Radical Relationship II: The Theology of Covenant

Mind Map showing the theology of covenant

Our choice to organize around our promises among ourselves and with that which invokes our ultimate commitment is our greatest strength. Using Process Theology, we offer a framework as well as practical spiritual practices showing how living in covenant can create space for sacred conversations and authentic living.


RENEE RUCHOTZKE: This is workshop 3017, which I am saying for the benefit of the recording that's being made of this. We are also videotaping this workshop, so it should show up on uua.org sometime before the end of summer-- hopefully sooner than that.

And yesterday's Radical Relationships One-- The Science of Covenant was also videotaped and recorded. So if you weren't able to make that one, it'll be made available later on.

So welcome, everyone. My name is Renee Ruchotzke. I am joined by my colleagues Jeanelyse Doran Adams and Doug Zelinski in the back, who are handing out pennies-- which you'll find out about in just a moment. If you don't have a penny, we'll have you raise your hand in a minute. But we're going to be using those pretty quickly.

So one of the questions that I ask myself, and was also asked by theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, is "how can we be truly religious beings in this world?" So how can we be meaning-makers? How can we connect with that which is greater than ourselves? And so this workshop is going to help answer that question.

For those of you who need something a little bit more tangible and less cerebral, here's some of the goals for today's workshop. This is basically a connecting of dots between some different concepts. The first concept is congregational polity-- everyone's favorite, right? The second is covenant. That's not a surprise since that's part of our theme for this General Assembly. And then there's also process theology, and there's going to be a lot of process theology involved with this. And then also your very own experiences. So we hope to have some experiential parts, which is part of where the pennies are going to come in. So that's our connecting the dots.

So does anyone not have a penny who needs one? OK. Oh, we did a good job getting you all pennies. And some people actually gave us pennies back, so we appreciate that attitude of generosity that we have in the room.

So what I want you to do is-- you don't even have to stand up necessarily for this-- but I want you to find someone close to you, and exchange pennies with that person. For those of you with good eyes, you might notice what the date is. There's a couple of Canadian pennies in the mix.

Excellent. OK, now, what I want you to do, with that same person, I want you to speak with them for a couple of minutes, and each share what is your favorite hymn that you like to have during the Sunday service, or the worship service? What's the hymn that moves you the most, and why is that? And I'll give you about a minute and a half, and then I'll have you switch.

So what was the difference in the experience? And what I'm going to have you do is just maybe share a few things, and I'll repeat them for the benefit of the recording. So what was the difference that you had in that experience-- the experience of sharing the hymns, and the experience of exchanging pennies? Sorry. Important detail there, right? So what was the difference between the two experiences exchanging a penny and sharing the story?

So one was transactional, and one was more relational. There was a story involved with one-- with the hymn share. Other.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: So you got to find out where the person was from. Yes?

AUDIENCE: It didn't matter what the penny said. It was still just a penny.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: It didn't matter what the penny said. It was still just a penny. One more. Yes?

AUDIENCE: The exchange about the hymn was a revelation. We had to reveal something about ourselves. Whereas the penny exchange required nothing else.

OK, so the telling about the hymn, you had to reveal something about yourself. There was a revelation involved. Excellent. OK, one more.

AUDIENCE: Well, Judith and I wanted to point out that our exchange of pennies actually became a little bit relational. We didn't have to be, but we had a little chitchat.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: OK, so you chitchatted as you exchanged pennies, so that also is relational. Excellent.

So there's this quote from the founder of Syn-Aud-Con. I have no idea what the company does, but this is a great quote. "I met a man with a dollar. We exchanged dollars, and we still had one dollar." I'm UUA staff, so you got a penny instead. Saving your annual program fund dollars, right? "Then I met a man with an idea. We exchanged ideas, and now we have two ideas." So the idea of this interchange is this exponential experience. As we encounter someone and learn something about them, or learn a new fact, we are constantly enriching ourselves exponentially.

So what happens when you have a whole group of people that exchange ideas? So you just had a one on one encounter. So what happens when you talk in a small group, like some of you did for your reflection groups today? Or you have a conversation in one of your adult religious education classes. The whole group becomes more and more enriched as a whole, as well as each individual becoming enriched.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: So there's this great image-- I don't know if any of you remember this? George Takei, the guy on Star Trek, Lieutenant Sulu on Star Trek-- he's an internet sensation. And he had a meme-- a meme is an idea or a thought that gains traction, and just spreads like wildfire. So he had this graphic that he put on Twitter and on Facebook, and it's one of those things that just caught fire and moved throughout the whole world.

And somebody actually came up with a video representation of what that looked like. And I think it's a really powerful example of how one idea, or one thought, or, in this case, one kind of funny graphic, can expand exponentially.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: It's got a fractal kind of quality to it. So what I love about this, and what the internet has been able to do for us, is that in some ways it tracks how we interact with each other, but does it at such a lightning speed, and with the ability to know how something is spreading. It's giving us a chance to reflect on how we interact with one another.

But of course, we in our congregations usually interact in small groups. One on one it's a little bit of a different kind of thing. Although, sometimes email works the same way, right? Especially when there's something a little bit controversial happening at church, things can spread like that.

This is the part where I pull c connection to a congregational polity. How many of you are familiar with Alice Blair Wesley's men's lectures that she did a few years ago? She tells the story of Dedham, Massachusetts, and I love this story. It's a great example of what covenant is about, and how it connects with our congregational polity. So this is the part, if you need that after-lunch nap because we're talking about polity, this is a good time. I'll make a loud noise to wake you up afterward.

There was a group of Puritans that decided to settle in a new place in Dedham, Massachusetts. And some came from England, some were from other communities. And they were coming together in this intentional community. So the first thing they did was divide the land, and decide whose cows are going to go where, and that sort of thing. And then they decided, OK, how are we going to be together as a church community? Well, in those days church and the town were all one body of people. So how were they going to be together?

So what they did is they scheduled meetings every Thursday night for a year, and they all got together and met to discuss how they were going to be together. They had some rules. The first rule is that they would decide before leaving each meeting what question to discuss next week. That way people were more apt to share considered thoughts.

Each week the host of the gathering-- so whoever's home it was in-- would begin, and speak only to the agreed upon question. And then everyone else could speak by turns. And then each one could either choose to speak to that question, or a closely related question. And if they wanted to state any objections or doubts concerning what anyone else said, they were to do so humbly and with a teachable heart-- not with any mind of cavilling or contradicting. In other words, they were supposed to speak their own understandings or doubts. They weren't supposed to argue or nitpick.

The other thing that I think is really interesting about what they did, and I think is instructive for us today, is they didn't talk about dogma or creed. They talked about how they were going to be in community together. And they also decided that their highest value was love. And if you're familiar with their covenant, it begins with "love is the doctrine of this church, and service is its law," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So that's the story of Dedham.

So we still have this basic idea. This process is based on the idea that-- They believed that the will of God and the interpretation of the Bible was best determined by a group of people who gathered together in intentional community. There were no bishops, no popes, no presbyteries-- just the people, gathered together with their promises to one another and to their highest value, which is love.

And I think that's still true. That's in our Unitarian Universalist DNA. We may not say the word God anymore. But we do have our highest values, our core values, that we talk about. Those of you who've done mission work recently-- those core values are embedded in your mission. How we serve our mission is we're really serving that which is greater even than our congregation or mission. It's pointing to something else.

So even though we don't have the same theological understanding that our Puritan forebears did, we still believe that the process of discernment-- this coming together in small groups and talking, or in large groups, in the case of [INAUDIBLE] and talking-- is really core to who we are. This is a Commission on Appraisal report from several years ago-- a new one just came out on power and authority, I believe. But in this one, there was this phrase-- this is 2005-- this phrase, "we deepen our wisdom in community when we share our stories and engage in dialogue across our differences." It was highly important to 82% of our layfolk and 91% of our ministers. That's a pretty amazing percentage, when you think of it for-- this is a core value that we have. So I see this as being sort of a connecting the dot between the folks at Dedham and how we are today.

So what I want to do now is bring us forward to at least the 20th century. I'm not quite ready to go to the 21st century. But talk about how our current liberal theological understandings and basically in process theology-- how we can connect the dots between our polity, and this idea of covenant, which I'll get to later, and modern process theology.

Doug, yesterday in the Science of Covenant, alluded to particle physics and the idea of fractals, and the idea of potentials, and probabilities, and paying attention to something can change how it acts and reacts. So there's these notions which are pretty mystical, really. I mean, even the scientists say that. We don't really understand it. We're observing it. We're trying to make sense of it. But in our human relationships, there's a similar kind of amazing, "how did that happen?" Those moments of synergy or synchronicity that we experience-- we have words for them, but we really don't have a good understanding of them.

So this is where good old process theology comes in. I chose this image because Henry Nelson Wieman was called a Unitarian of the third person. He didn't believe in God, the Father, or Jesus, but he did believe in the Holy Spirit. So I find that useful language for myself.

