6 Ways In Which Spoken Covenants Can Help Your Mental Health

It moved me.  

The other night I watched the movie ‘Lincoln’ and even though I am not an American and I don’t have a great understanding of American history, there was one particular scene right at the start that spoke volumes to me. 

Abraham Lincoln was with his Union Army when two African American soldiers came up to him. One of them quoted back to him the Declaration of Independence and that all men are created equal.

What struck me was that these men knew the declaration off by heart and being African Americans they were going off to fight for the very tenets of the speech. For them these were not just mere words, they were pledges and dreams entwined together.

Anthems, creeds, covenants, declarations all remind us of foundation values and truths that we hold dearly to. Often the words have been hammered out through struggle and debate, war and peace and reinforced over years of repetition.

Repeatedly spoken covenants bring our fragile forgetful minds back to already ground out and agreed upon truth.

God tells the people of Israel to write, talk, tie and inscribe his commandments into their lives.

Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!
Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (The Message)

Many years ago I was part of a Renovare Spiritual Formation group. I have been through many different forms of home groups and bible study groups but this was radically different. In particular it started with the whole group reading a group covenant.

I.  Opening Words
Welcome to the RENOVARÉ (or other chosen name for the group) Spiritual Formation Group. May God’s Holy Spirit bless us, and may we find fellowship and encouragement during this time together.
Remember, we gather together with one purpose in mind – to become better disciples of Jesus Christ. We do this by encouraging one another to keep his commands, which, as he said, is how we love him (John. 14: 23-24), Through the grace of mutual accountability, our aim is to inspire one another to love and good works.
Please keep in mind that everything that is said here is to be held in confidence. Only then can we feel free enough to share openly and honestly. All hopes and dreams, all fears and failures – even our joys and successes, are to be kept within these walls. This is how we help each other.
II. The Covenant
In utter dependence upon Jesus Christ as my everliving Saviour, Teacher, Lord, and Friend, I will seek continual renewal through:
·         spiritual exercises,
·         spiritual gifts, and
·         acts of service.
III. The Common Disciplines
1        By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading, and will seek to practice the presence of God.
2        By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin, and will do deeds of love and mercy.
3        By God’s grace, I will welcome the Holy Spirit, exercising gifts and nurturing the fruit while living in the joy and power of the Spirit.
4        By God’s grace, I will endeavour to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relationships and social structures.
5        By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and will study the Scriptures regularly.
6        By God’s grace, I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I am, in all that I do, in all that I say.

What I liked about having a formal covenantal introduction was that it brought everyone in the group to the same place, to a common understanding of purpose. Expectations were set and agreed upon. Safety was declared as paramount for this group to being a safe place to share … all hopes and dreams, all fears and failures – even our joys and successes are to be kept within these walls. This is how we help each other.
In the church where I serve as Pastor, my Elders and I have been reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton.

Here are some quotes from Chapter 8 A Covenant That Protects Community

We cannot assume that Christian people agree on what it means to act Christianly, let alone that they are psychologically and spiritually healthy enough to carry out the agreed-on behaviors.

At a recent conference, Jeff Greenway, former president of Asbury Seminary, explained the meaning of covenant in a way that is particularly illuminating. He pointed out that the Hebrew word translated “covenant” comes from the word fetter, which means to bind, shackle or chain. While this may seem a little harsh to our contemporary Western minds, the application Jeff made was very helpful. He said, “We bind ourselves to each other in times of strength so that in moments of weakness we do not become unbound.”

A covenant is an agreement two or more people make with each other about how they will behave in their relationship.

We put covenants in place when what is at stake is so important that we dare not leave the relationship up to chance, subject to passing whims or confused by misunderstanding.

It is important that we make our covenant very humbly and with a great deal of realism about our chances for actually being true to it. Some groups create very impressive documents by throwing just about every idealistic possibility they can think of on a piece of paper and calling it a covenant. I have seen the heartbreak and disillusionment that result when those very same leaders fail to abide by that covenant.

6 Benefits from Having Covenants

  1. Clarify safety expectations. In the Spiritual Formation Group having the covenant reminded everyone that this was a place of confidentiality. If something was shared in the group then that was where it was going to stay. There wasn’t going to be any gossiping tolerated.
  2. Keep us from drifting. Spoken covenants remind us about what the purpose of the group and the time is. My Spiritual Formation Group was about becoming better disciples of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t about politics, or discussing the latest sports results. The purpose was clear. In coming to the group I wasn’t going to be surprised by something other than what had already been agreed upon.
  3. Connect us to words. Words have power and having well crafted words and phrases can bring a sense of safety that others have wrestled through the wording. These words and phrases lead us to somewhere deeper than where we may not normally go.
  4. Bind us to each other. Having a covenant reinforces the commitments we have made to each other. “We bind ourselves to each other in times of strength so that in moments of weakness we do not become unbound.”
  5. Connect us to a wider group. Knowing that others are covenanting in the same provides a connection point. I went to an International Renovare Conference once and it was wonderful knowing that I was one of probably thousands that had said this covenant. It connected me to others.
  6. Provide a pause button. Our brain needs triggers that say this is the time and the place for this. Speaking out a covenant triggers the brain to say ‘It is time for this’.

Grace filled, realistic covenants can be valuable in the ongoing journey of mental wellness.

Questions to consider and leave a comment.
  1. What covenants have you experienced?
  2. What are the potential problems with making covenants? Do these problems mean we should dispel the idea of making covenant commitments?
  3. Where do you think covenant commitments would be beneficial in your life?

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Barry Pearman
Photo Credit: Lotus Carroll via Compfight cc

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