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Fulfilling the Promise: Congregational Covenants Toward a Common Vision

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General Assembly 1999 Event 302

Read Wooden's full script (PDF).

How do you do undertake strategic planning with 1000-plus congregations? That was a question posed by Kay Aler-Maida, Chair of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Fulfilling the Promise Committee, to the 2000-plus delegates and registrants gathered in Salt Lake City's Salt Palace on Saturday, June 26. Strategic planning, Aler-Maida said, involves struggling with, working dynamically with, ideas around mission and covenant. To illustrate both the importance of this work for healthy congregations, and the many forms the work can take, representatives from eleven Unitarian Universalist congregations took the stage to share their stories with the audience in a riveting program written for the Fulfilling the Promise committee by the Rev. W. Frederick Wooden, minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn, NY.

Revs. Kenneth Hurto and Linda Olsen Peebles serve the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church, in Alexandria, VA, ministering to 700 people—500 adults, 200 children. The two ministers developed a covenant in order to find a new way to become partners in serving this large congregation. Hurto was called to the congregation in 1985 as parish minister. In 1995, Peebles was called as minister of religious education. Faced with the challenge of creating intentional ways of being in relationship with each other and the congregation, they "wanted to work to serve the many needs of the whole congregation; to develop a style of leadership that was not hierarchical, but cooperative, fostered by an appreciation of our different gifts. We realized," they said, "that we would have to be ready to make promises, that sometimes we would break promises, and that we had to be willing to forgive each other, and renegotiate our promises. That requires trust, and a mutual covenant. We created a covenant, not commands; a relationship based on mutual collegiality rather than hierarchy. We shared this covenant with our congregation," they said, [and] "our covenant for a team ministry is central to our work with each other and to the congregation."

Kate Kidder, a member of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO, explained the youth covenant and leadership program that had developed in her congregation, so that "we take responsibility to each other seriously." With this covenant, she said, "We have developed acceptance of one another and spiritual growth…in our youth community, not only do we feel a responsibility to help each individual, but to help the community."

Ted Fetter, a member of the Unitarian Church of Princeton, NJ, spoke about building diversity in the church. The idea of intentional diversity in his congregation, he said, had been "controversial from the start." He continued, "We were active in campaigns for social justice, but few of us thought those campaigns needed to take place in our own congregation…we all said we favored diversity in the congregation, but few felt we needed to allocated a seat on the board to ensure attention on this subject…Two years ago, we hosted a large interfaith program on diversity; and six months ago the congregation voted to maintain the board position for diversity permanently.

"We began a partnership with an African American congregation in town. We joined last year to honor a Princeton high school senior who had led multi-cultural and diversity events in the schools. Last year, our two congregations joined with three others to form an interfaith group dedicated to fight racism. We call the group, "Not In Our Town," and we are beginning to be noticed. There are plenty of issues…racial profiling, access to affordable housing, and entry into the gifted and talented programs in the schools. We are contacting local leaders, as representatives of communities of faith. We have started to engage hearts as well as minds. Our hope is that ours will become a church where friendship, diversity and commitment will prevail."

Other presentations were offered by the Rev. H. Vann Knight, minister, of the Unitarian Church of Victoria, BC, who explained the congregation's Covenant of Good Relations; Shayna Wesoly-Appel of the Unitarian Society of New Haven, Hamden, CT, who talked about efforts to create a safe congregation and promote an ethic of right relationship; and Edward Carroll, member of First Universalist Church, Denver, CO, who spoke on how to create cooperatively, and then honor and live out, a congregational mission statement. Katie Lee Crane, Minister of First Parish Church of Sudbury, MA, talked about her congregation's covenants to one another.

Leslie Takahashi-Morris is a member-on-loan to a new congregation in the Thomas Jefferson District. She currently serves as co-chair of the steering committee for All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist in Durham, NC. She was joined by the Rev. W. Chester McCall, III, new congregation minister for All Souls, in explaining the covenant developed by four congregations (Eno River, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Raleigh, Community Church of Chapel Hill, and the UU congregation of Hillsborough) to support the development of All Souls. All Souls, an intentionally multi-cultural, multi-racist congregation, has held services for less than a year, and is a community where, said Morris, "the promise of Unitarian Universalism is present—where scripture encompasses many faith traditions."

McCall, a person of color, repeated part of the script of a play that had been presented as part of the Journey Toward Wholeness Sunday program for Eno River and the Thomas Jefferson District annual meeting entitled, "How To Remain an All-White Congregation," and said, "I am who you need to fulfill the promise of Unitarian Universalism. How can you do it without me?"

Other stories were offered by Sue Stukey, Second Unitarian Church, Chicago, IL, Bill McClane, UU Congregation of Marietta, GA, and Rev. Barbara Carlson and Rev. Kathryn Hawbaker of the UU Church of Bloomington, IN.

Denny DavidoffThe promise of Unitarian Universalism, said program narrators John Tolley and Silvia Behrend, "is what is of utmost importance to us. We may create it, but it is also creating us. Worship is fulfilling the promise. The other side of worship is witness—on one side, we receive the promise, and on the other side, we fulfill it by our witness." Participants were asked to complete a card, saying "This is my promise," which was collected as they left the Salt Palace Ballroom. The cards were posted on balloon-decorated stands in the lobby and vestibules of the Salt Palace, and showed impressive commitment to continuing the work that will help Unitarian Universalism fulfill its promise.

"Fulfilling the Promise," said Tolley and Behrend, is "nothing less or more than shaping that which is worthy, and being shaped by it. And," they said, "that process is like a dance."

And with those words, Tolley and Behrend moved into a dance, to the lilting sounds of recorded fiddle music and the applause of a moved and inspired audience.

Reported by Debbie Weiner.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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