Recently I was with a group of folks talking about the difference between a contract and a covenant. Each is an agreement based on a promise. Some of the ideas expressed were that a contract is about rights and responsibilities whereas a covenant is about faith entities. Other contrasts involved law vs. Gospel; rules vs. understandings; goals to obtain vs. expectations; business between two parties vs. spiritual understanding among three (meaning that God is one of the parties in a covenant relationship); static vs. dynamic relationship; legal document vs. process. Then someone said, “A contract is about binding, but a covenant is about bonding,”
All of these distinctions are good, but I particularly like the last one, because no matter how we define it technically, in reality, a covenant is about building relationships between people. A covenant forms the basis for a healthy faith community. In fact, it is a living definition of community.
A covenant creates healthy boundaries and expectations. It gives order to passion, gives freedom to explore and discover, and creates a common agreement that defines loving relationships. It is a powerful tool for holding everyone accountable, because in a congregation, to go against the covenant is not to go against one person, but to sabotage the effort of the entire faith community.
There is a solid biblical basis for covenants. Scripture reveals that God established a number of covenants or acceptable ways of acting and behaving. The essence of all of God’s covenants is love, and these covenants represent a sacred vow. Consider these:
The Edenic Covenant (Genesis 1-2)
Although the word "covenant" is not used, some divine promises are made. We are told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and look after it. We also receive the warning that if we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we will die.
Noah's Covenant (Genesis 6-9)
Here, God saves the family of Noah, and the word "covenant" is used by God for the first time. God promises not to destroy the whole human race again through a flood, giving the rainbow as a sign.
The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12, 15, 17)
God declares that Abraham’s descendants will be numerous, will become a great nation, and will inherit the “promised land,” later called the land of Israel.
The Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19:3-6, 20 to 34; Deuteronomy 5 to 11)
This is an example of a conditional covenant - to do what the Law orders and obey the Ten Commandments.
And, of course, the New Covenant of Redemption and Salvation (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 8:8-13, Ephesians 2:8-10)
Jeremiah records, "The time is coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. ... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
The Apostle Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
The Importance of Trust
Covenant relationships are built upon trust and they build trust. A major part of the work of a covenant is learning to trust one another and to model trustworthiness. This does not happen automatically; it must be intentional. Lack of trust or broken trust destroys community and fellowship. In fact, merely the suspicion that a person cannot be trusted can result in severe division.
In a covenant relationship, individuals do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weakness, and their concerns. When things go wrong, they spend time mending broken community and relationships. But, none of this can happen if they first do not trust one another.
There may be numerous places that the covenant can become an effective and practical way of developing expectations and accountability among individuals and groups. However, there are two primary covenants that are healthy for every faith community: between congregation and staff, and among staff members as a team.
Four Steps for Developing a Covenant
So, how can we go about developing a covenant that becomes both a sacred vow and a practical tool for carrying out ministry? One method involves a simple four-step procedure. While these steps can be used for any covenant, here they describe a covenant between congregation and staff.
1. Writing team retreat
Gather the church staff and key leaders in the faith community to become a writing team, and set a date and place for a covenant development retreat. You will need an easel, pad, and different color chart markers. As you begin, be sure to establish the ground rules. This might include things like: no idea is a bad idea, this is not a debate, what is done is done in a spirit of love, and everyone must participate.
2. Collecting ideas
The facilitator (preferably someone outside of the group) begins by asking one person to share one item they want in the covenant, and writes the response on the pad. Then another person is asked for one item they want in the covenant, and the facilitator writes the response with a different color marker. This process continues, and as the newsprint fills up the facilitator tears it off the pad, tapes it on a wall, and continues to solicit responses. When the ideas run out, this step ends. It is crucial that the facilitator gives everyone an opportunity to participate.
3. Writing the covenant
With all of the sheets taped on the wall, the facilitator asks the participants to sort the responses by theme. These themes are written on clean newsprint; some items may stand alone. If it is a large group of participants, two people can wordsmith a theme, seeking to express the intent of the group. Smaller groups will work together on all of the themes. The result is the initial covenant, and this document should be typed in final form and shared with the entire faith community. It can be further enhanced by inviting the total membership to submit their thoughts and ideas with members of the writing team.
4. Keeping the covenant dynamic
The covenant should be a growing and changing document, so the group needs to set a specific time to review the covenant to negotiate changes. After the initial meeting, it probably should be reviewed in 60 to 90 days. From then on, perhaps annually or bi-annually, or whatever is considered practical. This is when additional information from the entire congregation can be considered, and the participants can be honest about what is and is not working.