Why have a Behavioral Covenant?

Why have a Behavioral Covenant?

I’m often told that Christians don’t need written rules for how to behave because we have the Bible. A Behavioral Covenant sets out clearly what people can expect of each other – based on Biblical principles. Therefore it makes explicit what people assume that they can expect of each other. Importantly, it holds people accountable for their actions.

Sometimes in the midst of deciding issues tempers flare, communication suffers, and people tend to make things too personal.  Even in the most polite groups, things can get out of hand and feelings can get hurt. This often happens when an important decision is on the line and the issue really matters. Yes, even in church! So we need clear and agreed benchmarks for the way we behave with each other.

What is a Behavioral Covenant?

A Behavioral Covenant is a written agreement that guides how people will treat one another. It states clearly how people will behave with each other in the spirit of Christian love.  A Behavioral Covenant states what God is calling the group to do and how the group will conduct itself.  It outlines the expectations that members of the group can depend on from one another.  Basically, it details how the community will live out its faith in loving, respectful ways.

How do you create a Behavioral Covenant?

The key leadership group is well placed to draft a Behavioral Covenant. They understand what is needed to support healthy communication and respect in a group / congregation.

While the drafting can be done by a few people, involve as many people as possible  in identifying the content. A congregational meeting to explain Behavioral Covenants and why they’re important can get the process off to a good start.  Read passages of Scripture that guide our life together:  Matt. 5:9; 23-24, Luke 6:27-36, John 13:34, Romans 8:28-29 & 12:10, 1 Cor. 12, 2 Cor. 10:5, Ephesians 4:1-6, Gal. 5:19-26, 1 Cor. 11:1, Titus 2:7, Col. 3:12-17, Phil. 2:3-4, 1 Thes. 5:12-26, James 1:2-4, 19, etc. Specifically, I ask people how they want others to treat them and gather a list of those qualities.

The responses provide the content for a small writing group to develop into the draft Behavioral Covenant.  Once this is accomplished, it should be presented to the Church Council for support and revisions.  Arrange a time to present the final version to the church so people can ask questions and understand it.

How do you make it work?

People need to agree to the Behavioral Covenant.  Signing an official church copy and / or committing to it in the context of worship are ways of showing agreement.

Regularly remind embers of the church  of the content of the Behavioral Covenant and encourage them to abide by it. Include the Covenant in the induction process for Committee members. Membership classes and regular liturgical affirmation of the Behavioral Covenant are important ways to embed the values in a congregation.

Each member of the group has a role in the Covenant.  Mutuality is vital. It helps keep people accountable for their actions. When behavior turns disresepctful, a quiet reminder of your agreement is enough to rein in improper behavior.

Benefits

There are many benefits of a Behavioral Covenant:

  • forms community that is respectful and loving
  • gives support to bearing one another’s burdens (Galatian 6:2)
  • clarifies what you can expect from the group and what they can expect from you
  • helps people discern and discuss difficult issues n a civil manner without a win/loose mentality
  • keeps the well-being of the group primary (not a segment or small part of the congregation)
  • makes each person responsible for the behavior of the group
  • models how a Christian community should act

What to include

A Behavioral Covenant has 6 basic parts:

  1. A sense of shared purpose based on your mission (name of church, location, and why the group exists).
  2. Loving ways to treat one another.  This is based on your shared values and sense of identity as a Christian community.
  3.  Agreement to abide by the Covenant as members of the church.  Most churches make it a necessity to agree to the covenant in order to serve in a leadership position. Ideas to consider include:-
    • to pray for one another
    • regularly attend worship and study
    • practice direct, open communication – not gossip
    • use ‘I’ statements to express yourself
    • listen respectfully, ask questions for clarification
    • seek to understand rather than judge
    • be honest
    • avoid stereotyping
    • speak the truth in love, gentleness and patience
    • recognize that other viewpoints and opinions may be valid
    • forgive one another
    • focus on common interests and not positions/opinions
    • trust one another
    • be hard on issues and soft on people
    • honor and support the decisions made by the group
    • electronic communication (phone calls, and email) should be treated the same as face-to-face conversation
    • what would you add?
    1. Brief paragraph about your intent to honor this Behavioral Covenant and to live as a people of faith in witness to the world around us.
    2. Set a date for evaluation and review of how the Covenant is working
    3. Gather signatures and date.

