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December 29, 1999

CGNews #20

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

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Training Leaders, Ministry

TRAINING LEADERS......How do we train Covenant Group or meta-church group leaders? That is a recurring question that I hear from ministers and other church leaders who are beginning or considering small-group church organization. In this issue, three of us will address this issue and its relationship to other church issues including ministry. We begin with my out-in-the-open co-conspirator in the promotion of this approach to church organization, the Rev. Glenn Turner. Then, the Rev. Calvin Dame explains how he does training. Being editor, I get the last word. Well, not quite. That actually goes to Calvin: the conclusion of his remarks begun in Issue #10.

-- Bob


Training for group leaders could include:

  1. Watching some of the Vision videos. (Call 1-800 804-0777 or go to and search for "Carl George.")
  2. Reading my paper, "Transforming Our Churches With Small Group Ministry." It includes sample "Group Session Plans." (Contact Glenn at to get this by e-mail. Also, see excerpts from this paper in Issue 8 of CGNews.)
  3. Doing the ritual at every meeting, i.e., meeting as a covenant group and following the recommended format.
  4. Reading "The Coming Church Revolution" by Carl George, chapter by chapter.
  5. Discussing listening skills.
  6. Working on how to deal with difficult people.
  7. Covenanting with each other to meet monthly with the minister and to alert her or him in between meetings when the attention of a professional minister is needed.
  8. Working out arrangements as to how people get assigned to groups, when and how groups will birth new groups, how new groups can be formed.
  9. Talking with the minister about her/his role in putting the Small Group Ministry Vision before the congregation.
  10. Discussing how minister/coaches/group leaders can be mutually supportive.

-- Glenn Turner


We now have nine people working as group facilitators in my church, the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta, ME. Of those, six were a part of the ad hoc groups which spent several months studying and dreaming and planning of our Small Group Ministry (SGM) Program. Because of that experience, they understood our goals and the shape of the program.

Two others have stepped forward to share the leading of an existing group, and one other leader is entirely new, though I have worked with her closely as one of our lay Ministerial Associates.

In our training for the first group of six leaders, we concentrated on talking about fears they might experience as they took on their new roles. Then we met for mutual support during in the first few months as we worked together to shape the program.

I have met with the other three to go over the vision, the concepts and the practices that we have established. (Our goal for this program is to have a form without being rigid, and we think that that flexibility is a strength.) We discuss

  1. confidentiality,
  2. the role of the facilitator,
  3. the role of the minister,
  4. the role of the facilitators group.

We also talk about expectations, such as regular participation in the facilitators meetings.

I am still learning about this, and a kind of curriculum is emerging. I hope our next leaders will have been assistant facilitators or at least participants in on-going groups. But I am not rigid about this; able people can learn what they need to learn.

The most important aspect of being a facilitator is participation in the facilitators' monthly meeting, where questions arise, experience is shared, and support is given.


Also, we just had what I termed our Ministry Summit, called to include three groups in our church: the Small Group Ministry Facilitators, the lay Ministerial Associates, and members of the Caring Committee. The groups talked about what they do. Similarities and differences were explored. Questions were raised about who might be presently overlooked in the ministry of the church, and ideas were put forth for how to do things better.

One of the best aspects of the SGM Program has been the effect on the life of the congregation. The groups have tightened the fabric of our community. People feel connected to one another, and I hear of acts of caring and connection and encouragement between people who, by their own admission, were unlikely to have ever spoken at Fellowship Hour.

-- Calvin Dame


While I second the recommendations of my colleague, I want us to remember that Covenant Group or meta-church-group facilitators are there to make possible the interactions of up to 10 or so church members. Facilitation of a meeting is not the same as conducting or running the meeting. We Unitarian Universalists tend to like control and to see success in terms of outcomes. So, I am concerned that some of our leaders may attempt to direct the course of discussion within their small groups.

Here, with Covenant Groups, the process is more important than any outcome. In other words, whether the rituals of opening and closing were followed is more important than whether tonight's suggested topic was adequately addressed. And whether everyone who wanted to speak was listened to is more important than whether the discussion led to greater agreement on the issue being discussed.

Annette Clarabut is a skilled facilitator of "The Salon," the first Covenant Group formed at the Northwest Community Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston. That group, which meets twice a month, has selected various books as topics for their discussions, but, Annette observes, these books don't get a thorough discussion of the sort one might expect in a college classroom. Instead, they serve as jumping-off places for the discussions.