So Wieman said that, "the process of creative interpersonal encounter is the source of human good." For me, I hear this, or I read this, and it's the gathered people coming together, interacting in this creative interchange, is how we discern the will of God-- how we make choices toward the good, toward the beloved community, toward the aspirations that we have as religious people.

And how does this happen? So yesterday we talked a little bit about the brain, and the gap in the synapses, and things like that. What I'm going to do is I'm going to pull us into the philosophy of things. So those of you who have that liberal arts education, you can dust off that diploma and use it this afternoon.

So William James-- he was part of the American pragmatism school of philosophy-- had a model of how he described human experience. And he described perchings and flights. So we have states where we're settled. We're who we are. We're not really learning anything. We have this settled state of being. Maybe the synapses are not firing during those moments.

And then we have flight. So the times when we're unsettled, where we're in the process of becoming, when we're between who we were and who we are yet to become. There's that unsettled state. And that happens as you're talking to someone else, or as you're experiencing something.

I'm thinking I learned to drive a stick shift fairly late in life, and I was very unsettled. I'd have nightmares about not being able to get places and things like that. And now, of course, I can do it totally automatically. I don't even think about it. But there's that experience we have of the learning, of the engaging, and then it becomes part of who we are, and we don't even have to think about it anymore.

And of course the interesting part is the stuff that happens during the flight-- the becoming part. It's a little bit unsettling, but it's also where the excitement is. It's where the energy happens.

Part of the idea of creative interchange among humans is that we're already very rich, dynamic, complicated creatures. So when we interact with one another-- it's a thing like looking up an answer on Google, for example, and having a conversation with somebody. It's just a richer experience.

So Wieman described God as the "creative event." It's the moment when something is in the process of becoming, and there's a feeling of interconnectedness between what's happening in the moment, what is about to happen-- or the potential of what can happen-- and all the things that happened in the past.

So I think of when I learned something from someone, there's sort of a lineage of where the ideas come from. Not only am I connected to the person I'm learning something from, I'm learning from their teachers, and their teachers. So all of their experience-- I encounter that, and it becomes a part of me in some way. Maybe not as bright as the person I'm learning from. It's not going to be quite as rich as that. But it enriches me, and it interacts with all my other experiences.

One example I'm thinking of is, when I was in seminary and taking classes, it was really interesting how I'd be doing reading for three or four different courses at the same time. And I'd be connecting the dots between-- oh, this goes with this, and this goes with this. And I realized, if I took the same class with two other classes, my experience would be way different.

And in our congregations that happens, as well. Every time a new person walks in the door, there's this shift that happens in the group, and there's an enrichment that happens. If we're all kind of the same, there's one experience. But if there's a real difference, and we're really engaging in that deep sort of way, we're really enriching the community in a really deep and significant way.

So some of the things that you need to make space for this creative event-- to make space for us to encounter one another with this kind of ability to encounter and incorporate richness-- is human freedom and agency. I'm a big believer in Creative Commons stuff. When I create things, I sort of put it out in the universe, and hope other people use it. I always feel like it's a bad idea to have an idea, and hold onto it. It gets stale. I like the idea of sharing, and sharing information. When information's free flowing, it always feels better than if there's a secret, or somebody's holding back something. It adds a whole different tenor to the relationship.

The other thing is sacred inspiration. John Dewey and Wieman both described this as kind of a lure to the good. So there's something in our humanity where we sort of know what's right and what's wrong. And our religious institutions that we create, or our spiritual practices, help to reinforce us to choose good-- or the better-- over something that is hurtful. So we kind of have this hardwired into us.

When I think of this as a religious understanding, the process theology bit of this, we're making space to invite-- again, using theological language-- to invite God in, to invite the Spirit in. Yesterday someone talked about some Christian youth groups praying before they meet, and how it changes the feeling of the meeting. And I know some boards have practices where they have an inspirational reading, or a moment of silence, and they remind themselves of maybe their mission. So there's something about reconnecting to that which is greater than ourselves, and why we're here together for that thing that is greater than the sum of all of us, whatever that might be.

The next part is integration. As we're encountering one another, while we have in mind and in our practices these sacred aspirations, we pull that into ourselves, and then that becomes part of us, and we're enriched going forward. And then you're going out to the next flight. So you're in that settled state, and then you're encountering the next thing, the next experience. And there's time,s you know, when I've just had too many flights lately, and I just want to perch for a while. Right? But when we talk about encouragement to spiritual growth, we're saying, hey, let's jump off, and fly around for a bit. Let's be uncomfortable. Let's be unsettled.

