Meeting as Covenant Community

June 23, 2018 § 10 Comments

My meeting is reconsidering what it means to be a member and I’ve been working with a committee that is preparing a draft of a new document that lays out the meaning of membership for newcomers and people considering membership.

The old document presents membership in terms of “covenant community”, which works very well for me. I seek a covenant community in my membership and I have thought about membership as covenant for a while. I want to dedicate a couple of posts to my thoughts on this subject. I want to do several things:

  • First, I want to be clear about what “covenant” and “covenant community” mean.
  • Then I want to explore how the truth of this approach to membership prospers in our meetings.
  • And I offer a metaphor for covenant community that seeks to express it in a way that works even for Friends who are post-Christian and not theistic in their spiritual outlook.

What do “covenant” and “covenant community” mean?

For an in-depth discussion of the meaning of covenant community, you can’t do better than the chapter on The Meeting as Covenant Community in Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I hope my readers have access to this wonderful resource. But let me offer my own take on this.

A religious covenant is a set of mutual agreements or promises regarding privileges and responsibilities between individual covenanters and their religious community, with God as the anchoring third party. So, at least in theory and technically speaking, a (religious) covenant has three nodes of relationship, and the relationships are reciprocal. The nodes are the member, the community, and God.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson puts it, this anchoring of the covenant in God is essential and changes the character of the community utterly. This is what makes a covenantal community uniquely valuable. To quote him:

Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (page 71)

The purpose of a covenant community is to provide a home for this transforming work. That means that joining a meeting that is a covenant community invites radical engagement with our spiritual lives on the part of our fellow members, who are to be the vehicles for God’s transforming work. We will discern together what transformation means and how we will go about it. We will work with each other to achieve it. We will be disciples together in a discipline of seeking and living into God’s will for us, in a relationship of mutual engagement with our fellow covenanters. Or, if you will, we will seek to realize our real and higher selves with each other’s help.

This requires a level of attention to each other, in both our outer and inner lives, that goes far beyond what most folks are expecting from their meeting. Many Friends would not see the purpose of religion to be diving into a spiritual crucible or the purpose of a meeting to be managing the crucible’s controls.

Thus I suspect that most liberal Quaker meetings would be at least a little uncomfortable thinking of their meeting as a covenant community. (In fact, I suspect that many meetings wouldn’t even really know what I’m talking about.) And that most meetings couldn’t function as covenant communities, even if the language wasn’t off-putting. Because we’re talking about something that goes much deeper than the words.

Some Friends in my meeting are uncomfortable with those words. And we tend to “honor’ these discomforts by avoiding them, so our little committee feels some pressure to drop the words. But what about the concept or understanding of meeting life as a covenant? Do we keep that understanding and use language to express it that won’t trigger uncomfortable reactions? Or does their discomfort go deeper than just some uncomfortable associations with the words as evocative, perhaps, of a religiosity that now longer works for them? Do they intuitively sense the fire in the crucible, the challenge of change, to both themselves and the community, that embracing transformation entails?

This kind of proactive, mutual engagement with each other in our spiritual formation is what I mean by covenant community. It’s something you would only presume to get into with fellow members; not with attenders. That is, you would only get this spiritually intimate with people who had also agreed that that is what they want from their meeting. They, like you, would have bought into the covenant and welcomed the attention by becoming members.

But is that ever what we offer people in our clearness committees for membership?

What about your meeting? Does it use covenant in this way as its understanding of the meaning of membership? If not, could it? Do you?

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§ 10 Responses to Meeting as Covenant Community

  • Ellis Hein says:

    If I am reading your post correctly, you are looking at these covenants as human initiated agreements. If any read the Scriptures, they soon notice that such covenants there are God initiated events. I am thinking of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Israelites through Moses. Then there is Jeremiah’s description of the New Covenant: “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” And there is Isaiah’s account of the ‘Servant’ who is given as the covenant of the people and a light of the Gentiles. Jesus’ coming is the God-initiated event that is the covenant of the people that is written on the hearts of the least and the greatest and the light of the Gentiles. It was this God-initiated, new covenant that the early Friends experienced and that made them distinct from most (if not all) other “Christians” of their day. Edward Burrough’s introduction to Vol. III of Fox’s works is a good brief of what they experienced.

    My question, then, is “What does it do to your exploration of the covenantal relationship between member and meeting if you take the approach that these must be God-initiated events?”

    • Good question. Some of the covenants in Hebrew scripture were certainly human constructs or frameworks that were presented as coming from God. I am thinking of the priestly source covenant with Noah, which is “mythical” in the ancient Israelite mode. Also, more to the point, the Deuteronomic covenant, which is actually the first clear formulation of the community’s relationship with God as covenant, modeled on Assyrian vassal treaties. Deuteronomy was “discovered” in a vessel in a temple storeroom, but was clearly written by somebody. I accept Weinfeld’s reconstruction of a “Deuteronomic school.”

