"Like we recite certain prayers every time we go to church, a group covenant establishes the unique structure and relational bonds of a group each time you gather."
Traveling With a Group
If you’ve ever traveled with a group of young people, you know the first few minutes at your destination are always chaotic. No matter how well organized, your group will probably arrive full of energy and excitement and confusion. That’s to be expected. But to make sure the initial chaos doesn’t continue throughout your entire event, it’s important to call a gathering to establish a group covenant immediately after everyone stows their gear.
What Is a Group Covenant?
A group covenant is a mutually defined relational bond, an explicit commitment that each participant makes that will shape, define, and provide structure for your group experience. Because context is so important to the work of a group, it's vital that your covenant be written when you arrive at your destination.
Before the trip, you can work with participants to facilitate their relationships and to help them understand the context and intent of the trip. The norms determined in regular meetings will carry over to a group covenant. However, it is crucial that the covenant itself be established on site, once you arrive at your destination, once everyone – youth participants and adult chaperones – is present.
3 Categories of a Group Covenant
Although there will be non-negotiable rules that you or other adults contribute, a group covenant is not established by you as the leader, laying down the law. It is a communal agreement in which all parties have a voice. A good covenant defines expectations in three categories:
People... Place... Purpose
Defining the ways in which group members will engage with each other, the adult leaders, and with anyone else they might encounter. It is in this aspect of the covenant that youth participants should be encouraged to have the most input. People intentions relate to:
- Being a good friend and listener.
- Including and acknowledging other youth participants.
- Group decision making.
- Engaging with populations different from your group, i.e., those served by an outreach organization.
- Respecting organizational and support staff, adult chaperones, or other leaders.
- Respecting confidentiality in sensitive discussions.
The primary goal of the People aspect is to create emotional safety for everyone in the group; and to create an environment where all are heard, valued, inspired, and appreciated.
This establishes physical boundaries, schedules, and the expectations regarding property. This aspect is the one in which you as a leader can make clear the rules and regulations. Facility representatives may also contribute to these covenantal statements. Place intentions include:
- Indoor facility rules, including guidelines for timing and access to private and public spaces.
- Personal property and where participants can leave it. Always make sure to include the expectation that everyone will only handle their own personal belongings and no one else’s.
- Food, including personal snacks and communal supplies. Include where and when food may be stored and consumed, and any place/time food is prohibited.
- Meals, including protocols for cooking, preparation, and clean-up.
- Maintenance and clean-up. What chores are participants expected to performed daily or prior to departure? How are they to be assigned?
- Outdoor facility rules, including boundaries, off-limit spaces, adult supervision, and buddy policies.
- Transportation, including timing and vehicle assignments.
- Equipment, gear, or special clothing, including storage, transportation, and cleaning.
- Protocols regarding early departures or otherwise separating from the group.
- Protocols and privacy guidelines for showers and restroom facilities.
- Daily schedule, including wake-up and lights out.
The primary goal of the Place aspect of the covenant is to ensure physical safety for everyone in the group; as well as to be good guests in any facilities the group utilizes or visits.
This helps the group achieve the desired outcome for the gathering. Often this is where adult and youth opinions are most divergent. In general, this aspect is the one in which it helps to do work with the group beforehand. The covenant then becomes a commitment to completing what you’ve agreed to do. Purpose statements should also address:
- Free time. What activities are permissible during free time? Does this include an option to retreat to private spaces?
- Required activities, defining what is mandatory and what is optional, and what options exist for a participant who opts out of an activity.
- Electronic devices, including phones, handheld games, etc. as well as electronic devices installed in the facility. Are phones permitted to take photos or play music or another purpose? Can participants use headphones? Can participants use their phones to call, text, or email others? Can they use personal devices in vehicles or at night in their private sleeping areas? What movies or music may be viewed, either personally or as a group?
- Expected outcomes by the end of the experience and the role of each participant in contributing to that output.
The primary goal of the Purpose focus of the covenant is to articulate the reason for the experience. It may be a very specific deliverable or it may be a very general experiential outcome. Having a clear purpose, however, is helpful when planning activities because all activities should support that purpose.
Tips for Creating a Group Covenant
Of course, not every aspect of your covenant can be defined by People, Place, and Purpose. Some final tips for facilitating the creation of your group covenant:
- Have a participant (or a series of participants) act as scribes.
- Craft statements in positive language. State the expectation, not the violation.
- Write the group covenant on a large chalkboard, white board, or easel paper.
- Display the covenant and schedule prominently.
- Keep the group covenant creation activity to under 45 minutes. Any longer and you will lose the group’s interest. 30 minutes for younger or small groups might be sufficient.
Make a Covenant This Time, and EVERY Time
Create a covenant EVERY time you host a group overnight, weekend, or long-term experience. While some participants may argue they’ve “…been here before and know the rules,” you can respond that every time you have new people, a new place, or a new purpose – it changes the nature of the covenant. Like we recite certain prayers every time we go to church, a group covenant establishes the unique structure and relational bonds of a group each time you gather.
Lisa Brown is the Director of Digital Ministry with Membership Vision. Building on her work in Children’s Ministry and Communications at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA, she helps churches connect to people and to God in the digital space. An active member of Forma and Girl Scout leader, Lisa is passionate about enriching the spiritual lives of people. Her book “The Best Do-It-Yourself VBS Workbook Ever” was published in 2017.