When the Vow Breaks

            What does it mean to be a community of covenant?

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

UU Community of the Mountains

Delivered September 25, 2016


100 years ago this week in The Union, the local Grass Valley newspaper, there was a notice that Josiah Royce had died September 14. Philosopher/theologian Josiah Royce was born here in Grass Valley. Long time professor at Harvard, he developed the idea of the Beloved Community, an idea that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later adopted and adapted in light of the civil rights movement and a commitment to non-violence.

Royce wrote, “A crowd, whether it be a dangerous mob, or an amiably joyous gathering at a picnic is not a community. It has a mind, but no institutions, no organizations, no coherent unity, no history, no traditions…”

In that spirit, last week I offered a little of our Unitarian Universalist history, our backstory. I spoke of our tradition’s rootedness in covenants – the mutual, voluntary promises members make to one another – rather than a creed that spells out what a person is required to believe.

I spoke primarily of a central covenant for a congregation, the covenant that names the largest and most compelling reasons for being a community in the first place, the deep goals members promise to pursue together, and that names the inspiring, demanding commitments such goals ought to ask of us. As I see it, everything else grows from that central covenant, which the congregation has to identify, articulate and sign on to. This congregation doesn’t have that kind of covenant (yet!) That’s work for the road ahead.

But there is another kind of covenant we make in our tradition, a set of promises that names how members will be with one another as they move toward those larger goals. These are behavioral covenants whose purpose is to protect and strengthen relationships, and this congregation does have a behavioral covenant, a Covenant of Right Relations.

Why have such a covenant?

For all the importance placed on relationship in religious communities of all kinds, we don’t always know how to do relationships well. People may commit to loving their neighbor, they’re just not always sure how to do it in the middle of a contentious committee meeting when people are upset and the emotional heat is high!

I learned this early in my life since my father was a teacher in a small Catholic school and since I was a church musician at a young age. I saw the inside of church life. I saw church life bring out the extraordinary best in people – amazingly generous and beautiful, loving behavior, AND I saw it bring out the worst in people – cruel, destructive behavior.

As someone put it:

To dwell above
with saints we love,
Oh, that will be the glory                               

But to dwell below
with saints we know,
Well, that’s another story.

Religious communities are human endeavors, and the stakes are high and personal since ideally we are working with values and ideas and feelings that really matter to us. So the quality of the relationships across the congregation is central to the community’s well-being and effectiveness.

20 years ago, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith started studying why some communities that looked vital and dynamic from the outside failed or continually lost members, and why some communities that looked like duds from the outside, thrived or survived against all odds. They discovered that it wasn’t the building or budget or staff size or the programs or the years of academic training the minister had that mattered most, it was the quality of the relationships.

“Relationships embodying qualities like caring, playfulness, collaboration, authenticity and deep trust engendered commitment…and personal fulfillment. They … fostered creativity and drew others in. These groups’ paths were not always smooth; group members did not always agree. But, there was an energy, commitment, and audacity that other groups strove for, yet never attained (Practicing Right Relationship, xii).”

This is my experience too, in a lifetime working in religious communities, and as a long-term investment, I’m inclined to invest first in the health and quality of the ways people here relate to one another. That’s what behavioral covenants are meant to assist, to protect and strengthen the health of the relationships, so that the congregation can do what it’s here to accomplish.

As is often true, this congregation’s behavioral covenant – or Covenant of Right Relations – was birthed in response to a particular time of conflict. The people who helped craft it for the members to vote on, have said that they didn’t think it was perfect at the time, but they felt it was important to create a covenant then, to get one in place. We’ll read through it in a few moments, knowing that a there is already a group exploring ways for this congregation to look at it again, to review and revise and renew it for the future.

But first I want to address or at least acknowledge the concern some people have that behavioral covenants that set standards and expectations for members’ behavior are unnecessarily restrictive at best, and maybe even dangerous.

This is a relatively common attitude in our tradition, since for so much of our history we have been a haven for refugees from other religious traditions, people who left traditions that felt too restrictive and demanding to them. When they arrive in our communities, wounded, they arrive wary and cautious around any strong expectations, and I can understand why. I have been that refugee in my lifetime. I have had that same wariness. Maybe you have too.

However, while we do insist on absolute freedom of thought and belief in our tradition, we do not enshrine absolute freedom of behavior, freedom to do whatever one wants however one wants without regard for others. Instead our religious community calls us to our most courageously loving and compassionate behavior. It matters what we do, not just what we think.

