When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the Gulf Coast in 2005 the folks at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge (354 members) became full-time caregivers. They not only provided nonstop aid to evacuees, they served as a clearinghouse for hundreds of volunteers from out of the area.
As the months went by and the demands of the recovery continued, church members needed a way to care for themselves and to process all that was happening. They found it in their Small Group Ministry covenant groups. About 60 percent of the congregation was in twenty of these groups, and they met nearly without interruption all through the recovery period.
"It was very healing," says Diana Dorrah, a group leader and Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge's (UCBR's) program director. "The discussions were intense and meaningful and complemented the work of our minister, Rev. Steve Crump, who was able to concentrate on Sunday morning services and healing for the people who packed our sanctuary at both services for many weeks."
Small Group Ministry has been beneficial for many congregations after national or local disasters, during major transitions and even during church conflicts, says Dorroh, who is also president of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Small Group Ministry Network, an organization that provides resources to congregations with covenant groups.
Athena Drewes is coordinator of the Goddess Theology group at the UU Congregation at Rock Tavern, NY (56). The church building was destroyed by fire in September 2006.
She says the predominant sentiment in the group following the fire was relief that no one was hurt and gratitude that the Goddess group would continue. For three or four sessions members delayed previously planned discussions to talk about the fire.
"In the safety of the group they were able to process what UU Congregation at Rock Tavern (UUCRT) meant to each of them and in time what hopes and dreams they had for the new building," says Drewes. "Much of the conversation was about the importance of the group, the gratitude that we have a place to meet, and the agreement that this is the most important part of their week. They were grateful for a group where they could feel continuity, ritual, and emotional/spiritual nourishment."
Dorroh cautions congregations to be mindful of certain procedures when discussing crises or traumatic situations. The guiding principle is just to discuss how the events are affecting participants' lives, and to keep the discussion away from politics.
She knows of congregations where covenant groups helped members cope with rough staff transitions. "You have to talk about it," she says, "because it's on everyone's mind. But you have to be intentional also." She adds, "We're starting to see that when a conflict comes to a congregation in which most members have been in a small ministry group, people treat each other better. They listen and respect each other's viewpoints more."
At the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo, ON (129), small groups are focusing this winter around the topic of "moving" as the congregation proceeds through a major transition period that includes a search for a settled minister, the sale of one building, and the purchase of another. "I'm asking everyone to share personal stories of making moves, and then we look at how these experiences impact the larger church move," says Rev. Felicia Urbanski, interim minister at Waterloo. "I have advocated using the small groups as venues for alleviating anxieties in talking through concerns and issues that arise regarding the new space." She also recommends Peter Steinke's book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (2006, Alban).