In September 2017, aided by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, the members of First Unitarian Church of Cleveland drafted a congregational covenant. It was the first time in recent memory that we made defining how we want to be together a priority.
Our covenant was written by many minds, refined and rethought until we created a living document that is an expression of who we are when we are our best selves as individuals and a community. It charges us to support each other, relate authentically to each other, keep the best interest of our church at heart, and be radically open to give and receive forgiveness when we are hurt or do harm.
These are not easy tasks.
The first is, perhaps, the most straightforward. Our covenant calls us to “support, encourage and care for one another.” We do this each time we interact — when we ask after our friends and neighbors, celebrate their triumphs, cheer them on through challenges, and mourn their losses. We even ritualize these acts in our candles of community, where the joys and sorrows of one member are committed as the joys and sorrows of us all.
Through our first charge, we find ourselves more able to “relate authentically to each other as an act of reverence.” Real authenticity requires a willingness to be vulnerable. To me, this means always acting in good faith and assuming that others are as well. Our covenant asks us to be open and honest about our needs, wants, visions, and opinions; to assume good intentions; and to be curious. When we act with this part of our covenant in mind, we can find common ground even when we disagree. It allows us to act in good faith, knowing that others are as well so that we can work toward effective solutions and compromises.
I think, for most, keeping the best interest of our church at heart is also easy. Our covenant calls us to “prioritize the mission and vision of the congregation over individual desires.” Acknowledging when what we want is not what is best for the body of our church takes self-reflection and humility, and putting aside personal interests and investments when our community is in need is essential to the healthy function of any organization. Our covenant also asks that we “honor the diversity of experiences and cultures that each of us brings to the whole” and “make space to listen deeply to all voices, especially those at the margins.” We do not pay lip service to the democratic process here, nor are these simply statements of political correctness. Our covenant requires us to truly celebrate and embrace our individuality and recognize our diversity — of opinion, of belief, of race, of education, of experience — makes us so much greater than the sum of our parts. We have much to teach and learn from each other.
The hardest of these tasks is forgiveness for others and for ourselves. In our covenant, we chose to state that we must always “work through conflicts in a healthy way to grow stronger as a community.” Going further, we asked each other and ourselves to “return to right relationship when our covenant is broken.” Both of these statements require forgiveness, and again, vulnerability. When we cannot possibly live up to our covenant, it asks even more of us. When we are hurt and in need of care, it asks us to give love. When we cause harm and are filled with indignation, it asks us for reflection and humility. It asks us to step out of our “default setting” and commit the radical act of admitting when we are wrong. These acts of forgiveness — the freely giving and receiving of unconditional love — are the essence of togetherness, of Beloved Community.
Forging a path into our future by doing “the meaningful work of the church, not just talk(ing) about it,” requires us to row in the same direction. Our Covenant is our compass, our Mission Statement is our map.
Look for my post about our Mission Statement next month as we kick off the 2018-2019 church year.