Covenants: The Lifeblood of Small Group Ministry (As Well As UU Congregations)

“As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm right relationship as a reverential act. This affirmation is our covenantal act together as a non-creedal people. This is our religious history.” – Thandeka

Chalice Stained Glass Window

About Covenants

  • A covenant is not a rule. It is not an obligation imposed on people by one or more others.
  • A covenant is not a contract. A contract involves a quid pro quo – this for that. For example, one person pays money and the other performs a service or provides a thing. The quid and the quo need not be identical. If I promise you this and you promise me that, we have a contract, not a covenant.
  • A covenant consists of mutual promises – we both (or all) promise each other that we will (or won’t) do the same things.
  • The most viable covenants result from mutual sharing of what our needs are and what we are and are not able realistically to promise.
  • It is usually understood to be a given that people will break a covenant in at least small ways if not large ones. Thus one of the most important things about people sharing a covenant is what they do when somebody breaks one of the mutual promises. According to covenantal principles, they are neither banished nor punished. They are invited to acknowledge what they have done, acknowledge that it is a breach of covenant, and renew their promise to keep their covenant in the future.

Process for Creating a Covenant

Some groups begin by looking at a model, somebody else’s covenant that is thought to be workable or even wise. And then the process turns out to be essentially a series of decisions about what to keep, what to discard, and what to change. I do not recommend this process. It’s a kind of shortcut, and it does not lead to a group’s real ownership of its covenant. It’s no wonder that covenants created in this way tend to get called “guidelines.” The group didn’t create them. Somebody else did.

Here is the process I recommend instead:

  • It begins with the facilitator listing for the group the “givens” that have in fact been determined by the Executive Team as essential for a group to be considered a UUCB Chalice Circle. The givens include:
    • Each group has one or two facilitators appointed by the Executive Team.
    • The group will meet once or twice a month at a time chosen by the facilitator, with meetings to be for 1 ½ or 2 hours.
    • All sessions are based on session plans either provided by or approved by the Executive Team.
    • The group maintains an “empty chair” and is prepared to accept a new member to fill it until the maximum number of group members (determined by the Executive Team) has been reached or until the Executive Team determines it is too late in the church year to add new members.
  • The facilitator lets the group know what issues they may want to address in a covenant, such as:
    • How definite or flexible they want to be regarding starting and stopping times, including whether they want to provide for some additional time after completion of the session plan for informal conversation.
    • How important it is to them that everyone be present every time (or what they regard as legitimate reasons to be absent).
    • What they need and are comfortable promising about both speaking and listening during sessions.
    • What kind of sharing they want to keep confidential and what may be freely shared outside the group. (Incidentally, it is typical for the first choice of groups to be to opt for total confidentiality; unfortunately, this tends to tip a group towards group therapy, and it does not serve well the “empty chair.” At the other end of the continuum, having no provision about any expectation of confidentiality can tip a group toward being unsafe.) Some groups have found helpful a provision that anyone considering sharing something outside the group will first get permission from the original speaker; other groups have found it sufficient to consider whether the sharing would likely be hurtful or upsetting to the original speaker.
  • The facilitator invites the group members to reflect silently on these matters, thinking about what they need from the group and what they would and would not be comfortable promising.
  • As part of the time for silent reflection, the facilitator invites each person to remember an experience in the past with a different group that did not feel healthy, welcoming, and safe – and then to remember an experience with another group that did feel healthy, welcoming, and safe – and finally to think about what made those groups feel different from each other.
  • ​​​​​​​The facilitator invites everyone to share the fruit of their reflection, and from this the mutual promises for the covenant are likely to emerge. What matters is the spirit of the covenant, not “the letter of the law.” The less time spent wordsmithing, the better!

Covenants That Serve a Group Well

  • They are short.
  • They are exclusively about behavior, not about state of mind.

A common and just about completely useless provision I have often seen says, “We will assume good intentions.” And how would we know whether someone is honoring that provision? Useless! Another equally common and equally useless provision says, “We will listen respectfully.” And how would we know what’s going on in the listener’s mind? Instead the covenant might refer to interruptions, eye rolling, giving unasked-for advice, and cross-talk. In any case, the purpose of Small Group Ministry is not thought control.

Note: This resource is a part of the Chalice Circle Training at the UU Church of Bloomington, IN.

About the Author

Barbara Child

Barbara Child is an accredited interim minister, retired from full-time ministry in 2010. She continues to serve congregations as short-term consultant and continues to serve ministers as mentor. She serves on the Board of the UU Retired Ministers and Partners Association. With Keith Kron, she...

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