Congregations find it helpful to keep the Behavioral Covenant before the congregation in a wide variety of ways so that their efforts are effective: Web page, Poster framed in the church, Book mark, Bulletin insert, Sermon series, Bible Study, etc.  Use the Behavioral Covenant regularly in your leadership training. People are more likely to support something when they are clear about expectations for behavior.

Where we have been, where we are going

It has been quite a journey! As  2017 draws to a close we thought that we would share with you where we have been and what 2018 holds in store. We look forward to next year and to hearing from you about how we can be of assistance in your ministry.

Julia and I hope that you have a blessed Christmas and that in 2018 you will know the leading, support and blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence with you.

Grace and Peace,

Julia and Terence

Abuse of power in the church – are we desensitised?

How come so many communities can live with abuse and not be troubled by it? There is a lot in the media lately about sexual harassment and abuse in society. In particular leading figures in the US media, politics, entertainment, business and more widely are being called out. That’s a great thing and it owes a lot to the #metoo campaign that encouraged women to speak out and name their abuse.

Sadly we know that there has been a lot of this kind of harassment and abuse in the church over the years. It continues in many churches, but thankfully in many we are becoming more sensitive to it.

Abuse of power in the church

There is another kind of abuse that is more widespread in the church. It is the abuse that leaves many people feeling belittled, hurt, estranged, disempowered and emotionally abused. Time and again in the church women, young people, persons of the non dominant culture or language, LGBTIQ members, those of different theological traditions, etc are attacked and denied a place. So they are left hurt and feeling worthless because of the way that church meetings are run.

How is it possible that church leaders can behave in ways that are so destructive of people and relationships in the church? Don’t they know what  the Christian way of behaving looks like?! It is like we church leaders have become insensitive to the abuse we do. We are no better than the men accused of sexually harassing someone who say “I don’t remember it that way?”

This week I read a great article by Emma Gray at The Huffington Post, who was exploring why women and men so often have different memories of events. Could it be, as Gray says in her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women”, that people don’t notice the unacceptable nature of their behaviour because it is normal behaviour in their context? As she says people don’t notice abusive behaviour because ” … if this sort of behavior feels “normal,” why would it stand out?”

Abuse- how did we get desensitised?

How can the woman experience something as sexual abuse and the man as flirting, or shared experiences, or a bit of a joke. How can women, minorities, etc experience an event as an abuse of power in the church and others (often men) have no idea what the problem is?

In her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women” Ms Gray points out that women and men draw the lines about what is acceptable in a different place. Men draw it in a place that gives them far more power and capacity to harm women. This happens because there is a culture that says that men are “entitled”. This sense of entitlement is so deep, and the culture so supportive of the practices that sustain it, that men cease to recognise sexual abuse when it happens.

Let’s think about that in relation to abuse of power in the church. Is it possible that we see habitual and ingrained abuse of power because the people of power draw the lines on acceptable behaviour in a different place to the victims of power? Does it suit the strong to grant themselves permission to behave badly, compared to what the weaker sections of the church community would describe acceptable behaviour?  Yes!

A culture of entitlement

Do the traditional leaders in the church consider themselves entitled to get their way? Do they privilege their voice over the voices of others? Yes!

In most churches we have  a culture of entitlement that gives permission for the established leadership to get its way. So the rules of our church meetings are written to support the interests of the leadership. Similarly, the practices that are seen as acceptable are the ones that work for the privileged group.

Who is the traditional leadership group that is given special place in your church? Who do the rules favour, so that when abuse happens the abusers do not even realise that they are doing it? Some possibilities include:

  • clergy
  • senior office holders – Bishops, General Secretaries, etc
  • people who are well educated in theology and other areas
  • men
  • higher level caste members and tribal chiefs
  • a dominant theological school of thought (it doesn’t matter which one)
  • others that you can add from your context

Who gets hurt by the way these people behave in a meeting?

  • lay people
  • the less well educated
  • women and young people
  • persons from less respected sectors of society – e.g. caste, indigenous people, certain socio economic backgrounds, etc
  • minorities – e.g. LGBTIQ persons, people with disabilities, migrants, etc

Say what! You didn’t realise that your words and actions would hurt me!

We have all been in the situation where someone has expressed surprise that their behaviour in a church meeting was experienced as abusive. I have been shocked when I have been told that the way that I behaved was hurtful to others. I have seen people weep and be very, very angry at the way they have been put down, or deceived, or stopped from having a say in a meeting.

