What is a covenant? For most of my time as a leader in Unitarian Universalism, I have understood covenant to be the words we use to describe the agreements we make to each other.
What I have learned over time is that the words are more like a map. They help us understand the covenant. They help us talk to each other about it. But the covenant itself is like the terrain described by the map, with all its dimensionality, ranging from muddy swamps to majestic peaks. It can never be completely captured in words.
We create a covenant when we come together as people who care about each other, who are also committed to something together. Caring about each other in congregations means, in part, that we hope to bring our best selves into the community. It means that we want to treat other members and our staff well - with fairness, dignity, and compassion. Part of our covenant is a commitment to choosing words, actions, and behaviors that express our care for others—to the very best of our ability. In UU congregations, we are collectively committed to the UU Principles and to our congregation’s own mission. Commitment to each other, to our values, and to our understanding of our purpose creates the covenant. When we put words on paper, we are pointing to that covenant, not capturing it in its entirety.
Thinking about covenant this way can help us think about when and how to write, revise, and refer to the words that describe the covenant. Our collective commitments are the landscape. Sometimes we might get a bit lost together. That is when we need the map to help us find our way. Sometimes someone new comes along by joining the congregation, or by being elected to the board, for example. That might be a good time to pull out the map to help orient that person to the paths we’ve mapped so far.
Once someone has a sense of the map as we can already understand it, and has had a chance to explore the terrain a bit, they may have new things to share. If everyone who mapped a given landscape moved on foot, someone who moves on wheels might have insights that no one else has noticed yet. Similarly, a newcomer to the congregation or to congregational leadership may have a perspective that can show us new aspects of our covenant. Perhaps the words that describe our covenant were written by people who all shared a common cultural style of conflict engagement, for example. Someone from a different cultural style may have insights into other ethical ways to engage conflict. These new insights might mean we need to add more detail to our map, or edit the words that help us understand our covenant.
This metaphor can also help us understand the role of leaders in the congregation. One of the jobs of boards and ministers is to learn to see the terrain from a wide perspective, to sense how different aspects of our covenantal commitments fit together. This wide perspective can also help to perceive where there might be challenges brewing - a river that’s starting to flood, the first smoke of what might become a wildfire. To do this, you might want to build a metaphorical fire tower, a place from which you can see, hear, and otherwise sense the big patterns and the early signs of things that need attention. You can construct that metaphorical tower together by developing a practice of regular conversation about what each of you knows and noticing patterns. Build strong metaphorical stairs or an elevator to help others in the congregation join this perception of patterns. You can do this through the ways you as leaders share your insights and ask others in the congregation for their insights.
Like all metaphors, this one is itself a map and not the terrain! But I offer it because it has been helpful for me to realize that the covenant is not confined to the words we use to describe it. I hope this metaphor might help you to deepen your understanding and practice of covenant in your congregation (and elsewhere) too.
This post is an expansion of one part of our reflection on limiting and liberating covenants. You might also check out our post introducing the practice of covenant, and the role of covenant in congregational conflict.