Why Covenants Are More Effective Than Rules

Today I got my first chance at teaching RE (Religious Education) and I was the LEAD teacher (out of a team of 6).

I was tapped to teach 3rd and 4th grade this year by the DRE (Director of Religious Education). I said yes. I am doing this at MUUF (Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship) of Morristown. How’s that for a lot of acronymns?

It has been four years since my exit from the job of leading a Lutheran church. Today I had my first experience of doing real ministry in a long time. I’m grateful that the team of teachers and the DRE trusted me to be the lead teacher, because it gave me a way to rediscover teaching skills that have lain dormant, but also because it felt so good to be part of a teaching team.

The theme for our grade this year is windows and mirrors. We are exploring how we look at ourselves and how we look at others, how the world sees us and how we see it. We are learning how to respect ourselves and everyone else, and how to appreciate everyone’s viewpoint. (These themes nest within the larger purposes of Unitarian Universalism.)

One of the activities was to do an inner and outer portrait, where we cut out pictures from magazines and drew things that represented the way the world sees us, vs. the way we see ourselves.

"Big U Little U." This was our teaching team's attempt at describing the perfect RE teacher. Check out the question mark and the light bulb.

“Big U Little U.” This was our teaching team’s attempt at describing the perfect RE teacher. Check out the question mark and the light bulb.

Great themes. We also did something today that I believe every adult needs to do. We posted a big sheet of paper on the board and in two columns, wrote down COVENANTS and RULES. After a bit of discussion, I was delighted to find that even these 8 and 9 year olds could grasp the difference.

A covenant is a promise, a commitment to a principle, a basis for action. A rule is something we do or follow as a result of wanting to fulfill the covenant. So, for example, one of the children said “Don’t fight.” That’s an excellent rule, but why? Why is it important not to fight? “So that someone doesn’t get their face knocked out,” said one boy. “Yes,” I said, “But why is that important?”


Theme at MUUF for this year: Building the Beloved Community. Designed by David Snedden.

It took some patient attempts at discussion, but after a time they began to pick up on the idea. Our covenant is to respect each other, and so the rule “don’t fight” helps us to fulfill it. We also have a covenant to be kind, let everyone be heard, and that each person is important. Many times I think we as adults do not give children credit for being able to grasp the rationale behind the rules. It is easier to give rules, to say “just do it this way, because I said so, and shut up.” It is harder and more time consuming to help kids grasp the rationale, the principle, the basis for the rule.

When we respect children’s capability to be internally motivated by a principle, rather than externally motivated by a rule, we really achieve lasting growth. What a gratifying thing it is to see a child grasp a principle, to really take it inside themselves.

Take a GoodMinute

  1. In what way do I live by principles, covenants, and promises? In what areas am I resorting to mere rules?
  2. How does the difference between rules and covenants apply to adult relationships?
  3. How do we end up making rules for each other? What is the payoff of that strategy (such as a feeling of safety)?
  4. How can we help children internalize principles and live by a covenant, rather than blindly following rules?

2 thoughts on “Why Covenants Are More Effective Than Rules

  1. I have to agree with the kid who said “So that someone doesn’t get their face knocked out.” Morality seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. Toward that end we try to be good, do good, avoid harming others, and come to the aid of others in danger of harm.

    Rules are one of the tools for accomplishing this. Rule systems include mores, customs, ethics, laws, and principles.

    Yes. Principles are rules. Principles are brief, general rule statements. They are brief so that they are easily remembered. But that means there are lots of scenarios where you may have to get down to more specific rules. For example, “Be truthful” works in most cases, but not when the Nazi soldier knocks on the door to ask if you are hiding Anne Frank’s family in the attic.

    As an ex-Lutheran, you’re probably familiar with the “Great Commandment” in Matthew 22:37-40. As a humanist, I translate that to “Love good, and love good for others as you love it for yourself. All rules derive from these two.”

    I don’t know if you cover it or not, but an excellent example of a covenant is the U. S. Constitution. By agreement with each other, we constituted our national (and state) government. By that agreement we elect representatives to a legislature that negotiates further agreements on specific laws.

    All practical rights (as opposed to rhetorical claims) arise from agreements. We agree to respect and protect certain rights for each other. One of the ways we protect a right is by creating rules/laws against behavior that violates the right. Laws against theft protect the right to property. Rules imply rights that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other.


    1. Marvin, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I understand the “least harm” argument. One recent book that makes a fantastic case for this is Dan Barker’s new one “Life Driven Purpose.”

      In thinking about this more, what I realized is that there is more to it than the “least harm.” For why is it good not to harm or be harmed? In other words, what is the positive thing, the value that we are associating to? In this case, it could be helping people, it could be valuing life, it could be happiness. In that sense there is an overriding “good” that is driving the concept of harm.


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