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March 12, 2002

CGNews #42

An occasional newsletter about a new/old way of organizing your church read by 780 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.


Covenant Group Ministry is no longer in the stage of learning to walk. A week ago, I thought it was, but I have just returned from CONVO and I need to tell you something I learned there. Our grassroots movement has taken flight.

This convocation in Birmingham, AL, which just ended Sunday with a commemoration of civil rights struggles in that state, an address by UUA President Bill Sinkford, and a worship service led by the Rev. Diane Miller, was a gathering of 450 or so Unitarian Universalist ministers from this country, Canada, and elsewhere.

CONVO planners had given me the chance to speak about Covenant Group Ministry on Thursday and the ministers met daily in Covenant Groups. Several colleagues asked a question I could not answer: "How many of us are doing this in our churches?" So, at lunchtime one day, we requested ministers to stand if they are serving churches that have (by whatever name) Covenant Group Ministry.

"Certainly well over half," I thought as I looked out over the room. Then I checked with two independent observers who had been in good vantage points. "At least 70% stood up," one said. "About 75%," the other said.

The percentage of those standing grew even larger when I asked to see those serving churches that are planning to begin Covenant Group Ministries within a year.

We need to do a survey soon to get more reliable data, and I believe the UUA will help us with that. On the basis of this information alone, though, it seems clear that the movement is much more widespread than most of us had dreamed.

I am amazed and pleased. A couple of years ago members of the Center for Community Values (CCV) joined me in striving to promote this method of church organization well enough so that every congregation in the UUA would at least considered small-group ministry within three years. That now seems attainable, perhaps likely.

Glenn Turner, former District Executive in the Northeast; Calvin Dame and his Augusta, ME, church; pioneers such as Jim Robinson and Brent Smith; as well as many of the readers of this newsletter, both lay and clergy, deserve most of the credit for this.

And credit does seem to be the correct word. Minister after minister told me stories of their churches' being strengthened, even revitalized, by their small-group ministries. It was great to meet some of them at CONVO after conversing with them by email for months.

What's next? Flight is wonderful, but sustained flight is best, and we should be aware that we are still in the learning curve.


Covenant Group Ministry works because of the combination of (a) facilitators engaged in shared ministry with (when available) clergy, (b) groups kept to about ten at maximum, (c) the emphasis on an empty chair to symbolize those who need us whom we have not yet reached, (d) the birthing of new groups in one way or another, (e) the use of readings and check-ins and check-outs, and (f) the covenants of group interaction and service to the church and the larger community.

Areas of concern still being worked out include finding better ways of encouraging the birthing of new groups when current Covenant Group members fear new folk would compromise their close connections with each other (despite the fact that most of them were "new folks" to each other only a short time before).

Also, some ministers, I understand, are experimenting with limited-time Covenant Groups. Some are being established to last a year or less, although Jim Robinson, in Brewster, MA, says his experience is that, without time limits, one in three Covenant Groups will last ten years.

As one would expect, we are learning as we go, and I am greatly encouraged to discover that the basic elements of Small Group Ministry are in place in so many of our congregations now, less than five years after Glenn Turner and others began promoting them. This degree of acceptance of a way of building trust through listening better to each other may be coming none too soon.


Dr. Rebecca Parker, Dean of Starr King School for the Ministry, talked with us at CONVO about moral and ethical dilemmas that are facing us in this time of war and third-world impoverishment.

Agreeing with Dr. Parker, I anticipate that our churches will have to deal with wrenching disagreements over pressing issues in the months and years to come. We Unitarian Universalists have strong opinions and we are diverse in our viewpoints. It is my hope that, with wise use of the Covenant Group Ministry model, we may emphasize mutual understanding more often than debate as we deal with these issues of justice, equity, civil liberties, and the appropriate use of force in international relations.

The commemorations of past struggles which I and hundreds of my ministerial colleagues experienced in Birmingham last week reminded me of the great and desperate courage of thousands of black citizens in Alabama and of the bravery of those of many faiths, including our own, who joined the struggle against the fire hoses, dogs, clubs, jails, and customs of those who sought to deny voting rights and basic humanity to "Negro" citizens.

I was also reminded that, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War debates among us in the late 1960s and 1970s, much of the institutional strength of the UUA and many of our congregations was shredded by our own confused, fearful, and often angry disagreements concerning how to live out our principles. The result benefited no one: we became less effective both as providers of renewal and solace and as agents of change.

If we are approaching a comparable period of need for the making of profound decisions, Covenant Group Ministries may be a saving grace for us. Perhaps we can build our small-group ministries strong enough to help us avoid a futile repeat of the worst of our history. We may be getting them in place just in time. We shall see.

For now, I'd like to ask that, if you, wise reader, are in a Covenant Group that is serving you well, would you please stand and cheer?

Wow! Did you hear that?!

-- Bob Hill

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