Let’s get rid of covenant as an organizing principle. No, really.

Let’s get rid of covenant as something that is supposedly at the center of Unitarian Universalism. Here’s why:

(1) In the past 15 or 20 years, various writers have conflated two different organizational principles under the rubric “covenant.” Unitarian churches which began their existence as Puritan churches of the Standing Order did indeed have covenants, that is, documents around which the congregation was organized. However, Universalist congregations and congregations founded well after the Puritan era are far less likely to have been organized as covenantal congregations; instead, the organizational principle was what is best called “associationism”; James Luther Adams studied this organizational principle in his work on voluntary associations. Although the two are often confused, associationism as an organizing principle can be looser and less formal than a covenant; we might consider a covenantalism as a subtype of associationism.

(2) Historically, those congregations that used covenants understood them quite differently than we do now. Congregations of the New England Standing Order consisted of two separate organizational structures. There was the society or the parish, which oversaw the finances, physical plant, etc., and which was organized around the concept of associationism; until those congregations were disestablished, the political structure of the town meeting took care of some of these responsibilities; after disestablishment, this half of a congregation might have been run by a meeting of pew owners, or other meeting, or elected officials, and such meetings were run along the lines of political business meetings. Then there was the church, which oversaw the religious lives of people, and oversaw who got to participate in the eucharist; the church was organized around the covenant; often, members had to make a public declaration of their adherence to the covenant, and a public declaration of adherence to doctrine or creed, before they were allowed as members of the church. Creedal statements, which we now find quite problematic, were often included in covenants.

(3) The concept of covenant has an unfortunate mental associations for people living in the United States: for most people, covenant is most often understood in its legal sense. Legal covenants include restrictive real estate covenants that enforced racial segregation in the past; today, restrictive real estate covenants enforce ecologically unsound behavior by, for example, requiring front lawns or preventing laundry from being hung outside to dry. Therefore, in order for a congregation to organize around a covenant, there needs to be constant education of newcomers as to the religious meaning of covenant, and how it is different from legal covenants.

(4) The concept of covenant has another unfortunate mental association for many people: many people associate covenants with behavioral covenants, documents or agreements which try to alter people’s behavior in specific ways. Indeed, many so-called religious covenants in today’s congregations are actually behavioral covenants. While good behavior is necessary in a congregation, it is not a sufficient principle around which to organize a religious institution.

To sum up, trying to impose a covenant on Unitarian Universalist congregations too often means imposing an alien concept; a concept, furthermore, which is too easily confused with other, non-religious, uses of covenant.1 I have come to believe that instead of imposing this alien concept on our congregations, we would be better off extending the work of James Luther Adams and others on understanding associationism.

Now I am sure you will tell me what you think about covenant….

First in a series on covenant. Part two. Part three.

1 I can think of a few congregations which use covenant well. The paradigmatic example is the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois (UUSG): the congregation wrote its first covenant in 1843 based on its members’ having lived in covenantal congregations in New England Standing Order churches prior to disestablishment; the congregation revised the covenant slightly in the 1880s, the covenant received strong theological support through the 50 year ministry of Charles Lyttle in the early 20th century, which support continues in the 30+ year ministry of Lindsay Bates today. UUSG came by its covenant naturally, and continues to support its covenant theologically.

7 thoughts on “Let’s get rid of covenant as an organizing principle. No, really.

  1. Bill Baar

    Thanks… as you note, we have a good covenant and we do continue to use it theologically; although I’m not sure how many members would agree or know that. It’s more reflexive than delibreate.

    That said, I sure think the doctrine of covenants (if that’s what we should call it) should be put up for review.

    I attended a service at Chicago’s All Souls Free Religous Fellowship a few weeks ago, and plan on attending again May 23rd. Their roots are in Chicago’s First Universalist and Jenkin Lloyd Jenkin’s All Souls Church that met at the Abraham Lincoln Center. So their roots go way back. I noticed they did not recite a covenant as part of their service. I don’t know why.

  2. naomi king

    Another provocative post, and good fodder for the religious conversation. I agree that as too often there are some weird and non-spiritual groundings for the use of the word covenant. I particularly dislike the naming of our mostly Protestant liturgies what stands in the place of doxologies and creeds as covenants. They were called affirmations for a reason: they primarily affirm the people gathered, rarely the larger calling forces of those people and those who went before and those who will come after.
    However, that doesn’t mean we can’t sacralize the term again. I am loathe to throw out good and important words because we’ve become squeamish about those words, largely through our own misuse or misappropriation of them. Seems like a good study program about covenant, compact, understanding, and association are in order. How about it? Will you be writing a new curriculum on this?

  3. Patrick Murfin

    This use of covenant has become an ideological buzz word in recent years, despite completely ignoring the Universalist half of our heritage and such “aberrational horrors” as the Fellowship movement and the Church of the Larger Fellowship. It is the planted standard around which Congregational Polity fundamentalism rallies its troops. Dan, I hope you are prepared for blowback on this. You will be getting it.

  4. Dan

    Patrick Murfin @ 3 — You write: “Dan, I hope you are prepared for blowback on this. You will be getting it.”

    I’m flattered by the thought that someone might actually pay attention, but I’m easy to ignore. For example, for years I’ve been highly critical of trying to implement John Carver’s Policy Governance ™ in congregations, and received little or no blowback.

    I admit I wouldn’t mind starting an open conversation about this issue.

  5. Scott

    Dan @4 – Perhaps I don’t understand enough about Carver’s model to discern your criticisms, but I looked through a bunch of your previous entries for tags, keywords and categories related to Carver, governance and church admin, and the main criticisms I found were:

    1. Carver doesn’t make sense for small congregations, and probably needs to be adapted for mid-sized congregations.
    2. The minister is going to get the blame for poorly-set policy, as well as poor execution, so should be actively involved in making policy as well as executing it.
    3. A minister is not a CEO, and is not trained to be
    4. A minister is the psychological center of the congregation, and should be at its organizational center as well.

    I don’t see these as particularly contentious – are there other posts I missed? Or are there subtleties here I’m not catching?

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