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In a society that has for many people resulted in an increasing sense of isolation, it is essential to nurture community, to foster meaningful conversations, and to work together to make the world a better place. Small Group Ministry has become a vital way to meet those goals. This program has become an essential part of many Unitarian Universalist congregations as well as other faith communities. After three years of small groups at Channing Church we have found that many people’s lives have been transformed and their sense of community strengthened.

This program is at once simple and profound. Co-facilitators lead each group and meet with me monthly for ongoing guidance. Every other week for two hours, a group of eight to ten people gather in the living room of a member’s home. The idea of meeting with a circle of people regularly in and of itself is a satisfying way of breaking into the rush of daily life. A group of strangers rapidly becomes a supportive circle that cares and offers assistance to one another.

Each session explores religious concepts through the lens of personal experience. The topics are in the areas of spirituality, ethics, relationships, life passages, vocation, and human nature. The central event of the small groups is the sharing time. Attentive listening is our practice. This means that each person speaks without interruption from his or her own perspective. When individuals share stories, beliefs, and doubts in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect, a remarkable thing happens: each person is empowered to articulate his or her stories and beliefs. Through sharing our particular life experiences, universal truths are revealed. We are able to get in touch with a deep place of knowing. After a time of sharing and deep listening, the group has a more free-flowing conversation about the subject. The exchange of ideas and experiences is nourishing to the mind, the heart and the spirit.

Participants in Small Group Ministry have also reported an increasing awareness of spiritual issues in their lives. After a session on “Forgiveness”, one member was able to take real steps in mending a relationship. Through the regular practice of attentive listening, a participant found that she was better able to listen to her daughter. By exploring silent meditation with his group, one man decided to take up a regular practice. A session on “Art as Food for the Soul” inspired an outing to a local gallery.

Not only does Small Group Ministry deepen the experience of current church members, it provides an entry for newcomers to join the community. Every group has an “Open Chair” which means participants are encouraged to invite their family members, friends, and neighbors to attend a session and join the small group. Church visitors are also invited to join a group. Friends and newcomers have commented that joining a small group allowed them to get to know a circle of people more quickly than attending worship alone. Folks who are not familiar with Unitarian Universalism often feel more comfortable going to a session in someone’s home before choosing to attend a Sunday service. We have found that people who have joined the church after being in a small group are some of our most enthusiastic and committed members.

What is most inspiring is that each small group chooses a service project to do together. Sometimes groups have done something at church like hosting a pancake breakfast or polishing the pews. Other times groups have walked together or held a yard sale to raise funds for a worthy cause. Service is a natural extension of meaningful conversation for once we are connected to our beliefs and to other people we are motivated to take action. The participants engage in ministry to one another and then turn outward to make a difference in the world.

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