If it feels like you don't know where you're going, that's okay. Here's something that can help you reflect on what God might have in store for you and your congregation.
Issue 13: January 2022
Behavioral Covenants: Spiritual Practice and Guide to Healthy Relationships
By the Rev. Mike Southcombe           
In today’s culture of polarization, a behavioral covenant that calls for civility and building up the Body of Christ rather than winning an argument or gaining power is as counter cultural as we can get. Behavioral covenants witness to the members of the church and the larger community that church is different, that Christians behave differently than those still imprisoned by the sinful nature of the world. Behavioral covenants may not prevent conflict but they can guide us through “healthy conflict,” when we stay focused on the issue to be resolved rather than devolving into hurtful, hateful tactics of winning at all costs. A behavioral covenant within a congregation and among staff could have helped church leadership in many instances but I share these two as examples of toxic behavior that was allowed to fester within a congregation.

The pastor and the church council president alternated between crying and laughing while telling of the most recent misfortune in the congregation. The pastor recounted trying to get the church council to address problems with the office secretary since the first year he began serving that church. No pastor had served this church for more than three years in the past 25 years—after the last long-term pastor had retired after serving for 31 years. The last four pastors had made it clear to the church council that the secretary was a huge problem, and her family and friends formed a clique within the church that actively worked to undermine the pastors who simply could not measure up to the sainted ghost emeritus. One of the secretary’s grandsons had taken it upon himself to drive across the pastor’s lawn and throw 30 nickels at the front storm door, cracking the window. “At least he was paying attention when we covered Judas and the 30 pieces of silver,” the pastor said, chuckling and shaking his head.

At a different church where I was called in to consult around conflict in the congregation, the pastor had been called precisely because of her track record of working with youth and strengthening youth ministries. After three years, about 30 young people regularly attended the weekly youth “encounter” meeting, much to the chagrin of a vocal group in the church. This group believed too many youths from other churches or from families whose parents would never be interested in joining “our” church were participating in the group. The council issued a statement in support of the youth group, making the point that the participation pointed to the fact that this ministry was needed in their small community. Two members of the complaining group, however, continued to attend council meetings and raised the same issues over and over. Council had to start having special meetings just to take care of the regular council business they could not get to with that group dominating their meetings. When that group brought the council president to tears during a congregational meeting, they reached out for help.

While those are extreme cases, virtually every church has experienced a heated congregational meeting or council meeting at which people have left emotionally hurt and spiritually wounded after someone or some group made accusations, assumptions, hurtful motions, or otherwise demonstrated toxic behavior.

Just about every church I have worked with in a conflict transformation process has named a behavioral covenant or code of conduct as a goal they wanted to reach during the problem-solving phase of their process. As with most policies to address behavior, it is best if these covenants are worked on and adopted before major conflict erupts in the congregation. It is best to develop your church’s behavioral covenant when you are in a period of healthy church relationships. When we do this work in reaction to some incident or some person’s behavior, the work can be perceived as personal and can exacerbate an already tense time in the church’s life.

By the end of a conflict transformation process, the congregation has gone through a review of their history, taken part in healing conversations and reached the point where members who were avoiding one another in the grocery store can work together and, more important, laugh together again. This process can take six to nine months of hard work with a trained team of mediators and facilitators. A behavioral covenant, while needed, cannot be developed in the midst of an already flaming conflict. In other words, if you are not in a good place, “do not try this at home” without going through that process to then work on the additional process of developing a behavioral covenant.

If life is going along fairly smoothly and church leadership wants to be proactive in developing a behavioral covenant, use a process developed for that purpose. The covenant must grow out of the experience of the congregation for it to have any meaning to the members.
In his book “Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences,” Gilbert R. Rendle writes far more eloquently and in greater detail than I can here about the reason to witness to the world that “church is different.” He also outlines a process to use to develop a behavioral covenant for your congregation, the office staff and the leadership or governing board of the congregation. His outline includes a number of different paths to reach the goal including a two-day retreat, a one-day retreat, a leadership group using four meetings lasting about 1½ hours each, a longer process of using just 20 minutes of regular council meetings and using combinations of all four. Detailed outlines of the processes are found on pages 64 to 90 of the Kindle edition, and all include some version of the following brief summary:
  1. Do the premeeting reading suggested and any other reading. (Rendle’s book is c. 1999 so a lot more material has been written about polarization and the outside forces of change affecting the church in a post-COVID world).
  2. First meeting: Use Rendle’s summary of his book (available as “Resource A” in the book with permission for copying for your group) and the discussion questions that will start to customize the work to your particular setting. Use small group work to recall the history of your church, especially times of disagreement where people behaved civilly toward one another and times when communication broke down and you witnessed uncivil or unhealthy behavior.
  3. Second meeting: Identify the behavioral norms that currently exist in your congregation and identify those that are helpful and healthy and those that, if changed, would support your church’s “efforts to be faithful and healthy.” 
  4. Third meeting: Introduce the concept of behavioral covenants. Talk about what they are and what they are not. According to Rendle: Covenants are promises to follow, not rules prescribing punishment; Covenants describe behaviors, not personality changes; Covenants are a daily, spiritual practice; Covenants can be used to monitor the behavior of leaders by periodically reviewing the covenant; Covenants can be used by leaders to model healthy and faithful behavior to others in the congregation and the community (pages 88-89 of the Kindle edition);
  5. Continue the process, compile a list of behaviors that the group determines to be most helpful in efforts to be faithful and healthy. Choose one or two people to prepare a draft of the covenant to present to leadership (if separate from this task-focused group), reminding everyone the covenant should use positive statements of behavior for the future rather than list unhealthy behaviors from the past and that they should focus on desired behaviors and not on personalities. 
The Conference’s Conflict Transformation Team offers workshops that would help you prepare to work on your behavioral covenant. The team members also have other resources to share with you. Most intentional interim ministers have had some training in facilitating the process of developing these covenants as well. Interim time, in fact, is a good time to develop a covenant as the congregation honestly explores its history and culture and discerns God’s will for the future.

