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November 6, 2001

CGNews #40

An occasional newsletter about a new/old way of organizing your church read by 749 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.

NOTHING RENEWS one's enthusiasm for and faith in small-group organization for our churches so much as watching the reactions of people who have just had their first experiences of the power of Covenant Groups.

As I write this I am flying back to Houston from Seattle after a weekend with 53 ministers and lay folk of the Pacific Northwest District who gathered in La Conner, WA, for a weekend of focus on Small Group Ministry, including being participants in five Covenant Group sessions.

These were brief sessions held in non-ideal settings, each one lasting an hour (except when groups, by agreement, opted to continue longer than scheduled). Both group members and facilitators were randomly assigned and facilitators had no preparation or special training. Representing 22 congregations, from small to large, they were strangers thrown together in a new setting, asked to try something few of them had experienced before.

Nevertheless, the magic worked. Bonding happened quickly and grew stronger, session by session. Most of the 53 indicated eagerness to share with others in their home congregations what they experienced together in La Conner.

For me, a visitor invited in by my colleague in UUA Field Staff work, Anne Odin Heller, this was an experience of reaffirmation and deepening, a chance for yet another moving and empirical observation of the fact that many of us (most, perhaps), have a deep and insufficiently-met need to connect with others in exploration of our life journeys, with all their commonalities and differences.For me, a visitor invited in by my colleague in UUA Field Staff work, Anne Odin Heller, this was an experience of reaffirmation and deepening, a chance for yet another moving and empirical observation of the fact that many of us (most, perhaps), have a deep and insufficiently-met need to connect with others in exploration of our life journeys, with all their commonalities and differences.


In this workshop, we used materials and ideas drawn from Glenn Turner, Calvin Dame, Thandeka, Michael McGee, Helen Zidowecki, Brent Smith and others, including, of course, Carl George.

"An especially effective program is being sponsored by a Covenant Group that has been reading Huston Smith's book, "The Religions of the World." For their social project they are hosting several programs on the Islamic Faith, the first one by a Muslim professor, the second by the local Imam, the third by two Muslim women speaking on women's issues, and the fourth by a State Department expert on the Middle East along with John McQuethy of ABC News (both church members) on geo-political issues. Now they are working on adding other speakers, including a rabbi and a Palestinian activist.

We learned from a participant that the La Leche League has been using techniques quite similar to what we are recommending and doing so quite successfully for 50 years or so.

We drew on the knowledge of business/life coach Viveca Monahan, on relating successfully to persons whose religious beliefs differ from one's own, and we were wisely reminded by Anne Heller that we should be careful about the use of distinction-obscuring labels, including "humanist."

I hope the attendees learned something because I know I did. One participant, Rick Koyle, ministerial consultant to the Bainbridge Island fellowship, sent an email afterward saying, "These ideas are capable of bringing tremendous change for the better in our congregations. As I said after the first small group, it's what I've been looking for during the 10 years I've been a Unitarian Universalist."


This positive experience came just in time for me for two reasons.

One is that the Small Group Ministries / Covenant Group movement seems to me to be in it's "sophomore year" phase just now. If your memories of sophomore year in either high school or college are like mine, you'll know what I mean: the excitement of freshman year has faded; the work is getting more intense and more detailed; and it is a long, long time to graduation.

Lately, I think some of us who are eager to see our faith "graduate" into the full flower of small-group possibility (immediately, please!) have been experiencing a bit of sophomore-year syndrome. So much to do. So little time. So many hills yet to climb.

The second reason I needed this psychological boost is that I'd been hearing, lately, of a few Covenant Groups in our churches that are having difficulties, dragging, running aground. Why? Usually, I think, because they've omitted one or more of the necessary components of small-group organization. (See "1-Page Manual," CGNews Vol. 2, No. 9, Oct. 25, 2000, archived on our district web site: )

In particular, some groups I've heard of have skipped the creation of their own covenant of behavior with each other and/or their covenants to serve the church and the larger community. Such omissions are proving to be every bit as costly we expected they would be.


I am thinking, now, that the recommendation for groups to shape their covenant during their first meeting or two may have been a mistake. Brent Smith, I learned recently, asks groups to create their covenants during session four of "Roots and Branches."

It does make sense to be sure group members have had some experience of the benefits of Small Group Ministry before they are asked to decide how they want to function with each other. Session four seems a bit late, to me, for Covenant Groups, which are usually less content-focused than "Roots and Branches." So here is what I suggest:

(a) Facilitators should, at the very first meeting, distribute a brief (preferably one-sheet) behavioral covenant for use as a temporary set of guidelines until the group has decided upon its own.

(b) At that first meeting, the facilitator should note that some time during the second or third meeting will be devoted to deciding upon a mutually-agreeable covenant.

Most of the power of the covenant is in the group's having given time and energy to hammering out its details so that they can own the resulting decisions about how to be with each other. I believe most groups, though, will be willing to abide by the facilitator's suggestion of a temporary covenant for the first couple of meetings.


This suggestion leads to the need for something the folks in La Conner asked for: some sample covenants.

So, here is a request: Please email me the covenants your groups have adopted so that I may share them with others. Please send them to and put SAMPLE COVENANT in the subject line so that I may choose one or more to send out in a future CGNews.

And, if you have time, write a paragraph or two about how this covenant of group behavior has worked (or not worked) for your Covenant Group. I'd appreciate it if you'd remind me of your name, the name of your congregation, and its location.

Any additional comments about your experience of Small Group Ministries will also be welcomed. Later, I'll ask for information on the covenants various groups have made to serve their churches and larger communities.

Meanwhile, UUA data identifies the Pacific Northwest District as one of our fastest growing areas for the past year (a 6% gain, and they've grown every year for the past four). I wouldn't bet against them for this year, either, and even less so later on, after the enthusiasm of the impressive leaders I met this past weekend has had a chance to spread through their 22 congregations and take effect.

It is a joy to see that we continue to become more able to serve ourselves and others in ways that are both deeper and wider, all because of a new/old way of organizing our churches, an approach which is, indeed, both simple and profound.

-- Bob Hill

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The Rev. Robert. L. Hill,
District Executive for the SW District, UUA,
713 660-7164