Small Group Ministry and Families

by Rev Pat Hoertdoerfer, Lifespan Faith Development, UUA

Small Group Ministry (SGM) with families connects participants across the generations in a ministry that enhances spiritual life journeys and empowers a family’s connections and its connection with the congregation. The contexts, within the family setting at home or among families within a congregational setting, and components of Small Group Ministry hold great promise for Unitarian Universalist (UU) families. The opportunities for intergenerational learning and celebration are great, but there are also challenges to address.

While Small Group Ministry with families will look and work differently than other SGM models or covenant groups, the basic underlying concepts are the same. The concepts underlying intergenerational Small Group Ministry are:

  • Building intentional community across the ages/generations including all participants in a ten-to-fifteen-member group.
  • Providing a framework that honors a wide diversity in developmental stages of faith.
  • Developing a “covenant” or “guidelines for group interactions” as a consistent family group.
  • Using the Small Group Ministry format for the sessions including opening, check-in, topics, likes and wishes, closing.
  • Providing a facilitator for the sessions fostering respect, sharing, caring, and listening for and by every participant.
  • Focusing on relational components of the group and community allowing participants to share at progressively deeper levels and creating real intimacy between participants.

Some of the characteristics of Small Group Ministry—such as size, frequency of meeting, format, facilitators, empty chair, covenant, connection with congregation, support system for development and maintenance of program, and service to congregation or larger community—define Small Group Ministry with families, but we also need to pay attention to the differences. Some of these differences are:

  • The role of the facilitator is mentor or role model rather than teacher or leader and attention to language is needed. For example, during check-in, empower the children to share something or pass rather than suggesting that they tell something specific. After others have shared and some child(ren) have passed, they may then be ready to speak.
  • The facilitator needs to use language that all participants can understand. Encourage participants to share as “equals” and be alert to adults who give the impression that they have “the answers” and adults who tend to dominate dialogue time.
  • Small Group Ministry that includes different generations, especially children, needs to consider additional or concurrent activities for younger participants. For example, during the dialogue time on the Session’s topic, have some paper and crayons or markers, clay or active games available for children.
  • The topics and stories chosen for the sessions need to be the timeless and timely stories with themes that appeal to all ages. For example, the Mustard Seed Story (From Long Ago and Many Lands) would be followed by various age-appropriate questions for participants’ spiritual explorations.
  • The opportunity to reflect on the interface of the stories from our UU living tradition and the stories from our own family life is profound. Celebrating the confluence of our faith and our family values through these stories deepens our spirituality and strengthens our sense of community.
  • By acknowledging that we all are teachers and listeners, many opportunities of leadership are available to participants of different ages. Small Group Ministry with Families creates a place for learning from each other and for ministering to each other that happens across generational lines.

*For a more detailed overview of Small Group Ministry read The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World Ten at a Time by the Reveverend Robert Hill. Two resources in this product—Religious Education and Small Group Ministry: One Congregation’s Plan by Gail Forsythe-Vail and Small Group Ministry and Relational Religious Education by Helen Zidowecki—explore the dimensions of intergenerating Religious Education and Small Group Ministry.

The Birth Order Difference session is an example of Small Group Ministry with families that you are invited to use as a springboard for developing your own sessions for families in your congregation.