Covenant Group News

UU SGM Network Home | Subscribe

March 13, 2000

CGNews #22

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

Subscribe or unsubscribe at in the "Rev. Bob Hill" section.
Problems? E-mail:

John Morgan Conclusions

FIFTY OR SO interested and lively folk attended the "Big Gains Through Small Groups" workshop at the recent Mid-Size Church gathering in Atlanta. A lot of their questions had to do with the training of facilitators. Check below for an opportunity to hear questions on this topic addressed in a group telephone call you can join.

THE REV. JOHN C. MORGAN, author of "The Devotional Heart: Pietism and the Renewal of American Unitarian Universalism," described in the last issue of CGNews his discovery of small-group ministry in our own heritage. This is Part II of his report.


By the Rev. John C. Morgan

What are some of the lessons we may learn from our own Universalist heritage and from the growth of small group ministries today?

First, the small group ministry process does speak to both the needs for ultimacy and intimacy among our members and newcomers. In groups of no more than ten, people are able to find a sense of community and a safe haven to share their spiritual journeys and continuing struggles. Committee meetings and Sunday worship simply don't fill both needs by themselves.

Second, small group ministry is not simply another "program" in the church (a mistake I made in two of my ministries), but is, in fact, the major principle or guiding philosophy behind what it means to be a church. If a congregation is to meet the deepest spiritual needs of community and meaning, then small group ministry is the way to go.

Third, small group ministry can take place in any size church, whether it be thirty or a thousand. In fact, I would argue that when a church goes beyond a few hundred people, a small group ministry is the best way to retain a sense of community while still growing.

Fear Unfounded

The fear Unitarian Universalists have of losing community because of growth is a false one, I believe -- sometimes used by people to keep things the way they are and sometimes by people who are afraid of what they might lose. The good news is that it is possible to grow in numbers and in depth, if one is willing to adopt a different paradigm or model.

The one minister/one staff/one Sunday worship model may fit who we have been, but there are increasing numbers of folks saying this model won't fit the new century, one in which people feel alienated and [have increased needs for] community and meaning.

Fourth, small group ministry will change the very nature of our churches and the leadership which guides them. One minister simply cannot be "in charge" of a church which adopts a small group ministry. It takes a different model of ministry -- "shared" we call it today -- to work.

And it takes leaders schooled in small group dynamics, training other leaders, leading worship, sharing ministry, and long range planning -- not just chaplains or pastors or teachers, but literally people who don't need to be first and upfront, but behind the scenes and letting go.

My suspicion is that one of the chief reasons we have conflict in our midst today is that we haven't yet really learned to share ministry. Some ministers still want to hold on to the authority, even as parishioners clamor for more. The dynamic set in motion is not healthy.

Fifth, "meta" means "transformation," and small group ministry surely will bring about changes, some of them uncomfortable (e.g., ministers will have to learn new roles, leaders will need to let go, structures will need to be lean and serve the people, rather than vice versa).

Frees Religious Professionals

One of the hard lessons for the early Pietists was that after people got in small groups for a while, they began to see what they weren't getting in the larger church -- intimacy and ultimacy -- and started agitating for change. Some early Pietists left their churches (George de Benneville was one) because their spiritual needs were not being met.

Therefore, it is very important that small groups be seen as part of the larger congregations (cells within a larger cell) and not as separate units. For example, Phillip Jacob Spener, the Lutheran pastor who initiated small group ministry in this country, [had his] small groups [meeting in] the church, not in the homes of parishioners, and he made sure the small groups studied Sunday sermons and read common texts.

Carl George, one of the leading proponents of the small group ministry and the author of "The Coming Church Revolution," argues, rightly I believe, that the future requires us to adapt new models of what it means to be a spiritual community, a model that is relational at heart, a church in which ministry is a network of care and concern, not a service provided by professionals.

In fact, I would argue that this small group ministry process frees religious workers to take care of their own spiritual needs while being strengthened to do ministry together with others.

In short, the small group ministry model is both consistent with the earliest Universalist heritage and very relevant to our faith as it shapes itself in the Twenty-First Century. Small group ministry meets the needs of those who come to our churches, needs identified twenty years ago or more by Dr. James Luther Adams, who said people come to us for ultimacy and intimacy.

There are even some of us who feel that this is where God is calling us into the future, but that's a theological discussion for another time, hopefully in a small group!

Next time: Excerpts from "The Devotional Heart," John's now out-of-print book on pietism and renewal in American Unitarian Universalism.


THE TRAINING OF FACILITATORS is the focus of a lot of questions people are raising about Covenant Groups, so I invite you to join in a "virtual classroom" discussion of this topic Saturday morning, March 25, at 11 o' clock CENTRAL time.

My guest for this call will be Dr. Gerald A. King, who is training facilitators for the South Austin Unitarian Universalists described in the last issue of CGNews.

The South Austin start-up is being built on the foundation of Covenant Groups, and the group's facilitator trainees have formed a Covenant Group with Gerry as facilitator and trainer. When the initial training is finished, they will continue to meet once a month as an ongoing support and continuing education group.

Small Groups was Gerry's major focus when he got his Ph.D. at Stanford University in Social Psychology, and it was his major field as he taught at the University of Oregon, UTPB, and Stanford. For over 25 years he has led therapy groups and facilitated peer support groups. In addition, he has taught many classes and workshops in interpersonal communication and group process throughout the southwest and the west coast. Currently he has two therapy groups and facilitates a men's Covenant Group.

One of the topics we will discuss on the March 25 call is this: How may we be sure that facilitators recognize and communicate the differences between therapy groups and Covenant Groups?

Send an e-mail to me at: In the subject line, put: BRIDGE

CALL 3/25.
The week before the call, after we've determined whether the 20-person bridge line I rent is sufficient or if we need to hire a larger line, we'll send you the number to call and some simple instructions. There will be no charge for this although most of you will incur normal long distance charges. (Voluntary donations to the Southwest District Bridge Call fund will be welcomed but are not, by definition, required.) We'll expect the call to last 30 minutes to an hour.

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
Web page: