"Covenant is the silk that joins Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, communities, and individuals together in a web of interconnection. The practice of promising to walk together is the precious core of our creedless faith.
'Covenant' is both a noun and a verb. It can be a written agreement among individual community members promising to behave in certain ways, and it can mean to engage in mutual promises with Spirit, with other people and communities."
Every group or community has norms and expectations of behavior. Sometimes these are implicit and we expect people to absorb them from daily life. Sometimes they are directly spelled out in rules or promises. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have written agreements about how members treat one another: these are created and adopted by the congregation, and ideally revisited regularly.
These can include things like "We promise to address each other directly rather than asking others to speak for us" and "We speak up when we feel hurt and listen with an open spirit when we cause hurt."
These are called "covenants of right relationship" or "behavioral covenants." In this context, "covenant" means "promise" or "commitment." Covenant has been called "the silk that joins UU congregations, communities, and individuals together in a web of interconnection."
A "Covenant of Relationship" is different from a "Covenant of Purpose" or "Bond of Fellowship" like the one that was said at the beginning of worship at First Church. Covenants of Purpose often clarify collective purpose and vision. The statement formerly said at First Church was an adaptation of the "Ames Covenant," written by Rev. Charles Gordon Ames for his Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia. Our congregation’s minister introduced it here in 1882.
A "Covenant of Relationship" is also about the process of its creation. This kind of covenant must be created by the community, and explicitly named and agreed to.
Rev. Elizabeth and the Ministerial Committee have led a process to create a "Covenant of Relationship" for First Church: would you please review it and come ready to vote on it on May 19?
2019 Covenant of Relationship
Approved by congregational vote on May 19, 2019
As members of First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist, we believe that building community is an ongoing spiritual practice. In order to grow together and deepen the connections among us, we hereby resolve:
To listen with care:
We will value differences.
We will avoid demeaning and hurtful interactions
We will provide each other with support and continued presence.
To address each other directly:
We will speak when silence would restrain progress.
We will share disagreements and concerns with the person who inspires them rather than with others.
We will express appreciation and respect for gifts of time, skill, and money.
We will correct misunderstandings and see disagreements as an opportunity for growth.
We will say when we are angry or hurt. We will ask for help when we need it.
We will seek mediation when needed.
To sustain and build our community:
We will value every member and welcome every newcomer.
We will honor our commitment to diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity, race, ability, class background, spiritual beliefs, and religious practices.
We will care for our building as the vessel of a rich history.
We will implement Unitarian Universalist principles of respect, generosity, and a deep commitment to justice.
When we feel we have failed, we will try again.
This is the covenant we make with each other.
"...covenants hold us to behavior, not beliefs, so we can believe different things and get mad at each other safely because we know how we will treat each other through our times of anger. I think covenant is a great topic to deepen our ability to be together without being the same, and to get more capable of doing conflict in healthy ways."
-Rev. Elizabeth Mount
from "What We Promise"
by Rev. Elizabeth Bukey
What comes to mind when you hear the word “covenant?”
Probably the statement we used to say at the beginning of Sunday worship, which was sometimes called "our church's historic covenant."
Maybe you’ve heard some conservative Christian idea about “covenant marriage,” or remember the covenants from the Hebrew Bible.
Maybe nothing. Maybe this is sort of a mysterious church jargon word and you were afraid to say anything. (I’ve been there.)
What I’m talking about today is a the use of “covenant” that basically means “promise” or “commitment.” Promises that a group of people make to one another about how they are going to behave and be together. Commitments to uphold certain values and practices. Community agreements.
Read About Covenant, Conflict, and Community
Side With Love
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen & Nora Rasman
"When relationships break down, covenants are most likely to be violated—and this is the time when they are most important."
Rebecca Parker, Starr King School for the Ministry
white supremacy culture by Tema Okun, dR works
I don’t exactly mean a rule: a rule can be imposed from the top-down, or from the outside, like classroom rules. And I don’t mean implicit rules: community norms that no one ever specifically agreed to but which you’ll get in trouble for if you violate them.
When I talk about covenant in the context of church, I mean something created by the community, and explicitly named and agreed to.
Unitarian Universalist churches are part of a tradition that talks about and values this type of covenant as the basis of church itself. As we have heard from Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, we are descended from the Puritans who believed deeply that churches should be formed not because of geography, hierarchy, or even just creed, but through covenant. That individual people become a church only by mutual agreement. That:
“the boundaries of our community are determined by commitment and participation. Our central question is not 'What do we believe?' but rather 'What values will we uphold and how will we do this together?' Our covenant, the promises we make to each other in regarding how to we will be a community of faith, is at the heart of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.'"
The seven Unitarian Universalist principles and the six UU sources are not actually “beliefs.” They are promises: in joining the UUA, a congregation doesn’t say they “believe” in them, but that they “covenant to affirm and promote them.” In the UUA bylaws, after the listing of the principles and sources, it says “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”
Many congregations also have specific covenants of relationship and community, co-created by the members, in which they promise things like:
To bring compassion and kindness into our interactions and our search for justice.
To challenge each other to live our values.
To communicate directly with honesty and respect.
To speak up when we are hurt, listen when we cause hurt.
To invite healing through forgiveness and making amends
And it is this set of agreements that becomes the container that makes the community. And it’s the process of breaking agreements, calling each other back to them, and beginning again that makes the community safer, more able to hold disagreement, diversity, and depth.
I’m hoping that in the next year of our ministry together, we can co-create a community covenant that will help us to commit to how we want to be together. What will nurture love, compassion, connection, and justice, here, and in so doing, help equip us to nurture love, compassion, connection, and justice in the wider world.