      For that matter, even the original Mosaic covenant, and Jesus’ new covenant, and that enjoyed by early Friends were mediated by humans who felt a call from God to inaugurate one. God has only us (and creation) to work with, after all. So, if, in a meeting for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and gathered in the Spirit, a meeting decides to understand itself as a covenantal community and to establish membership as a covenant, I don’t think that would be substantially different than the covenants you mention. The circumstances might be less exalted, or miraculous-seeming, or otherwise less momentous as Moses coming down from the mountain or Jesus coming in from the desert. And the leadership might be less charismatic. But the decision and the covenant itself might still be spirit-led.

  • Andrew Gage says:

    Douglas Gwynn in his book The Covenant Crucified raises the possibility of a renewed, interfaith covenant. Since he doesn’t know what it would be like, he refers to this covenant as the X-covenant. I’ve always considered that an exciting, if as yet unclear, concept.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    I can certainly understand why membership doesn’t seem that important when it doesn’t really have covenantal meaning. This appears to be true of most Friends meetings and most other churches.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. I am now at Dayspring Church, one of 8 member faith communities of Church of the Saviour (CofS). The CofS way stresses discipleship and covenantal relationship. It assumes all Members are ministers (Core Members are considered to be ordained ministers), and like Quakers rejects the idea of a laity in the church.

    The first step in the membership process is called Exploring. This normally occurs after you attend at least 5 classes in our School of Christian Living, covering different areas of the Christian walk. You discern a Mission Group with which you start meeting.

    A CofS Mission Group combines elements that are usually separate in churches and Friends meetings. One aspect is the small groups (with various names) that many meetings and churches have where people share their spiritual journeys, do spiritual reading together and pray together. In the CofS model, this includes writing a weekly spiritual accountability report (one person in each Group generally serves as Spiritual Director for the Group). Spiritual disciplines are expected to include a daily devotional period of at least an hour and journaling. Each person is expected to go on at least one silent retreat each year of at least a weekend in length. (CofS has a Silent Retreat Center, and each member faith community will have one or more weekend retreats there.)

    The other aspect is responsibility for a ministry of the church. Generally in most meetings and churches this would be a committee, board or something like that. But after a few years of following this customary model, the CofS felt this divided model didn’t really do what was needed. A big theme of CofS is a balance between the inward journey and the outward journey. So the mission group is both the central place for spiritual sharing and accountability, and the place where ministry is done. The Mission Group’s name will be based on its mission.

    Mission Groups generally meet weekly. My Mission Group meets for 3 hours each time, but most meet for a shorter time. Some share a meal together when they meet and others don’t. Some missions are totally run by the Group members, so there is a lot of other work the members do during the week. Other missions have staff, and the Group’s responsibility is more for oversight and direction.

    After a few months, the person and the Mission Group will conclude whether the Group is where the person belongs. If so, the person becomes a formal member of the Group, and an Intern Member of the Church. The Intern Member makes a Covenant with the Church at a worship service and is prayed over. That status might last anywhere from a few months to a few years.

    When ready, the Intern Member becomes a full member, which includes a deeper covenant with the Church. This includes tithing (minimum of 10%; for an Intern Member the minimum is 5%). The candidate shares her or his spiritual journey at a meeting of the Church (it is at a Members’ Meeting, but the whole church and guests are usually invited for this sharing). After that sharing, the Members formally accept the person into Core Membership (my church operates by Quaker process; other CofS churches vote). Because the person is working with a Sponsor during this process, and the Members are kept apprised of the person’s progress (in addition to the fact that the churches are small so people generally get to know each other), there is usually no question at the time about whether the person should be accepted into Core Membership.

    The Core Members meet monthly for business just like Friends usually do. Other people in the Church are not a part of this.

    Covenants are for a year at a time. There is a week each year when Members are expected to take time apart to discern their calling for the coming year. The discernment is not only about whether to continue their membership (Intern or Core) for the coming year, but also about whether to renew their commitment to their Mission Group and for other responsibilities in the Church they have accepted. At the regular worship at the end of this week, those recommitting repeat their covenants for the coming year.

    So this is an example of true covenant community.

    • Thanks, Bill. This is a very demanding approach to membership. Exciting to think about. My commitments to my meeting are not nearly so demanding, yet I still struggle to balance its demands with my life with my wife, who is not a Friend. I wonder how many folks in your community have spouses or partners who are not members or in a different membership category, and how that works out?

