This re-frame started in the most unlikely place. A conversation yielded an insight that morphed into a frame through which I saw most of ministry.
Martin was an exchange student from Germany. At the end of his year with our family his parents came for their first visit to our country. After their whirlwind tour of our nation they ended their vacation with us. I asked Fritz, the father, “You’ve covered a lot of our country, exploring an amazing amount of territory. With all that travel, what surprised you the most?” His surprise surprised me. “I’m surprised by all the churches.” Fritz went on, “It’s remarkable; each church is on its own. Not so in our country. We all pay taxes to support the church whether or not we attend.”
His observation had never occurred to me. Even now, I must admit, when I see a church building I often, like Fritz, marvel at that congregation’s existence. You and I pass probably twenty or thirty churches as we drive through our communities. Has it ever struck you as remarkable that each congregation, whatever the size and flavor, consists of enough people who give and keep promises? That’s the glue. When congregants stop keeping their promises, trust erodes, and soon the building is empty with locked doors to prove it.
After this surprise I began to notice that all relationships are held together by this rather fragile thread — the willingness and capacity to make and keep promises. If you look closely, they are kept alive by ordinary, simple everyday interactions. “I will be home at six. If not, I’ll call you. I promise.” … “Agreed. Let’s do it.” … “I’ll tell you about it when I get to the office.” … “Will you give me a ride?” … “How about coffee at ten, our usual place. Will that work?” … “I forgot. Our meeting was right there on my calendar but I didn’t see it. I’m so sorry. Can we re-schedule?”
Everyday acts of making and keeping promises, and dealing with broken promises, were largely unnoticed by me. But once noticed the formula became clear: promises-made, both small promises and big life-defining vows, risk commitment; promises-kept embody faithfulness, building trust; promises-broken sow seeds of distrust and, if continued, result in the death of the relationship. It is as simple as that, as fragile as that, as profound as that. Relationships live or die by promises-made and promises-kept and broken promises healed … or not.
The growing awareness made its way into my opening statement for wedding ceremonies:
The wedding ceremony is a joyous occasion … a solemn occasion … and a worshipful occasion. This is a joyous occasion because the possibility of joy from marital life together is one of the deepest we can know on the earth. This is a solemn occasion because the implications of the promises spoken this day will have a ripple effect — for good or for ill — upon countless others down through the years. And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept.
This statement seemed adequate enough until my divorced friend, Leo, attended one of the ceremonies that I was officiating. He offered how he felt alien in the service, like someone looking in from the outside. How could he worship this God, he wondered, with broken pieces of his marital promises in his hands … and heart?
So for the next wedding ceremony I added a phrase:
And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken promises.
That seemed satisfactory. I wanted those, like Leo, to feel the possibility of reconciliation within primary relationships strained and even broken. But Leo continued to feel left out. My words still excluded Leo and those with his life experience because Leo never found any healing in the relationship with his former wife. No reconciliation; no friendship; no contact. They had promised faithfulness “till death do us part.” Well, death happened. In the relationship death-dealing kept increasing, life-giving kept diminishing.
So I added another phrase to the litany:
And this is a worshipful service because we worship a God who delights in covenant promises-made and covenant promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken covenant promises … and who delights in the healing of those broken by broken covenant promises.
Note that I also added the word “covenant” to deepen the biblical, theological dimension of exchanging promises. Covenants, in contrast to contracts, include the exchanges of promises among humans within the larger covenant of God’s promises. In covenants God’s promises are triangled into the relationships.
You and I share familiarity with the biblical concept of covenant. From my study this is what has remained significant for me. God’s covenant with Israel and New Israel (church) is the covenant promise to be with us and for us, exposing the pain and consequences of broken promises, while at the same time ever summoning us with a forgiving, healing “love that will not let us go.” Relationships, formed by implicit or explicit promises, can die, that is, cease to be life-giving. Faithfulness, in those instances, might require leaving these relationships and leaning into the grace to continue in other relationships, always, once again, formed by promises-made and promises-kept.
This is not “cheap grace” that bypasses the hard work of accountability. It invites the inner work of confession that can flow into forgiveness of the other and oneself, again and again, “seventy times seven.” Forgiveness, according to Jesus’s actions, was often the first declaration in a troubling situation. By letting in this divine gift of forgiveness we have the security necessary to face our brokenness and offer it up to the assurance of grace. It’s breathing in the breath-taking generosity of God that undergirds both our capacity for risking mutual promises and our freedom to detach from dashed promises.
