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May 30, 1999

CGNews #15

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

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IT'S NO BIG SURPRISE that Unitarian Universalists, offered a good idea, will take it and change it. Or meld it into something they're already doing. Most likely, they will find their own name for it, too.

As those of you who have read previous Covenant Group News Issues know, while some churches have Covenant Groups and call them that, West Shore in Cleveland has "Deeper and Wider Unitarian Universalism" groups, and All Souls in Tulsa has "Roots and Branches" groups. I've just learned that Emerson Church here in Houston has begun "E Groups," the "E" standing for either "Excellence" or "Emerson" or both.

This issue's report is about a model of small-group organization that has a unique name and differs in some ways from Covenant Groups as such. Most of the fundamentals are there, though, and so are the results.

Nearly three years ago, Chuck Gaines and the First Parish Church in Groton, MA, launched what they call "Spiritual Life Covenanters." Seventeen percent of the church's 200 members have now been through this program and Chuck says he is surprised by at least two things: the amount of his time and attention this program has required, and the richness of the experience it has provided both him and his parishioners.

On balance, Chuck finds this approach to small-group organization has been well worth the effort. As you'll see at the end, he says he is "amazed by the power of what has happened in this one congregation."


by the Rev. Charles A. Gaines

This is a three-stage program.

Stage I, which asks each participant to focus on their own spiritual journey, is based on Dan Wakefield's book entitled "Spiritual Autobiography." A basic component in this program is the written assignment for each session, including an eight- to ten-page odyssey. We have found that the experience of writing changes what a person is able to say and that reading out loud to the group what has been written adds extra power.

I have added some other elements, including a stress test, the keeping of a log on spiritual experiences over a seven day period, assignments on writing about one's name, and a show-and-tell format on a favorite talisman, for example. Following the completion of these eight sessions, participants are invited to share in a Sunday service in which they read an excerpt from one of their reflections.

The Stage II Spiritual Life Workshop is held on four evenings. One resource is Peter Richardson's "Four Spiritual Styles," which concerns worship and personality type. Participants fill out a modified Myers Briggs Typology questionnaire, learn about Richardson's theories, write their obituary with a specific date of death, and develop a "Before I Die..." inventory of experiences they'd like to have in order to deepen their spiritual living or add to their life experiences before they die, and a work plan for paying attention to the ones that receive priority ranking.

A covenant is presented at the last session of the Spiritual Life II Workshop. Participants are asked to consider moving into Stage III and become Spiritual Life Covenanters. Some do, some don't.


Covenanters in this final stage agree to assume responsibility for deepening their spiritual living by working on their spiritual life plan. They also agree to undertake one specific ministry to the congregation or the world. And they agree to light the chalice at our Sunday service, writing a two or three minute reflection on a theme of their choosing or the theme of my sermon.

For the wording of the covenant now in use, see the note at the end of this article.

One Covenanter, who chose to sing as she lit the chalice, sang in Sanskrit. She will dance at the chalice lighting later this month.

The Spiritual Life Covenanters meet every three weeks. But like the Rotarians, those who cannot attend their own meeting can attend the other covenant meeting, held about two weeks later.

We also hold a quarterly pot-luck supper meeting for all Covenanters, active and inactive. This is the time when we evaluate what we are doing and make any needed changes in the program.

The Covenanters' meetings consist of a brief reflective/worship opening, a check-in, and a sharing of written reflections from their reading assignment, such as the "Handbook for the Soul," edited by Richard Carlson and Benjamin Shield (Little Brown).

Because of the large number of Covenanters, we had to divide into two groups this past fall. We'll have to divide again next summer when the current Spiritual Life Workshop II is over if all six participants agree to become Covenanters.

Each Covenant Group has a leader and sub-leader. It is assumed that the sub-leader will become a leader of a new group when it is established. I meet with the leaders on a monthly basis.


In the two and one-half years since the program was launched in our 200-member church, a total of 34 people or 17 percent have completed Stage I. We have a waiting list for another group next fall.