What many wary members have said to me over this years is, “We are all adults here. We don’t need a set of rules.” And in response, I simply ask people, I’ll ask you, to think about some of the adults that YOU know – those adults who do not play well with others.

One of the challenges is that we have learned different patterns in our families.

A colleague told the story of a congregant who often yelled when he spoke to her. In response, my colleague would lower her voice and act more and more calm, at which the gentleman would get even louder. Until someone helped her understand that she might need to raise her voice, maybe even yell back at this man. Once she did, he was fine.  If the norm in a family is to yell at one another, than that’s how you “know” others are engaged with you. When someone gets more and more silent more and more quiet, it feels like they aren’t caring, aren’t engaged. Conversely, when your formative environment was one in which surface calm was the priority, a raised voice or any tension is perceived as a sign of danger.

In part because of the different ways we learn to relate, Sellon and Smith say that life giving healthy relationships don’t just happen automatically or magically. They are created by people who make the choice to be “open, authentic, caring and curious” with each other (11).

Creating and entering a behavioral covenant is part of naming and committing to that choice, to nurturing and preserving relationships through our behaviors. And we make this choice, voluntarily, not only because of the good it will do us, but also because there is a larger shared goal we want to reach together.

Let’s try UUCM’s covenant on for size:

UUCM Covenant of Right Relations

Recognizing that conflict is normal in human relations and wishing to relate to others as harmoniously as possible, I sincerely intend to:

Before we read the rest of the covenant, I want to not that I think in terms of conflict being natural rather than normal, not wanting to imply that conflict is the norm. You don’t HAVE to have conflict all the time. Really.

Also, I’ve noticed that UUCM has a tendency to use soft language when it comes to expectations and commitments, as if you don’t want to ask too much of people.

My first title for this sermon was “Great Expectations? or Anything Goes? Usually covenants are more like a wedding vow. “Do you promise…? I DO!  I will!” Rather than, “Do you promise to love and cherish…? I’ll Try. Or, I sincerely intend to.”

I can imagine that some people, taking a literal interpretation, might say, “I can’t in good faith promise that I won’t EVER speak unkindly, so the best I can do is sincerely intend to.

I served a family that took a trip to Canada, only to realize at the border that they had not brought birth certificates or passports for the children. At one point while they were detained, a border guard asked the young son, “Are you absolutely certain that these are your parents?” Responding perfectly logically, the boy said, “No.” As far as he knew, they were, but he couldn’t be absolutely certain.

Covenants are by nature aspirational. They imply “I sincerely intend to.” If these were commitments of which we could be absolutely certain, we wouldn’t need covenants around them. The value of the stronger language is the stronger hold it has on those of us who enter a covenant. “I will” is a different level of commitment than “I sincerely intend to.”

Okay, here is UUCM’s current Covenant of Right Relations what members have promised one another, or sincerely intended to one another.

  • Treat others with kindness, empathy and respect.
  • Communicate with patience, flexibility, and a willingness to negotiate in the spirit of meeting as many needs as possible.
  • Be aware of my own thoughts, feelings, and needs, and share them directly and honestly with others, without judgment or blame.
  • Invite and listen to all points of view, respecting others’ feelings and needs and encouraging minority opinions.
  • Take responsibility for my own mental, emotional, and spiritual balance, asking for support when I need it.
  • Be mindful of the needs of the group as a whole, mourning together when individual needs cannot be met.

Notice how those felt to you as commitments that might help build healthy, strong, dependable trust-filled relationships. You’ll have a chance sometime in the future to re-envision those commitments.

So what do you do when you or someone else doesn’t hold to the covenant, when these vows are broken? (Which they will be, since none of us is perfect.)

When we break our vows in a community the covenant is there to remind us of our own commitments, the choice we made to be part of a community, not just part of a crowd, even when we disagree, even when the vote doesn’t go our way, even when the sermons are “insufferable.”

“Covenant offers us an invitation to be curious and humble, to make room for mistakes by pre-promising that–when we fail–we are willing to forgive and try again.” – Rev. Renee Ruchotzke.

A covenant is not a set of laws used by other people to put us in some kind of prison or to punish us. It is there to help us call each other back to behavior that strengthens trust and well-being, rather than behavior that harms trust and well-being. Members have a responsibility – not just the capability – to call each other back to, and help each other to live the covenant, to live those more loving and life-giving behaviors, to help each other “come ‘round right,”  in the words of the song.

We can’t know what is in someone’s mind and heart for certain. It’s not about motivation, and it is not about whether someone is a good or bad person. It’s about observable behavior and the effects that behavior is having on the health and wellbeing of the community and its members.

