Small Groups Help Build a Stronger Congregation

Rev. James Robinson, minister at First Parish in Brewster, MA (715 members), is a believer in having lots of small groups as a way to connect members and build a congregation, not only in numbers, but in faith. And for good reason—he gives much of the credit for a seven-fold growth in membership since the early 80's to thriving small groups, covering a spectrum of interests and activities.

At one end of the spectrum are "spiritual direction" groups of up to forteen people who share their spiritual journeys. At the other end are recreational groups for hiking and bridge and adult education classes that generally meet for just a few weeks. In between are support groups for men and women; religious interest groups for Buddhists, pagans, and those interested in bible study; and social justice groups focused on racism or homophobia. "All are important," says Robinson.

"People want a place to be seen, heard, and appreciated on their spiritual journeys," says Robinson. "The Sunday service can be wonderful, but people want small groups. Our goal is to get people to come to Sunday morning as well as to one small group during the week."

Other congregations have focused on small groups with great success. All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK, with 1,200 members, has a program called Roots and Branches, which includes an extensive network of small groups to help members find places to connect.

"People come to church for two reasons," says Rev. Bob Hill, co-district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Southwest District. 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. Hill and Rev. Glenn Turner, District Minister of the Northeast District, are encouraging congregations to form what Hill calls "covenant groups" in which participants agree on how they will relate to each other and to their church. Others call such groups "meta-church" groups (meta meaning transforming). At Brewster they are "spiritual direction groups." At West Shore Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Cleveland, OH (601), they are "wider and deeper UU" groups. In Hill's view, these groups have the following components that distinguish them from other church groups:

  • They meet regularly, every two to four weeks.
  • Maximum membership is ten to forteen. 
  • They have an appointed leader who is trained by, and in regular contact with, the minister. 
  • Meetings begin with a reading (and sometimes a song and chalice lighting) and a check-in that allows people to say briefly what is going on in their lives. The meetings end with a brief check-out and another reading. 
  • After the opening reading and check-in, the central part of a covenant or meta-church group meeting may focus on any topic of interest to the group.

Hill believes that the up-front, clearly stated rules of covenant groups make it easier for newcomers to feel included. Less structured small groups often have unwritten rules and rituals that put barriers between old-timers and newcomers.

It's also important, he notes, to keep covenant groups closely tied to the church by using readings from recognized Unitarian Universalist (UU) sources and facilitators who are in regular contact with the minister. Otherwise they can drift away and become closed groups of friends with agendas different from that of the church.

Rev. Thomas Schade, Associate Minister at First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Worcester, MA (408), observes that much of what members get asked to do in many congregations is committee work. He notes, "Most committee work offers little that is spiritually uplifting. The development of a friendship between two members/friends usually has to happen, if it happens at all, on the fly, during coffee hour or at special events.

"How many of those who visit our churches and stay around for a few weeks do so because they feel a burning desire to serve on a committee?" he asks. The result of having nothing better than committee work to offer new folk is often, he says, "that members, new and old, experience their church lives as frenetic and unsatisfying. There is little time for reflection or intentionality."

Seven covenant groups were recently started at the UU Fellowship of Dallas (50), focused on philosophy, travel, singing, meditation and prayer, dining in restaurants (for single folk), games, and nature walks. The church's minister, Rev. Don Fielding, invited members to suggest groups and got lots of proposals. Members willing to facilitate first meetings were invited to be part of a demonstration group which Fielding conducted as a covenant group. Then, when the actual groups convened, they chose a leader at the end of their first meeting. The leaders meet with Fielding at least once each quarter and the groups meet for two to two-and-a-half hours once a month, mostly in members' homes.

Not all groups will be successful. "We've already had one group that didn't come together," Fielding says, "and I have no idea how many of these seven will be functioning six months from now, but even if it's only two or three, we'll be way ahead."

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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