One of the most important things you can do as you begin a new group is to develop some form of covenant with your group. Doing so may seem awfully formal or even stuffy, but in the long run, you will find that a covenant will help you function together as a group.
What is a Covenant
A covenant is simply an agreement that defines the way your group agrees to work and function together. It can be as formal as a written document (I have seen examples where all of the group members have signed the document) or as informal as just a conversation about group direction. (I recommend at least putting down in writing some sort of summary of your discussion. You will be surprised at what you do not remember 6 months down the road.) It is the result of a group sitting down and asking questions like:
- How often will we meet?
- How will we handle the practical arrangements of group, such as where we meet, how we engage the children, how long will a group session last, etc.?
- What do we agree to contribute to our group? This can include hosting and providing food, but should also point out the need for everyone to read and discuss the chosen curriculum.
- Speaking of curriculum, what will we use as a curriculum and who is responsible for leading the group discussion.
- What happens when there are problems or tensions between members? How will we handle this?
These questions originate from the idea that people choose to participate in a group for selfish reasons. By selfish, I mean for reasons that benefit themselves. There may be exceptions, but the vast majority of the time people join a group to meet some sort of need they see in their lives, such as:
- To find a place to connect in the congregation
- To grow deeper in their knowledge and understanding of God
- To ease a sense of guilt that they are not “going to church” on Sunday evening (Sounds harsh, but it is a true reason for some.)
- To grow in their faith
- To find a group to serve the less fortunate
- To enjoy fellowship with others
I do not list these reasons to say they are good or bad, but to simply point out that people have a wide variety of reasons for being a part of a small group.
Trouble begins when the reason people join does not match the activities happening in the group they attend. Let me give you a real-life example. We had a man attend our group (at a different place) for the first time on one of our Game-Night Meetings. (About once a quarter or so, we would bring board games or cards and instead of having a formal study time, we would all gather and play games.) This man came to game night, loved it, so came back the next week and then the next. It was during his third or fourth meeting that he finally asked: “So when are we going to play games? That’s why I am here.” Obviously his first taste of group fulfilled a need he felt, but the ongoing group life did not.
The same sort of principle can apply to Bible study groups. If you want to be a part of a group that spends large amounts of time in study, then everyone in the group has to commit to this idea or it will not work. There is a reason why Bible Study Fellowship has a successful model of study groups and has very explicit guidelines about what you will do as a participant in a BSF group.
How to Form a Covenant
The process is fairly simple. Spend a few moments during a group meeting and ask the following questions (or some like them):
- Why are you a part of this group?
- What do you hope to get out of participating in this group?
- Based on what you are hoping to get out of this group, what sort of things/activities do you want to see happen as we meet together on a regular basis?
- How will we handle the practical logistics of the group (hosting, leading, curriculum, childcare, communicating with members, etc.)?
- If there is a conflict between group members, what course of action will we take to address the problem?
Take notes as people answer questions and discuss. Then, during the week following this meeting, draft a document that summarizes what you heard. Email it to your group members (or bring a copy the next meeting) with instructions that they are to review this and then either agree with or make corrections to the plan they have made. After everyone has agreed with the document, copy it for everyone to have.
Why is a Covenant Important
Let me tell you why I think this process is so important.
- It allows you to hear what others desire from their participation in group. As much as we hate to admit it, people vote with their feet and if they indeed join group for selfish reasons, they will leave group when those reasons are not being met. Some may not even quit coming—they still attend but have disengaged to the point they have “left.” When you know their desires, you are better prepared to meet or reshape those desires.
- At the same time, a covenant allows you to motivate and stretch the group as a whole. You also have a say in the direction of the group and in most groups, the leader carries more weight than others. This is an opportunity for you to define some healthy practices within the group, practices that group members may not have thought of or had to courage to bring up.
- When a problem arises in your group, your covenant enables you to address the issue with a group-determined plan in place. If your group has agreed that conflicts will be addressed within the group meeting, not via email, then you are able to say to the group: I have seen emails about issue X and because we said we would address problems together in group, I want to take a few moments to talk through ways to resolve this issue.
- Finally, a covenant is a great motivation tool down the road. We all get into routines and become complacent, even with our group schedules. So, let’s say one of the practices your group decides to undertake is a meeting a month in which you just pray, nothing else. But due to the busy-ness of the group, you miss a couple of months in a row. You have a tool—the covenant—to pull out and say: “When we started this group, we agreed to pray monthly. We haven’t been doing that. Either let’s agree to start again or let’s agree that this is not an activity that we deem as important to each of us as we meet together as a group.” What you decide may not be as important as being able to all come together and make a decision that helps everyone feel like their desires and goals were addressed.
Forming a covenant takes some time and may feel too wooden to be comfortable, but from years of experience—both positive and negatives—taking the time to form some sort of covenant is worth it.