I had an interesting conversation this weekend about the workings of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and my congregation specifically. It seems that, at times, people in positions of responsibility feel obliged to pressure members to do things, give things, or accept things that would be good for the Congregation. At other times, I have seen, people who have some authority forget how it feels to be a lowly member with some knowledge or skill that is under valued.
What bothers me about this is the idea that this is someone speaking to another person for the congregation, as though the Congregation is an entity that exists separately from them and is bigger or more important than one or both of the members in this conversation. Officers and staff have appointments, but they must answer to each and every member, because that is where the congregation’s true authority is.
It bothers me because the congregation, to my mind, only exists as the covenant between individuals. There is no promise made to “the congregation”, but the promises made to these people is what makes us a Congregation. If it seems like a small difference, then let me assure you that it completely changes the intent and the tone of conversations when members are addressed as equals by officers and as managers, or even customers, by staff.
If someone comes to me, as a person whom I share a covenant with, and tells me of a need in the community that they think I can help meet, it gives me a chance to talk to them, tell them what commitments I have that might conflict, or reasons why I may not be able to do the thing that needs to be done. We can talk as friends, or at least as partners in a mission. If I come to them with a concern, and we see each other as equals with a common goal, even where we disagree on the means to move forward, we can operate out of love and respect.
If, instead, I am approached by an officer, letting me know that there is a concern that I am not giving my best to the Congregation, or that they simply need more from me, because I have made promises to this entity that we both serve, there is an uncomfortable pressure, as though the community may look down on me; as though my superior might dole out some consequence. This is how people are coaxed into giving too much, and are burnt out: The Congregation becomes an entity unto itself rather than being built on the covenant between people. When the Congregation is seen as bigger than the members, it becomes easier to forget that covenant must go both ways.
The Congregation is the community, and the community has shared resources that allow us to achieve things together that would be hard for any of us to accomplish alone. It matters that we articulate goals that we all agree to support. It matters that we support each other and that we work together to better our lives and our neighborhoods. The covenant to come together to advance certain goals, to respect one another, and to live out our values in the rest of the world are all promises we make to each other and to ourselves. They should not be pledged to an organization, be it the by-laws of the Congregation or the UUA. These are corporations, inhuman and unfeeling, and we cannot let them have power over the people they were created to serve. We need to remember that, and to treat each and every member as an equal partner, according them the respect and deference that they earn. If it is truly believed that they should give more, talk to them as partners in need. If it is simply that they have a talent or resource that no one else can offer, then negotiate with them to insure that they don’t feel put-upon unduly.
Covenant is a verbal contract. It calls on all parties to uphold certain duties in the promotion of an idea or the progress towards a goal. This is where the congregation should exist, serving to guide us in our covenant. Each person in the congregation needs to be encouraged to take ownership and to feel responsible for the outcomes of projects and fruits of our labors. We share in those outcomes, and we need to feel a call to give, to the best of our ability, to see our mission at work. This isn’t best achieved through shame or directive, but by working as a community and living up to our covenants.