The words vision, mission, and covenant have been used but the meanings have varied over time and context. They are interrelated; vision has the broadest focus, which then narrows into mission and covenant, becoming further focused as these statements come alive through shared ministry goals and mission objectives. This diagram sets out a mental model of how they might fit together. Because of the confusion of terminology that often occurs, it is necessary to clearly define the terms and use them consistently within congregational life. This is one model of understanding.
What Is Vision?
A vision is a carefully defined picture of the congregation’s future. It is not the current reality of the congregation, but it is a dream of what the congregation wants to make of itself. The vision answers the following question:
What do we want the congregation to look like in five or ten years as a result of its efforts in ministry, programming, and outreach in service of our highest aspirational values?
The vision needs to be empowering and energizing. A shared vision, created among and by the people who are in the congregation, enables them to move from the status quo toward a new reality. A shared vision can create new ways of thinking and acting, and it should be broad enough to provide growing room for the congregation. A shared vision needs to be renewed continually as a congregation grows and accepts new challenges. Although it may be tempting to limit the vision to what we conceive as possible or to what we know the congregation is currently doing, the vision must be bigger than this if it is to be inspiring and empowering. A vision requires of us the ability to take a long-term view of ourselves as a congregation. It also must be specific and concrete so that it can be known and worked toward.
The vision statement binds together the individual thoughts and desires of the people. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization, writes: “When a group of people come to share a vision for an organization [a congregation], each person sees their own picture of the organization at its best. Each shares responsibility for the whole, not just for their piece.” Vision is what takes us beyond where we stand in the congregation and helps us both understand and take responsibility for how the dimensions and activities of a congregation fit into the larger, overarching aim for the future of the congregation.
Yet the vision is not a creed, nor is it a substitute for individual or collective theological reflection. It speaks of the institution and what it wants to be. For example, a vision of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution that dismantles White Supremacy. This vision is a clear and concise statement, and although it is built upon the UUA’s shared understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, this vision statement is not a theological statement. It may well be that theological work by individuals alone and in concert within the congregation is a good beginning for work on a vision, but the two should not be confused.
Similarly, the vision is not the words that you find in the legal papers of the organization. That language is often constricted by the legal process and usually is a general statement of the purposes of the congregation. The language is rarely changed and exists primarily out of legal necessity. (If the legal definition is vastly different from the vision of the congregation, however, legal counsel should be consulted to see what, if any, implications arise out of the difference.)
What Is Mission?
The mission is a carefully defined, concise, and focused statement of what the congregation wants to mean to the community, and for what it wishes to be known. It is a statement of who you are and what you value, and it should be the measuring stick for all the congregation does. The mission statement should incorporate answers to the following questions:
If this is our vision, where does this lead us in mission?
What “must” we do?
In what ways does our vision lead us in service toward others in the broader community?
Every congregation has a mission—a way it lives out its life—but the mission can get lost in the fabric of the congregation and the “way we do things here.” Healthy congregations consciously articulate their mission, and this mission paints a path of how to move from the present reality to the dreamed-of vision. The mission should use active, not passive, verbs and should be the guide for congregational life.
The mission should relate a congregation to the community context by establishing the congregation’s sense of religious identity, relating this identity to the needs of those the congregation aims to serve. The mission should answer the question of who is to be served, what service is for those inside the congregation, and what service is offered to those in the wider community. To be effective, the mission must be owned by the congregation’s membership, committees, and staff.
There is a difference between a mission and a mission statement. Until the mission is made real through the development of goals and objectives, it is merely a statement, a piece of paper. To be a mission fully lived, it requires specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound goals and objectives.
What Is Covenant?
Covenants describe the way people interact with one another in service of their highest commitments. They incorporate the values, prized beliefs, and behaviors that are held dear, and they set out an image of how individuals are expected to behave in groups.
The formation of a covenant is a process that helps form and maintain the internal identity of a congregation. The promises and commitments people make to one another in the context of a religious community help them understand what their tradition calls them to be. The covenant grows from an affirmation of shared needs, values, purposes, and principles. It is rooted in the past and reflects the promises that people make into the future. Covenants should answer the following question:
What are the qualities we want in our life and work together?
Historically, covenants were three-way documents between two or more individuals or groups and that which they considered most holy. An example is marriage vows made within religious communities, where the couple makes their vows within the sight and hearing of God, thereby increasing the sanctity of their commitment.
