Small Group ministry, or Covenant Groups, has been lauded as the latest phenomena in membership growth experienced by many congregations in our denomination, as attested by all of our panelists in this workshop.
The 210-capacity room was filled, with latecomers having to stand against the walls and doorway, seated on the floor or craning their necks in through the crowded doorway, doubtlessly breaking the convention center's fire codes.
The Rev. Bob Hill, well-known proponent of the Covenant Group model and list-manager of an online email list that distributes a monthly newsletter about Covenant Groups, used his wonderful sense of humor to give an energetic and fast-paced introduction to the purpose of the workshop, which, he claimed, was to sell his new book. The itinerary for the workshop was delivered as a salvo of who-is-to-speak-when blast that flew over everyone's head.
Each panelist in turn shared success stories of how the Covenant Group model has helped their congregations grow. The Brewster story should really belong to the "UU's Believe It Or Not" or "Modern UU Miracles" archive should the denomination ever decides to start one. Rev. James Robinson, Senior Minister, began the program in his church back in 1982. Since then, the congregation, which had a membership of 140, not only has grown to 750, but also has spun off two other congregations with combined membership of 1200 in a town with a population of 6000. People go to church for many reasons. In order to retain existing members and assimilate newcomers, churches need to provide both good quality Sunday services as well as vibrant small groups meeting at other times of the week. Most people don't return or stay long unless they are quickly assimilated into these small groups where they bond with others and share stories in an intimate environment of trust. His Covenant Groups are interest-based and everyone belongs to one or more of these groups. Committees and Boards work better if they are modeled after the Covenant Group structure with all the elements of worship, community building and service being present.
Obviously good friends, the Revs. Dame and Turner took turn to share their respective success stories, sprinkling them with lighthearted banters. "Anyone who could sell blueberry algae can sell anything," Turner said, referring to Hill's effort to sell the Covenant Group model. Glenn's first Covenant Group grew out of a monthly Buddhist meditation meeting that consisted of "a 3/4 hour sitting, a topic of discussion for 1/2 to 3/4 hour, a salmon supper followed by a bash-George-Bush session."
In Dame's church, the work began after a church retreat where they "insisted on having Glenn come talk to them about meta-church." Not everyone bought into the idea of growth. People liked it just the size it was. When faced with reluctance, he would ask the question, "How many people would be good to have in your church to do the work that you are doing?" In addition to growth as an obvious outcome, Covenant Groups have helped to increase the congregation's resiliency. People were ministering to one another after the 9/11 tragedy. His Augustua church has put together a book called the "Small Group Ministry Session Book" which contains 25 sessions. It can be ordered form the church's website for $25 plus $3 shipping and handling.
Rev. McGee's approach to Covenant Groups at his Arlington, VA church is a little different. Theirs is theme-based instead of interest-based. Each year, a theme is chosen that goes throughout the year. One year, the topic was "The Big Question" followed by "The Big Answer" the next year.
Thandeka refers to the work of Covenant Groups as a sacramental act, an act that brings about spiritual transformation. She described exercises designed to sharpen one's senses so that they can be led with sensation rather than concept. An excellent resource for starting Covenant Groups and training leaders can be found on the website of the Center for Community Values.
Reported by Kok-Heong McNaughton.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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