At my church, we’re in the process of developing a congregational covenant. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what exactly a congregational covenant is, but after reading Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, the meaning of “covenant” in this context became clear.
The book (and, I think, the concept) is geared specifically towards Unitarian Universalists, but I think a lot of the themes apply to other liberal religious traditions, too.
Today at church I gave a short (five-minute) talk about covenant based in large part on the new understanding I got from Nieuwejaar’s book. (Today’s service was also our annual Flower Communion, which is one of my favorite services. One day I’ll have to write about that tradition.)
In writing this short sharing, it occurred to me that the mutual promises that are covenants don’t just exist in religious traditions. We make mutual promises all the time in our daily life. In a marriage or a parent-child relationship, in our workplaces, even driving down the highway, we make promises to one another to establish trust. We promise to respect one another, to treat one another fairly, to act in at least a somewhat considerate manner. These are voluntary promises; they’re not enforced (except for traffic laws), and we don’t have to follow them. Often, despite our best intentions, we don’t follow these promises. But the relationships we’re in depend not on keeping the promises but on the sincere intention to keep those promises.
That’s how I see a covenant since I read Nieuwejaar’s book. It’s a set of voluntary mutual promises meant to establish trust and foster connection.
Below is my five-minute talk, modified to remove identifying details about our congregation. I also left out the announcement about the minister’s discussion group about Fluent in Faith. Otherwise it’s what I presented in our un-air-conditioned meeting house, hands shaking and sweat stains spreading alarmingly beneath my arms. Whether you’re a UU or not, I hope it speaks to you.
Two notes for non-UUs:
1) “Signing the book” is how one becomes a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and
2) “GA” is short for General Assembly, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual meeting (not to be confused with what I refer to as “Annual Meeting,” which is our congregation’s annual meeting).
When I arrived at the covenant discussion after service in late April, I didn’t really know what a covenant was, much less why our congregation needed one. By the time the meeting was over, I wasn’t much less in the dark about the whole thing than I had been coming in, even though I’d helped write one of the three covenants the meeting produced. I left the meeting with the impression that covenant was something very important to other people, but I didn’t really see why it would be important to me, and I didn’t see how it was different from our mission or our vision statements. With both of those, why did we need a covenant?
Then I read Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar’s Fluent in Faith for the Finding Your Spiritual Path class. In her book, Nieuwejaar addresses many terms that are a little sticky—or sometimes a lot sticky—for Unitarian Universalists—god, faith, sin, atonement…and covenant.
The section on covenant is less than two full pages long, but when I finished reading it, I was blown away by the simplicity of her definition.
“The genius of our faith,” Nieuwejaar writes, “the lifeblood of our faith, is that we honor the bonds of community more than the bonds of intellectual assent. We hold our relationships as more sacred than any system of belief. We make promises to one another about the ways we will be in relationship and the ways in which we will pursue our religious journey together. This is covenant.”
I felt energized by this definition of covenant. I suddenly got it. I thought about the intense amount of joy that I’ve felt as an active part of this congregation in the year since my spouse and I signed the book, and I started thinking about what it is that makes that joy possible for me.
What I came up with is that we already have a covenant—each of us already has a covenant; it’s just an unspoken covenant. Every time we attend service, every time we bring a dish to the Penultimate Potluck, every Covenant Circle or committee meeting or coffee hour we attend, we’re making a promise to the congregation, and the congregation is making a promise back to us. We’re promising to show up, and the congregation is promising to receive us.
The easiest way for me to name these promises is through my experience with the choir. I joined the choir just before Christmas after more than two decades of vacillating about joining a choir. I procrastinated because I was afraid I would sound bad. I was afraid people would say rude things to me, or, perhaps worse than that, that they would say nothing and just silently feel grateful for the weeks I couldn’t sing with them.
Showing up in choir that first week—and really every week—involved a feeling of vulnerability for me…a lot of vulnerability. But I made a promise in my heart to the choir. I would show up. I would make my voice heard. I would listen to the rest of the choir and appreciate the blending of our voices.
And in turn, they made an unspoken promise to me. They promised to listen to my voice, to make their voices heard, and to appreciate what we all create bringing our individual voices together.
When I let myself feel vulnerable, when I let myself trust in those unspoken promises, when I stand side-by-side with my fellow choir members and feel that connection, feel that vibration in my chest when our voices come together—oh, man. It’s worth every ounce of fear.
The choir turned out to be a sanctuary (another term addressed in Fluent in Faith) for me: a safe place to feel vulnerable, a safe place to let my voice be heard.
This is pretty much how I feel with everything I do at this church. I make a promise to give voice to the truth in my heart, and to listen to the truths in others’ hearts, and I feel the promise that this congregation—that you all—make to me: to hear that voice in my heart, to walk side-by-side with me as we search for truth and meaning.
Through these promises we make as individuals and as a congregation, we’re able to bring out the beauty in each of us. We’re able to blend the voices of our hearts into something even bigger and more beautiful, stronger and more powerful, and offer that to the world.
Each of us makes promises to this congregation and each of us receives promises from the congregation in return. Adopting a covenant for this congregation is simply putting these mutual promises into words.
As we consider the covenants that have been put forth, as we go into the Annual Meeting, as we head to GA, I invite each of you to think about those unspoken promises, and what words reflect those promises. Those mutual promises are our covenant.
I’ll close my comments with a few words from Rev. Victoria Safford, who has an article about congregational covenant in the issue of UU World that fortuitously showed up in my mailbox this week:
“We will walk together with you, child; we will walk together with you, friend; we will walk together with each other towards the lives we mean to lead, toward the world we mean to have a hand in shaping, the world of compassion, equity, freedom, joy, and gratitude. Covenant is the work of intimate justice.”