Our monthly ministry theme for the month of September is covenant, and that theme is particularly poignant for me during this time. Many of us, myself included, are grieving over the resignation of associate minister Rev. Dr. Leon Dunkley, and as we come to terms with this transition I see some people turning to our congregational covenant. But what does it mean to covenant with one another, particularly in times when we may be feeling broken? Are our covenants uplifting us or are they silencing honest expression of pain?
In our children and youth religious education classes we do a lot of covenanting this time of year. When I introduce the concept of covenanting in the RE classroom, I always say that a covenant is a promise we make to one another. It isn’t a set of rules, it isn’t used for punitive purposes, and it isn’t imposed upon a group from an outside authority. A covenant is a set of promises we make to one another in order to help create as safe, supportive, and positive an environment for being together that we can.
I’ve been a part of creating quite a few covenants in my life, and there are several things I see come up again and again. One of those commonly held covenantal statements has been called into question in many of the more recent covenant creation gatherings I have been a part of. That statement is this: assume best intentions. Assuming best intentions is not, on its face, problematic, but that phrase can become code for “don’t say anything if someone said or did something that hurt you, because you should assume they didn’t mean to hurt you”. And that is problematic. Covenants are supposed to help us navigate through challenging conversations and situations, but sometimes they can be used to mask pain with politeness and “assuming best intentions”. We need our conversations to invite room for people to share deeply and honestly about how they are feeling, otherwise how can we ever make our spaces that safe, supportive, and positive environment that we are aiming for?
We have an excellent foundation on which to build when it comes to processing conflict at UUCSS. This community has a beautiful practice of gentleness, openness, and honesty in our interactions with one another. We will desperately need those things in the coming weeks and months, just as we will need to listen without defensiveness to both those lifting up positives and those raising concerns. As we continue to process Rev. Leon’s departure together and individually, we will need to lean on our covenantal relationships with one another. We need our spaces to be big enough to lift up that everyone in the room has the best interests of the community at heart and that everyone in the room needs to feel safe sharing their pain, frustrations, concerns, and questions. These things do not need to pull against each other, I know that we have the capacity to hold them both in the loving embrace of this incredible community. Our community, our relationships, and our covenant are deep enough.