Covenant is at the heart of relationships. This makes our promises sacramental, a “means of grace.” They light up the grace (gift) of life and love in the everyday exchanges of promises made and kept; they make possible the grace (gift) of life and love in the healing of broken promises and in the healing of those broken by broken promises. All grace. All gift.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil and The Human Condition, makes central the requisite of covenants. The capacity to make and keep promises provides islands of security as one faces into the future of uncertainty. And the capacity to forgive the consequences of broken promises grants freedom from being held hostage to one’s past. She placed side by side both the power of promise and the power of forgiveness.
Seeing pastoral ministry through the eye of covenant promises — made, kept, broken with the possibility of restoration, and always the possibility of grace — became a major re-frame that mattered during my last ten years or so of being pastor. I offer a few examples in addition to the marriage covenant already noted.
Church membership can be framed as a covenant. The person promises; the church promises. I gave effort to clarifying these promises. But disappointments and unmet expectations will occur. So I included this promise: when the covenant isn’t working as expected, then the disappointment or failure would be named, heard, and confessed in the hope of a new, deepened covenant. To see membership as covenants increases the likelihood that these differences and disappointments along the way, including the ending of the covenants, can be redemptive. Even a member leaving in anger is sometimes willing to see it in covenant terms. By reviewing the covenant both parties can acknowledge the good, confess failure and disappointment, call upon forgiveness, and bless the future covenants with another congregation.
To see staff relationships in covenant terms is another example. It means spending time making covenant, that is, clarifying expectations, rooting out assumptions, writing the promises down, and committing to review them periodically. The challenge for me was confronting or allowing myself to be confronted when the promises were broken, the little ones as well as the larger promises. For re-covenanting to have integrity it must include naming the failure, asking for forgiveness, and re-promising. Otherwise the covenant softens, accountability diminishes, avoidance of conflict sets in with the opportunity for growth being lost.
I recommend a clearer covenant between pastor and the elected lay leaders. I wish I had put more energy into this crucial partnership. While lay leaders and I did talk about mutual expectations in general terms, I would now advocate specificity. Since we are called to different but complementary roles of leadership, a covenant can define these roles, becoming an agreement that can be reviewed and modified as needed. This enhances not only accountability but also the permission to address broken or unfulfilled promises before they fester and enlarge.
The covenant lens is particularly relevant when addressing congregational conflict and challenges. Every congregation has a covenant or mission statement, a stated reason-for-being. There is some purpose around which a congregation gathers that’s both explicit and implicit, formal and informal. For the purpose of illustration, let’s assume that some heated differences arise around a budget or property or personnel concerns. The concept of covenant promises provides a way to frame a conversation that invites faithful listening and creative problem-solving. Given the frame — we are held together by covenant promises — then we can ask what are our responses in light of our mission, in light of being the body of Christ, in light of being bound together in faith, hope and love — in other words, in light of our promises.
The most volatile challenge I faced as a pastor was when in 1991 a member of our congregation requested for himself and his partner a public service of blessing — in essence, a wedding. What kept our congregation from splitting over this heated possibility was framing the process in terms of our covenant. How will we be in covenant with members who are gay (LGBTQ) persons? By being the body of Christ what is our sense of what Jesus would have us do? What’s the mind of Christ? Given our covenant grounded in God’s generosity, how will we speak our truth to each other in love and listen to the felt truth of the other? The language of covenant promises provides a theological and ethical framework for proceeding with highly charged conversations. Covenants are the containers for difficult speech and collective discernment.
In summary, the church is called to embody covenantal relationships with each other within God’s larger covenant with us. If so, all relationships can be viewed in this covenantal context. That means promise-making (risking commitment), promise-keeping (trust), confronting broken promises in the hope of re-covenanting (reconciliation), and the healing grace offered to those broken by broken promises (confession/forgiveness).
Arendt helps me taper this gospel truth more precisely: promise-making and promise-keeping provide communities of trust, hope, and love for facing into an uncertain future; the radical giving and receiving of forgiveness grants the freedom to release the hold of brokenness from our past. This became a re-frame that mattered.