“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you.” Gen 17:7
The Wonder of Covenant
Despite the fact that the idea of covenant is a constant and vital element in the bible’s narrative, many of us journey quite some distance into our Christian lives before we ever realize it. It’s a real pity because there are few aspects to the Christian message that are more revolutionary and transformative for both our thinking and our praxis as followers of Jesus. The God who has revealed himself to us is a God of covenant and as those created in his image, we have been made to be people of covenant. Even a cursory glance at our faith makes this clear. The bible is divided into two by this sacred concept (testament is just another word for covenant); the Old Testament walks us through God’s four major covenants with Israel (i.e. with Noah, Moses, Abraham and David); the New Testament lays out for us God’s new covenant in Christ. Baptism and communion are sacraments of covenant and Paul tells us that the covenant of marriage when rightly honoured reveals to us the love of Jesus for his church. As Jesus’ people, outside of our Lord and the Gospel he has proclaimed, there are few things that are more important to us than the idea of covenant. AND, when it comes to explaining the secret of Christian community, it is hard to find a better single word to use than this one.
In this session, therefore, we are going to look at what it means to sow the vision for and develop a covenant for your Home Group. It will be a major help in creating and sustaining the sort of environment we have just described in session 2.
What is a Covenant?
A covenant is not a statement of what a perfect or ideal group is like. It is not a list of all the ‘rules’ Home Group members have to keep in order to be part of a group. Rather, it is the courageous spelling out of the steps your group is willing to take in order for its members to genuinely share their lives with one another and help one another to truly grasp and truly grow in the grace of the Gospel.
A little exercise to get us going…
1. Have a think about the kind of formal covenants, contracts, or agreements you are already in? List some of the ones that come to mind.
2. What is the purpose these things serve?
What a Home Group Covenant Accomplishes
Developing a Home Group Covenant serves a similar purpose to the other covenants you’ve mentioned above and has four major advantages:
I. It Lays a Basis for Trust
As noted already, being able to share openly and vulnerably about ourselves with others requires the development of trust. ‘Before I tell these people anything personal about my life I want to make sure that I can trust them’ is the unspoken thought of everyone coming to a Home Group, and rightly so. If we take the risk of sharing something intimate about what’s going on in our private lives, the last thing we want is for that information to be gossiped around the whole church under the pretence of it being ‘an item for prayer‘! Or again, if you have the courage to share your struggle with a long term problem, what you don’t want in response is shallow and simplistic solutions thrown back at you by those who could not possibly understand your feelings and situation. ‘All you need to do is…’ If group sharing is to move beyond the superficial stage, the members of your group need to know what they can expect of the others and what the others expect of them. By laying out ground rules, or group norms, everyone will know what is allowed and what is not, and they will also know that they will be held lovingly accountable to the group if they choose to ignore the norms agreed upon.
II. It Builds Ownership of Group Goals
Studies in group dynamics reveal that people are much more highly committed to groups in which they have had some say about their direction and functioning. (See R. Hestenes, Using the Bible in Groups, p23) All of those who come along to your group will do so because there are certain things that they hope to achieve and benefit from as a Home Group member. Each will bring a personal agenda. Each will have specifics that they desire to be addressed. Unless you shape your group around these needs, and come to a consensus of where the group will be heading, frustration, apathy and drop out will almost certainly occur. The group will always remain “yours” and never really become “theirs”. Also, it may well be that one or two of those who attend your first meeting have needs and desires that are so different from the others that they will never be happy in your group. By clarifying the purposes and goals of the group at the start, you allow these people to realise this and join another group instead. Otherwise disappointment and conflict will almost certainly occur.
III. It Provides Clear Direction for Group Activities
Every organisation or group of any kind needs to have a reason for its existence. There must be purposes for which members are willing to make the sacrifices called for in joining up. It is the same with a Home Group. Without clear purposes it will ultimately drift around, achieve very little and slowly but surely be doomed to failure. One of my favourite Home Group cartoons shows a picture of a tomb stone engraved with ‘Here lies a Small Group that died and didn’t know it!’ Forming its Covenant is how your Home Group will clarify the purposes it is set on accomplishing, together with the steps it is going to take in order to accomplish them. Each and every activity undertaken by the group can then be measured against the covenant drawn up and if suggestions do not in some way contribute to the agreed purposes they can be discarded.
When the time comes to examine where the group is at, and how it is doing, this Covenant will provide an excellent basis for the evaluation to be carried out. Furthermore, by having a written group Covenant, potential new members will be able to get a good idea of where the present members want to go. This will greatly help in finding a Home Group suited to them.