"Usually, I can just read a line or two from the book we're to discuss, and the conversation takes off from there," Annette told me recently, adding, "It would take us forever to work through an entire book." Calvin's curriculum for launching discussions in his groups are being found useful in his church and the "Roots and Branches" curriculum works for the All Souls Church in Tulsa. Chuck Gaines, in an earlier CGNews, wrote about his successes with the materials he's developed for small-group use.

All that is great, and some Covenant Groups are formed to focus on particular topics. I see great possibilities in two topic areas, in particular: (a) personal growth and spiritual development and (b) "right living," by which I mean finding appropriate responses to the major social issues of our time, including racism, classism, and the sustainability of Earth as healthy biosystem which includes humans.

Even when there is a set topic for a Covenant Group, though, the facilitator probably will not have to be a content-provider. Once the opening rituals are done and the topic is named, I think, just about any group of 6-10 Unitarian Universalists will demonstrate that they have enough content for an evening's discussion in their heads, and then some. It is the quality of the human interaction that should be the first concern of the leader.

It is, therefore, the primary task of the facilitator to see that there is a safe and well-ordered time and place for the small group. It is his or her task to stay alert to the processes to see that the covenants previously agreed to are kept. Just about everything else can be left up to the group.

- Bob Hill


There is one aspect of the covenant group concept which I felt got too little attention in the otherwise excellent November 5 review of the Covenant Groups (Issue No. 9), and that is covenant groups as ministry. We choose to name our program Small Group Ministry (SGM groups) in order to reflect a consensus that we have been building in Augusta for a number of years. That is that we are all called by faith to ministry. To be a part of a congregation is to take your part in the ministry of that congregation.

We had already established a Lay ministry Program and strengthened our Caring Committee as a result of this new understanding. (Which, by the by, required me to grow some in my understanding of ministry, to let some things go and trust more. But that is probably another, though related, story!)

Anyhow, a real strength of our program has been the explicit understanding that participation in our meta-church style small groups is participation in ministry.

Our SGM groups have four explicit purposes.

  1. First is maintenance, and that covers everything that they need to do to meet and keep going.
  2. Then, they are for learning, the group provides a place for spiritual exploration.
  3. Then, they are for love. The people in the groups are there to love and care for one another, to minister to one another. And this explicit understanding provides a commitment that has helped a couple of groups through some growing pains. Ministry means sticking with people even if they try your spirit from time to time.
  4. Then finally, each group is committed to serve the community beyond their own group. This is still taking shape, but ministry is also about service, and these groups are smaller part of a whole. Our goal is for each group to find a way to serve the congregation or community during the course of the year. So, there has been a moving party, a meal for a District gathering, and pies for a pie sale. I envision a group staffing our next Soup Kitchen, running the Services Auction or strengthening our next Work Day.


The Covenant Group concept has been put forward as a means to growth. I am not sure how that is going to play out in Augusta. We do seem to growing at a modest pace. We had a healthy new member sign-up a few weeks ago, but with the usual attrition, our absolute numbers have not grown significantly. We have more newcomers than I can keep track of, and Sundays have been full to the seams, but the newcomers are not signing up for groups.

What is very apparent, however, is the increased enthusiasm and vitality in the congregation. People are present, they are positive, they are excited. And there are surprising connections being made; I watch warm conversations between unlikely people and have to think for a minute until I remember that they are in a group together. It is great!

When I wrote earlier about our Small Group Ministry Program, I mentioned that I was not excited about this initially. It was said that I was cynical about it, which wasn't true. I was deeply skeptical, however, about whether anyone would come out to more meetings or make the kind of long-term commitment a group would require. But I was more than willing to work with members who wanted to explore this idea.

It turns out that I was wrong. I did not understand the deep longing our people have for a level of intimacy and for the opportunity for spiritual exploration that cannot be met in the regular programs of the church, as we have been doing them.

The congregation I serve is in the midst of an exciting transformation. Small Group Ministry is exciting and is still growing in our church. Now, we are looking to see what we need to learn to maintain this for the long haul.

-- The Rev. Calvin Dame


Glenn Turner and I will be leading a workshop on small-group organization for churches as part of the UUA's 4th Annual Continental Conference for Midsize Churches in Atlanta in March. It is Workshop 3H and it is titled: "Big Gains through Small Groups."

Time: 2-4 p.m. Saturday, March 4, 2000.

For registration forms contact Adam Stuhlfaut at 617 948-4269 or email him at -- Bob Hill


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The Rev. Robert. L. Hill,
Co-District Executive for the SW District, UUA,
713 660-7164
Fax: 713 839-1152
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