It often seems that new members of our congregations have no place to connect with others except the Sunday service, committee work, and teaching religious education. But consider what the creation of small 6- to 12-person covenant groups is doing for some congregations.
In the last two years such groups have become a growing Unitarian Universalist (UU) movement. Rev. Robert Hill, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Southwest District, has a Covenant Group Newsletter that is emailed to six hundred. Rev. Thandeka, at Meadville/Lombard School of Theology, has created the Center for Community Values to promote small groups. General Assembly sessions on covenant groups fill up annually. Covenants simply mean that the members agree to be in relationship with each other.
The proof is in the congregations. At the UU Community Church in Augusta, ME (185 members), there are eleven covenant groups. After six months' planning "the groups just burst into life," says Rev. Calvin Dame. "People love their groups. One man told me, 'I came to church for intimacy, to connect. This group is my own little neighborhood to grow with, to take care of.'"
Dame adds, "There's just a better spirit at church now. Our Sunday attendance is running at Christmas and Easter numbers every week. We had all our religious education teams signed by August. People talk about the groups at coffee hour."
There are two covenant group models: affinity groups; based on specific interests, and generic groups; which Dame prefers. Generic groups discuss a topic such as a book passage, poem, or just a word, such as "love," "loss," or "simplicity." Covenant groups meet for two hours once or twice a month. They open with a reading and chalice lighting, then a check-in, topic discussion, check-out and closing reading. The leader keeps the group on time and on topic.
At All Souls UU Church in Shreveport, LA (173), the departure of a minister a year ago left a gap that small affinity groups are filling. They are organized around Bible study, canasta, hymn singing, play reading, gourd artistry, and other topics. "I'd say 80 percent of our members are in a group," says Director of Religious Education Barbara Jarrell. "After our minister left, our energy was kind of low, but the groups have changed that."
Rev. Glenn Turner, who conducts small-group workshops in the Northeast, cautions against rushing to create groups without securing a base of knowledgeable support. A task force on small group ministry, the board, and other key leaders should be familiar with the material.
"The covenant group approach has caught on way beyond what I'd hoped for at this point," Robert Hill says. "I think it's going to change our way of relating to each other, and it serves the two basic needs people bring to our churches, for spiritual uplift and for connection."