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February 8, 1999

CGNews #12

An occasional newsletter about a radical new/old way of organizing your church.

Hi. This is being sent to you because you requested it, or so I believe. If I'm wrong, please accept my apologies and send me an e-mail with the word REMOVE in the message portion and I'll take you off my list immediately. Do the same if it turns out you're not interested in this newsletter after all. At the moment, I don't have these processes automated (that will come), but I'll gladly take care of any problem "by hand." - Bob Hill

An Expertise Without Experts

Reactions to the first two issues of this newsletter make me think that the meta-church or Covenant Group idea is one whose time has come among us. A surprising number of people have responded favorably to the suggestion that small-group organization, with ritual and a leader, is worth doing. No one (imagine that, among Unitarian Universalists, no one) has responded negatively to this suggestion for a change in our organizational emphasis.

Of course, some folks may simply misunderstand and assume that their churches are already emphasizing small groups in the manner being suggested, failing to note that Covenant Groups have necessary characteristics such as regular meetings (once a month or more often) and maximum size (no more than 14). As a reminder, other defining characteristics are:

  • An opening reading or song from a recognized Unitarian Universalist source at the start of each meeting. Whether you call this worship or intellectual stimulation or centering, the purpose is the lifting of everyone's sights above the horizon of the mundane.

  • A check-in, preferably brief, in which each person has the opportunity, if he or she wishes, to say a sentence or two about where they are, at that moment, on the journey of life.

  • A one-word or one-phrase check-out at the end, to indicate how each person is feeling as the meeting concludes.

  • A closing reading, again from a recognized Unitarian Universalist source. The hymnal is a treasure trove of material for openings and endings.

  • And an appointed leader trained by and in regular contact with the minister. (How to adapt these techniques for non-ministered groups will be the subject of a later CGNews.)

There is an underlying belief at work here, and it is that people choose to participate in churches in order to (a) be lifted out of their ordinary lives to higher considerations and experiences and (b) find friends, for themselves and their children.

And, there is a further purpose, which is to extend and leverage ministry by having each minister train lay persons to be more intentional and effective in ministering to others, and then staying in close touch with the resulting interactions.

So, there is necessary expertise, but there are few or no experts among us. The Baptists' Willow Creek church in Illinois has been using similar techniques for 25 years or so. Jim Robinson in our church in Brewster, MA, has been using these methods since the early 1980s. Brent Smith introduced the concept to All Souls in Tulsa more than five years ago. Glenn Turner has been promoting these techniques vigorously for a few months in the Northeast.

But most of us are just getting started. We have a lot to learn from non-Unitarian Universalist church folk, from the handful of us with experience, and from each other as we succeed and fail in living up to the dream of Covenant Group possibilities.

I'm seeking to be an evangelist for this idea and to provide a source of information and shared experience. But I'm certainly no expert. My only first-hand experience of starting and running Covenant Groups is with Northwest Community Church in Houston, a three-year-old church I serve on a very part-time basis. We have one Covenant Group under way and succeeding (meeting twice a month in homes), another is getting started, and a third is being planned, but we have no big news to report so far.

I have been talking with some others who have Covenant Group programs planned or started, though, and some of what I've learned follows.

West Shore, Cleveland

Wider and Deeper UUism is the term being used to designate Covenant Groups at West Shore Church in Cleveland, OH. The Rev. Michael McGee, minister, and the Rev. Marjorie Skwire, minister of religious education, are working together to train and guide leaders of Wider and Deeper Groups now getting underway.

Oak Cliff, Dallas

Seven Covenant Groups are getting started in this church, which has suffered a slow decline for a number of years in part because of its building's location. The seven include groups focused on philosophy, travel, singing, meditation and prayer, dining in restaurants (single folk), games, and nature walks.

The church's minister, the Rev. Don Fielding, says he invited suggestions for groups some months ago and got lots of them. Members willing to facilitate first meetings were invited to be part of a demonstration group which Don conducted as a Covenant Group.

Don expects each group to chose its own leader at the end of the first meeting. Those leaders will be asked to meet with Don at least once each quarter and stay in touch more often when there is need. The groups will meet for two to two and a half hours at least once a month, mostly in homes.

