On this episode of Imagine with Me, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Terri Hord Owens speaks with Rev. Allison Ruari, Associate Minister at Vinestreet Christian Church in Nashville, TN and member of the General Board about the work of the Covenant Project and the work of re-imagining our covenant as church.
“And because of covenant, we can praise God for the gifts we have been given and are free to imagine new phase of being in the world. It’s all rooted in covenant and the recognition of our different identities as beloved and in relationship with God, and with one another.” – Rev. Allison Ruari
Explore the Covenant Project information and sign up for a one-hour digital town hall presentation and conversation.
Get access to the free, video based 6-week Covenant Curriculum for your church to use in Sunday school, small groups or with your elders.
Learn more about the current structure by reviewing this chart.
Rev. Terri Hord Owens: Hello Disciples and welcome to another episode of Imagine with Me an opportunity that I have to have exciting conversations with creative and innovative leaders across the life of the church today.
I am pleased to welcome, the Rev. Allison Ruari, who is Associate Minister at the Vine Street, Christian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and also a member of the General Board and the General Board Governance Committee, welcome Allison.
Rev. Allison Ruari: Hello, Terri. Thank you so much for having me.
THO: It’s good to see you. It’s not like we never see each other but it’s good to see you. And we are in a lot of meetings together with the Governance Committee and the General Board. And I am delighted that you’re here to talk about what’s happening with what we’re now, calling the Covenant Project. We have been having town halls, and we’re really excited about that, but you’re a local pastor there in Nashville Tennessee, and you’re a member of the General Board. So we wanted to get your thoughts on what’s happening from that perspective. But before we get into the conversation, just tell us a little bit about yourself and your ministry and you got two sweet little boys and your ministry at Vine Street. So tell us a little bit about yourself.
AR: Yeah. So I have been at Vine Street Christian church for the past, three and a half years as their associate. It started out as a primary focus on children youth and their families and Has kind of changed that and so like many congregations, it’s just kind of get to work and get things done as needed. So the you know that last tag line is other duties as necessary? So I do a little bit of everything. This summer my Senior Minister Thomas Klienhart is on sabbatical. So I have kind of dipped my toe into what it would feel like and look like to be a senior pastor but it has been wonderful and delightful to be at a church that is 200 years old and proudly Disciples. So I am glad to be serving Vine Street Christian church and the wider church by being on General Board.
THO: Awesome. Awesome. And we’re delighted to have you in that role. You did. The Governance Committee of the General Board has been working and thinking about these things really since April of 2018, and we had a retreat in September of 2019, right after Assembly and you have been part of that work really from the beginning. So from your perspective, talk a little bit about the origins of what is now called, The Covenant Project. And from your perspective, what we have been trying to do and how we got started with it?
AR: Yeah, so, so like you mentioned 2018, it really feels like this work started forever ago and, you know, there have been different conversations over the years that the current structures of our wider church weren’t really serving the mission that we wanted to live out, nor was it really giving us the freedom and the ability to be the church who we say we are. So we claim our identity as a movement for wholeness and seek to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church.
And so, the hope is that these structures and these processes will allow us to be that church who we say we are.
So like you mentioned in 2019, there was a group that gathered under that the purpose of our work together with Need to align the design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with God’s design for the church and to claim the power and potential of Covenant. So the first phase, I guess you could call it was the release of our Covenant Education Curriculum last year and that was the goal was to really get folks talking about, engaging with one another about that theological foundation of Covenant. And so while that was happening and you know, it still continues to happen, you can find that online. It is a wonderful resource for sermons and small groups online and in person. There was another group, another subcommittee that I looked at the current design to see where we might modify our processes and procedures to clarify how we make decisions in the 21st century. So this Covenant Project helps us live out who we say we are and really visible ways.
You mentioned before in previous Imagine with Me, is that the theological foundation of covenant is meaningful and its rich and it’s compelling. It’s not coercive. And it opens us up to the possibility of receiving and sharing the transformative and liberty of love of God that we know through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit though. Because of covenant and this theological concept was is woven throughout the design, we can more fully recognize ourselves and individuals as in congregations as part of that movement for wholeness and because of covenant, we can engage in the work that is anti-racist and pro reconciling. And because of covenant, we can praise God for the gifts we have been given and are free to imagine new phase of being in the world. It’s all rooted in covenant and the recognition of our different identities as beloved and in relationship with God, and with one another.
THO: Amen, you just preach that thing, Reverend Allison. Amen. Amen. Yeah, and I think that at its heart, I think that is what continues to excite me. That there is this isn’t just moving the boxes around on the page. This is really a way that we believe will allow us to live into being the church we say we are and there’s so many powerful ways when we talked with people who are not Disciples, we have had Consultants work with the church with Communications or like, wow, you guys are the real deal. You’re the thing people are looking for, and we have got to learn to talk about that better.
But Bill Rose Heim Regional Minister of Greater Kansas City, always makes note, Terri, are there any other denominations who are like doing this level of engagement and allowing for this level of engagement? And I really don’t think there are anything that’s quite similar. But why don’t we talk about some of the major changes that are being discussed and tell us why you think they’re important? We are having town halls to talk about it. But from your perspective, let us run through those changes in and talk about why they’re important.
AR: Yeah. So the two major changes are one through General Assembly meeting more often and than General board in terms of it’s a real transformation of how General board does its work. And what its work is, so I am third generation Disciples clergy. My first plane ride was too when I was six weeks old to General Assembly and are Family vacations were planned around General, these assemblies. I distinctly remember, going around the exhibit hall as a child and teen, with my brother’s to try and see who could get the most swag. And I have very fond memories of General Assembly. And as an adult, I have an extreme appreciation for the ways that folks were able to connect pre cell phones. So there was this massive energy or can run bulletin boards to see if you message me who was there. And show the excitement from folks who hadn’t seen each other or really even talk to each other in years.
Now, like I said, I love General Assembly but as I have attended and I have attended the Louisville will be my 13th general assembly, and I am 34 years old. I have also noticed a lot of shifts. So one is just kind of technological thing. People have cell phones, so they there isn’t that General communal sense of whose here?
You just you know who your people are and you text them and you say, hey where do you want to meet after Worship in but during business sessions especially I have noticed that conversation and debate around resolutions have become less robust. Votes have become less contentious, and most folks who are in the minority, I have heard vocalized frustration over a knot being heard or questioned what the point of them being there was and voting? I have heard folks question safety, like, well, if I speak up and disagree, will it be safe for me? Will I still be welcomed here? This is it, and this is coming from seminarians and college students, who, who helped Usher with the business sessions and hearing those, those questions of safety and those questions of frustration really hurt my heart because it really is antithetical to who we say we are. We say that everyone is welcome but the way that we do business currently doesn’t fully reflect that and you can also see that in terms of engagement and participation, it’s harder to get people there, and we can talk about cost and finance and whatever. But at the crux of it is, I don’t know if I will be welcome here because of what I believe. And because we proclaim to be fully welcoming and theologically diverse that, that sense of winners and losers and these up downvotes, really hurts our sense of unity and connection.
So, I am really excited about the General Assembly’s focus on dialogue and discernment, not every other year, but really throughout three years, I am excited about the opportunities for folks to connect in ways that develop trust as a group and in spaces that allow everyone to come together as they are and also strengthen connections among local, regional and general, manifestations of the denomination. I am excited about the possibility of transformative community conversations and the work of the Church Narrative Project to help folks really come to the table and be able to fully lift those who don’t look like or sound like them, or even speak the same language that they are, than they do, and the opportunity to really have delegates be fully prepared for these gatherings so that folks really know what’s in those resolutions so that they can, they can ask thoughtful and reflective questions that they have time to speak and clarify what their concerns are. So on General Assembly, I am really excited about that opportunity.
On General Board…so I have got on General Board for what feels like forever and that’s been through a variety of weird things including the pandemic, but it really wasn’t until I was 3 or 4 years on to being General Board that I really understood the process of submitting a resolution.
The process and structure felt cumbersome and not at all intuitive, and it felt very insidery like, even going through and knowing what language to Google, what questions to ask. And I know that it wasn’t at all intuitive at how to do that. And then we got to General Board, it felt like we weren’t just wordsmithing resolutions and that wasn’t really moving the General Board forward. It didn’t give space an opportunity for the general board to do work in terms of vision, casting and modeling language and opportunities of listening and conversation.
And so the opportunity to for General board, to really be intentional about recognizing and celebrating the gifts of the denomination, as well as clarifying their role and responsibility of what it means to us to do mission, how we can be good stewards of our resources and funding that so that we really can continue to be the church that we say to we are, so we can really live out that movement for wholeness and tangible and visible ways is really exciting to me. And the fact you know in March 2020 many churches were forced to do to church and new ways out of necessity. And so the fact that we have this opportunity to reach out and to say, we want to hear from you. We want people to be engaged about this process. We don’t want anyone to be surprised about these possible changes and really intentional about change. The possibility of changing these structures so that it really does work for who we are in 2022 and beyond is really excite for me.
THO: I think I so agree with you. I think the most exciting part of this for me, is this level of congregational engagement which, which means that the general assembly as much as Love those every two year gatherings the in-person gathering will be every 3 years, but in the meantime, there will be opportunities for virtual gatherings of, you know, each Church having three delegates, and being able to every meeting. One of the things I think I have learned from the town halls, is that people think, oh, are you just going to take the General Assembly and put it online for four days on the off years? No, those meetings will really be about learning to discuss, discerning as you say and working with the General Board right to identify when the church needs to take action and the General Board won’t have to wait for three years to get to the General Assembly because the General Assembly is always meeting and secure ethically always be in session. So those as a local pastor, how do you think congregations will respond to this unique opportunity?
AR: My hope is that it will really strengthen our identity as Disciples. So the majority of my congregation was not raised Disciples. I am very much in the minority that I was born into this movement and so it has it’s been a lot of work to really help bring along many folks in my congregations to say, this is who we are, this is what we believe and this is what it looks like. It might change in terms of context and in terms of local congregations, but as a, as a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), here are the things that we hold to be foundational.
These are what we claim to be as our identity markers hat make us unique and so it, you know, this way to help encourage and identify leaders who are excited about what Vine Street is doing. And what they want to know more about what the wider church is doing and how we are, how we are connected, is really an exciting possibility.
THO: Yeah, I think the opportunity to have people continuously engaged. We as I have traveled across the church for the last five years, one of the things and it was we have new Regional ministers in places. One of the things they’re finding is that people aren’t as connected or as familiar with how the church with the even the Regional church or the wider churches as they In terms of how it functions. And so they assume some things incorrectly. And I know that one of the things that we hope this will do, is to strengthen those covenants, will bond. And so people actually understand and then can participate that the General Board is not something that just sits at a far-off, right? And hands down edicts. This will be the kind of General Board that’s more of a working board, not just comprised of representatives that are sent sort blindly from each of the General and Regional Ministries but people that will be sourced from across the life of the church ensuring representation from each region, but looking for a specific skill sets, right? That we need so that we can empower that board to not just meet once a year in review and refer things on. But to be thinking about the life for the church to be thinking about our mission priorities hearing from congregations on a regular basis directly write directly and Thing that input to set priorities and make important decisions. So I it’s hard to imagine that we have done things any other way, when we think about the possibilities, I think for, for what’s possible there in terms of congregational involvement, in people really understanding the potential that we have. And the work, the kind of ministry that we can do together I just think that’s just at the heart of it that congregational engagement.
You know you have said, and I am so excited to hear you say being the church we say we are, you know, that’s something that I we don’t need to change our identity statement. We have priorities that are valuable. We just got to do this. We’ve got to live into this and so you said a little bit about it, but how do you think this helps us to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church, a church that welcomes all to the table? Say a little bit more about that again as we prepare to close.
AR: Yeah so with this Covenant Project you know it’s kind of all in type thing and so on can’t work without the other so beyond trainings. It really is developing a habit, a language and a way of being. And so, you know, when we caught when we call it the Covenant Project, you know, it’s kind of fun play on words. So it’s a group project where you know multiple people collaborate and work together towards a common goal, that goal being an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church and a movement for wholeness and it’s work as helping us reclaim the power and potential of covenant and building those connections in ways that people can really thrive and flourish and as, you know, the sin of racism is that it does not allow anybody to flourish fully. And so to collaborate and work together, helps us recognize, you know the power of covenant that we are bound together by God’s covenant of love. And to borrow Paul’s metaphor of the body, when one part of the body, suffers the whole body suffers. And so you know there’s the project, there’s a noun part, but there’s also, you know, to project is a verb. And so to project covenant means that we are grounding ourselves in a way that recognizes the importance of our relationship with God. And with one another, and because of that, we are able to live out shared narrative, that includes liberation and flourishing for all people. So, when we talk about what it means to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church, it really is much less about trainings and more about living into who we say.
THO: We are as a movement for wholeness, right? Amen, amen. And I think that’s a great place to end our conversation. I hope that people will take the opportunity to attend. We’re doing Town Halls on a regular basis between now and the end of September. And there will be a link to that schedule. You could just go to disciples.org/covenant-project/.
There’s more information about the specific changes to the General Board. Some believe that we have been talking about. So I hope as you’re watching this you will be you will have been inspired by Allison’s passion and excitement about this as well. I don’t want to be the only one who’s excited and I know there’s so many others, and we’re feeling the energy around us, guessing the changes because it really does. It’s not just about changing some processes. It’s about a way of being the church that we say we are so thank you so much Alison, not only for today but for all your work over the past few years as we have all met and discerned and prayed and thought through how what we might offer to the church as this Committee of the General Board. And, so I am really excited that the conversation is now really going churchwide. And we will have some feedback to give to the Administrative Committee in October and more feedback. So they will be another round of conversations as we lead up to General Assembly. So, thank you for your good work, both at Vine Street and with the General Church, we’re just grateful to have you as a partner in ministry.
AR: Well, it’s my honor to serve in this way and to accompany folks along this journey and process.
THO: Thanks so much, Alison.
AR: Thank you.
THO: Well Disciples there you have it. Another episode of Imagine with Me, I do hope that you will go to disciple.org/covenant-project/, and get the schedule for town halls where we will be presenting these changes that are being presented to the whole church and as Alison said the Covenant Project is a way of being church together not just a processes or rules or language that we follow. But really a way that we can ensure all voices and all perspectives are engaged with discerning and making decisions in the life of our church. So we hope that you will take the time to attend one of these town halls and you can get more information again at disciples.org/covenant-project. Thank you again for your time as we together imagine who we must be as a new church for a new world.
I am grateful to God. And my confidence remains in the one who has begun this, good work that God will be the one who completes it. So, Thank you again. And remember that God loves you and so do I.