  • Greg Robie says:

    luv it NOT! … touchscreen misfire

    i did

    test with my meeting & experientially a member i’m not

    a venusian can’t a martian’s journey nurture . . . . . . . . . . [k]NO[w]’n: woman’s way . . . . . & doesn’t need to . . . . . feelings muddle thoughts . . . . . men’s ARE the problem . . . . . why’s this a question?

    2nd Wave Feminism’s ‘righteousness’-through-victimhood has birthed a Venusian circle [jerk] culture as liberal Quakerism. Religiously, such is a sterile dead end. Chuck Fager observed Quakerism’s YM culture was defined by its enabling DeadQuakerMoney, talking-as-‘action’, and with the hope of a hookup. Monthly meetings are irrelevant to such shenanigans at the yearly meeting level … while those YM shenanigans somehow justify the the monthly meetings’ passivity and complicity.

    Liberal Quakers also tend to be highly educated and employed in [or retired from] social service fields. Their employment is/was their covenanted community [of interminable meetings]. Less is more when it comes to First Day [at the monthly meeting]. As covenant relationships continue to end – through funerals, or otherwise – less and less will become more and more … until everything is about a comforting circle seeking nothing beyond its lowest common denominator and the experience of [Venusian] comfort … or pretty much exactly where things have [intractably] been for the past quarter century [since our joint service on NYYM’s ad hoc Renewal Committee!].


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • Greg Robie says:

    i did

    test with my meeting & experientially a member i’m not

    a venusian can’t a martian’s journey nurture

    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


  • […] Meet­ing as Covenant Com­mu­ni­ty […]

  • Howard Brod says:

    Hello Steven,

    Many years ago when my meeting in Virginia (within Baltimore Yearly Meeting) began to revisit the spirituality of the very earliest Quakers, we quickly came to understand that these very early Friends were not a club or a clique. As Jesus himself prayed for his followers, these early Friends longed for a relationship of Oneness with Jesus, each other, and God. All ‘forms’ (including formal membership) were viewed as unnecessary by them.

    Since that same realization of ours nearly two decades ago, we have steadily eliminated over-dependence on ‘forms’ so that the Spirit can shine in and through the hearts of all without any barriers. An emphasis of formal (recorded) membership is one of those forms that the meeting has let go of long ago. Although the meeting still provides formal membership to those who desire it, most Friends in our meeting no longer utilize formal recorded membership. We have seen no difference between the commitment levels of recorded members of the meeting and non-recorded members. Our current clerk of meeting is not a recorded member.

    I offer you and your meeting the introduction (section A) to our meeting’s eleven page explanation of all issues surrounding formal membership. Perhaps you and your meeting will find it helpful – if not at least interesting.


    Recorded Membership
    The Religious Society of Friends and Midlothian Friends Meeting

    A. The Meaning of Membership at Midlothian Friends Meeting

    To become a recorded member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) one must become a recorded member of the monthly meeting; i.e. Midlothian Friends Meeting.

    The meaning and role of recording membership varies between Quaker meetings. At Midlothian Friends Meeting becoming a recorded member is a process by which a Friend may make a formal and public commitment to the underlying principles of the Religious Society of Friends and the meeting community. Recording membership is not necessary, however, to indicate one’s commitment.

    Midlothian Friends Meeting regards recorded membership as an individual decision which is personal in nature. Even though a Friend may feel a commitment to the Religious Society of Friends and the Midlothian Friends Meeting community, the Friend may have thoughtful reasons for not becoming a recorded member. They may feel that recorded membership in a religious society is the antithesis to living a spirit-led life. They may have emotional or familial ties to another church or religious denomination. Or, they just may not see a need to become a recorded member in order to explicitly demonstrate their commitment to Quakerism and the meeting community.

    Ultimately, the question that needs to be discerned by a Friend who is contemplating this step is whether recorded membership in the Religious Society of Friends and Midlothian Friends Meeting will be of value to her or him as they continue on their spiritual journey. An enhanced spiritual journey should be the reason for becoming a recorded member. If the formal step of recording one’s membership would hinder one’s spiritual journey, then it might be best to reconsider taking that step.

    Midlothian Friends Meeting is resolved to not use recorded membership as an indicator of spirituality or commitment to Quakerism and/or the meeting community. The meeting is concerned that an impression is never given of privilege for recorded members or exclusion of non-recorded members. There are no restrictions on non-recorded members serving in any capacity at Midlothian Meeting, whether that be on any of the meeting’s committees or even serving as clerk of meeting – perhaps the most visible and public Quaker in any Friends meeting.

    “Attender” is the term used by many Quaker meetings to describe a Friend who is an active participant within the life of the meeting; however, has not chosen to make the formal commitment of becoming a recorded member. Such a person may even consider herself or himself a “Quaker”. Due to the reasoning explained above within this section, use of the term “attender” is generally not in use at Midlothian Friends Meeting.

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