As we have engaged UUs around New England in reflecting on living in covenant, we on regional staff
have noticed an assumption so foundational that it is often revealed in storytelling but rarely said directly. That is: We can be either in covenant or in conflict, but not both at the same time. We also hear a phrase used over and over for what happens when the congregation enters conflict: “We fell out of covenant.”
As we have identified these assumptions, I have realized that I had them too. Which is not surprising, because I learned most of what I know about both covenant and conflict in the context of Unitarian Universalism. There was a certain understanding of covenants – what they are and how to use them – that was very in vogue when I was a youth and young adult, just emerging into leadership in Unitarian Universalist congregations as a lay person. I have witnessed and led this way of using covenants more times than I can count.
It goes like this. There is a group that is going to be working together – a committee, say, or a congregational board, or even the attendees at a daylong workshop. Before the work begins, the facilitator asks each participant to think about what they need from the others in the group in order to feel safe, or to do their best work, or to be fully present. The participants then share what they need. These items are written down, and everyone is asked if they can agree to all the items. This becomes the covenant.
Why do we do this? I mean, really?
What we say – what I think I usually believe at a surface level – is that we are creating the container that will allow for digging into our work, allow us to show up and be vulnerable. But beneath this, I think, secretly, in our heart of hearts… or at least, let me speak for me. Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I am hoping that this work of building the covenant will prevent conflict from ever happening.
But really, how can it? Somewhere along the way, I learned the formal definition of conflict as two or more people who want things that are mutually exclusive. Or at least they think the things they want are mutually exclusive. And the people have feelings about it. They care about the outcome.
There will always be things about which we disagree. And since congregations are one of the places where we engage in things that really matter, we are likely to have strong feelings about some of the things we disagree about.
But notice that in this definition of conflict, no one has actually behaved badly – at least not yet. If a covenant has been broken, someone has broken a promise. At the start of a conflict, what promise has been broken? None.
Unless we understand, at a level below speech, maybe even below consciousness, that what we really meant by the covenant was a promise never to disagree with each other – at least not deeply, not about anything that really matters.
As we move into a conflict, if we thought, even if we didn’t say it out loud, that our covenant was supposed to prevent conflict, then the fact that conflict is now present must mean that someone has broken our covenant, even if we can’t really put our finger on how that happened. I think this is where the language of “falling” out of covenant comes from. Nobody really did anything wrong – at least not yet – but somehow, we don’t have that feeling of closeness that we assume is what it means to be in covenant. It’s gone, we’ve lost it, sort of by accident.
Of course, not everyone feels the same way about this. There are people who are a lot more comfortable with conflict, so it doesn’t feel like something is wrong when a conflict starts. There are people who hate conflict but also understand that it has a place in covenantal community. Your personal history with conflict, your cultural ways of being, your history with the particular people in the congregation who are in the conflict, and more, will all affect how you feel about conflict in general or a particular conflict. Still, we were struck by the pervasiveness of the assumption that conflict and covenant cannot both exist at the same time.
Conflicts rarely just stop at the place of a disagreement being identified. Especially if the matter feels mutually exclusive and important. Now, we have to navigate this conflict together. Many of us believe ourselves to be already out of covenant, and the conflict is ongoing. Now what happens?
One possibility is that someone will call the group back to the covenant or ask for a rework of the covenant in an effort to get it to do the job that we secretly thought it was supposed to be doing. This often looks – and feels – like trying to use the covenant as a tool to control the behavior of others. It can get pretty legalistic and unhelpful.
Another possibility is that people on both sides believe that the presence of conflict must mean that someone else has already broken the covenant. This can become a sort of “well, they broke it first” thing. At its very most extreme, the idea that someone else broke the covenant first leads to tactics that are completely opposite to our shared values as we all try to win.
Or we might collectively decide to return to the covenant by making the conflict go away. This is how I used to respond. I would just give up on the substance of the conflict in order to get back to something that felt like peace, safety, comfort. Another version of this is turning on the people who brought up an issue that needed addressing. That often happens when people who experience marginalization point out harm and ask for redress.
None of these things actually helps us work through the conflict in a transforming way. If we try to win, control others, disappear from the conversation, or silence others, we lose the capacity to learn from the substance of the disagreement. We lose the potential creativity that might lie in discovering that our wants, needs, or convictions are not actually mutually exclusive after all. We miss the chance to clarify our values together, or to choose them in a time when that is hard. There is so much richness that we lose by cutting off the possibility of walking into and engaging conflict covenantally.
But what if it is possible to be in conflict and in covenant at the same time? What if it is possible to disagree – deeply, truly disagree – about things that really matter to us and still be in covenant all the way through the engagement and hopefully the resolution of that conflict? How would that change the way we show up in our conflicts?
It might make us turn toward our covenants in times of conflict. Not because we think the covenant has failed and needs to change, but because we expect the covenant to be able to hold us through difficulty, and give us some guidance for the path through.
Believing that the covenant is still holding us even in conflict might also help us to engage in conflict more ethically. If we don’t assume that conflict itself means that someone else has already broken the covenant, maybe we will feel less free to walk away from our own promises. We might still feel appropriately bound not just to "play fair," but to be our best selves even in the process of conflict.
Maybe we would stop thinking that we can leave our covenants accidentally – or “fall out” of them. Maybe our covenants could reassure us that we are still in it together – that we all still belong. Our most foundational covenantal commitment is to belong to each other. Remembering this could help ease the fear that every significant conflict must end with someone(s) leaving the community.
The covenant might help us remember that we care about each other, even though we disagree right now. It gets a little easier to choose to engage with honesty, transparency, compassion, and a desire for cooperation if we remember that we care about each other’s well being. This might lead us to curiosity about why those we care about feel so deeply in a way we disagree with. This could lead us back into a space of creativity where we can find a way to meet the most important needs that once felt impossible to reconcile.
I used to think of congregational covenants as quite fragile things. I wouldn’t have articulated this out loud. But I thought about them breaking an awful lot. What I am coming to realize is that our covenants are more robust and more resilient than we think – or they could be if we practiced them with that intention. If we entered conflict, struggled together through it, processed it, and came out the other side understanding ourselves to be held by the covenant throughout. If we keep firm our commitment to belong to each other, to care about each other’s welfare, to treat each other well, even when that is hard.