Within our Unitarian Universalist congregations, it is often the community that is the most holy, and thereby covenant statements are made between the individuals in the community. The presence of the third party (whether the holy, the congregation, the future, all that one holds high, or some other collectively agreed- upon other) helps remind people of a sense of accountability to someone or something larger. It helps remind us that we are not alone, and that in all we do we should pay attention to the legacy we leave behind. Covenants help remind people of who they said they want to be in their interactions with the world around them.
Many congregations have created behavioral covenants as a way to protect children or respond to a particularly difficult time in the congregation’s history. Although these covenants are valuable and often necessary, the creation of a broad, overarching covenant during a period without strife can lay the groundwork for dealing with the difficult times that arise in congregational life.
For a deeper understanding, see A Comprehensive Guide to Congregational Covenants.
Also useful for this work is Gilbert R. Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences.
Commonalities: Vision, Mission, and Covenant
Although vision, mission, and covenant are parts of a whole and serve separate aims, they are still interrelated. The mission grows directly out of the vision, and the vision is built upon the shared values, concerns, and principles that are articulated in the covenant. All three of them call the congregation to be aware of itself as a corporate citizen and to honor the individuals within it. They also have other common aspects.
The vision, mission, and covenant statements all include the following dynamics:
- Relational. The statements involve commitments between people, as well as between people and a shared vision.
- Paradoxical. The statements involve living within a balance between what might appear to be contradictory values, such as individual freedom and community values, reason and faith, past and present, and being and becoming.
- Democratic. All the statements are based on the free association of persons, and they are open to new insights as the people involved change over time.
- Historical. The statements are rooted in what the congregation has been, because they reflect the dreams and values in a particular place and time.
- Convictional. Vision, mission, and covenant statements affirm shared needs, values, purposes, and principles. They say, in effect, “For now, this is what we hold as most valuable.”
- Contextual. Although part of a larger movement, these statements come out of a particular congregation in a particular location in a particular time with a particular history of who they have been, as well as particular possibilities of who they can become.
- Dynamic. The process of developing vision, mission, and covenant takes place over time as people reflect upon and renew their promises, and as congregations grow and change.
- Visionary. These statements show the world not as it is but as it could be. They embody the best dreams and desires of people striving to be their best and to create a world that is more fair.
Primary Theological Questions
Vision, mission, and covenant are also related in that they are, in effect, the center of a triangle of religious questions. As human beings, we ask questions in three specific arenas:
- Who am I? Theologian Alfred North Whitehead said that “religion is what one does with one’s solitude.” Our primary religious need is for individual fulfillment and identity—for understanding who we are beyond our roles and the expectations of others.
- Who am I in relationship to the world? Because we are not isolated beings, we wonder how to be in relation to others, how to live ethically, and how to shape the world around us to reflect the way we think things should be.
- What is of ultimate importance to me? It used to be that there was a simple answer to this question: God. But in these days when we cannot assume that everyone believes in God, or that God is the same for every believer, this question takes on an even greater significance. Not only are we faced with defining that which we believe is most ultimate; we also seek an authentic relationship to that ultimate.
What is also shared among these documents (and in the processes of creating them) is that in all human relationships, commitments can be forgotten, promises discarded, and covenants broken. This happens in at least two ways:
- By intentional or unintentional breaking of a specific covenant or
- By leaving certain people outside the covenant in the first place.
This insight is especially significant for religious liberals, because our critics often charge us with an optimism that neglects the negative side of existence. Not having a shared concept of sin (missing the mark), it is tempting to despair or throw up our hands and walk away from each other when promises are broken. Yet by recognizing that we all mess up, and that we can come back from disappointing each other and create a new, stronger, renewed bond of support and nurture, we can ensure that the vision, mission, and covenant continue to be powerful documents in congregational life.
Additionally, history teaches that our institutions have not always been open to individuals other than those in the dominant group: women, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender non-conforming people; those outside a certain economic class; or those perceived to be strangers to the existing group. Too often, rather than straying into unknown or different territory, we step away from the potential by failing to risk growth by engaging and empowering the “other,” however it is defined. When engaging in vision, mission, and covenant work, it is important that both those leading and those involved in the process ask questions about who is, and who is not, at the table. By asking what voices have been heard and what voices are missing—who is present and who is invisible—congregations can begin ensuring that they are more inclusive and intentional about who is a welcome part of them.
Vision, mission, and especially covenants can be broken. Yet they may also be renewed. The power of these documents is their dynamic capacity to confront broken promises, engender forgiveness, reestablish relationships, and renew commitments.