Covenants Help Members Respect, Hear Each Other

By Donald E. Skinner

One of the first things that visitors see when they walk into the building of the Westside Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation in Seattle is Westside’s Covenant of Right Relations.

The covenant, a set of guidelines designed to create “a welcoming, respectful, safe, and vibrant spiritual community,” was adopted in 2007, not because the congregation had a problem to address, but because it believed the covenant might prevent such problems.

“What we can say is that having the covenant has helped our board and our other leaders think about how to handle a conflict,” says the Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan, who came to Westside in 2002. “The heart of the covenant is that, besides expressing our emotions and differences in respectful ways, we approach disagreements constructively by talking to the person we have an issue with, not with a third person.”

The covenant calls members to listen attentively, express gratitude, value confidentiality, ask for help, respect different opinions, and “acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes.”

As the congregation has grown—it has 147 members—the covenant has become more important, says Morgan. “We were a family-sized congregation when I came. We have fairly rapidly doubled in size and in that kind of growth communications always get more complicated. We wanted to put in place some good understandings for how to respond to differences.”

Noting that covenants sometimes “get done and then forgotten,” Westside strives for visibility. Besides sitting in a frame on a table, the covenant is included in every orientation packet, discussed with newcomers, and invoked before each congregational meeting. Westside also created a Compassionate Congregation Committee to respond to conflict situations.

The covenant was developed with the help of the Pacific Northwest District’s Healthy Congregations Team, which came and led a workshop. “One of the comforting things about it is the statement that disagreement and conflict is normal, rather than thinking that something’s wrong with us if we’re having a disagreement,” says Morgan.

Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI, adopted a document in the late 1990s that it calls “Principles for a Healthy Congregation.” Its adoption followed a conflict. At the same time it created its own Healthy Congregation Team “to be attentive to the health of our system” and to do some mediation work.

The document (congregants preferred not to use the term covenant) has been useful in resolving a personnel issue where a contract was not renewed, and in resolving disagreements among committees says the Rev. Roger Bertschausen. “We’ve used it when there was tension, but not yet conflict,” he says. “It gave everyone a way to talk through tension so it didn’t become a full-blown conflict.”

Fox Valley’s Healthy Congregation Team educates the 618-member congregation more than it mediates disputes, says Bertschausen. “It takes the lead in seeing that the Principles document is at the forefront as we make decisions. It also introduces it to new members so they know what is expected of each of us.” The document has a prominent spot on the website, is featured in newsletter articles, and is brought up in sermons periodically.

The document is meant for internal reflection, Bertschausen says. “We don’t hold it up and say, ‘You’re not doing this,’ but rather, ‘Are we living up to this?’ In a healthy system the only people we can change are ourselves.”
The document is one page, inviting staff and congregants to value diversity, communicate honestly, and accept help when necessary. “We’ve found it to be entirely adequate,” Bertschausen says. “Too many congregations allow damaging behavior to happen in the name of personal freedom. It’s important for a congregation to say ‘We’re not going to allow it.’”

Dr. Kristin Guest, a member of University Unitarian Church in Seattle is co-chair of the Pacific Northwest District’s Healthy Congregations Team, which guides congregations in developing covenants. “We’ve come to feel that a crisis is not the best time to develop a covenant,” she says. “It’s best done from a place of relative health. In the midst of a crisis people aren’t necessarily in the best place to develop a covenant.”

The team is invited by congregations to present workshops. District Executive Janine Larsen may also suggest that a congregation contact the team.

A covenant doesn’t need to be congregation-wide, Guest notes. One can be adopted by a group within a church.

Signs that a congregation would benefit from a covenant include the following, she says:

  • If there is a conscious desire to deepen community
  • When there’s a real desire to say we’re living our values
  • Where there is willingness to set some limitations and boundaries in our relationships and our behavior

Guest says the team begins by talking to key members and getting a sense of what’s happening in the congregation. The team might present a weekend workshop and worship service “to start people thinking about a covenant.” Or it might suggest a longer process where leaders are gathered in small groups that meet over a period of months with guidance from a steering committee.

She notes that First Unitarian in Portland, Ore., recently completed a two-year covenanting process. How much time is necessary? “A month is too short,” she says. “Most congregations take three months or more. Longer periods can also be useful. It’s not helpful to rush this process.”

When a team is named to actually write the covenant make sure its members are representative of the congregation, Guest says. “If people just volunteer they may have a particular bias. Or certain people might tend to dominate the process. It’s better for the board to appoint or recruit a writing team.”

Most congregations have a separate document around child and youth safety. A covenant will often refer to this document but is separate from it.

There is another reason for adopting a covenant besides simply helping to ensure congregational harmony. It is to keep it healthy so that it will be there for others. As Bertschausen told his congregation in a sermon in 2002, “This faith of ours has given us great gifts, and it also has given us some make it available to others. In the Fox Valley, we can do that best by pouring our hearts and souls and treasure into making this fellowship strong and vital.”

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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