covenant for a time, the rest of the congregation can be included in the process. Benton said that congregations should expect the whole process to take plenty of time. "People may feel that this is just a document to beat them over the head with, and that is not the point," she said. "Take time to do this."
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.