Living Our Right Relations Covenant

by Joyce Dowling
October 13, 2013

How can we live by our Right Relations Covenant?: that covenant that hangs on our wall [ and is on the membership page here and a large image here ] that many of us here participated in creating. Those of you who were not here to participate, I’d like you to know that this is a covenant that will be looked at periodically and you could participate in a new one in the future if this one doesn’t continue to serve us well.

Unitarian Universalism is a living, growing faith with principles that many people believe in. See the back of your order of service for our 7 principles. We may all embrace these principles as ideals, but none of us does our best with all of the principles all of the time. We are all at various stages of learning how to live by these principles.

Some people like the ease of these principles and not having to adhere to a single book, but others of us see the openness of this faith as complicated. We can do our best at making it easy, but we are each individuals and we will interpret how to live by our principles in different ways.

In order to be in right relations with each other, we need to resolve conflicts. Some of us would like to believe that we have no conflicts – this is a place of love and open-minded understanding.

Let’s just look at our covenant:

“We, the members of Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, covenant with each other to create a strong and vital religious community:”

This means we don’t just come here for ourselves – we come here for our community, which enriches us so we are getting something out of it, but we need to give back. Are we a strong, vital religious community? If you are a newcomer, and not yet a member, this would not yet be expected of you. And when those of us who are members, when we signed the membership book, for most of us, it was not implicit that we needed to do a certain thing as a member. Many of us think we are doing what needs to be done to be a viable congregation and “strong and vital” are not well-defined. Even if they were, we often feel that we can’t do more than we’re already doing or that we’re doing too much. I invite everyone who is feeling negative about what they do here, to think about what your special abilities are and do what you would enjoy and to leave other things alone if you feel they are a stressful “obligation”. That would help us become a stronger and more vital congregation. This covenant calls us to participate, but not to make it a place of stress.

I’ve had a conflict with myself over wanting to do my best to help this congregation, which I love; it may be hard to love every individual, but I love the principles, the idea of what we can be, and I have many good friends here. So when I feel stressed about how I’m contributing to the church – web site work can sometimes be frustrating – I take a break and come back later feeling better that I am helping a community that I care about.

Next, our covenant says, “We promise to honor the varieties of spiritual seeking among us, affirming the free church tradition that recognizes there are many ways to what is right and true.” This is based on Principles 3 & 4.

Sometimes people feel that their beliefs are not being respected when other beliefs are stressed. This goes back to the message during A Time for All Ages – that you have worth & dignity & we believe everyone does. Please feel that you can talk to the Worship Committee if we’ve become too narrow. They may not agree with you or be able to accommodate your suggestions, but I would hope that they’d at least listen to you and honor the Second Principle and treat you with respect and compassion.

People in this church feel free to debate various beliefs, which is part of teaching about other traditions, but the person you’re trying to teach might not be interested in learning that particular thing at the point in which they are at in their journey. We honor many sources. To be respectful, asking the person if they’d like to discuss other beliefs before thrusting yours on others would be respectful.

My husband, Race, said I could use him as an example. He’s a scientist and has become a confirmed atheist. Race can come on a bit strong about his beliefs sometimes, but he does try to be respectful when he’s here in church especially with people he doesn’t know well. Though he has come to realize that he has a belief that is not proven by science and may never be: and that is the belief in free will. It is something he chooses to believe. Some people do not believe it. You may believe that it is your fate to be here or God led you here and to be a Unitarian Universalist. For those who don’t know, this congregation is NOT majority atheist according to past surveys, Unitarian Universalism is a humanist religion because its principles and our covenant puts people first, but that does not mean individuals do not have theist beliefs.

The 3rd line of our covenant is “We will live by the Unitarian Universalist seven principles, which begin by affirming human worth and dignity.”

