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June 14, 2000

CGNews #27

An occasional newsletter about a radical, new/old way of organizing your church. Read by 523 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.

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A Spiritual Workout

THIS ISSUE'S WRITER, Thandeka, is well known to many of us, and especially to those who were introduced to her ideas on racism in the pages of the UUA's "World" magazine several issues back. She is Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, and President of The Center for Community Values, a new organization intent on making sure that, within the next three years, every Unitarian Universalist congregation on this continent will have considered moving to small-group ministry through Covenant Groups. CCV, which I serve as a Board member, is sponsoring an event during GA (see invitation at the end of this newsletter) to further that goal. What follows here is, I think, a stirring and powerfully articulated vision of what may result from the simple, little, profound change in organizational focus that Covenant Groups offer.

Covenant Group Work: A Spiritual Exercise To Heal, Transform, and Repair the World

By Thandeka


Covenant Group work is a spiritual practice. It's a workout with an attitude, a three-part routine for community builders.

Like most body-building practices, Covenant Group exercises begin with a warm up, go on to the full workout, and then recoup as a wind-down. Each part has its own procedures. No part can be neglected. Here's why.


The warm-up begins with a downward movement of the mind towards the heart. This movement commences as Covenant Group leaders encourage participants to look within themselves and find stories drawn from the wellsprings of their own lives. This group process brings forth stories about individual victories and defeats, personal fears and disappointments, private insights and concerns. As each person speaks, others listen intently. Everyone speaks. Everyone is heard.

These call and response exercises are creative interchanges. They produce, as theologian Henry Nelson Wieman has noted, appreciative understanding of personal differences. Individual identities are acknowledged. No one has to pretend to be just like everyone else. This collective expansiveness of the group's experience broadens each participant's own personal sense of identity. Differences are counted as additional insights rather than personal deficits and a sense of awe emerges within and between the participants.

Not surprisingly, religious traditions often describe this sense of awe as the human response to a sacred encounter:

  • MARTIN BUBER, in his reflections upon Judaic life, describes such encounters as the place between I and Thou where the healing presence of God is felt.

  • CHRISTIANS describe such experiences as the soul's sanctuary, the place where two or more have gathered in the name of Christ and find "Him" there in their midst (Matthew 18:20).

  • HUMANISTS like John Dewey affirm such encounters as the ethical content of religious experience. They are the moments when the ideal factors in human experience come to the fore and determine human action.

These awesome experiences create an ethos of trust and safety among the Covenant Group participants. Some individuals learn how to sustain private, personal work without becoming depleted. Others learn how to participate in public accounts of personal experiences without being drained of energy. Thus do these warm up exercises generate within all participants the first spiritual strength of Covenant Group practice -- compassion.


The full workout now begins as the spiritual endorphins of compassion begin to peak. The participants experience a Covenant Group "high." This collective experience of compassion and well being generated by the participants creates an "overflow" of goodwill. This increase in group energy gives some participants the collective ability to participate in community outreach projects that transport the Covenant Group beyond itself. Others receive the support needed to remain attentive to personal needs in the midst of group outreach work.

Each Covenant Group sets its own agenda for this high-geared phase of its workout. One group might volunteer to work at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter; another might organize a campaign against sweatshops or for better schools. One group might choose to work as teacher assistants in a public school; another might decide to work with a worship committee to create new rituals for the weekly congregational worship service.

The participants decide how they will expend this peak in their energy. Optimally, they do this outreach work every fourth meeting. By so doing, their collective rhythm is monitored for both overload and under-utilization. This stage of the workout practice produces the second spiritual strength of Covenant Groups -- stamina.


The slow down begins as participants return to their Covenant Group site to recount the new personal experiences generated by their outreach project. Each person talks about what he or she experienced. Each describes how he or she felt. These private individual experiences are listened to attentively. No thoughts or feelings are demeaned. Each person's experience is noted.

Thus does the Covenant Group return to itself full circle. The private, individual experiences born of public encounters with others are shared, acknowledged, and respected. Each individual hears and is heard, affirms and is affirmed.

Now a deeper sense of personal insight and group empowerment emerges because participants have discovered the third spiritual strength of Covenant Group workouts -- renewal.

In sum, Covenant Group work heals, transforms, and repairs the world. Covenant Groups are three-in-one spiritual routines in which participants practice what they preach -- right relationship.

-- Thandeka


Dear Friend,

You play an important role in community building. Because you are involved or interested in small group organization of congregations, we invite you to a meeting to help build a "covenant group movement" within our Unitarian Universalist congregations.

We are convinced that small-group methods have the power to revolutionize Unitarian Universalism in important ways. Please join us:

Saturday, June 24, 12:30 - 2:00 p.m.
at McKendree United Methodist Church, 523 Church Street
(directly north of the Nashville Convention Center)

A tastefully modest lunch will be provided for the first 200 attendees.
Speakers will include:

Bob Hill, Co-District Executive, Southwest District, UUA
Brent Smith, Minister, Fountain St. Church, Grand Rapids, MI
Thandeka, Assoc. Prof. of Theology and Culture, Meadville/Lombard
Glenn Turner, District Minister, Northeast District, UUA

-- The Center for Community Values

Thandeka, President; Connie Grant, Communications Director; Bob Hill, Board Member; Mellen Kennedy, Education Director

Questions? Send e-mail to:

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: