This lesson explains the process of creating a household covenant and how creating a covenant can support our relationships with family, friends, and community members. You might even find it useful to make a covenant with yourself (try it out).
The lesson includes:
- Covenants and Unitarian Universalism
- How To Create a Household Covenant
- Keeping Our Covenants
Share your work! Once you have completed the lesson and created your own household covenant, please take a photo of the finished product and send it and a brief explanation of your experience to firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to see a gallery of some of the household covenants shared by the GUUF community.
Covenants and Unitarian Universalism
What is a Covenant?
“Covenant” is Latin for “come together” and means a “solemn agreement” or “promise from the heart” regarding a course of action between parties.From the Unitarian Universalist Association website
A Covenantal Faith — The practice of creating a covenant with one’s community is central to Unitarian Universalism. Ours is a covenantal faith, not a credal faith. This means that identifying oneself as a Unitarian Universalist does not require an individual to hold a certain set of beliefs. Rather, being a Unitarian Universalist requires that we agree to enter into “right relationship” with one another based on covenantal agreements. The phrase “right relationship” comes from the 18th century Quaker John Woolman, whose writings were a major influence on 19th century Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing. Woolman called on us to live in right relationship with all creation.
The 7 Principles as a Covenant — The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism are a covenant developed by members of the Unitarian Universalist Association (last updated in 1985) and codified into the UUA’s bylaws. These principles represent the promises that members of Unitarian Universalist congregations make to one another about how we want to relate to one another and with the world. Read more about how these principles were developed in Being UU at Home Lesson 2: The 7 Principles Made Visual.
Hebrew, Christian, and Puritan Roots
Unitarian Universalism grew out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and the creation of covenantal relationships is a central theme in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures describe God as a covenant-making deity. The biblical Old Testament tells the story of a series of covenants made by God with the Hebrew people. Stories of the Hebrew patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David detail significant moments when the covenant with God required renewal. For Christians, the story of Jesus in the biblical New Testament establishes of a “new covenant” between God and all people. Throughout the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, covenants with God served to establish guidelines for how people should relate to each other in their communities and in the wider world.
The foundations for the way Unitarian Universalists enter into covenant with one another were set in the 1600’s by New England Puritans who had come to America looking for the freedom to form religious communities in a new way. In 1648, these Puritans wrote The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, which established the notion of a religious community defined by individuals freely entering into covenant with one another based on a common promise to “walk together in the ways of truth and affection.” This way of forming covenantal community was both radically new and also based in the ancient forms of covenant found in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. The Unitarian and Universalist roots of our faith’s history grew out of this foundation set by the Puritans. Click here to read more about this history.
Covenants and Unitarian Universalism Today
For contemporary Unitarian Universalists, the practice of entering into covenants with one another extends beyond the 7 Principles to developing covenants within congregations, small group ministry programs, religious education classes, and even families. The Rev. David A. Miller writes that “living into our covenantal relationships” is a “spiritual practice that is particularly Unitarian Universalist”. This spiritual practice is central to how we relate to each other and the world. See the Unitarian Universalist Association’s guide for creating a congregational “Covenant of Right Relations” here: https://www.uua.org/safe/covenant.
Here is a short video about the importance of covenant to Unitarian Universalism:
How to Create a Household Covenant
A Step-by-Step Guide
Follow the steps below to create a covenant with your household (or your workplace, volunteer group, or any group of people. You can make a covenant with yourself, if you would like.)
- First, all members of the household (including children) should gather together with an understanding about what you are about to do.
- Individuals should enter into a covenant by choice, so it doesn’t make any sense to compel a family member to accept a covenant, nor does it make sense to make a covenant for someone who is not present at the meeting.
- Note that a covenant is not a list of rules to follow, but ways of being together. For parents, it is not a way to get your children to behave. It is a tool for your whole family to reflect on how you should be together, and what you need from one another.
- Next, have everyone brainstorm ideas for what to include in your covenant.
- Assign one person to act as a scribe to record everyone’s ideas. Try to do this on a piece of paper or some other format that will be large enough for everyone to see. Depending on your household, you may want to have each person brainstorm a list and then use that as a starting point to brainstorm together as a group.
- All ideas are acceptable during brainstorming. Instead of saying “no” to any ideas, instead say “yes, and…” in order to encourage sharing and getting to the heart of what individuals need.
- Spend about 10-15 minutes recording ideas. Some ideas might be similar to each other or seem like they might fall under the same category, and that’s ok. During this step, just record as many ideas as you can.
- Now, everyone should take some time to read through the suggestions and see if there are any common themes. Are there some suggestions that could be combined into one? Are there some that are very specific and could be included in a larger category?
- Spend some time discussing how you might combine your suggestions into a shorter list of around 10 or fewer promises. As you work out the final wording of each promise, consider the following recommendations:
- Use positive language. Remember, these are not “house rules” that everyone must follow. They are promises you are making to one another in order to sustain positive relationships. Try to phrase them as such. One way to do this is to use positive, instead of negative, language whenever possible. For instance, if one suggestion is “Don’t come into my room without asking,” this could be rephrased as “We promise to respect each other’s personal space.”
- Avoid punitive language. Because these are promises, not rules, avoid any punitive “or else” clauses. For instance, “We promise to speak to each other respectfully,” might be a good promise to include. “We promise to speak to each other respectfully, or else we must lose our screentime privileges” is punitive and not in the spirit of what a family covenant should be.
- Once you have created your family covenant, decide on a way to display it in an attractive and easy to read location, where everyone can read it.
- As an additional step, have each family member who enters into the covenant sign their name to show their intention to stay in relationship with the other members of the family.
See the image on the right for an example of a family covenant offered on the UUA website. This covenant was created by Rev. Jason Seymore and his family in Springfield, MA. Click here to read the text of this covenant and learn more about how it was created.
Share your work! Once you have created a household covenant, please take a photo of it and send it and a brief explanation of your experience to email@example.com. Click here to see a gallery of some of the household covenants shared by the GUUF community.
Renewing Your Covenant
A covenant is a living document. It is always ok and expected that you will need to return to the covenant to reassess, refine, and revise the promises you have made to each other. If you have regular household meetings, it may help to set aside time to review your household covenant in order to allow everyone to ask themselves if anything is missing or if anything needs refining.
Keeping Our Covenants
Keeping our covenants can be challenging, but making the shared expectations within a relationship explicit through a covenant can be a catalyst for renewed mutual understanding and personal growth. Rev. Sharon Wylie reminds us that “first and foremost, we need to be in right relationship with ourselves. We need to honor and preserve our own integrity, our own resilience, and our own beauty.” (This is why you might want to try creating a covenant with yourself). The practice of keeping a covenant can deepen both our understanding of others and our knowledge of ourselves by delineating healthy boundaries, dispelling false assumptions, revealing hidden needs, and making clear our shared values.
Rev. David A. Miller writes that a “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.” Miller’s article “Reflections on Right Relationship” includes a list of 18 questions you can ask yourself as a reminder of how we can stay true to our covenants as a spiritual practice. Click here to read Miller’s 18 questions.
What To Do When Someone Is “Out of Covenant”
Sometimes a person may behave in a way that is not in line with the household covenant. This person might be you! Remember, the covenant is a list of promises, not rules with associated punishments if the rules aren’t followed. We keep our promises to each other for the sake of sustaining right relationship with others. When someone acts in a way that is out of covenant, our goal should be to pull them back into relationship, not to punish them, which could lead to further alienation.
One way to think of this is that we should not “call someone out” when they are out of covenant. We should, instead, do what is necessary to “call them back in” to covenant and back into right relationship. This shifts the focus from what an individual might have done wrong to what all those in the relationship might need to return to a positive relationship.
Reconciliation as a Spiritual Practice
Focusing on reconciling relationships instead of enforcing rules can be difficult for both children, youth, and adults. Apologizing is hard. Moving forward past forgiveness to restoring right relations can be even harder. Parents will need to model this for children. Adults need to model this for each other. These are skills that require practice. If you want to explore these processes more deeply in your relationships, please check out this wonderful resource created by Paula Cole Jones, on “Reconciliation as a Spiritual Practice”: https://www.uua.org/leadership/library/reconciliation-spiritual-practice
Jones also wrote this following excellent article on her personal experience with reconciliation: “Reconciliation as a spiritual discipline”: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/reconciliation-as-spiritual-discipline
As you practice covenanting in your relationships, please remember this: Be gentle with each other and with yourself. We are all learning together.
This lesson was adapted from a “Unitarian Universalist Faith-at-Home Recipe Book” created for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “UU Identity” Rennaisance Module in May, 2020 by David Funderburk, Amy Nelson, and Matthew Shineman.