Right Relationships: The Covenants in our Lives

by the Rev. Tony Lorenzen

First Parish Church in Billerica, MA

Sunday, October 14, 2007

 

                  Betty has been dating Bill for two years, but sheŐs ready to break off the relationship.  Bill canŐt understand it.  HeŐs a guyŐs guy, a manŐs man.  LikeŐs his Red Sox, his Patriots, having a beer with friends after work on Friday. HeŐs not a millionaire, but heŐs got a good job.  He doesnŐt take drugs.  He could do without church on Sunday morning, but if it makes her happy, he doesnŐt mind going with her, the people are nice. As far as he sees it heŐs been loving, caring, devoted, patient.  He brings Betty flowers and small gifts just to say I love you.  He dutifully and happily goes to dinner at her momŐs house on Sunday nights.  HeŐs even nice her to old uncle Alphonse, and even most of her own family canŐt manage that.   Somehow thatŐs not enough.  So, Bill is really baffled as to why Betty not only rejected his marriage proposal, but also is dumping him to boot.  The only reason he can come up with is her inability to let go of her anger at her ex-husband.  But still, so what? Betty had a jerk of a husband and a couple of bozo boyfriends in the past, whatŐs that got to do with him?

                  Poor Bill.  HeŐs right about one thing. He just doesnŐt get it. Betty had a boyfriend who ignored her for two years while getting in fights at bars. She followed that relationship by dating an alcoholic for two years. She thought she finally had it made when she met a great guy at an Al-Anon meeting. They got engaged within six months, were married within a year, but were divorced before their first wedding anniversary.  It turns out Betty wasnŐt the only woman who thought this guy was so great. He was cheating on her with not one, but three other women, one of them from their same Al-Anon meeting. 

                  Now Betty doesnŐt only NOT want to get engaged to Bill, she doesnŐt want to see Bill anymore.  Betty is just not used to having relationships work out right.  SheŐs not used to right relationships.

                  To be in right relationship is to be in a relationship based on equality, mutual caring, trust, and respect.  Right relationships apply to individuals, such as couples in a marriage. The idea of right relationships also helps us understand relationships between groups of people such teams, coworkers in a workplace, or members of a congregation.  The concept of right relationships also helps us deal with how we as individuals and as groups handle issues such as sexism, racism and homophobia.

                  One of the ways we constructively manage right relationships is to make covenants, both as individuals and as groups.  Covenants are sacred promises that outline the parameters of right relationships.

                  As described by Methodist missionary Roy May, "Covenant is an agreement in which all parties pledge themselves to the others. It outlines mutual obligations and responsibilitiesÓ (http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/Joshua/covenant.stm).

                  All too often in the modern world, we tend to see to see our relationships in a utilitarian fashion, viewing our personal connections in terms of Ňwhat do I get out of it, whatŐs in it for me?Ó We measure relationships like accountants: Ňif I put in ten dollars worth of caring and affection, I want ten bucks worth backÓ - itŐs a simple business-like contractual arrangement.  The problem with human relationships, especially covenantal relationships, is that they donŐt work that way.  Covenants are different.  Covenants are matters of the heart.

                  Theologian Paul Palmer explains this distinction well when he writes:

 

ŇContracts deal with things, covenants with peopleÉContracts are made for a stipulated period of time; covenants are forever. Contracts can be broken, with material loss to the contracting parties; covenants cannot be broken, but if violated, they result in personal loss and broken hearts. Contracts are secular affairs and belong to the market place; covenants are sacral affairs and belong to the hearth, the temple or the church. Contracts are best understood by lawyers, civil and ecclesiastical; covenants are better appreciated by poets and theologians. Contracts are witnessed by people with the state as guarantor; covenants are witnessed by God with God as guarantor... (Christian Marriage: Contract or Covenant Theological Studies 33, 1972).Ó

 

                  Marriage is a common context in which people encounter covenantal right relationship. Church is another.  Entering into a church covenant is much like entering into a marriage covenant.  Many of the same promises are made, the same type of trust is placed in others, and if that trust is betrayed no court order or penalty can heal it.  Marriage covenants usually contain mutual pledges of faith, fidelity, and love.  Church covenants do as well.  In marriage covenants the pledges are made to the marriage partner.  In church covenants, the pledges of faith are made to God or statements of faith are made about what beliefs bind a people together, and statements of mutual support are made to one another.  No covenant should be entered into lightly.  Sacred promises are no fleeting matter or passing fancy.  Marriage covenants usually contain language such as Ňuntil death do you partÓ or Ňas long as you both shall liveÓ or Ňuntil the end of your days.Ó  Church covenants donŐt use that language, but they do contain language of equal import and gravity in their own way, manner and style.

                  The first record of the church covenant in Billerica dates to August 14, 1747 during the Pastorate of Rev. Samuell Ruggles.  In his 1883 History of Billerica, Henry Hazen writes, ŇA renewal of the covenant took place at that time and it is sufficiently probable that the covenant then used and found in the first book of the churchŐs records which has been preserved, was identical with that which was adopted by the fathersÓ (162).

                  We heard a portion of this covenant earlier as our reading this morning.   There was no ŇTill death do us partÓ language, but itŐs weighty stuff just the same. Church covenants have gotten much shorter the days of the puritans and Rev. Ruggles in 1747. 

                  Written by Unitarian Church of the Disciples minister Rev. George Gordon Ames in 1880, the widely used Ames Covenant is still the basis for many church covenants today, including some UU churches. Many still use the exact words:  "In the love of truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all."

                  Rev. James Vila Blake, minister of the Unitarian churches in Evanston, IL and later Quincy, MA during the later 19th century wrote the following covenant, an adaptation of which is recited by this congregation, and other UU congregations each Sunday as an affirmation of faith, or a covenant:

 

Love is the spirit of this church

And service is its law.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another.

 

 

                  Congregational statements of covenant may be short or long, with histories that are equally short or long, but behind the words are always the ideas of sacred promises to uphold one another in faith to commonly held, deeply felt beliefs of the heart and spirit, to be there for one another, and continue to seek truth together. 

                  Just because covenants are about right relationships at church, it doesnŐt mean these relationships will always be smooth sailing.  Like all relationships, covenantal relationships will have ups and downs.   It is the conscious effort to remain in right relationship that sets covenants apart.   Can this make a difference? Is covenant such a big deal?  I believe it does and I believe it is. 

                  LetŐs go back to our story about Betty and Bill.  What would BettyŐs relationships have been like had they been covenantal relationships with her previous boyfriends and her ex-husband? Would they have been any better? Maybe not, but had Betty been insistent upon having right relationships, if not Mr. Right, perhaps she would have extricated herself from bad relationships sooner.  Why is she shying away from a marriage proposal from Bill and what sounds like it might be a covenantal right relationship now?  We donŐt know all the details, but maybe

fear of commitment; trust issues, self-esteem issues all have something to do with it.  It could be that her telling Bill to get lost is a defense mechanism to avoid the hurt of Bill leaving or the relationship not working out.   BettyŐs been on the wrong end of too many broken promises before, so sheŐs afraid to make a pledge of covenant now. 

                  The need for covenantal right relationships at church extends beyond the covenant made between members of the congregation.  There is also the matter of the covenant made between the minister and the congregation.  Covenants among the staff of a church help the overall health of a congregation, as do covenants among church boards.   These covenants are important because all church relationships are faith based.  Church relationships deal with the whole person in body, mind and spirit in the context of a community gathered around common values and a faith perspective.  Churches are not structures of wood and stone, but communities of people. Both the word church and the word congregation in their etymology refer to groups of human beings, not buildings.  All the relationships that go into making church work are sacred and proper relationships for covenanting.

                  Like our congregations, our modern liberal religious ministry faces many obstacles.  One of the chief obstacles is an understanding of the ministry, both by ministers and by congregations. 