We've already had one group that didn't come together, Don said recently, 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. [Don may be reached at]

Lay Ministry

The relationship between Covenant Group ideas and conversations that have been going on in our movement for many months about lay ministry are made clearer in a paper written last June by Thomas Schade. Thomas, a theological school student who was an intern at Horizon Church, Carrolton, TX, is now working with the Pleasant Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Garland.

Citing Roy Phillips' book Transforming Liberal Congregations, Schade argues for a concept of lay ministry which asks people to commit to intentionally providing service reflecting our values to people, and to engage in a process of reflection and education about how they provide that service.

Covenant Group process can provide for such intentionality and reflection by virtue of the training given by ministers, plus the regular ministerial contact with group leaders. As Schade says, Almost any function of the church could be developed into a ministry. And almost any church activity can be accommodated between the opening and closing rituals of a Covenant Group.

Most committee work done in our churches offers little that is spiritually up-lifting. The development of a friendship between two of our 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? Traditional wisdom, though, has said, Give the new folks something to do. Get them involved. Put them on a committee.

The result of our having nothing better than committee work to offer new folk is often, Schade says, that our members, new and old, experience their church lives as frenetic and not very satisfying. There is little time for reflection or intentionality involved in the work.

Covenant Groups can move people in a different direction, toward the sort of lay ministry envisioned by Phillips: The premise is that a person's gifts, values, and arenas of expression are the source and ground of an individual's life ministry, that people are energized and fulfilled when they interact with their world from that core of themselves, that they will be most effective when they are helped to live from that center. (p. 17)

Shade observes that church members, as a result, may do less, better. And, I think, in a better frame of mind. What is being offered is a way to go deeper, in many ways: theologically, relationally, spiritually. A secondary result is that, by providing greater depth of experience for our members, we may be able to go wider, reaching more of the people who need what we can offer. The name our West Shore, Cleveland, church chose for their groups makes good sense to me. [For a copy of his paper, Lay Ministry: Theory and Possible Practice, contact Shade at]

Covenant Group Presentations at GA

THE SOUTHWEST DISTRICT will be sponsoring a showcase presentation at General Assembly this June in Salt Lake City on the successes and educational experiences of Covenant Groups in our churches. We will be asking the most successful Covenant Group practitioners from over the continent (and at GA) to participate in a panel for an hour and a half. No date or time has been assigned yet, but watch this space. And, if you're going, check your GA program when you get it.

Church for the Unchurched

The Rev. Mark Christian of our Las Cruses, NM, church, Mountain Desert District Executive Ken Wheeler, and I are co-leading a two-day conference in Lubbock, TX, April 30-May 1, on Doing Church in an Unchurched Culture. The conference will begin Friday evening at our Lubbock church and conclude after dinner Saturday.

Topics will include the demographic group identified by sociologist Paul H. Ray as the Cultural Creatives, Covenant Groups, and better ways of ministering to people who are not come-outers because they've never been in. In other churches, that is. More on this next issue.

First Issues Available Online

THE FIRST two issues of CGNews can now be read on and downloaded from my DE web page. Our super Web Weaver, the Rev. Craig Roshaven of 1st Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Worth (the church of the longest name), has agreed to put each issue there as it comes out, so this will be our archive, at least for the time being.

To get to that web page, direct your server to: One of your choices will be "The Rev. Bob Hill's Page." Choose that.

If you have access to the web, please use that method for getting the first two issues (and future issues after they've been e-mailed). If that's not possible for you, e-mail me with a request for Issue #1 on the basics of Covenant Groups and/or Issue #2 on what the Rev. Glenn Turner, DE, and the folks in the Northeast District are doing.

An Apology

This issue of CGNews is largely focused on the Southwest. Help me solve that problem by sending me news of what your church is doing with Covenant Groups (or meta-church groups, or whatever you call them). Inquiring minds want to know.

Know someone who might be interested in this topic? Feel free to forward Covenant Group News to others. They can get on my mailing list the way you did, by sending me an e-mail requesting I add their e-mail addresses. Unitarian Universalists may feel free to use this material in any manner consistent with the growth of our liberal religion. Otherwise, all rights are reserved.

The Rev. Robert. L. Hill,
Co-District Executive for the SW District, UUA,
personal and business success coach for individuals making change
713 660-7164
Fax: 713 839-1152
Web page: