We Live into Our Relational Covenant
My first auto mechanic gave me some great advice. “Karen, along with oil changes and tune ups, don’t forget to get your tires rotated and balanced regularly. Once a tire starts to show uneven wear, it’s not easily corrected.”
Churches aren’t cars but this wisdom applies to congregations all the same. It’s far better to stay on top of alignment and balance issues than it is to try to address them later when the damage has been done.
Last year, Rocky Mountain Conference Associate Minister Erin Gilmore recruited me and several others to consult with a congregation in crisis.
Teams of two listened to any and all comers. This was a sacred task, to be sure, and profoundly painful. Believing themselves to be acting in the best interests of the church, believing they had a lock on God’s leading, members of the church had in countless ways inflicted injuries upon one another over the course of many years.
Half of what I heard I would call sins of commission—a willful act here, a controlling move there, seeds of gossip planted here, resentments cultivated there.
The other half of what I heard qualified as sins of omission—someone not speaking up when the gossip mill churned, someone else not making amends when they were warranted, or choosing to remain silent at a committee or congregational meeting when speaking the truth in love would have called everyone back from the abyss of untrue, unkind, unnecessary remarks.
When our response team’s listening sessions were over and we processed what we had heard, we met with the leadership of the church to offer a report on what we felt were the church’s core issues. Then we made recommendations we felt would help realign what had, over time, been thrown seriously out of whack.
One of those recommendations was that the church work together to create a relational covenant. Then, that they bless and commit to the covenant in worship. And then, so that these promises not go forgotten, the congregation would need to be intentional about keeping these behavioral expectations front and center.
As I sat in the meeting where our team’s recommendations were made, the wisdom of my mechanic kept circling in my head. Better to rotate and balance from the beginning, I remember thinking. Correcting uneven wear after it has taken hold is no easy feat. It’s slow work and hard, and it requires more dedication than our quick fix culture is typically comfortable with.
This morning, as we make our way to Pentecost and the covenanting we will do as members that morning in worship, we are thinking together about our Relational Covenant and the vision it holds out for us.
It speaks volumes about Community Spirit that even in our first year as a congregation those present had the wisdom to create and adopt this covenant.
Even before the church had much mileage under its shared belt, even before folks had made any big decisions or taken any controversial leaps, the Spirit of Love was clearly on the move and people were listening. Responding. Investing in creating a preferred future by outlining foundational behavioral expectations for one another.
Years ago I was privy to a conversation between a couple who were having a rough go. “If you would just behave,” one said to the other, “everything would be great.” “What does ‘just behave’ mean?” I wondered aloud. “Think about it. It’s obvious.” Except it wasn’t. Not at all.
If lack of clarity about expectations in a love relationship is perilous, all the more so when a group of people come together. Making the implicit explicit is a gift and a grace to everyone involved.
Some of you know that my first four years in Montrose had me playing host to a passel of neighbor kids.
I remember understanding early on that we had to have a few ground rules or every time they were over, I’d be managing chaos.
And so these four things we agreed upon: no mean nicknames, if someone’s feelings got hurt we were to stop what we were doing to find out what was going on, playing fair, and being sure everyone who wanted a turn at something got it.
Unlike the Ten Commandments that needed to be etched in stone, all it took was naming these expectations and then giving a few casual reminders and the kids were off. Even with eight to ten kids hanging out, we rarely had drama and only occasionally had tears. Once or twice someone was sent home but mostly what we had were hundreds upon hundreds of hours of the sheer pleasure of being together.
Those years became a study in the kingdom life Jesus said repeatedly was close at hand. As close at hand as we are willing to let in, I would say. And the kids and I let it in often.
Three, almost four years into our adventures together, a new neighbor girl and her brother sniffed us out and started coming over to play. One afternoon when there were maybe a dozen kids happily playing in the backyard, the two newbies joined us. She was bossy and loud. He was whiney and given to false accusations. Soon the wheels started falling off and we were headed for the ditch.
Three of my regulars came over, concern written all over their faces. We formed a tight huddle. “They’re being awful,” one whispered. “They’re ruining everything,” said another, his voice filled with genuine sadness. “What’s wrong with them?” a third asked, her eyes huge as saucers.
