Josh Sargent from the Leadership Blog sent me the following question yesterday:
Do you guys make all your small group attendees sign a small group covenant? If so, what are the benefits?
The short answer: At NCC, no, we do not make all of our small group attendees sign a leadership covenant. Here are a few reasons why we have made that decision.
First, our church is very transient. Summer interns on Capitol Hill are only here for 3 months. We want people to be able to plug into a group as soon as possible. And we want them to plug into the right place. We actually encourage people to check out more than one group before committing. That would make covenants difficult. At what point do you ask people to sign? Do you ask everyone to sign together? Or do you ask an individual to sign after a certain amount of time?
Secondly, it doesn't fit the NCC culture of "experimentation." I totally understand the point of covenants. It stems from a desire to foster an environment of commitment and accountability—true Christian community as opposed to surface community. But I don’t think that kind of community automatically develops just because someone signed a piece of paper. I think we need to go deeper than that (For whatever it’s worth, one of the best books on Christian community I have ever read is Ortberg’s Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them)
Finally, we are primarily a free-market system and some of our groups are evangelistic in nature. Which means we have people coming to our groups who are not members of NCC and some who are not even followers of Christ yet. It strikes me as weird to ask them to sign a covenant binding themselves to us when they have not even stepped over the line of faith.
With that said, we are not opposed to a group leader who wants to ask people to sign a covenant. We can certainly see the benefits of some groups being closed and asking people to sign a commitment of some sort. And there are certain groups (relational and sexual brokenness groups, for instance) that probably should have covenants.
On a related note, do ask all of our leaders to sign a leadership covenant.
Now, in fairness to the pro-covenant crowd, let me share their reasons for covenants. In his book Creating Community, Andy Stanley promotes covenants as mechanisms to set clear expectations and to establish a predictable small group experience for participants. A covenant ensures that evey member understand the goals and the values of the group as well as the group "rules." Everyone knows exactly what they have signed up for. In the Northpoint Coach's Playbook, they explain, "Agreeing to a covenant helps lay a healthy foundation for group life."
Northpoint has a standardized covenant that they ask all of their small groups to sign. You can find Northpoint Community Church's covenant here at their nsidegrouplife.org site. (TONS of great resources there)
The Willow Creek guys are also proponents of covenants. They don't require it of their groups, but they do offer some guidelines for helping groups develop a covenant. In the Willow Creek resource, Leading Life-Changing Small Groups, Bill Donahue says, "Covenants are expressions of group values, expectations, or behaviors for which we hold ourselves mutually accountable." They continue, "covenants are binding agreements that can create trust and build community." The book contains some really good keys to drafting a good covenant and includes some samples.
The Northpoint guys and the Willow Creek guys really know their small groups. So maybe there is something to this covenant idea that I should be more open to. And maybe we will implement that at some point down the road. But not now.
If you are considering covenants for your groups, I think these are key questions:
- Would a covenant be a catalyst for community in your group?
- Would a covenant fit within the culture of your church and your small group ministry?