In the late 1990s the Rev. Dr. Glenn Turner, of Maine, and the Rev. Bob Hill, of Texas, began promoting a novel idea. They proposed that what was missing from many of our congregations was small groups, where people could connect in meaningful ways for “intimacy and ultimacy.” Groups where people could tell their stories and listen to the stories of others. Groups where people could relate to each other on a deeper level than they could on Sunday mornings.
"People come to church for two reasons,” said Hill. “One is to find friends and community, and the other is to ‘be lifted out of the ordinary,’ to have a place to relate to others on a deeper level.”
More than 60 percent of Unitarian Universalist congregations now have “covenant groups” and Small Group Ministry (SGM) programs. But members of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Small Group Ministry Network (founded in 2004 by the Rev. Calvin Dame, Peter Bowden, and the Rev. Dr. M’ellen Kennedy) would like to see every congregation adopt small group ministry. “It works for congregations of any size, because it lets people connect in a deeper way than is possible at coffee hour or on a committee,” says Susan Hollister, treasurer and membership coordinator of the Network and a longtime SGM advocate.
“There are so many benefits,” says Hollister, a member of Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, N.C. “When I talk to leaders who don’t have a program, here’s what I tell them: Having small groups gives congregations an immediate place to connect newcomers. It also increases the pastoral care ability of a congregation, because some of that care happens in the groups. There’s also a major increase in personal growth, in the deepening of relationships, in spiritual growth, and in finding a place to belong.”
Hollister also thinks participation in small groups helps congregants develop new skills that serve the whole congregation well. “Small groups are encouraged to do an annual service project, so there’s an increase in social action and volunteerism. The groups also create a pool of new leaders. Often they use their new leadership skills to join the governing board or start a new program,” she says.
And there are other benefits. “People learn to listen to each other without interrupting, and they get to know each other, including what each person is struggling with,” Hollister says. As a result, she says, she’s heard anecdotal evidence that congregational meetings have gotten shorter. “Apparently people don’t feel as strong a need to speak out, because they’ve been heard in their small groups.”
Here are the general guidelines for covenant groups:
- Meet regularly, every two to four weeks.
- Cap membership at eight to ten.
- Ensure there is a trained leader in each group.
- Maintain a standard format, including an opening reading, check-in,discussion of a topic, check-out, and a closing reading.
- Convene a regular meeting of group leaders with the program coordinator or ministers, for support and to keep the groups connected to the church.
- Encourage groups to provide a service to the church or community at least annually.
The UU Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., began establishing covenant groups about 10 years ago. The groups started with great enthusiasm and then waned after a few years. They were reinvigorated earlier this year and some additional groups were started.
Sandy Pearce was involved in that process. In addition to participating in a group, she helps assign others to groups. “One of the reasons I wanted to be part of a group is because I come to church by myself and I wanted to create some deep relationships,” she says. “It’s been a very meaningful experience for me—focusing on what someone is saying, learning how to listen. That’s a real skill that we’re all practicing.”
Pearce says the fellowship receives a lot of visitors, and small groups help get them connected as soon as possible. In addition to traditional covenant groups, the fellowship also offers several groups that only meet three times. “It’s kind of a mini-covenant group so people can decide if they’re interested in a longer-term commitment,” says Pearce.
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, La., had a specific reason for starting small group ministry in 1999. “We wanted to get new members into small groups, so they could connect to eight or ten other people and to our church. We hoped that keeping more new members would help us grow,” says the Rev. Steve Crump. “Established members heard the wonderful experiences the new people were having and wanted to join a group too, so we made room.”
The church, which currently has 22 covenant groups, had 300 members in 1999. Now it has more than 400. Crump, who has been minister of the Baton Rouge church for 31 years, believes the small groups have been a critical factor in that growth. He says that their small groups are modeled after the Roots and Branches program at All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, Okla., (which helps people learn about Unitarian Universalism and then develop deep connections).
Small groups have had a ripple effect throughout the church. Crump says that they have created a pool of leaders, made congregational meetings more civil and trusting, and created more caring. “Not only do group members care for each other, but through the groups the ministers and the Caring Committee learn more quickly about needs,” he says. The need for personal sharing during Sunday worship has also declined, allowing congregation members to share joys and sorrows by wordlessly dropping stones into a chalice bowl.
Small group programs do need to be constantly tended, notes Hollister, including filling vacancies, training and meeting with leaders, and coming up with new session topics. Even with this attention, programs sometimes decline over time. Several factors can cause programs to falter, Hollister says: “A program coordinator steps down and the program is allowed to slide. Groups sometimes stray from their original purpose or take their covenant for granted. The group becomes more like a social group or people start dominating, giving advice, and interrupting each other. That pretty much guarantees the group will fall apart.”
Increasingly, for midsize to large congregations, the oversight of a small group ministry program is a staff function, Hollister says. “It’s becoming an integral part of congregations, just like music and religious education.”
Hollister would like to see denominational support for SGM programs. “Now that more than 60 percent of our congregations have programs, that support would help keep them viable. Teaching small group ministry at our leadership institutes would also be helpful.”
Small group ministry has the power to transform congregations, Hollister believes. “The way we relate to each other in covenant groups spills over into all other areas of congregational life. Small group ministry is an effective way to build relationships while exploring our spiritual paths. It connects us in close communities of shared thoughts and experiences, and enables us to practice listening and speaking from the heart.”
Interested in covenant groups? Go first to the UU Small Group Ministry Network website. Then talk to your ministers and governing board about starting a program. There are resources on the Network site, and Network leaders are available for coaching through the beginning stages. “We email back and forth with congregations all the time,” says Hollister.
Join the Network and receive the SGM Journal as a member benefit. On the website you can sign up for the bi-monthly Covenant Group News electronic newsletter, find group session plans that you can use (and share your own), learn about training sessions, and ask questions of others. Included on the website is a Just Getting Started page.
Here are two previous InterConnections articles on small group ministry.