On the Occasion of The Affirmation of a Staff Covenant
Today we celebrate a covenant created by the Pullen staff to guide how they work together. But this project began with a mistake. Last fall I accepted Nancy Petty’s invitation to facilitate a staff retreat. Nancy asked if I was going to send out a description and an agenda of what I was planning. I told her no, I didn’t plan to. Later a member of the staff called me to say it would help her prepare for the retreat to have some knowledge about it in advance. I realized I’d made a mistake and said, “Of course you need to know what to expect. What was I thinking?”
The staff was asking for a covenant—a set of promises between me and them about what we were going to do during our two days together. With that gentle reminder I sent the staff a description and an agenda.
There’s irony in this story because one of the main aims of the retreat was to create a staff covenant. The staff was well ahead of me saying, “You know we need some promises here about what we are going to do on the retreat. What about it?!” And they needed more than a verbal description. They needed me to write it down.
One of the remarkable things about Hebrew and Christian history is the way unspoken covenants were brought to consciousness, spoken, and written. This history is a story of God making promises with God’s people and the people making promises to God and each other. Again and again the promises were twisted and broken, yet again and again God acted to repair and restore them.
The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, is no doubt the clearest expression of God’s covenanting work. It begins with a statement of God’s merciful deliverance of Israel from bondage: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20:2-3) The exodus deliverance would have come to naught if God had not brought them into a covenant that spelled out the promises into which God was calling them. And making that covenant was not easy. It took forty years in the wilderness for Israel to work out its promises with God and within the community.
Today the church staff has signed a covenant they have worked on for five months. Their work expresses the same kind of work the Israelites did in the wilderness. They are putting into clear language the promises that bind them together and that shape how they relate to this congregation. This is what staff members said about covenanting together as they lead the congregation:
The size of this church and its diversity
create winds that sometimes batter us.
This covenant is life giving and essential.
Without it, without the staff relationships it describes,
you could become a crazy person.
The covenant holds the staff together,
giving us a sense of unity and common good.
Work on the covenant began with the September retreat and continued in monthly meetings from October through February. In September none of us knew that it would take almost half a year to complete the task.
This covenant is necessary if the staff is to navigate the weather of our congregation. Congregational winds here buffet them not because our congregation is unhealthy. It is robust. But it is diverse. It disagrees. It is out of step with conventional wisdom. It is full of people with strong opinions who don’t hesitate to say so. You might say it is made up of people who think otherwise. Today the staff looks to you to affirm their covenant as they work in this congregational weather.
If you want a durable and life-giving covenant, then you have to work together as equals to create it. And you have to take time to hear where God is at work in it. Staff members said it this way:
This covenant is ours.
We struggled with it.
It took a long time—
five months is a long time—
we stayed with it until
all of us could support it.
We could have just taken things for granted,
but we didn’t.
We didn’t take anything for granted.
Developing this covenant took five months, yes, but it was in the making much longer than that. At the September retreat staff members listed the promises that, although unspoken, they were already living by. They wrote down these implied promises and asked what needed to be revised and added. Promises old and new filled up pages of newsprint—twenty six promises in all, enough to take up every letter of the alphabet. “How can we make a covenant out of all this? It’s way too much,” they said. So they narrowed down the list and put the surviving promises into five groups. These groups of promises became the basis for the covenant they signed today.
The process of creating the covenant has been as important as the final words now written. Staff members said it this way:
These past five months have been a time
of growth and enjoyment
largely because of this conversation.
It has re-demonstrated
the value of taking time and
being intentional and
allowing every person’s voice
to be part of a common statement.
And that is divine.
“And that is divine” points to God as a partner in the covenant. But God is an elusive partner. Where and when and how God may act we cannot predict. God’s part is shrouded in mystery. Given this mystery, how, we may ask, can we discern where God is at work and what God calls us to do? An answer to this question lies in these words at the heart of the staff covenant. It says:
We will cultivate an attitude of attentiveness,
care, concern, and understanding
of one another.
We will celebrate the good work we and the congregation do,
offering affirmation and gratitude
for one another’s gifts and achievements.
We will provide non-judgmental space for one another
to voice mistakes we have made, to ask questions,
to express apprehensions, as well as
to share joys and triumphs.
We will encourage direct communication about concerns and issues—
staying in relationship during times of disagreement,
listening to one another, working toward
and honoring a common understanding.
I believe God works relentlessly to create just these qualities of community. When we pursue these things our work resonates with God’s work. The mystery is still there, yes, but our experience of God becomes more tangible.
How does this staff covenant connect with our work as a congregation. In what way can it make a difference in . . .
how we conduct councils and committees,
how we raise the budget and allocate our resources,
how we organize and teach our classes,
how we carry out our mission of social justice,
how we care for the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden,
how we care for children, youth, and their families,
how we worship,
and how we make decisions as a congregation?
All these are how questions. A covenant is about how we do things. The staff covenant is about how they want to act and relate to each other and our congregation.
If you look carefully you’ll see that these how questions are already being asked and answered in those councils and committees that have created covenants stating the promises that guide how they will work together—sometimes these covenants are called ground rules.
These covenants in councils and committees rest on a larger encompassing congregational covenant. That covenant is the grain of mustard seed in Pullen that has decade after decade grown into a great plant. It is from the Prophet Micah and it says:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.
It’s all there—
Our promise to do justice in our congregation and in our world.
Our promise to act with kindness in our congregation and in our world.
Our promise to walk humbly with God in our congregation and in our world.
In our effort to live this covenant sometimes we falter, we become distracted, we miss our aim, we fail. Yet we persist. We can look back at decisive moments in our history and see how we have worked hard to keep faith with this covenant. And it is incredibly rare for a congregation to do such a thing.
We will gather around these tables today to take communion. They represent the tables Jesus set in his ministry—tables that included disciples, seekers, sinners, and those cut off from the community. In that place and time to eat bread together was to enter into a covenant of trust. Today when we eat this bread and drink this cup we participate in a covenant—the covenant spoken by the Prophet Micah, the covenant of Jesus’s table, and the covenant of the Pullen staff.