IV. It Establishes the Commitment Necessary to Make Home Groups Work
Being part of a home group has many benefits. It also has a down side as well. There will be very busy weeks at home and at work that make having to go out to the Home Group meeting (particularly if the last one wasn’t so good) a real burden. There will be favourite films on the TV, important sporting events and party invitations all happening on the night of Home Group which make absence seem more tempting than presence. Relationships between members will not always be wonderful. There will be times when you would rather punch than pray with some of those around you. And in all these situations, the only thing that will keep members coming is the commitment that they have made in drawing up and agreeing their group covenant and the potential benefits that they realise await them if they hold fast to it.
Gordon Cosby (quoted in Birkey, Del, The House Church, page 43) puts it beautifully:
The commitment necessary for Home Group membership says to the other group members that you are willing to be with them for the long haul. It says that you are willing to belong to them, that you are willing to be the people of God with them and that you will see through the bad as well as the good with them. Such commitment is no tentative gesture that you can withdraw from when a better offer comes along. It is a commitment to live in close community with a group of fellow pilgrims, who like you often fail, until you see in each other the character of Jesus Christ revealed and developed.
The drawing up of your Home Group Covenant allows this needed commitment to be spelled out to and made by all. If someone in your group declares that they are not willing to make any such firm commitment in coming to the group then they should be encouraged to wait a while before joining a Home Group. Only when they are ready to commit themselves to others are they ready to belong to a group. The only exception to this should be in the case of an evangelistic Home Group, where you are wanting to include those who are not yet Christians.
MCC’s Home Group Covenant
Your Home Group’s covenant can be draw up any way you like but usually there are certain things all the groups will agree to and thus can simply be presented as the norm. Each group can then sort the remaining issues any way they like. These are the initial paragraphs we use in MCC:
What our Home Groups are about
MCC Home Groups are thus small missional communities of eight to twelve people who regularly meet together for fun, friendship, worship, Bible Study and prayer. Their purpose is to help people get connected with one another, explore the teaching of Jesus and increasingly live out the Gospel in every part of their lives. Their aim is to help people become wholehearted followers of Jesus through:
- Building relationships with and supporting one another in community
- Exploring and growing in their relationship with God
- Discovering and developing their spiritual gifts
- Praying and serving together in the mission of God’s kingdom
MCC’s Home Group Covenant
Forming such communities requires a significant effort and commitment from those who are involved and a willingness to follow certain, healthy patterns of behaviour in how they relate to one another. In our home groups these include:
- Seeking to develop spiritual friendships, fellowship and mutual support amongst our members
- Accepting, loving, and caring for one another both within and outside of the group meetings
- Encouraging one another towards personal and spiritual growth through reading, Bible Study and Prayer
- Helping each other to discover, develop and use the spiritual gifts God has given us for ministry
- Seeking to live out and to share our faith – both with each other and with our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
- Inviting, encouraging and being open to new members who may join us at appropriate stages of our group life.
- Being faithful in attendance at the Worship services and other special events of our church
Our Agreements for our Home Group Life
To help create an atmosphere of health and trust we also ask our Home Groups members to commit themselves to following the group ‘norms’ detailed below – especially if difficulties arise – and to give permission to their fellow members to hold them lovingly accountable if they fail to do so.
- We will seek to make our home groups a safe, enjoyable and nourishing environment for all who come.
- We will do our utmost to make the home group meetings a priority in our schedules.
- We will keep completely confidential what is shared within the group (even from our spouses if they aren’t members of it) unless we are specifically given permission to do otherwise.
- We will not give “advice” to other members concerning what they share unless it is asked for.
- We will speak the truth to one another but only “in a spirit of love” (Ephesians 4.15).
- We will be willing to join in our group discussions and sharing times and not simply observe them.
- We will allow each person in our group equal time to speak and share.
- We will not criticise one another before other group members but will follow the principles Jesus laid out in Matt 18:15-17.
- We will face and work through any conflict that arises between us rather than deny or hide from it. In doing so we will hold that people are more important than issues.
The remaining issues to be covered in drawing up the Covenant should be discussed with the group members and decisions made based upon consensus rather than majority vote if at all possible. Even when a majority decision is the only way to decide on a point do your utmost to get those who disagree with the outcome to see the need for it. As we often do in Committee meetings, try to ensure that every decision is recorded as unanimous.
The areas for the group to consider are listed below. Decisions made should be printed on the back of your Covenant under the heading “Arrangements Agreed Upon”.
Frequency of Meetings
Either weekly or twice per month. Some groups begin with the latter and then move to the former. Groups should normally meet at least twice per month.
This can be as flexible as you like. Some groups might arrange to meet for an hour in the morning or over lunch. Some might arrange to meet on an evening, for example from 7.30 – 9.30. What is important is that the time agreed upon is the time adhered to. Meetings should start promptly (don’t wait for late comers) and end promptly (provided the hosts for the evening don’t mind, people can always stay and chat afterwards if they want to).
Where your meetings are held is again up to your group. If possible it should be in the home of someone other than yourself who would act as host. Rather than a different location each week, it would be better to meet in one place for a whole term. This allows members who haven’t been for a few weeks (shame on them!) to know where to find you. Wherever you decide upon, make sure that it has sufficient room to fit all your members in comfortably with everyone sitting at the same level and able to see everyone else clearly.
Having some food together either before or after the meeting can be a great way to build fellowship. However, if the food is to come after the meeting ensure that all preparations are made beforehand so that those in charge of it do not have to leave half way through the prayer time to get things ready. If possible, the responsibility for providing food should be shared out amongst the members. Particularly if the group is meeting in the same home each week, the host or hostess should not have to prepare the refreshments as well. Preparing their home and sorting it our afterwards is quite enough work. It might also be an idea to restrict what type and quantity of food you are going to have. Many a conflict has been caused by everyone trying to out-cook or out-bake the person who was in charge the previous week! Gaining weight is not one of the group goals and yet eating can so easily erode away the time you have for “getting down to business.”
Arrangements for Children
Deciding what arrangements are to be made for the children of group members during the meetings should be a priority of the covenant process. As group leader, you should not decide for your members but try to suggest alternatives that would be an encouragement to those with children. For example, if a couple has to pay for a baby-sitter, could the group agree to help with this expense? Could the group allow the children to come along occasionally or hold a social evening occasionally which would include the children? Would anyone in the group be able to set up free baby-sitting with a relative? It is usually much better for children not to be present during the group’s meetings. Whilst the parents themselves may be used to little Mary’s cries and antics, some of the other group members may find her activities very distracting or just plain annoying.
Group Emphasis on Worship, Bible Study, Prayer, and Fellowship
Although all groups will start out with most of their time being spent on developing community, each will have its own unique “set format” towards which you will want to be leading them.
The basic structure that has been found to be most effective in Home Group life is as follows:
I. Coffee or Tea and Chat
III. Bible Study
IV. Sharing and Prayer
The actual order you use and how your group time will be allocated to each of these elements is something for your group members to decide amongst themselves. Once they have got to know one another better, what portion of your time do your members wish to spend in worship? Who will lead this time? Does anyone play a musical instrument (other than the drums!!) that could help the singing along? What portion of the time would they like to spend in Bible Study? Which topics/books would they like to cover? Would they prefer to work through a Christian book instead, for example David Watson’s Discipleship? We’ll return to this in session five. Likewise, what portion of the time would they like to spend in sharing and prayer? See session six.
Some groups will have very short times of worship and will be more geared to Bible study. Some will want to centre around sharing and prayer. Others will regularly vary the emphasis given to each element. There is no ‘right’ format and no two groups will be the same. However, each group should have all of the above elements built in to its weekly programme in one way or another. If you consistently leave one of them out your group will inevitably cease to grow. This is not to say that you must always hold slavishly to this pattern. There will be nights when someone will share something that requires the whole group to change tract and concentrate on helping and encouraging that member. For that particular evening, the Bible Study may need to be put off until next time and the group needs set aside for the needs of the individual. Be flexible, but keep these elements always in mind when planning for the following meeting.
Variety is very important for the health and vitality of your group. Doing the same thing week after week will get boring for some and too heavy going for others. To help avoid this try to hold at least one or two evenings each term that are mainly social in content. Possibilities include potluck evenings, a trip to the cinema, a bowling night, a day trip to the coast. The list is endless. Use your imagination and that of the group. Planning these events can be great ways of building friendship and trust. Social events also allow the group to express love and concern for the children of its members. Perhaps you could even use such events to invite non-Christian friends along or to recruit possible new members for the next term.
Date of Evaluation
Your group covenant should also include the date of your next evaluation and re-covenanting. Although this is usually done at the end of one term or the beginning of the next, for a group that has just started this date should be set somewhere between 5 and 7 weeks into the first term. By then people will know each other a little better and will understand more about what they want to get from the group themselves.
Establishing the Covenant
Sorting through the issues involved in forming a Covenant are usually best left for a fews week into your Home Group’s life. For some people the very idea of a ‘Covenant’ may seem very strange so it is enough initially to simply mention that once you have got to know one another a little you will be spending an evening working through your Home Group Covenant. Sometimes, even then, group members will be impatient to get going, to get at the “real” stuff of Home Group life, and may be somewhat frustrated by all the “talk” you are leading them to do. But the time taken to clarify the group’s purposes and arrangements will make your role as leader much easier in the future. It will allow you to avoid many of the frustrations, hostilities and even mutinies that crop up in groups who simply set off without knowing where exactly it is they are trying to go.
A possible procedure to follow in creating your covenant is outlined below.
Step One: During your first meeting you will have begun the process by asking the members to share something of their expectations and hopes for the group. At the end of this time you should introduce the idea of a covenant and encourage the members to think some more about it. Explain that you will be coming back to it in a few weeks time.
Step Two: At your ‘covenant’ meeting present the Basic Home Group Covenant and work through it a paragraph at a time. Briefly explain why the elements included are so important and ask your members to be willing to commit themselves to the norms contained within it. Ask them to think through the various issues that remain before your next meeting. Are there any more they would want to add? Are there any changes they would want to make?
Step Three: As part of your next meeting, ask for any addition points your members want to make and negotiate the other arrangements that remain to be clarified until a consensus has been reached. Be very careful to ensure that everyone contributes to the discussion (ask people for their opinion if you have to) and that they are all happy to agree on the final outcome. As mentioned above, it may become apparent that one or two of those present will simply not be able to fit in to what the rest desire. If this is the case encourage these people not to feel obligated to keep with your group but don’t compromise what’s asked of your members even a little.
When the arrangements have been finalised and agreed upon, include these on your Covenant and have copies ready for the beginning of the next meeting for everyone to read (perhaps even sign) and keep.
The Exception to the Rule
If most of those who come to your Home Group are entirely new to the Home Group experience, the detailed covenant procedure outlined above may be too much for them to cope with until they’ve had a chance to adjust to this new environment. It’s hard to know what you really want from a small group until you know what actually happens at one. In this case you may decide to begin with a very simple group covenant, such as “We promise to come and to show love and respect to one another,” introducing this more detailed and more valuable procedure in a few months time. Don’t be tempted, though, to leave out the more detailed covenant-making process. The vast majority of groups that fail do so because their members have not taken sufficient time to develop a shared understanding and agreed direction for their meetings.
Group Evaluation and Re-Negotiation
As leaders evaluation is not something that we easily welcome. Often we can feel that doing so will open up our leadership to unwanted attack. But as servant leaders of the servant Lord our fear is unnecessary. The primary goal of our leadership is to see our members grow and mature in their faith and ministry and if something exists that is a barrier to that then we will want to face and overcome it as soon as possible. Unless we find out where our group’s life is weak we will never be able to strengthen and improve it. Besides, evaluations often bring us much appreciated encouragement and praise, and they will occur privately even if we don’t allow them publicly. Not allowing the problems within our group to surface does not mean that they will go away. If not dealt with they will fester beneath the surface and cause great harm that could have been easily avoided by bringing them into the open.
There are basically four times when we need to re-negotiate the Covenant that our group holds:
I. At the beginning of each new term
This allows the group members to reflect back upon their last session together and to rejoice in the good things that have happened. It reminds them of the prayers that they have seen answered, of the deepening of relationships that has occurred, and of the spiritual growth that has taken place in their lives. It also allows group members to raise any problems they might have had with the format or content of the group’s meetings and provides an opportunity to discuss any areas where they feel the group has wondered off from their original agreement.
II. When a New Person Joins
It is very important to re-negotiate your group covenant whenever a new person joins. Otherwise, the new member will not own the group covenant and there exists the danger that the group will not own the new member.
III. When a Member Leaves
Again, re-negotiate when a member leaves. It is now a different group and will have a different focus. The person who left may have influenced the group goals quite a bit and now that he or she is no longer there the other members might want to change the group direction.
IV. When a crisis Happens to the Group
The other occasion on which to evaluate and re-negotiate is when a crisis of one kind or another hits one of your group members, e.g. divorce, major accident, or financial crash. It may well be that having focused on in-depth study, your group will now need to place more emphasis on support and prayer.
Perhaps the best way to evaluate and begin the process of re-negotiation is to have your Group’s Covenant in hand (provide fresh copies for members if necessary). Going around the group, again involving all, ask your members to comment on how well they think the group has done at keeping to the covenant they originally made. Ask which areas of the group’s life have been most helpful and how you could make them even more so. Ask which areas have been least helpful and how you could seek to address the weaknesses which exist. Lead the group to consensus on the changes that are necessary and then write these changes into your new Covenant Document for the members to sign. When carrying out evaluations you will also need to ask the question, “Does anyone know of any problems that we need to deal with as a group but haven’t yet done so?” This will hopefully allow the members freedom to raise any issues of great importance or concern to them which you may not have picked up on.
For many of us, entering into a covenant with our fellow Home Group members will be an unusual experience. In many ways the actual document that you end up with at the end of the covenanting process is not as important as the process which leads to it. Most groups only refer back to their covenant when doing an evaluation or when a conflict arises. Even so, clarifying the direction in which the group is going to go and allowing the members to see on paper what they can expect from the others and what the others expect from them, is a powerful thing. It casts the vision for the group’s life together and it provides a very strong basis for mutual accountability, continued commitment and developing community. It is a process well worth the investment of time it requires.