As a layperson and then a clergy person in Unitarian Universalism, I have created morecovenants with more groups of UUs than I can count. Sometimes I’ve been a participant; sometimes, a leader. I’ve done this exercise with small groups and large groups; one-day groups and groups that have been together for decades; groups already intimately acquainted with each other and groups new to both each other and the exercise.
In all these experiences, the facilitator usually asks something like this: “What do you need this group to promise in order to bring yourself to this joint project and do your best work?” Group members answer this question and decide on a list that everyone can agree on. Thus we get the “behavioral covenant.”
As a white middle-class New Englander, I grew up absolutely steeped in individualism. As a Unitarian Universalist, I was taught values that I tried to internalize such as the value of world community and respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Despite a genuine commitment to these values, individualism remains and often undermines my best efforts to live my values fully. Of course, this is not just my story. Lots of other people have observed that individualism is a strong cultural paradigm within Unitarian Universalism. Individualism does not always help us make our Principles real and active in our lives, our communities, and our world.
At General Assembly in June, Rev. Joan Javier-Duval said in her Sunday sermon that our individualism has a “rugged and reckless streak.” The recentreport from the Commission on Institutional Change makes the same observation.
I want to pause and notice that we bring this entrenched reckless individualism to the way we enter into covenant—the heart of our faith—a practice that could, at its best, help us move toward true interdependence. It is not bad to need things from others in order to be in community or to do work together. It is not bad to ask others to address those needs. But if we start, and to a certain extent end, by asking people already steeped in individualism what we personally want and need, we run the risk of reinforcing individualism rather than countering it, and we miss some of the depth, rigor, and transformation that the practice of covenant makes possible.
The most recent time that I asked a group of Unitarian Universalists to create a covenant together, I started in a different place. I asked them first what they wanted tooffer by way of promises to their fellow congregants. I also asked them what they needed, but it wasn’t where we started. Just this seemingly small shift changed the whole tenor of the conversation. It made all of us - me included - think about covenant as something we offer as much as we receive (maybe even more)! I felt like I had just a glimpse of a more liberating practice of covenant.
When I joined the New England Region staff last year, I joined a group that had done quite a lot of thinking and writing and teaching about covenant. One of the shifts the team helped me deepen was a shift from thinking about covenant as a “thing” to covenant as a practice. Covenants as things have a static quality. We create them and then there they are - on the wall, or maybe in a file somewhere - to be brought out when there are issues as a sort of judicial authority. Throughout my life, I’ve heard lots of great Unitarian Universalist theologians counter this impression but it has hit home in a new way for me recently.
Understanding covenants as a practice means the words on the page after we’re done writing are not the covenant. They are words that point toward the covenant. The covenant lives in the action of hearing what others need from us and making those promises, of trying to keep our promises to others, and of continually learning better and doing better as we gain new skills. It means knowingfor sure that our covenants will be incomplete because we are incomplete and we bring our areas of unskillfulness and restriction of self and others into the act of making and trying to keep our promises. So, we practice, we learn, we practice some more, we reflect, we listen to others asking for new promises or deeper fidelity to existing ones, and we practice some more. It is in the continual practice and listening and reflection that the possibility of covenant reveals itself. It is through practice that a liberating version of covenant becomes possible. This is the kind of covenant practice that I believe the Commission on Institutional Change is calling us to in their report.
So, friends, let’s practice together. If you, like me, are steeped in a cultural mode of individualism which can get in the way of living your values, I invite you to engage in some reflection about whether and how you are bringing that individualism into your practice of covenant and what a deeper practice of covenant can make possible for us.
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