“They’re new to this way we have of being together,” I suggested. “We’re going to need to help them learn how we do things, just like you learned to do in the beginning.”
The three grew quiet. And in a moment I will never forget, I watched lightbulbs go on over the heads of these little human beings. In a flash, they understood something they had not grasped before. These principles we had, these guidelines we’d agreed upon weren’t for good manner’s sake.
Our covenant with each other to care, share, and play fair amplified our joy and kept drama at bay.
In his book, Different Drum, M. Scott Peck (whom you may know from his wildly popular book The Road Less Traveled) touches on this same truth as it relates to churches.
If the culture we create is founded on genuine love and respect for one another, if it makes space to sort out difficult, touchy matters with care and compassion, if the church brings its relational challenges out into the open rather than glossing them over or coping with them through passive aggressiveness and gossip, then the church is able to harness its energies for the greatest possible good both within and beyond itself.
Said another way, a healthy congregation isn’t simply a joy to belong to, it gets incredible mileage doing what God has called it to do. It moves forward easily with little to no energy wasted on unlovely behaviors or unskillful exchanges.
And here’s where I’m thinking again of the church experiencing conflict. They have many marvelous gifts they give to their community and world.
But with no clarity around what is and is not OK, with no shared conviction around how they will treat each other, with no heart for challenging each other when unlovely behaviors are on display, they keep getting 15 miles to the gallon instead of the 45 they are capable of.
What an unfortunate reality all the way around: unfortunate for them, for those in the community they meant to serve, and for the God this church was unable to glorify very well.
Community Spirit’s Relational Covenant is much, much more than a well-written document. To borrow from our friends in the recovery movement, it’s really more akin to a 12-Step Program. A series of commitments we do our best to live into day in and day out so that we maximize our kingdom potential and reduce the potential for uneven, debilitating wear on our shared tires.
Being apart this year has reduced some of the rubs that inevitably come when we are in relationship one to the other. And yet even as we have been relating at a distance, we are still faced with relational challenges because as wonderful as we each are, we are also human. And humans say and do things that are sometimes unskillful and unlovely. Things that if allowed to go unchecked can undo some or even most of the good we had intended to do.
Every Christian community, from the 1st century to the 21st, has had to reckon with the reality that even as we follow the Lord of Love, we sometimes are not particularly loving, accepting, or forgiving.
In his book Different Drum, Scott Peck writes about the difference between pseudo-community and authentic community. He stresses that in genuine community, there is a willingness to reckon together with the inevitable strains that exist beneath the community’s surface.
It’s a hard ask in Christian community because many of us have been taught to equate being polite with being loving. But that’s not what Jesus’ example teaches us, not if we are looking closely. Jesus is always loving but sometimes he is frank and forward—even with his own disciples.
Years ago, I stumbled upon a kitchen conversation where a handful of folks were discussing someone’s recent rudeness. Apparently this individual had a long history of doing and saying unkind, even angry things. Things that not only stung when they were uttered but added up; over time this caused her fellow members to pull away because they got tired of walking on the woman’s eggshells.
“Why not speak to her about this,” I asked innocently. “Why not tell her how her behavior affects you as a church, because it clearly does.”
“Oh, that’s just the way she is,” someone who had grown up with her sighed. “She’s not going to change.”
“You must not love her very much then,” I said. You could have heard a pin drop in that bustling church kitchen. It was the most loving, honest thing I could think of to say. Even though saying it wasn’t easy. Not by a long shot.
As we make our way to Pentecost and the covenantal promises we are inspired to make as members for the coming year, I keep remembering a proverb. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Going together is one of the most beautiful, meaningful experiences we could hope to have in life. And yet going together is not without its interpersonal challenges. It’s what we do with those challenges and how we strive as one to keep them to a minimum that enable us to live into our kingdom potential.
For God’s great glory and our great joy.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, soon we will be making promises to you and one another, all of them borne of love. Ground us in your love. Help us see one another through the eyes of this love.
Increase in us the capacity to do the hard, challenging work of being together in life-giving, fruit-bearing ways. Let us each be quick to make amends and quick, too, to forgive. Free us from the temptation to harbor resentment or have unreasonable expectations for others.
Make of us the kind of community of which it can be truly be said: Because of the ways they love one another, God is alive and at work in the world.