Covenants, Covenant Circles, and Consensus

Rev. Furrer will be drawing several themes together in an effort to help members and friends draw together and move forward together as the congregation decides what you’re going to do about Holly House and how you’re going to celebrate that decision.

Our March Second Sunday offering is for East Shore’s Khasi Hills Partnership with Unitarian churches in NE India. Our mission is to support primary education through our partnership’s Friendship School. We are also launching direct family-to-family educational sponsorships for students from families with few resources.

“Covenant, Covenant Circles, and Consensus”

March 10, 2019

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal tradition. Covenants delineate process goals (i.e., the way we do things together). Different from a creed (shared beliefs)

Long at the heart of “The New England Way” in religion – our way.

Covenant Groups / Covenant Circles The revitalization of this important ministry is underway here at ESUC.

Related to this is the Right Relations Committee, charged with helping us remain faithful to our covenant.

Small groups (covenant circles) do this by writing simple covenants and then following them. Usually these are plain and unadorned: participants to commit to show up regularly and fully engage in discussing deep, meaningful subjects about life and ethics, and society. Made up of five to twelve people Covenant Circles are designed to generate intimacy and “ultimacy”—and at their best, they really do. People grow in trust and understanding and respect for one another. They become more sensitive and aware. Covenant circles are laboratories, you could almost say, for right relations.

Larger congregations often find it helpful to establish more formal structures until such behavior becomes normative. Anne Kerlee and Nicole Duff and I are busy revitalizing ESUC’s covenant circles and inviting more church members to get connected to one of more of them.

UU churches are covenantal communities; not creedal (i.e., not centered around what we collectively believe) but centered around ways we agree to behave with one another. We’ll treat everybody with dignity; we’ll employ democratic forms, etc.

Bylaws claims about Roberts Rules of Order not withstanding, most church decisions are made by consensus, whenever possible. People agree to come to keep working at it until they find a resolution everyone can lend their heart to. Consensus also means that when a largely agreed upon path forward begins to emerge, folks agree not to break it by refusing to go with the flow and follow the will of the group as a whole. 

It’s a good strategy for church leaders to find ways, whenever possible, to reach consensus and then to follow through with its implementation. It’s harder when churches get bigger, because of the breadth of opinion among the membership. But no situation is intractable. There are tools to help us find consensus and act upon it accordingly. The Town Hall following service is an effort to help every interested member to understand the options up for a vote and to begin refining their choice.

Meanwhile, our ESUC/Khasi Hills church partnership is being celebrated this weekend as recipient of March’s Second Sunday offering.

            UU Church Partnerships helps us transcend North American


            AND this partnership helps us expand our sense of Identity.

            (Rebecca Parker story)

            Khasi Hills Unitarians have come to their Unitarianism by means

            of a completely non-western beginning point. BUT THEY SEE

            REALITY LARGELY THE WAY WE DO. And they offer us a guiding   methodology

In the Khasi Hills villages and schools, decision making is aimed at having everyone on board, achieving consensus—as our Mission Fund Drive theme puts it: “ALL IN!”

Meanwhile HHDTF is this weekend presenting the congregation with a choice—which we’ll vote on following services on March 24 – two weeks from today—regarding what to do with our Holly House property. Last year an earlier congregational meeting resolved to sell Holly House –- that’s been decided already.  The question remains: what kind of sale do we want to make?

There are four options. They are all good. Ultimately the greatest good—from my point of view and from a consensus point of view—is that we agree to remain in community whatever option carries the day. We all agree, at the get-go, not to block consensus but to wholeheartedly go along with whatever choice most members vote for. And in the meantime: check out the town hall meetings like the one here today after services where you’ll learn about each option and all that commends each one of them to our consideration.

Consensus kind of presupposes democracy: our Fifth UU Principle. [“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”] It allows everyone to be heard and honors minority views, but honors, too, our collective capacity to, indeed, make timely choices and move forward together as one community.

It’s been broadening and insight generating for me these last couple of months to become acquainted with the Khasi Hills Unitarians and the strength of our partner church relationship with them. The Khasi Hills region of India held to a strong oral tradition until about 175 years ago–culture and  morals were handed down by way of rhyming homilies and precepts about proper behavior at home and in society. In the last years of the 19th century Radhon Singh Berry, a reflective, progressive, regional leader and sage, wrote many of these aphorisms down, turning some of them into songs. Later when foreign missionaries came to the Khasi Hills, Radhon Singh Berry found affinity with our Unitarian theology and merged with us. His aphorisms are mostly recipes for moral and social concord. And for finding consensus; consider:

The best etiquette if followed fully,

Binds you to your clan and parents’ families;

The best behavior will always bring

Many benefits and many a blessing;

Don’t take this lightly and dismiss these words,

My children, instruction, never avoid;

Spread and remember my teachings forever

So you may live civilly among each other….

If anyone makes a mistake and slights,

Never keep resentment and malice inside;

Once they’ve apologized and expressed regret,

Reconcile and learn to forgive and forget;

About others private lives do not inquire,

It’s a most self-damaging trait to ever acquire;

Never laugh at others and jeer and taunt,

For you’ll surely invite the wrath of God;

Ill-treating the poor no one will condone,

It’s a sin you’ll have one day to atone.         

And another thing: it turns out that maintaining right relations is central to Khasi community life. Their literature is all about maintaining right relations—kind of a blueprint for building beloved community: Khasi Hills is a worthy partner congregation for sure! There’s a lot in the Khasi literature about not imposing one’s opinions on others, about pitching in and about keeping at it. And their commitment to finding consensus can be a good model for all of us in the Holly House study and decision period that is upon us. The Khasis, it seems to me, have integrated the non-violent principles of right relationship into their everyday interactions at church and across all aspects of their lives.

Can we do the same here? I think so. The restorative circles that Pam Orbach has recently been leading and her Non-violent Communication class are both strategies or practices that have helped congregations let go of outmoded ways of doing things and begin unpacking, for instance, the emotional baggage that comes from abruptly loosing two well loved ministers—and now three—in a matter of months. There are a lot of feelings here to unpack. And a lot of analysis. And a lot of art and music. All of these attributes are including in practicing right relationships.

The Board of Trustees and the Holly House Task force have both decided not to endorse any specific choice. I’m not going to either. But I am going to tell you how I think I would vote.

All good. All helpful to the church’s bottom line.

Last spring, before I arrived, the church felt threatened by a binary choice: either  market rate or in support of community housing. Consensus, at the time, was felt to be impossible.

As I learned about the dilemma I thought initially and I think now: go for the compromise: Plan C that sells the property at the Market Rate, is generous with a large portion of the proceeds, but uses a portion to make our outreach and our service delivery better by enlisting all of us in becoming the hands and heart of our mission here in Bellevue.

I’ll support whatever path the members decide is best. And urge all members to do the same.  Let us move on the next stage of our struggle to be good, loving people and to do good, loving works in Bellevue and beyond. So may it be. Shalom, Saalam, Blessed Be. And amen.

Rev Dr. Stephen Furrer, Minister

East Shore Unitarian Church

12700 SE 32nd St., Bellevue, WA 98005