Of the 34 who've moved through Stage I, there are now six in the Stage II program. Twenty-one have completed Stage II and are now Covenanters (Stage III).

The numbers and the descriptions, though, don't do justice to what this program has achieved. Out of the Covenanters has come a social action team, where there was no social action initiative in the congregation before, a Welcoming Congregation initiative, and a new seriousness about lay leadership/ministry.

About 55% of our elected leaders are now Covenanters. This, in itself, has transformed the concept of leadership to a deeper level of participation. When Covenanters agree to do something, it is done.

And the congregation is supportive. Relating to the spiritual is what many of my parishioners feel ministry is all about and, having been through this process, many of our leaders know its value in their own lives.


I confess my genuine surprise at the success and effectiveness of the program. Three years ago, I never would have believed all this could happen. After 40 years in ministry, I have not experienced anything quite like this.

When this began I did not realize how time-consuming it would be. The time I've given this program prevented me from doing other things. I believe it was time well spent, but anyone who wishes to duplicate this idea needs to realize that it demands a lot of a minister's time.

At first I had to be involved in every Stage I training. Now we have two trainers for this. I must confess, though, that I become so inspired by these groups that I wish to continue participating in them. They provide me with a deep and insightful relationship into the lives of the participants, a pastoral dimension that I would not otherwise have experienced.

We also have two trainers for the Spiritual Life II workshops. We'll see if the program is institutionalized enough for it to carry on are I retire from settled ministry next year. I suppose the real proof of effectiveness will be if this program continues for two or more years after I leave.

This model may not be something that fits another minister's style of facilitation. This may not fit your congregation's needs at this time, or your idea of what a covenant or lay-ministry group should be. All I can say is that I am amazed by the power of what has happened in this one congregation.

After I retire, I hope to develop a manual on this process. If you are interested, let me know. I'll put you on the mailing list when we announce its publication through Turnabout Consultants.


Those who chose to become Spiritual Life Covenanters agree to the following covenant, which was formulated by the members of the group and has been re-examined once. By agreeing to the covenant, they move into Stage III. - Chuck Gaines

THE MISSION of our Spiritual Life Group is to support and nurture each other on our spiritual journeys. We will express our commitment through reaching out to our parish community and to the community at large.


  • I shall attend all meetings of the Spiritual Life Group, unless family illness or business prevents me.

  • I shall care for the well-being of the group by paying attention to its primary purpose, which is to deepen the spiritual living of its members.

  • I shall encourage others to explore aspects of their spiritual living through their personally defined and expressed ministries, and I shall provide them with help and assistance when appropriate and welcome.

  • I shall light the chalice at Sunday morning service occasionally, seeking to share my discoveries about spiritual living.

  • I shall review this covenant in six months time, and in the light of changing circumstances, renew, revise or abandon it.

For a complimentary copy of the newsletter of Turnaround Consultants, e-mail Chuck at or write him at 100 Powder Mill Rd., #226, Acton, MA 01720. Phone: 978-263-1336. There is a subscription fee of $25 for three years for the newsletter. Chuck writes: "Turnabout Consultants works with congregations, using a specifically designed health assessment format for leadership understanding and planning. We'll send you an information packet, if you're interesting in finding out more about us."

AT GA IN SALT LAKE CITY - Glenn Turner and I are leading a meta-church/Covenant Group event at GA under the sponsorship of the Southwest UU Conference. We hope to have all or most of our Covenant Group News columnists present to tell you more about their experiences, including successes and less-than-successes. If you can, join us.
Title: Deeper and Wider - Growth Through Small-Group Organization.
Time: Monday, June 28, 11 a.m. to 12/15 p.m.
Place: TBA


THE FIRST FIVE ISSUES of CGNews (including Issue 1 which lists the key components of Covenant Groups) can now be read on and downloaded from the SWUUC web page. Our super Web Weaver, the Rev. Craig Roshaven of 1st Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Worth, has agreed to put each issue there as it comes out. And, they are formatted, which makes them easier to read and nicer looking in print. To get to that web page, direct your server to: One of your choices will be "The Rev. Bob Hill's Page." Choose that.

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
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