Small Group Ministry Requires Commitment

The glass is half full for many small group ministries in our congregations, say leaders of the small group ministry movement. Six years ago congregations were invited to start such ministries and an estimated 60 to 70 percent have. And now, some leaders of the movement say it's time to take a look at whether these ministries are as successful as they can be.

The Rev. Calvin Dame, one of the founders of the small group ministry movement, speaks frequently at congregations, cluster meetings, district events, and General Assembly about the value of small group ministry. As he's watched the movement progress, he's recently come to the conclusion that small group ministry in our congregations often falls short of what it could achieve.

First, the good news. Wherever they are established, small groups provide members with a social and a support network. They provide a place where people who are new to a congregation can quickly make friends.

But too often, believes Dame, the groups fail to meet a higher goal, that of helping people develop a deeper spirituality, discover how they want to serve the church or the larger community, and help the church grow. " Many congregations never really embraced the possibility of transformation," said Dame. "Certainly there is value in having many social and support groups, but as a religious people we ought to be asking how these groups can help people discover their own ministries and help the church become more than it is."

Peter Bowden is a small group consultant and one of the founders of the UU Small Group Ministry Network, an independent affiliate of the UUA. "We have yet to see the growth that is possible with small group ministry," he said, noting that many congregations struggle just to maintain the groups they have. "While some congregations have experienced significant growth through this ministry, many are experiencing stagnation after their initial launch of small groups."

There is a natural tendency, he said, for a congregation to start a strong small group program and then, when it is functioning well, put it on " auto pilot" and turn attention to other programs. "Small group ministry requires continual leadership, energy, and support," he said.

Often, he said, new small group leaders don't get the same level of training as leaders involved when the ministry was launched. "It is common for congregations to spend a full year studying, planning, and building a compelling vision for small group ministry for their community. If the small group ministry leadership does not continue to communicate this vision over time, group energy and participation can decline."

M'ellen Kennedy, the other coordinator of the UU Small Group Ministry Network, says, "Small group ministry can indeed transform how we do church, if we do it well, to its fullest."

It is not too late, says Dame. "What it takes is for a congregation to determine that this is one of the most important areas it can focus on if it wants to grow and if it wants to deepen the lives of its friends and members. People seek out churches because they want connection with other people and because they want to find more meaning for their lives and make a difference in the world. Small groups can do both."


The Small Group Ministry website has related resources, including books, group topics, SGM Quarterly journal, and personal advice from small group leaders. For more information, email Bowden at peter [at] uuplanet [dot] org, or visit Small Group Ministry.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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