It is no excuse, but it is possible that a majority of the abusers do not realise that they are abusing people. Obviously some people do know what they are doing! But there are people of good will and faith in the dominant group who actually don’t see that what they are doing is wrong. The culture is so strong, and the practices so ingrained, that they are blind. Maybe this is why more than once Jesus said “let those who have eyes see, and those with ears hear.”

How will change be possible?

How will they see and hear? In the US consciousness is rising and change may be possible because sexual abusers are being named and shamed. This is happening because the victims of abuse stand up and name their experience. It is deeply unfair that the survivors of abuse have to confront their abusers. Yet this is often seen to the the most likely way to get the issue before the community.

Many men in the US are now realising that by their silence they have been complicit in supporting the behaviour of abusers. Increasingly men are acknowledging their responsibility to denounce bad behaviour when they see it. They now know that they must support women who resist harassment and abuse. Remaining silent – because “I am not doing it” – is no longer an option when observing abuse.

We have to stop accepting abuse of power in the church and the harm that it does. My encouragement is that we all name it when we see it. Raise points of order or personal explanations in meetings when you see abusive behaviour happen. Call out bad behaviour and offer alternative ways of being in community.

Yes, the people who experience the abuse are going to be the best placed to see and name it. It’s hard, but the recent US experience can give us hope that it can work. Other people of goodwill have to protect and support those who identify themselves as victims of abuse. Persons from the privileged group need to talk to the others and understand their experience so that they can be advocates for justice and peace in their church.

If you have any stories that you want to share then please use the comments section provided below.

Change – take it one step at a time

 

It is really hard to change your lifestyle in one sudden act. The most effective and long lasting change happens through incremental steps.

Diets and making a change to meeting procedures

We have all done it! We know we need to lose weight, or rebalance our eating so that it is more healthy. So full of motivation we dive into it “boots and all”. With no half measures we go cold turkey on all those unhealthy calories and carbs. As a result we find the change a painful experience!

We know that the most effective way to make long term change in our eating habits is to take incremental steps. Give away the fizzy drinks this week, the popcorn and chips the next week, cut back on the carbs a little bit here and there.

Why would we expect it to be any different if we are changing the way our community engages in discernment? It is most likely that a complete and sudden change of process will be hard to sustain. Make the changes in small steps. You will see that by building them into your processes over time they are more palatable – less of a shock to the system.

Small steps you can take – now

  1. Build in transparency: provide quality information about the subjects under discussion well before the meeting and during the meeting. Make sure that there is plenty of time for questions for clarification.
  2. Grow the quality of your community life: encourage sharing and prayer for one another; attend to any special needs that people may have; show respect.
  3. Listen: provide time so that everyone that wants to contribute can do so. Consider power imbalances and how you can overcome them. Look at how to present your business in a way that avoids jargon or the need for inside knowledge or high levels of ability in the language you are using.
  4. Generate options: think about ways to pick up and explore the fresh ideas that are raised. Perhaps defer a decision to allow consultation between people with different perspectives. Don’t try to conclude every piece of business the first time that you raise it. For example set up working groups to take up the ideas raised in the meeting and to bring something to a later meeting.

Slow and steady wins the race

Years ago the Northern Territory in Australia had a tourism slogan “If you never never go, you will never never know.” Of course the idea was that people had lots of reasons they put forward for not visiting this tropical, hot and isolated part of the country. So the encouragement was to just give it a go and then you will know if it is any good.

People offer all sorts of reasons why consensus building discernment will not work for their context. But if you never never have a go, who will never never know if it will work or not. Just give it a try and see what happens.

The World Methodist Council has become the latest group to “give it a go”. Rather than jump in and change everything they are going to do some training and then “test drive” the process on a piece of the business agenda. That’s right – they are going to practice the process before they decide to take it up.

When the World Methodist Council meets in Seoul, South Korea in July 2018 Terence and Julia will be providing training and orientation to consensus based decision making. There will be a very practical introduction to the processes and the values that lie behind them. This will be followed by a later session where a genuine piece of business will be processed using consensus practices. Terence will chair that session. No decision will be taken at that time. The decision will be made in a business session but it is expected that the material will be close to ready to resolve once it comes to the floor because of the processing that has happened in the workshop. If your church, local or regional,would like to workshop consensus processes just get in contact at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com, and let’s see what we can make possible.

This one of many examples of where an organisation that is considering change is taking it a step at a time. By trying the ideas out without committing to change they can build confidence and learn how to adapt the process to suit their situation. The World Communion of Reformed Churches began this journey with the meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Acra, Ghana in 2002. Subsequently it has implemented the lessons that it learned there and in Grand Rapids (USA) in 2010 into its meeting in Leipzig, Germany in 2017. How did it go? Very well because they have built on the lessons of the past.