                  There was a time, say in the days of the Cambridge Platform, or during our churchŐs first covenant in 1747, when ministers were expected to preach, teach, and perform the offices, which meant presiding at baptisms and the LordŐs Supper.  Here are the RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE MINISTRY from current guidelines for the practice of ministry published by the UU MinisterŐs Association:

 

 

Parish Administration

 

Community Leadership

 

District and Association Affairs

 

Ethics and Morality

 

Pastoral Counseling

 

Planning and Conduct of Services of Worship

 

Preaching

 

Publicity and Promotion

 

Religious Education (Adults and Children)

 

Human Relations

 

The Arts

 

The History of Religions

 

Theology

 

                  Whoa!  Thank God, the guidelines also go onto to say each minister has a different set of gifts and talents and no one minister in any congregation can be expected to fulfill all of these roles and that each minister has to make arrangements as to which areas he or she will be responsible for within the congregation.  Still, itŐs a much heavier load and a much different world than the puritan framers of the Cambridge Platform or Rev. Ruggles ever could have imagined.  How does a minister manage a relationship with a congregation? Through ethical guidelines and a letter of agreement, commonly called a letter of covenant, not a contract.  Among some of the promises a minister makes to other ministers and the UUA and to you our congregations in covenant are:

I will respect the traditions of the congregation, enriching and improving these in consultation with the members.

 

I will hold to a single standard of respect and help for all members of the congregational community of whatever age or position.

 

I will respect absolutely the confidentiality of private communications of members.

 

I will exercise a responsible freedom of the pulpit with respect for all persons, including those who may disagree with me.

 

I will encourage by my example an inclusive, loyal, generous, and critical spiritual leadership.

 

In word and deed I will live and speak in ways representing the best Unitarian Universalist tradition and leadership in the larger community.

 

I will maintain a prophetic pulpit, offering to the community religious and ethical leadership.

 

I will encourage members' participation in efforts to solve community problems.

 

 

                  The role of ministry in a congregation is not reserved just to the minister.  Any one who holds a staff position or position of leadership in the congregation provides professional or lay leadership in a type of ministerial role because ministry means service.  The word minister is a translation of the Latin ministrare, which translates the Greek word diakonos, or servant, literally a person who serves at table, a waiter.  Those who serve include the board.  A sample church board covenant might read as follows:

As members of the Church Board, we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each Church Board member, staff member and member of the congregation.

This means addressing each other with respect and entertaining opinions different from our own with patience and good will.  We will receive suggestions with belief in their positive intent and, in turn, we will make suggestions that serve the mission of our church.  We will strive to make decisions based on their impact on the long-term health of the congregation.

In communicating with other Board members, staff, or the congregation, whether in person, in writing, over the phone, or via electronic mail, we will adhere to guidelines for confidentiality and positive interaction with each other.

We will remember that our purpose as Board members is to maintain and improve the mission and ministry of our church and the UUA so that it may continue to create an inclusive and welcoming community of celebration, friendship, fellowship, spiritual exploration, social justice and lifespan faith development for Unitarian Universalists, their families and friends.

 

                  The key to all covenantal relationships is keeping them, being there, working on them, making the promises last day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year.  Weathering the times when we need to call each other back to the promises, lest they be broken beyond repair, because there is no doubt there will be times when all relationships will be strained.  Covenants give us a marker to right our course when we wander; a beacon to light our way when it gets dark, so that should we begin to lose the path, or should the dusk descend we wonŐt let our relationships fall to the entanglements and darkness of deception, infidelity, half-truth, and half-effort. 

                  We must stop coming to church with a consumer mentality – what can I get out of it at the lowest cost. We need to come to church with a partnership or right relationship mentality; the mentality that says, ŇI am willing to invest myself in this relationship if you are, too.  I am willing to be open, honest, intimate, committed – if you are as well.Ó  If church is to work at its best, church must work on the covenant model, not the consumer model.  If youŐre coming to church with the attitude of ŇwhatŐs in it for me?Ó I seriously recommend that you just stop coming, or at least ask yourself why youŐre here. However, if you are prepared to come to church with a give and take attitude, youŐre in the right place.  No healthy relationship lasts when itŐs a one-way relationship.  One-way relationships are not right relationships.  Right relationships also have room for wrongs.  There are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with conflict, stress, and anger in a relationship.  Right relationship is about open and honest communication.  When conflict arises, one side in a relationship does not seek to win, but always seeks understanding and reconciliation.

                  All Bettys and all Bills need to understand that no Betty and no Bill will ever be perfect.  No congregation will ever be perfect.  In covenant we donŐt seek to change imperfections as much as we try to perfect the relationship.  ItŐs not a question of whether or not one or the other is perfect, itŐs whether youŐre perfect for each other, whether itŐs your partner or your religious community.