I want to go back to this idea of diversity. The other thing that Wieman talked about is the more diverse your ideas are, and the communities are, the more enriched each individual becomes, the more enriched the group becomes. And for me, this is my theological foundation for why I'm so committed to intercultural competency, making our congregations multicultural, multi-generational. Because each person has a gift that they can bring into the community, and the more diverse those folks are-- the more we make space for the folks at the edges, the outliers-- the more creativity that can be part of the congregation and the community.

There's also this-- we did an exercise yesterday with Jeanelyse-- but this opening. We talked about it-- let's quiet the brain through a physiological model yesterday. But most religions have some sort of spiritual practice which quiets and then opens. I practice yoga, and we always talk about opening-- opening the heart chakra, opening, opening your own attention, being fully present.

So in our churches we do this. Right? We have joys and concerns, where we open our hearts to specific events in people's lives. Some of us have moments of silence. Music can open. It can open joy. It can open our sorrow. There are lots of ways that we can provide opportunities to open and be fully present with one another.

So helping to hold all this is our own spiritual practice, our group spiritual practice, of covenant. And I like to think of covenant as a container to help hold the space where this creative interchange can happen. We talk about behavioral covenants, and when we were discussing and planning this workshop, we joked about how it's like flight attendants on the plane. There are just certain things you need to do, and you need to not do, to make it work. So they give us the instructions on the plane. No smoking in the bathrooms, put on your seat belt, don't move around the cabin unless the seat belt light's off-- those sorts of things.

But we also have our aspirational covenants. So what is it? We're gathered as religious communities. Hopefully it's for a reason-- to make a difference in the world. Not only to help ourselves, but to help the world be a better place. So what is that aspirational piece? What is our faith, our religion, calling us to do, and how do we articulate that?

This is a little diagram thing. I was an engineer in my first career, so I have to draw everything out in a diagram. So this is my understanding of process theology and covenant. It's a very similar process-- at least in my head. So what I'm doing today is sharing this model that I work with-- and it might be useful for you. This is not the theology for the 21st century, necessarily, but I'm hoping that you'll find it useful.

This is another way of talking about perches and flights. We have our self. We have who you are in this moment, especially if you're feeling settled and maybe just woke up from your post-lunch nap. And then something happens-- there's something that interrupts your settledness. And what happens is you process that. You use past experiences, and then you also use your intellect-- your frontal cortex-- to think about it.

If it's a problem-- I love problems, you know. Again, the engineer in me comes out. It's like, oh, I've got this connector, and this plug, and I need to figure out how to get the two work together. What can I do? So there's a problem, or an idea, something that doesn't quite compute with you, and you engage with that.

And once you've done that, and you go from the integration into pulling it into your self, that becomes a part of your new self. You're the same person, but then you have this new experience and this new additional way of being in the world. So what happens in community, there's other folks having the same things happening to them. And when we interact with one another, that unsettledness-- our conversations, our discussions, our arguments-- become this interaction, this unsettledness that we do for one another. And that can be a really great experience. It can be a really awful experience. But it does change us. It rewires our brains as we were talking about yesterday.

These are words that Alice Blair Wesley uses when she talks about covenant. Forbearance is kind of an old fashioned word, but I think of them as being really useful. To really keep the discussion, the discourse, the interaction, free and open-- you want free will, you want the openness-- you need two things.

One is you need this sense of good will, that you're all here for the same reason. You all have shared commitments. You have shared values. There's trust with one another.

And then also forbearance, which is kind of knowing what baggage is your baggage, and what baggage isn't. You might call it emotional intelligence. You might call it spiritual maturity. It's maybe a little bit of all of it. But really having a sense of self, self-differentiation. There's lots of words for that. You need those two things to really keep the discourse open.

I think of covenant as providing a container where this happens. The good will-- maybe our mission, our promises to one another, our covenants to one another. Our behavioral covenants-- how we're going to be with one another. It's not OK to yell at me and call me names when you disagree with me. The covenant may need to articulate that.

How am I doing time wise? We're great. OK.

One thing I was thinking of recently-- and this may or may not resonate with you-- but part of what happened I think when the '60s happened is we lost a little-- there were so many rules of behavior. I remember there was charm school when I was growing up. Anybody remember charm school? Yeah. It's like, whatever happened to charm school. But there were things in society that we had that reinforced certain standards of behavior. And they were very stifling, right? But they also served a purpose. And I think part of why we've gone back to behavioral covenants is that some of the purpose that they served, we lost. You know that politeness of interacting with one another. Anyway, that was sort of an aside.