Examples of behavioral covenants are readily available with a Google search. Please, DO NOT use them. The most useful covenants are developed by your own congregation and come out of your experience. The process of developing the covenant is at least as valuable for the future of your congregation as the covenant itself.

Even adapting another congregation’s covenant for your use short-changes your congregation of the value of the process of developing your own. It is a sacred and holy process that can transform a leadership team and guide a congregation in witnessing to Christ’s peace in a conflicted world.
Reflection Questions
  1. What are the roadblocks that would keep your congregation from engaging in this process? 
  2. Think of examples of how your congregation did or did not use a behavioral covenant to work with in a dispute. 
  3. What other programs and processes has your congregation used to keep a level of civility during a time of conflict?
  4. What more would you like to know about behavioral covenants for congregations?
For or more information on behavioral covenants:
  • Rendle, Gilbert R. Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences. © 1999 The Alban Institute Inc.
  • Rendle, Gil. Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders. ©2011 The Alban Institute Inc.
  • Goodbread, Connie. Developing a Behavioral Covenant. Blog entry June 13, 2019, available at uua.org.
  • A Sure Foundation: resources for the relationship between pastors and Congregations. Produced by Ministerial Excellence, Support & Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team, 2018, United Church of Christ, available through UCC Resources.
The Rev. Mike Southcombe is a graduate of Eden Theological Seminary and has been a local church pastor and hospital chaplain for 27 years, currently serving as senior pastor at St. Stephens UCC in Merrill, Wisconsin. He was chair of the Illinois South Conference Conflict Transformation Team from 2002 to 2020; received training through the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center for interpersonal and major congregational conflict mediation; and completed training as an intentional interim minister through the IIM Network and the Center for Congregational Health. For consultation with the Wisconsin Conference CTT, please contact your Associate Conference Minister. For other conversations with Mike, email him here.
Join the Discussion: Behavioral Covenants
The Supportive Ministries Team hosts a monthly discussion on topics from this newsletter. The next one, "Behavioral Covenants: Spiritual Practice and Guide to Healthy Relationships," takes place on Feb. 2 at 1:00 p.m. Central time on Zoom.

Please join us for a discussion on behavioral covenants, from Michael's article above.

Innovating Into an Unknown Future
By the Rev. Bob Ullman

As we contemplate crawling out from under the pandemic that has weighed on our congregations for nearly two years, Susan Beaumont lays out an alternative path forward into what again will be unknown territory. She writes:

“Many are turning to planning now, trying to coax order out of the chaos. It would be lovely if planning resolved liminality. It doesn’t. Plans create an artificial sense of control, but they cannot resolve the deep disorientation of a liminal season — a season in which something has ended but a new thing is not yet ready to begin. In fact, the wrong plan will distract you from the innovation needed to thrive in the next chapter.”

In this brief article she lays out
  • The Fundamental Problem
  • A Habit We Need to Break
  • What You Should Do Instead
  • Design Experiments to Learn More
Missed these articles?

Revisit these thought-provoking articles from previous issues. Many include questions for groups discussions in your congregation, or for personal reflection.
Conference Supportive Ministries

In addition to the direct support to pastors and congregations provided by Wisconsin Conference staff, here are some of the supportive ministries congregations can take advantage of. Follow the link below to learn more about this programs and how your church might benefit.
  • Conflict Transformation
  • Coaching Partners
  • Grants and assistance programs
  • Communities of Practice for Clergy or Faith Formation
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations
  • Readiness 360
View a comprehensive list with more information about Supportive Ministries offerings.
Photo of Supportive Ministries Task Force
Supportive Ministries Task Force
Through this communication, the Wisconsin Conference Supportive Ministries Task Force provides articles, discussion guides and other resources for clergy and congregations on coping and thriving as we navigate the current turbulent waters. Supportive Ministries Task Force members from top left are Bob Ullman, Lisa Hart, Bonnie Andrews, Cathleen Wille and Tim Perkins.
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