I think I’ve already covered this, but it might be harder than you think. Our subconscious mind holds prejudices against other people and negative speak toward our own selves.  If we were raised with negativity – intentional or unintentional – about some other group or groups of people or ourselves, then we have work to do to recognize what those subconscious thoughts might be to bring them to our consciousness to change them. That will affect how we honor Principle 2, which is about treating people with justice, equity and compassion (I used the word “respect” as “equity” is an ambiguous term and “respect” is also a term we use in our covenant). The covenant further goes into how we treat each other to make it clearer than our principles do:

“We affirm the DMUUC vision of a multiracial, multicultural, and multigenerational congregation in which we treat each other with care and respect as we also express these values in the larger community.” And “We promise to listen, offering opportunities to share our stories, truths, and concerns.”

How can we respect someone’s culture when we don’t understand what it is. We can’t assume that a person knows certain things about our faith or has the same understanding we do about this covenant or what they want their contribution to be until we get to know them better, or where they came from or what kind of education they’ve had or any of the things we might assume about a person.

They say “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me” but we could not function without making assumptions – it’s how our brain works.

Many people who have been in a close relationship with the same person for years realize that they still don’t know all there is to know about that person. We grow and change. Let’s spend our time when we share food together in the lounge after church, at ADORE, during spaghetti lunch and soup lunch, trying to get to know each other better. Also, realize that it is hard for some introverts or shy people to feel comfortable about joining us in conversation. We need to reach out to those who come here who we don’t know, and respect them if they are not ready to converse about certain things. We hope they will be brave and work on personal growth to be able to come into relationship with us. It’s a two-way street, but those of us who’ve come into our “home” are the ones to help the newcomers feel welcome.

Further, the covenant says: “We will support each other as we face both the sorrows and the joys we encounter in our life journeys.”

When we’re going through hard times, we’re often less able to give; as our benediction says “to you I receive, to you I give.” When we are feeling vulnerable and not capable of giving, hopefully we can communicate that to certain people in our community so that we can get the needed support or let people know when they’re taking a hiatus because they have the support elsewhere. Sometimes if a person knows someone well enough, they might know what kind of support is appropriate, but direct communication is usually needed. Hopefully we can be understanding of another’s situation when they’re not in a time in their life to give and hopefully when we are in a situation to give, we will give generously.

Which brings us to the next part of our covenant, “We pledge to participate in the activities of this church, offering our presence, our talents, our passions, and our resources.”

I’d like to now go to the issues that keep us from following through on the covenant well. Did you know that making a statement that some people are not abiding by the covenant in itself is not in accordance with our covenant? It is not respectful to make a negative statement which does no good because it can only serve to harm.

When we have problems, we should contact the person with whom we have problems directly. If it seems to be a way our church operates that you don’t understand, please go to a leader and ask about what you don’t understand in a respectful way that recognizes that no one person in this organization is creating any problem we may have and our leaders deserve as much respect as anyone as this church work is not easy. Even if they’re paid, all of the members are not the boss of our staff, no matter how much you contribute. Even good bosses treat their staff with respect.

If you see a problem with the way our church operates which seems to be a systematic way of being disrespectful, it would be wonderful if you can be a giving person who tries to make this congregation stronger and more vital by sharing those thoughts with people who can help. We need to remember, though, that our way is not the one and only right way to do things. Someone’s unwillingness to change is also not necessarily a sign of not participating in the covenant, but we each need to look at that: “Was my immediate reaction supportive to the individual and the congregation, or should I have waited in order to think it through? Or asked for more information?”

In 2005, the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote a document, “Congregational Life Dynamics and Conflict Management: An Application of Family Systems Theory” which might sound like it’s a technical and dry document, but we found a lot of useful information in it. Race, helped me pick out the bits that could be useful to us in our congregation.

• Attributing a motive to another’s actions is a common reaction to another’s behavior. Can you think of a time you did this and were totally wrong? Listen for times you said something like, “She only did this because . . . .” (Remember, you can’t know someone’s mind and full motivations.)

• Can you recall a time when you or another individual said, in proposing a solution to a problem, “All we have to do is . . . .” Did it work? (We often need to embrace and incorporate other ideas into our solutions to get buy-in from others so we can work together toward solutions.)

• Recall the last time your congregation’s board passed a seemingly modest policy, only to have the congregation in an uproar. What happened? Why? (There’s no easy answer to this question, but we need to reflect on past incidents to move forward.)