Conclusion

Don’t be daunted by the apparent size of the task involved in making a change to consensus based discernment. Take the small steps that are open to you. There is a lot that you can do without having to change your meeting rules! Then look for opportunities to showcase different parts of a consensus building approach. Consider holding a training workshop in your meeting like the World Methodist Council is doing.

Sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk.

Enough! It’s time to show some courage.

Where are the leaders who are ready to show some courage? Where are those who will risk losing everything for the sake of the reign of God?

People are tired of the fighting

I talk with a lot of people from around the world. Many come from churches where there are major disputes. Most Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive, disrespectful way in which debates happen. So, they want leaders who will find a way to resolve problems in the church without trying to control and remove their opponents.

Framing debates as “yes” or “no”; “left” or “right”; “liberal” or “conservative” is not helping. Forcing people to argue from the extremes is proving to be ineffective in resolving conflict. Yet people in many churches seem to be rewarded for being warriors for their extreme position. However this is alienating for people inside and outside the church.

People are looking for leaders who have courage. The church needs people who have the courage to take the risk of not fighting! People in the pews are tired of the paralysis that afflicts their church when disagreements go on and on.

What does courage look like?

Courage is being prepared to

  • give up my desire to control others
  • value relationships over power
  • trust that God knows best and so be open to change
  • believe that God desires the unity of his family
  • acknowledge that I have made God in my own image when God hates all the same people that I do
  • do unto others as I would have them do to me
  • love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me

Please add to this list from your own heart. What is hard for you to do in support of fostering a faithful, loving, quality Christian community?

Seek relationships instead of control

The only way to get past the paralysis that comes from hyper partisanship is by seeing the other person as a fellow human being.

There are many examples of where constructive and life giving options have been generated as people stop seeking control and work on the relationship. Perhaps the most powerful and common example is in divorces and setting up parenting plans. When a couple have a toxic relationship it harms the children; makes them bitter for longer; it is destructive and costly; makes later adaptations to the plan difficult;  and limits the number of options. As couples focus on the children and take time to understand the needs of the other person, they generate better solutions that are easier to live with.

It’s the same for disputes in the wider society and the church. Of course it is not easy for people to just switch off their desire for control – that’s why mediators are needed. It isn’t easy for some Christians to stop wanting to demonise their opponents and to get their way -that’s why facilitators are needed. Taking up the alternative of showing respect, de-escalating the tension and looking for alternative solutions does not come easy.

Seek relationships over control. You don’t have to change your mind on the issues in dispute. But you should change your attitude to the other person and the issue.

Will people seek relationships over control?

I like to think that the Holy Spirit will make it possible! But faith is an act of will, as much as it is a gift of grace. People have to choose to be obedient to Christ.

God has created a community through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are incorporated into that community through trusting (faith) in what God has done in Jesus. Our responsibility as disciples is to live in this community that gathers around Christ. This community is our primary identity. It is God’s will that we be one for the sake of the witness of Christ in the world.

When we are convinced that the quality of our discipleship as Christians is more important to God than our opinions on theological and ethical issues then we will choose relationships over control. The early observers of Christians did not say “Look at those Christians – see how they agree with one another.” Rather it was said “Look at those Christians – see how they love one another.”

People will seek relationships over control when they have the courage to believe the Gospel that we are one in Jesus Christ. However, this unity is not achieved by what we do, but by what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Does it happen in real life?

It is somewhat sad, but perhaps encouraging, that most of the examples of success come from outside the church. It is encouraging because if fighting spouses, political enemies, and hostile opponents on moral issues in society can do it then Christians should find it easier.

People move from control to relationships when they:

  • know that the present way of working is destructive
  • have a hope that things can work better
  • have a unifying principle, eg being citizens, family, fellow believers, etc
  • show courage by giving up power
  • habit disrupting rules are put in place
  • firm structures are put in place
  • thoughtful questions are offered

Mark Gerzon in The Reunited States of America, offers numerous examples of community organisations that are helping people to make the move from hyper partisan and aggressive approaches to healthy and respectful discussions. I recommend that you buy the book.

You can also look up some previous posts on this site for how change can happen, for example here. Or find examples of where and how change has happened in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Be of good courage, keep the faith, hold strong to the calling that you have in Jesus Christ.