Behavioral Covenants in Congregations

By Qiyamah Rahman

Book cover

Adapted from Behavioral Covenants in Congregations by Gil Rendle.

The practice of loving, civil behavior in our congregations is a central mark of our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes. Yet, there are times when we find ourselves losing sight of "right relations." It is these times that we are in need of behavior covenants in our congregations. Many of our lay leaders are requesting covenant retreats and consultations to harmonize their relations and promote their visions and missions. In my role as District Executive I have learned that it is better to be proactive and have covenants already in place than to wait until you are in the throes of conflict and not have them.

A behavioral covenant is an effective way to establish some "ground rules" to ensure right relations and to keep a steady course through times of change and chaos, diverse opinions and passionate discussions. A behavioral covenant is a "written document developed by leaders, agreed to and owned by its creators, and practiced on a daily basis as a spiritual discipline.

Gil Rendle, author of Behavioral Covenants, believes that practicing the discipline described by the behavioral covenant is an act of faith, because practicing such helpful and healthy behaviors allows us to act on our stated beliefs and values. Our litigious society pursues the use of contracts and rules to bind agreements and therefore seeks judgment decrees through the court when they are broken. As UU congregations we seek to covenant, that is, promise how we will be in community with one another. Our promises are vows made with the intention of keeping them. So unlike a legal ruling where we often seek compensation for a breached contract, Rendle reminds us that what we seek as our desired outcome is, "understanding and recommitment." We want to know the following:

  • What went wrong?
  • What are we having trouble with?
  • How do we try again?

Because covenants are promises to follow and not rules prescribing punishment, they seek more to identify and negotiate changes in our behavior, not in our personalities or our values since those are often non-negotiable. Thus, covenants should describe behaviors, not personality changes. So while we cannot change the personality of individuals, as much as we might want to, we can help one another to be faithful, to seek to create environments in which the possibilities of reconciliation are increased.

Ways to Use Behavioral Covenants

Covenants are an exciting tool for congregations to ground us in the sacred work of building community. Covenants provide some basic ground rules for right relations and some structure when things become contentious as they often times do.

Once you have developed your covenant(s) you want to build in implementation. Here are some suggestions:

  • Read your developed covenant at the beginning of board meetings to reinforce the "new" behavior that has been agreed upon and to breath life into your covenant.
  • Integrate your covenant into your process observing at the conclusion of board meetings using the following discussion questions: "How are we doing with the covenant?" Or "How do you think we as a board are doing with our covenant?" Or "Which of our covenant promises do you think we are struggling with the most?" May our work be joyful and light as we partner on this journey to bring Unitarianism Universalism to the world.

About the Author

Qiyamah Rahman

Reverend Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman, is the Executive Director of Sister Souurce. She is a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister residing in St. Croix, VI where she served the UU Fellowship of St. Croix from 2012 to 2018.

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