“Shifting to a Culture of Covenant”

Dear UUFP,

Greetings from the Committee on Ministry!

Part of each year’s General Assembly is the President’s Report.  I will quote for you here a paragraph from the Reverend Susan Frederick-Grey’s President’s Report at last month’s General Assembly:

... in the midst of significant uncertainty and conflicting informing and misinformation, congregations asked the UUA for clarity on how to keep their community safe. I have no doubt that our early and strong recommendation for congregations to stop gathering in person on March 12th saved lives. This guidance was absolutely a result of the work that we've been doing to dismantle a culture of white supremacy at the UUA. The desire to continue with business as usual is such a strong pull in our culture. It's also an aspect of white supremacy culture that puts the status quo above responding to the needs of people at the margins. Our institutional change work allowed us to make hard choices that prioritize the health and well being of the most vulnerable people within and beyond our congregations. And this is what it means to make justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion a core priority in our work.

You can see the full video of this report linked here.

Maybe you’ve also had a chance to read the book-length report on dismantling white supremacy culture within the UUA and our congregations.  It’s called “Widening the Circle of Concern: Report of the Commission on Institutional Change”, downloadable as a PDF here.  In it the commission similarly identifies this tendency to elevate “business as usual” over the health of the community as a symptom of white supremacy culture.

To apply that to our own congregational systems, think about how we usually run meetings – and, me too, by the way.  We want to stick to the agenda, we want to get things done, we want action items.  In fact, we hold those things up as the preferred way to run a meeting.  Like a business.  Productive, efficient, and if merciful, over quickly.  But perhaps we should take a hard look on what that kind of culture means for our community.

I don’t suggest that we stop valuing productive meetings.  But I do suggest that we value the relationships within and outside our community more:  That we place the health and well-being of our community, and the most vulnerable people in it, at the forefront of each decision making process – always stopping to ask, “what would this particular decision mean for a religious people in community?”  This would require adopting a culture of covenant over a culture of productivity, or a culture of “business as usual”.

The UUFP Committee on Ministry is emphasizing two foundational concepts that we hope will help us discern better practices:  Self-differentiation and Covenanting.

Self-differentiation is the practice – and it takes a lot of practice – of not taking on the anxiety of others as your own, and of being able to take an unpopular moral position even in the face of eye-rolling resistance from a group, or the more personal resistance from a friend.

Covenanting, on the other hand, is the process by which members of a group talk openly about their expectations, anxieties or general worries about being in relationship; and then turn those worries into promises they make and renew to each other.  As the members of a group change or grow spiritually, their social competencies and anxieties will change, and in turn then their covenant should also change, as a living, developing document.  This applies to any future “congregational covenant” we might make, and, by the way, also to the covenant between congregations, the seven principles and six sources.

The Committee on Ministry and I will be facilitating a four part course at Sunday Forum in August and September to help us learn more about the self-differentiation part.  This course is based on Brené Brown’s book “Braving the Wilderness”, which comes recommended to us by Connie Goodbread, our UUA Southern Region Co-Lead.

And if your committee hasn’t gone through our covenant training presentation, please contact the COM and set up a time for one of us to do the covenant training with your group.  The presentation takes about an hour, and making a covenant will take another hour.  We ask that all committees and programs adopt covenants in preparation for our congregational covenanting.  You can help us gauge our progress as a congregation by taking this linked survey.  Anybody in any committee or program is encouraged to take the survey.

But perhaps most importantly, we want to encourage all of UUFP to, right now, adopt a congregation-wide “culture of covenant”.  That means that every committee prioritizes its version of “right-relationship” over “business as usual”.  Even further, it means that we prioritize the health of UUFP, the surrounding community, and the most vulnerable people in it, over and above any “business as usual”.

That may mean changing the way we do “business as usual”.  It probably means not only reading the covenant at every meeting as an invocation, but also putting as Item Number One on every agenda a time to consider how we can improve our covenantal relationship.  That means always starting off with the question, “how can we improve our covenantal relationship?”, and then committing to the real possibility of actually having that conversation at any given meeting.  Subsequently, as each item on the agenda is reached, a culture of covenant may also call us to pause and ask, “what does this decision mean for a religious people of our covenant?”

Adopting these kinds of changes in habit won’t be easy.  It would be a real shift for us (myself included):  Abandoning a culture where we roll our eyes and groan at the thought of having to redo a covenant again; and replacing it with a culture where we are conscious that everything we do is part of our covenant, and indeed, part of our religion; and a culture where the work of maintaining that covenant is a sacred honor.

You can contact me at committeeonministry@uufp.org.  I look forward to hearing from you.

In fellowship,

Scott W. Kasmire
Chairperson, UUFP Committee on Ministry


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