The other thing about covenant-- and this is something that my conversations with Doug and Jeanelyse-- when we talk about covenant, we're not just talking about this container. There's some other things embedded in that. One is our basic core religious values. Our understanding of the purpose of religion-- we say things like, are we a country club or are we a faith community? But even beyond that, what is our purpose? What is our mission in the world? Our understandings about our relationships and lines of accountability with one another. The power of association-- you're all here at General Assembly, so you know that there's other Unitarian Universalists in the world. But how do we be in relationship with them?

So these are all bits and pieces of what we think of when we talk about covenant. And then the other bit-- and this is the piece that we didn't have yesterday with the science-- is that what is our vow with the universe? So as a religious community, what's our purpose? What do we promise to the world around us? And the small groups will be talking a little bit about that tomorrow for the topic.

And when we think about the vow of the universe, we also talk about wanting to see transformation-- not only within our congregations-- but beyond our congregations. I like to think of my own home church as a place where we train people to learn how to work the system. So they can go out and do things like serve on city council, make our local food co-op well-functioning-- all sorts of things like that. That's one thing we can do. We do a lot of advocacy stuff, so there's a lot of things that can be in that transformation piece.

This vow with the universe-- I think of that as being articulated in our mission statements and our vision statements. They're limiting statements, but they point to something that's greater than the statement, that somewhere about our aspirational values-- who we want to be in the world, and how we want the world to be-- so our vision of our place in the universe, and how we can aspire to that, and make choices that head us in that direction.

Another way of thinking about this-- I just took a training with that Beth Zemsky and Phyllis Braxton. They're part of One Ummah Consulting. They've been working with our ministers on a program called Who Are Our Neighbors. And we're hoping to also roll that out for laypeople around the country as well.

But there's this notion of creating shared meaning. And those of us who have done some multicultural work, there's this notion of white privilege, or different kinds of privilege, and part of a practice that we can aspire to is how do we create communities where we create a shared meaning around things. It's a whole other workshop, maybe, but for those of you who have this language already, that's another way of thinking about this whole creative interchange, as creating that shared meaning for the community.

Again, going back to the diversity piece, if we were creating shared meaning with people, with one another, we make more space for diversity, and that diversity in turn leads to more enrichment. So with that, I'm going to turn it over to my colleague Jeanelyse, and she has an exercise for us to experience this.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: It'll get us over that afternoon slump for a bit. So one of the practices of covenant-- and I believe one of the exciting paradigm shifts that we're moving into-- is a world of individualism to a world of collectivism. And I found this by accident one day when I was talking about the interdependent web of existence. And I wrote the initials, and I looked at it, and it went I-- we. I-- web of existence. I know. I was just as shocked when I saw it, too. I wish I had been that brilliant to think it up.

But it just really dawned on me how our culture has prioritized autonomy and individuality. Part of covenant is making a promise, and at times actually surrendering my agenda to someone else, or to something larger. And so one of the things that I've played with throughout time is interplay. And one of things that they've discovered are the five movements of leading.

And we're going to go through them in a minute. But if you're going to be a good leader in shared power and authority, to obtain a committed mission, there are practices that we need to engage in when we're leading. Part of it is initiation. So you have the capacity to lead and to start something. Leaders also need followers, and so we can ecstatically follow a leader that's taking us in a direction, that may be calling us to learn new things. And then there's a moment in that where there's an integration between the leading and the following where we actually create a mass movement.

I think about a moment last year at GA, with those thousands of people waving their candles in the sky at Tent City. And it was just something that kind of transformed the entire crowd-- that moment of possibility. And then all things come to an end, and we need to know when to stop something. Maybe that strategy for that vision is no longer needed, and we need a new one. We need to know how to end something, and we need to come back to ourselves, and then to reengage in connection.

So I'm going to invite you into having an experience of these movements. And this going to be a little challenging. I'm so delighted we have so many people in the room. This actually would work so much better if we had a whole ball field to play on. So we may have to wind it down just a little bit, but if you can go find a partner anywhere in the room.

And Renee, I'm going to invite you to come and play with me. So I want you to just put your palm to your partner's palm, and just greet your partner. Or the back of your hand, or your elbow-- I mean, remember, this is about creativity and engagement. So you may engage in new ways. All right? So find a way to just connect with your partner, hand to hand, in any way that's comfortable for you.

