Embodying Beloved Community and Covenantal Relationship

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Beloved Community, Covenantal Relationships and Restoring Connection

Establishing and maintaining Beloved Community depends on establishing and maintaining covenantal relationships. The covenant is our sacred promise of meaningful relationship, which we mutually develop by inquiring into our deeply held values as a community. We also develop a set of restorative practices as a resource for the inevitable times when we depart from covenant, so we have a clear path to restoring relationships and returning to our shared values when disconnection occurs.

3 concentric circles: Community Values inside Covenant inside Restorative Practices
  • Restorative Practices: The range of options available for us to practice in order to bring us back into covenantal relationship when disconnection occurs. As a community, we commit to these practices as resources to return to
  • Covenant: The specific strategies we commit to practice in order to nurture our community values. This living document evolves as we explore our values together. We co-create our covenant from a shared understanding of our community values.
  • Community Values: The qualities of life we commit to nurture in order to establish and maintain our Beloved Community. We continue to explore these qualities together, with curiosity and openness to evolution in our understanding of what we value. These values form the center of our experience of Beloved Community and our Covenant.

Below are the three phases in the covenantal lifecycle, including specific strategies for implementing each phase.

  1. Discovering Community Values
  2. Creating and Maintaining the Covenant
  3. Returning to the Covenant (Restorative Practices)

Please experiment with this framework and create your own community practices. We would love to hear any feedback about how you have used and adapted this document.

Discovering Community Values

The first step in creating a relational covenant is to discern what values of the community this covenant is intended to express. These values, which we could also call universal human needs or qualities of life, are generally expressed by words or phrases such as “safety” or “an environment of care and respect.”

Step 1: Inclusive “Heartstorming”

Either in the whole community, or in small groups, take turns going around the circle and inviting each person to name one value or quality of life in response to this question: “What is most precious to you as part of this community?” Here are some tips for this step:

  • There are no “bad ideas.” Write down anything anyone says, without evaluation or debate. There is time for refinement in the next step.
  • Do your best to follow the form of the round, so each person is explicitly invited to offer something. Anyone can always pass if they want, and once the momentum slows down you can shift to “popcorn” style for ease and efficiency.
  • Record the responses on newsprint or electronically for easy access in the next step.
  • Trust that you don’t need to capture every single thing that might ever be important to someone; this is an evolutionary process and we can always add to this list.

Step 2: Refine and Consolidate

Come back into the whole community, if you broke into small groups. Post all of the responses to Step 1 where everyone can see them and invite people to offer refinements, ask questions or name connections and insights that arise. Our main aim is to cultivate awareness and shared understanding through dialogue. Pay attention to the values that seem to have the strongest resonance or seem to encompass other values. Write these down or make a note of them.

Finally, try to define between three and five “core values” that seem to encompass other values and have strong resonance in the community.

Step 3: Check for Consent

Ask if there is anyone who objects to moving forward with the list as it is and, if so, what they would like to change that would resolve their objection. Remember we are going for a list that is good enough for now, not one that is perfect and unchanging.

Creating the Covenant

Once you have a list of community values, it’s time to decide on the specific strategies you would like to practice as a community in order to nurture and express them. While this process might feel a lot like other covenanting processes you have experienced, it will have a deeper quality because the ideas presented arise from the previous dialogue and resulting shared understanding of the community’s values.

Step 1: Collect Strategy Ideas

Using rounds, invite each person to respond to this question: “What specific strategy or behavior would you want us to commit to practice, in order to nurture and express our community values?” The tips shown on the previous page also apply to this step.

Step 2: Refine and Consolidate

At this point, do your best to translate any strategies stated as negatives into positive, doable actions; for example: “don’t make a mess” could be translated into “clean up after yourself.” Check to see if the strategies are understood and seem doable. For example, “treat everyone nicely” might be too vague to be doable, so you could ask “what kind of actions would you consider “nice?” Consider creating a “clean” copy of the end result of this step for easier reference.

Step 3: Check for Consent

Ask if there is anyone who objects to moving forward with the covenant as it is and, if so, what they would like to change that would resolve their objection. Remember we are going for a covenant that is good enough for now, not one that is perfect and unchanging. We commit to making this a living document that we can review, reflect on and change.

Ritualize Keeping the Covenant Alive

On a regular basis, take time in community to inquire about how effectively the covenant is nurturing and expressing the community’s values. One connecting and engaging strategy for this inquiry is the practice of Celebrations and Mournings, a daily opportunity for community members to express how their experience of the last 24 hours has either contributed to the satisfaction of their values (celebration) or left them wanting more (mourning). Inquire if anything in the covenant needs to be updated based on this feedback from the community.

Returning to the Covenant

As a “promise making, promise breaking” people, one inevitable result of entering into covenant with others is that eventually one or more of us will depart from our covenantal relationship. Rather than treating this as a problem, seeing something wrong, or wanting to fix or punish anyone, we can see it as an opportunity to return to our shared values with authenticity, curiosity and compassion. These restorative practices provide a range of options we can choose among to restore covenantal relationships when disconnection occurs.

The following list describes several of these practices available for selection in service of reconnection and restoration, in order from least to most human resources required.

  • Self-Empathy: A person experiencing tension or conflict related to a departure from covenantal relationship may practice self-connection as a method of transforming pain they are experiencing.
  • Empathic Presence: A person may request any other member of the community to offer them empathic presence for the purpose of self-connection, in a space removed from the larger group.
  • 1-on-1 Conversation: If both people are willing and confident in their ability to resolve the conflict with each other directly, they may do so in a space comfortable to them both.
  • Supported 1-on-1 Conversation: This is the same as a 1-on-1 Conversation, but in the presence of third person. This third person contributes their presence as needed to support reconciliation, from silent witnessing to active mediation. Either of the two persons involved, or a third person, may invite such a conversation.
  • Facilitated Community Process: Anyone impacted by a departure from covenant who desires community participation to return to the covenant may initiate a facilitated group process such as a Restorative Conference, Restorative Circle, Inquiry Circle, talking circle, or facilitated group dialogue.
  • Restoring Relationships in Your City: The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) offers Restorative Circle facilitator trainings for community groups interested in equipping themselves to serve the larger community.

About the Authors

Jan Christian

The Rev. Jan Christian served as Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region from 2015-1019. Prior to working for the UUA, Jan served for thirteen years as minister of our congregation in Ventura, California. During that time, she also served for eight years on the Unitarian...

Pacific Western Region of the UUA

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