How an object is understood or perceived depends on the role of the observer. People have been surprised to learn that just the act of observing changes things (according to “the Hawthorne effect”)!

Today, it is common for us to use the phrase “it’s all relative” to indicate our sense that the things we know are not reality per se but the result of a complex interaction between the various components of a system, including how we look at those components.

In social relations, we experience this all the time. Many of our most bitter conflicts, for example, pivot on “she said”–“he said” differences in how we see or hear things. In church conflicts, groups often polarize on an issue, with each group claiming it has the “right” interpretation of the facts. Truth becomes reduced to a matter of opinion.

This tendency, along with the habit of single-cause explanation, when really there are subtleties, creates a ripe recipe for making ourselves and others “not okay” in violation of our Unitarian Universalist commitment to affirm one another’s worth and dignity.

Some things to consider:

•    Is all truth relative? Or are there absolutes?
•    How does one discern the difference between opinion and truth?
•    Is it possible that two contradictory perspectives might both be true?
•    How does gossip within your congregation serve to calm things or to keep anxiety going?
•    Try to hold a steady conversation with another and not mention a third party. How long can you go?

A theory from the work of the late Dr. Murray Bowen breaks down relationships into basic components. These components are based on the notion that there are two primary forces at work in relational systems: the desire to be a self and the desire to be together with others. These forces are seen as being dynamically in tension, leading to varying degrees of anxiety within individuals and groups.

From this, Bowen put forth his core idea: Health or illness in a relationship is a matter of not just how its individual members function but also how well they relate to one another. This is to say, it is not any one member who is “well” or “ill,” but the whole family (and for our purposes, “the family” is “the congregation”).

Religious communities have a bias toward bringing people together. They tend to emphasize togetherness. Hymns, prayers, and scriptures all celebrate the diverse ways people have of working, living, and playing together to fulfill their humanity as one big, happy family. Peace and goodness exist when we are all “one.”

Evil and immorality are defined in terms of their negative effect on our togetherness.

Indeed, the classic definition of sin refers to being separate – remote from God or the holy, alienated from those we love, or at odds with the larger community. People around the world have rules and moral teachings whose primary ambition is to ensure that we stay together — with reward or punishment made known to keep members in line.

Systems theory argues that people are by nature inclined to come together. Joining up, helping out, connecting, and even squabbling with one another is instinctive. One does not have to work very hard to bring people together, because not being connected is “hell”. Note that pushing people out is our severest form of punishment: banishment, excommunication, and isolated confinement. It makes sense that the togetherness force would be so strong: It ensures the reproduction and continuance of a species.

Yet the self force is equally vital. Part of our inability to be at peace and comfortable in groups arises because people are not at the same place on the self vs. togetherness continuum at any particular time. We balance differently as a function of personal growth, family-of-origin expectations, and even social mores.

The togetherness force — our need to belong — is so great, however, that it often trumps the self force. It also extracts a high price in the loss of individuality. It is very difficult to be in a family or group and at the same time to be unique. Hence, a sizable body of romantic literature extols the virtues of the solo adventurer, the hero or standout star, and especially the noble rebel who stands up against the oppressive system.

Many Unitarian Universalists frequently utter the paradox, “I am so glad to belong to a group where I can be myself, free to believe according to my own convictions, with people who think like me.” We want to be free and related. We want to think freely, but we also want to do it in a group that, to a great extent, reflects our thinking. Few people subscribe to periodicals whose editorial policy is anathema to their own outlook. The question is how to belong to a group and be an individual. What happens when we don’t think alike? Belonging to any group requires some curtailing of self. Many faith communities provide their members with a tremendous sense of belonging — a safe harbor in a world of chaos. Can a congregation provide that and at the same time nurture and value the expression of self?

Is conflict inevitable if we do not always agree?

The answer is yes. Conflict is inevitable and we must deal with this fact. Conflict does not have to result in feelings of anger and resentment. We can learn to handle conflicts in a constructive way. And to that end we created our Covenant of Right Relations.

Our covenant statement ends with: “To the end of forming a congregation of love and hope, we covenant with each other.”

We value love and hope and to these ends we who covenant together feel it is worthwhile to do our best to live by this covenant of right relations.

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