A community like this often creates a team of people to help members find their way back into covenantal behavior when it’s difficult. It is sometimes called a right relations team.  That’s an option for this congregation to consider, though it’s important to remember that every member has a responsibility to help each other do this.

I would name today that the starting place is honesty, with ourselves, first of all and with others. I its important to name our hurt, and to learn to do it in ways that do not shame and that call people back to relationship-sustaining behavior. Ultimately the work then is to help people rebuild trust by helping them to be trustworthy – again and again, nurturing health and wellbeing, by living those covenanted behaviors.

The Rumi poem we sang at the beginning of the service includes the line, “Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, come, yet, again, come.” Or as Jesus said, forgive seventy times seven times, or an infinite number of times. But I need to say, while we’re on this subject, that there are limits to the amount of harmful behavior a community can sustain and survive with integrity.

On those rare occasions when a member cannot, even with help, manage their own behavior and bring it round, when that person’s behavior is continually hurtful, and undermining and destroying trust and goodwill, I believe that at some point a community has to be willing to say to that person, “We have made promises to each other for the good of all. If you cannot behave differently here than you are now, you cannot be a part of this community.”

[shield self with raised arms]

BLASPHEMY! I know. How could you ever exclude anyone?! In our liberal, universalist tradition, this is the thing many people have the hardest time imagining. They cannot imagine saying no to someone in this way. But that reluctance comes at the expense of the health and strength of the community.

The good news is, that that is a rare last resort, though it needs to be a conceivable possibility. Happily, it’s usually much less dire than that, and we’ll have many chances to practice and learn together around more mundane, everyday experiences.

To that end, I close with an invitation – a request really.

I ask you to take on a simple relationship-strengthening practice rooted in the part of the congregation’s covenant about sharing thoughts, feelings and needs directly and honestly with others. Direct communication is one the strongest and fastest ways to nurture health in relationships, in your family, where you work and in the congregation.

Here’s the practice: Avoid pass-through communication, communication in which “to get a message to someone, you tell someone else.” (Healthy Disclosure, 188-190)

The beauty of this is that it shows up often and in very ordinary ways, and you’ll get many chances to practice. A common scenario is something like, “Bob, would you please tell Carol that I’ll be late for the meeting tomorrow?” The message is for Carol but we tell Bob instead. Indirect communication.

Here’s your chance to practice while the stakes are low. Catch yourself, and say, “Wait, better yet, I’ll tell Carol myself.” And if someone asks YOU to tell Carol that they’ll be late for the meeting, or to pass on any other message, I encourage you to refuse, kindly. If it helps you, feel free to say, “Rev. Kevin asked us to practice direct communication and I’m trying it out. I’ll ask you please to tell Carol directly.”

It would seem that having Bob give a message to Carol is simply expedient and practical, but if our behavior pattern and habit is to communicate with someone indirectly through someone else, then that’s the same pattern we’ll likely rely on when the issues are much more important and the stakes higher. Remember the game of “telephone,” in which you pass a whispered sentence around a circle of people? By the time it reaches the end it is often completely different from the starting message. The same thing can and often does happen when we pass messages through someone else.

So here’s a low-threat way to strengthen everyone’s healthy communication muscles. Help each other avoid pass through communication and you’ll be making a wise investment.

The life a religious community is about many things – our spiritual, emotional, intellectual and social selves.  The foundations for our ability to grow in all those areas in a community are 1) a powerful shared focus and 2) the quality of our relationships. That’s why it’s important to covenant around each. That’s why I’m spending time in these first couple services laying groundwork for the road ahead.

People sometimes fear that covenants will hem us in, but in truth, covenants are meant to liberate us for the greatest possible personal growth, the deepest possible mutual love, the strongest chance to make a difference for those in the world who are suffering.

I trust that you as a community can eventually find yourselves in the place just right, and then it will indeed be in the valley of love and delight. Along the way the road may be “muddy and rough,” but “we’ll get there. Heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.”

So may it be.


Resources and Works Cited

Ruth, Kibbie S, and Karen A. McClintock. Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2007. Print.

Sellon, Mary K, and Daniel P. Smith. Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005. Print.

Rev. Ruchotzke’s quote came from a UUA Growing Vital Leaders blog entry: http://vitalleaders.blogs.uua.org/leadership-skills/reflections-on-right-relationship/

The closing lines quote the songs “Tis a Gift to be Simple” and “Woyaya,” from the UUA hymnbooks Singing the Living Tradition and Singing the Journey.