A Tradition of Covenant

Joan Carolyn, Congregational Development (B.C. Western)

The Promise of Covenant – We are a “People of Promise” [Alice Blair Wesley 5 Lecture Series]

This promise to enter into relationship with each other carries with it the capacity to inspire, provide mutual support, pool our wisdom and enter into accountability. All with potential to encourage our journeys to become our best selves and inform the manner in which we relate with the full interdependent web of life. Growth within and without. Rev. Linda Thomson, CUC Congregational Development staff, recently shared: “Covenants are not a panacea, a cure all. They do have a great deal to teach and offer, should we be willing to engage in the journey.”

Covenants are historically grounded for Unitarian Universalists. Blair’s lecture series delves into some major historical roots of UU covenant and some shifts over time. I invite you to explore some of this rich history and share only two comments now.

From Lecture #2- “Reasoning together about what we love, and about all the social implications and complexities of love, in continuous consultation, has been a built-in part from the very beginning of the free church tradition from which we Unitarian Universalists have come. Continuous consultation our ancestors called “walking together.” Herein lies the free church concept of discipline.”

From Lecture #5- “in the minds of our congregationalist founders, strong convictions about the autonomy of each church, did not imply sectarian isolation.

  • Though all churches were “distinct…and therefore have no dominion over one another,” they are to be a community of independent churches.
  • It was not acceptable “if a church be rent with divisions…and yet refuse to consult with other churches for healing…” If a divided church does refuse to “consult,” neighboring churches – not a staff person from headquarters– neighboring churches are to “exercise a fuller act of communion by way of admonition.”

Blair traces developments within our UU history which moved us away from this congregational covenantal way of interacting, toward more isolated, independent ways for congregations to exist.

So what of our modern approach to UU covenant? Current practice has moved away from inter- congregational, to intra- congregational relationship agreements. There is within this interpersonal covenant agreement within congregations, the potential to grow into new realities. A covenant with the full range of relationship benefits, from support to accountability, grounded in love and a invitation for all to participate. The underlying assumption is that conflict simply is – what becomes noteworthy is how we engage with it and in what directions we grow.

Even though it may at times be frightening and we may have things to learn about how we implement our covenants, the exciting invitation to shared growth still exists.

During one of the covenant workshops in which I raised this question regarding the willingness to engage, an astute congregational member challenged me, asking if I’d ever participated. Heartwarming images flooded my mind regarding the many ways in which I’ve received support within UU congregation relationships. It’s what keeps many of us actively engaged within our congregations.

Three examples also entered my mind during which I risked becoming one of the active participants in a covenant accountability process.

Two of these experiences taught me the potential negative impact when covenant processes aren’t well developed or facilitated. There needs to be great care in: developing just protocols; building resource pools of well trained facilitators who operate from a shared base of operations; identifying an umbrella organization/group within which facilitators are supported, trained and held accountable.

One experience revealed to me how a shared covenant, designed and implemented by all those affected, could open doors of growth in relationships (those newly created and others revisioned) and directing me in alternative directions I’d never envisioned and now hold dear. One such group began with participants new to each other, each coming from different backgrounds, with a certain role in mind – volunteer helper, volunteer person in need of assistance, and staff person. Over time, these roles began to blur and we all had times when we needed help, we were all able to offer support and teach. We have grown beyond what began as a support group to become friends. One great treasure within these new friendships are closer links crossing class and race lines and the shared wisdom to be found in that particular classroom of life. The support group has ended, however the basis for long term, positive community relationships continues.

The question remains, will we UUs engage in covenant, and why should we? Blair asserts that there are potentially powerful positive ripple effects within our lives and within our congregations if we do.

So if we have covenants within our congregations, are we willing to use them ourselves? If not, what needs to change for us to be willing to take that step?

If we are unwilling to apply support & accountability within our own groups, how are others, especially those outside our known circles, to trust and respect us when we call for accountability in their communities?

How we learn to live together well carries far reaching potential effects to:

  • Teach us some humility, strength and experience regarding ways in which to engage with others.
  • Create more openness as we receive invitations/ challenges to become more accountable ourselves, as well as receive support, sometimes from unexpected places and people.
  • And then there’s that great welcome to potentially grow beyond our wildest dreams – with new and/or renewed partners, in different directions and with Increased opportunities to learn and share

What do you value about your congregation’s covenant and what stories of implementation would you share? Where are the challenges and the growth areas? And what about exploring inter-congregational covenant relationships with more depth?