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February 29, 2000

CGNews #21

An occasional newsletter about a radical, new/old way of organizing your church. Read by 462 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.

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Universalist Roots

THE REV. JOHN C. MORGAN, who has served the UUA, two districts, and a number of our congregations, is the author of "The Devotional Heart: Pietism and the Renewal of American Unitarian Universalism." Published in 1995 by Skinner House, the book looked at the earliest layer of Universalism in Europe and America and found there a small-group process with similarities to the meta-church or Covenant Group concept. "While we tend to think of the small group process as belonging to other religious traditions," he says, "the fact is that is rooted in our own as well." Here is his account of what he discovered.


By John Morgan

I should have listened the day I heard Dr. James Luther Adams give a lecture at Andover Newton Theological School. Now, twenty years later, I know he was saying something I would need to discover myself in the midst of being a Unitarian Universalist minister.

In response to a question about why people came to our religious communities at all, Dr. Adams was quite succinct: They came for ultimacy and intimacy.

He went on to explain that they came to wrestle with (and from time to time to actually find answers to) life's ultimate questions. Who am I? In what or in whom do I trust? In what community do I belong? And they came for a sense of intimacy, a safe place in which they could be accepted while making connections with others.

Over the years, I have found Adams' theory to meet the test of parish ministry. People come into our communities looking for a place to belong (intimacy) and a place to seek meaning (ultimacy) about living and dying and the spaces between. And though I hoped the churches I served could meet these two needs, I sometimes found how short we fell.

Both at Once Plus Growth

To the question of intimacy, we offered positions on committees. To the issue of ultimacy, we talked more about increasing membership or pledging rather than the depth of our commitment to a cause in the world and to each other. And we often banked on Sundays to meet both needs, as if this were even possible. Perhaps these are the reasons why the over- whelming majority of our congregations are still under 250 members?

I chose to serve either smaller churches or start new ones in my ministry, because I believed there was a correlation between size and intimacy and ultimacy (and there is), but I have learned that we limit ourselves by thinking small and that it is quite possible to have both ultimacy and intimacy at the same time, whether the church is fifty or five hundred members.

What is required is no less than a transformation of our paradigm of what it means to be a church and an equal change in our attitude about what it means to do ministry.

For some fortunate reason, I discovered in our own heritage a rich and wonderful resource--the early Universalist Pietists-- and I happened on a different but convergent model for a church, the so-called "meta-church" described by Carl George, author of "The Coming Church Revolution." Small group ministry is not simply another "program" in the church along with worship and religious education. Rightly seen, small group ministry is the church seeking to meet both the needs for intimacy and ultimacy--it is a model driven by the needs of the people, not a denomination or the minister. That's quite revolutionary, if you think about it--and very congregational in polity!

Reform Through Study Circles

From Thomas Potter's chapel in New Jersey to George de Benneville's house church outside Reading, Pennsylvania, the earliest expressions of Universalism in America were clearly "Pietistic," a term which simply refers to the religion of the heart. They were often German, not English. And they were more firmly rooted in the Mid-Atlantic states than New England, though Rhode Island has a goodly share of Pietists.

The early expressions of Pietism were clearly reformist--the method of reform being the use of small study circles. In these "colleges of piety" or "conventicles," as they were called, people met once a week to share their stories, discuss the Sunday sermon, and interpret scripture. The clergy sat in, not just as teachers, but as members of the groups, the early Pietists believing churches, not seminaries, trained ministers.

In my view, this Pietist reform began in 1675 when Phillip Jacob Spener, a Lutheran pastor, initiated small group ministry as a way to reform the church of his time. It worked beyond his expectations, creating not only revivals in Europe, but spinning off reform among Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Quakers, Universalists, and others in the new world.

The earliest proponents of Universalism in America adopted the Pietist model for churches long before John Murray and the first Universalist church of America began in Massachusetts (remember, too, that Murray spent years with Thomas Potter in New Jersey and was a circuit rider before he was a settled minister).

Through I haven't found the written proof yet, I am sure that universalist Pietists from Rhode Island (they were called "Singing Quakers," believe it or not) and missionaries from the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, including de Benneville, visited Thomas Potter in New Jersey, and thereby paved the way for Rev. John Murray.

More of John's views on small groups and on our Universalist heritage will appear in subsequent issues of Covenant Group News. Next issue: Five lessons and some conclusions.


WITH FUNDING from our Austin, TX, 1st Church and support from that congregation's interim-ministry team, the Austin South Unitarian Universalists group is getting started with two fundamental goals: to be multicultural and to be organized around small groups from the start. Carol Knight, a lay member of 1st Church who has been chairing the start-up process, wrote recently that the group's goal is to be "a full-service, minister-led, UUA-affiliated, multicultural church based on a covenant group organizational structure." The group plans to hold corporate worship only once a month at first with the goal of having 130 persons active in Covenant Groups before they hold their Charter Sunday and apply for affiliation.

The Revs. Clyde Grubbs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley have been instrumental in helping the one-year experiment in church growth get off the ground. First Church has committed up to $9,500 for the new start, which will be focused on the area south of the Colorado River.


CONNIE GRANT, Religious Educator at the Countryside Church in Palatine, IL, will be joining Glenn Turner and me this coming Saturday, March 4, for our "Big Gains through Small Groups" workshop at the UUA's 4th Annual Continental Conference for Midsize Churches, in Atlanta. Time: 2-4 p.m. Glenn and I will be joined by THANDEKA, professor at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, for a workshop on small-group ministry as part of the UUMA's Center Day during pre-General Assembly activities in Nashville in June.

Know someone who might be interested in this topic? Feel free to forward Covenant Group News to others. 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,
713 660-7164
Fax: 713 839-1152
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