And just take a look at your partner. Give them a little push. Let them know that you're there. Hi, I'm here. And just gently taking care of your own body, take your partner's wrist, and just sort of give them a little tug, and just notice how much you can rely on them. I mean, you can get really creative with this. And turn, and play, and just notice. And then come back together again with the connection.

Decide which of you is going to be partner A, and which of you is going to be partner B. And you're both going to get a turn, so it's OK. All right. So there are a variety of ways in which you can do this. You can move smooth and slow with your partner.

Not yet-- I'll tell you though. I'm giving you options, for those of you who haven't played this game before. And you can kind of trick your partner, and tease them, and do that sort of in flight, and sort of bring in your little devilish twin, and change with it, and connect in new ways with your partner. And maybe you even move off your spot a little bit, and just dance with your partner. You may even find a new partner group later on-- not yet.

Make it up. There are actually no rules to this exercise. Partner A-- partner A, you are going to initiate and lead any way you choose. And partner B's only job is to follow ecstatically-- ecstatically. There we go.

And if another hand or elbow wants to get involved, that's OK.

Bring yourself to a point of stillness, and switch. Partner B is now going to lead, and partner A is going to ecstatically follow. And you can get your whole body involved. Oh, I love it. People are playing.

And find another moment of stillness. And without deciding, both follow and lead without deciding who is doing the following or leading-- and switch periodically. Sometimes it's helpful if you close your eyes.

It's still OK to laugh and have fun.


JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: You got so serious about this. I mean, how are we going to do this without deciding?

And begin to find a point of stillness. And still connected to your partner, drop your hand, or hands, and step just a ways away, and still if you can feel connected to your partner, but separated. And then completely drop your connection with your partner, and come back to yourself-- your own two feet, your own spirit, your own heart, your own connection, your own. Greet your partner again. And the dance begins in a new project, a new idea, a new whatever. Find a way to thank your partner, and find your seat.


JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: I love the buzz that this creates, and I never know whether you got excited about the exercise or if you're just happy to finally move and exercise again. A little of both-- a little of both. I hope that our work, and our mission, and our covenants, and our promises together can incorporate more engaged and embodied work, and more connection.

What did you notice during that exercise? And I'm going to invite you to the mic so that everyone in the room can hear. What did you notice about when you were leading? Or following? What did you notice? Some of us prefer one or the other.

AUDIENCE: I noticed that I was looking at Charlie's eyes, and watching his expressions a lot, and it was really nice.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: So part of our work in covenant is how to connect, how to connect with others that are different than us, and to notice what's happening inside of ourselves as we're making that connection.

AUDIENCE: I noticed how smoothly the transition went from leading to the following. And it just felt instinctive, and very safe.


AUDIENCE: It was a lot of fun. I had a lot of laughter going on with my partner. But when we got to the part of integration and everybody in the room kind of hushed down, it was because I realized I was really concentrating on listening to her with the body. It was like, OK, is she leading? What if I try this? It was very interesting to realize that that took a lot of concentration, too.

AUDIENCE: I realized that when we did the one where we didn't know who was leading or who was following, we had to slow down. And it struck me that, when I negotiate, I have to slow down. Yeah.

What she said. What she said.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: There's ecstatically following for you. Give her a hand. And for those of us who are used to leading, oh, the relief sometimes in ecstatically following.

AUDIENCE: I noticed how quickly we became intimate and connected-- unexpectedly and immediately. Just a beautiful connection and warmth.


AUDIENCE: I related it to a dance.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: A dance-- that wonderful cosmic dance.

AUDIENCE: I noticed how difficult it was too disengage-- that even when I turned away I still felt connected and engaged. It was almost impossible to not feel engaged at all.

Am I allowed to comment?


AUDIENCE: Can you still feel it?


Do you have room for one more?


AUDIENCE: I found that I was doing things I would not ordinarily choose to do because I was doing it in conjunction with somebody else.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: So what might this tell you about theology? Or making room for the creative encounter, and sharing power, and authority, and leadership in new ways, guided by promises, and mission, and ministry? What did you learn?

If you can come to the mic, or shout really loud, I'll repeat. I know it's hard to get to the mic for some of you. We'll get this one while you're coming. How's that?

AUDIENCE: It occurs to me that one of the problems with UU is that we're so individualistic, and so many humanists, atheists, agnostics, and so on, that we always apologize when we say the word God. And yet, I noticed with dog training and other things, a dog need a master. I think people need something larger than themselves. And so it occurs to me that covenant is a nice, neutral word for-- I think we need God whether God exists or not. I think we need something larger than ourselves. And I think that covenant is a neutral word that we can use for that which is bigger than ourselves.


AUDIENCE: I felt that one of the things that was very unusual about this was that we were touching. And how often in our regular contacts with other people do we move away from touching? Are we afraid of touching? Because this is so fundamental-- we need to perhaps begin figuring out tricks to get us to touch each other somehow as part of a process of becoming engaged about something that may be unrelated to whatever it is we're touching about.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: Absolutely. Thank you.

AUDIENCE: For me, it was just the sense of establishing a rhythm. And it's sort of the rhythm of life that you're finding together.

I'll just speak loudly. To me, there was an element-- as in collaboration-- an element of play, just like in playing when you were a child. If you remember where you kind of led the way, or tended, or suggested the next move, and then you let go, and someone else suggested the next move.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: That spirit of playfulness and just seeing what arises.

AUDIENCE: I found, and reflecting on it at the end-- it reminds me of really good committee work, where you don't even bother to take votes. Everybody discusses, and eventually you come to consensus-- with everybody yielding a little bit and not even thinking about, hey, we haven't even voted on this.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: Can I ask you a question?


JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: When that happens, what changes in the room? Do you notice anything?

AUDIENCE: There's a good feeling.


AUDIENCE: You find that, rather than the meeting ending with somebody saying something to the side of somebody else, there's a general feeling of comradeship that you get when it comes to that. Everybody's given a little bit, and it hasn't been, I want to dominate or not. It is, let's make it all work together.

JEANELYSE DORAN ADAMS: I always feel a bit humbled by that experience. There's just something magical that sort of arises out of that commitment, something that none of us may have thought of when we walked in the room. But our engagement together and our conversations and promises together just allow for something unexpected to happen. One more.

AUDIENCE: I thought it was really important that, at the beginning, we each consciously took the role of being the leader, and then being the follower. And then we were able to move into a space where we could switch easily back and forth between those roles.


RENEE RUCHOTZKE: So I just wanted to pull this model back up and, again, connect the dots between the experience that you all had and this idea of creative interchange. Again, your self, your interactions with one another, the good will that you had to have to do that-- you sort of tested it. Right? Jeanelyese had you pull and resist a little bit. So there was a testing that happened. The relationship and accountability piece, being really clear about that-- with who's leading, who's following? Then you could sort of relax into that more fluid interchange. I just wanted to pull this back in to connect the dots. And then I think I have my colleague Doug.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Take a minute and look at those, and see if you can discern the radical part of this. In our congregations, we know that the principle about our free and responsible search for truth and meaning-- we tend to interpret that as an individual search. Right? Yeah-- individual search.

Do we ever check in with each other about that search, by the way? How's your search going?


DOUG ZELINSKI: OK, laugh now. But, really-- how's your search going? What kind of truths are you finding? All right. What makes us a community, a congregation, is covenant, because that's the vessel in which we bring our individual truths to bear collectively that wisdom on our mission-- on our purpose.

So the person who talked about covenant being a neutral word-- by the way, it's not neutral in some other congregations-- I understand exactly what you mean. And I hope that this is another way of looking at it, which is-- covenant is the holding ground for us to bring our individual truths and the wisdom we've gained from our searches into a place to motivate and create love in the world.

How do we do that? You bring your Buddhist perspective to our conversation about mission. You bring your atheist perspective to our conversation about what is our congregation going to do to shape the world in love? And what have we done as a community then? We have reflected and had the kind of dialogue we hope the world could do. Right? We are modeling our hope for the world and the microcosm of how we bring together our individual religious beliefs, or non beliefs, into a covenanted space to dialogue about how do we move forward as a community to shape the world in love. That's the purpose, that's the binding agent, for our congregations.

Religion includes the concept of binding. And we don't have fear to bind us. We don't have dogma to bind us. We don't have hierarchy to bind us. We've chosen this-- reflected through congregational polity-- to bind us together. That turns us from an "I" to a "we" around the most passionate thing we often have in our lives-- our personal beliefs. We've taken the most challenging passionate place, and said, we can do this. We can mesh ourselves together. And covenant is the thing that does that for us.

I tell people this, and actually I mean it. And they're kind of surprised when they realize I mean it. If your congregation isn't operating in covenant, it's not a UU congregation. Covenant is fundamental to what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. What we're discovering now that's radical-- and it wasn't as radical as it might be for all of us-- is that what we're asking when we operate in covenant is to change our brains.

The first part of this, part one, was really about when is covenant as opposed to what is covenant. Now, we spent a lot of time on the instantaneous moment when you can feel covenant being in the room, and what kind of choice you're going to make around that moment-- which science backs up as a real place where neurons are waiting to be either shunted one way or shunted another way.

And if you choose the new way, the brain will support you, and plant a neural pathway there. And if you do it again, it'll strengthen that neural pathway. And the old one, the old pathway you've chosen not to follow, diminishes in power, and eventually-- we don't know if it disappears. But it certainly loses its dominance in that kind of situation.

So science is literally supporting this notion that when we have our "ah ha" moment, our brain is organizing itself around how to support the revelations we're having, and covenant is the place where we, in a sense, share our brain and redirect the neurons of our congregation into a brain of mission.

Shared leadership-- power with rather than power over. This is where, again, what we model for the world is that congregational polity, in the sense that a voluntary group of people, who don't have to come together, have given money. How many people show up for more than Sunday service at their congregation? You give a precious resource, more precious than money, which is your time, and it's based entirely on the fact that you all have promised to do this.

The people who show up at your committee meeting that goes well-- why should they be there? Because they know that you'll be there, because they know the work that you're doing is important-- and that's entirely self organized and voluntary. Yes, you've got a governing structure. But it was put together by folks who are volunteers. Yes, you have a staff. But it was put together, and it's directed, guided, by folks who voluntarily come together.

And when you voluntarily come together, you are saying, gee, there must be something bigger for us to do together than individually. And so we are bringing together the power that we share and presenting that to the world, and using it to change the world, rather than what the kind of power we would assert over each other or over the rest of the world that we move.

And this has something to do with how we would move into community. I would also say that a congregation that is not operating in association is not a Unitarian Universalist congregation. And we think of association as UUA-- which is us, by the way. But association is what you do with your neighboring congregation, because they have delegates, too, and that means they are actually part of the UUA. Actually, you guys are the UUA.

And so association is actually how we bring covenant outward into community. It's the way we take this important thing around how we hold ourselves together, and begin to expand it into something that goes bigger than ourselves. We start with our congregations. We've agreed to an associational covenant around our congregations.

We hope that that kind of relationship expands beyond our congregations-- other religious liberal organizations. OK, and then it goes on beyond that. And in doing that, we are, at least in our thought experiment, saying, this vessel is strong enough to hold. And do you know what the vessel relies on in a volunteer organization? Making a promise and keeping it. Or it also relies on making a promise and breaking it, and coming back.

in fact, half the most powerful stuff that happens in relationship is when we fail, and figure out how to come back into covenant. If you have a covenant that nobody breaks, you didn't need a covenant. Right? Everybody already knows the rules. Were already following the rules. We're just kind of repeating what we know how to do already. So breaking covenant means you've aspired to more than you knew you could do when you made that. And it's by breaking and rejoining that you learn, oh, that's how I may be more than I said I wanted to be.

Do other folks have ways in which their experience-- where they see this as radical?

AUDIENCE: As a special education teacher in high school for a number of years, I found that the most powerful thing that I could do was to pass the teaching responsibility to my students so that they began to recover the self-confidence they had lost as a result of their schooling experience up to that point.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Thank you. Anything else?

AUDIENCE: Can you repeat the question?

DOUG ZELINSKI: Are there ways that we haven't mentioned already that your experience of covenant can be radical-- is radical-- you've discovered might be radical?

AUDIENCE: It's public.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Oh, well. Well, and now we have to end.

AUDIENCE: What did she say?

DOUG ZELINSKI: She said covenant is public. Do you know what the implications of that are? We have to be willing to learn in public, fail in public. For some of us, it's hard to succeed in public. We're risking in public. Oh, my gosh. Thank you. That's pretty radical.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: So we'll be available. We find that people come up and ask us questions afterwards, so I know folks have places to go and things to do. Thank you all for coming and giving us your precious attention. I really appreciate it.


RENEE RUCHOTZKE: The slides will be available as well as the video. Look for it in about a month or so.

About the Authors

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

Jeanelyse Doran Adams

Jeanelyse served the Unitarian Universalists Association (UUA) as Congregational Life staff for the Pacific Western Region. She has served the UUA since 2009 and is based in Northern California.

Douglas Zelinski

Douglas Zelinski worked with congregations for nine years as the Director of Leadership Development, first in the Metro New York District and then in the New England Region of the UUA, until November 2016....

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