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October 15, 2003

CGNews #56

An occasional newsletter about Covenant Group Ministry read by 809 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.



About 40 professional and lay leaders in Small Group Ministry gathered during General Assembly in Boston last June to discuss issues related to developing and sustaining Covenant Groups in our congregations.

Called "Beyond Getting Started," this conference was sponsored by the Center for Community Values (CCV), a not-for-profit educational institute that serves as a resource center and networking facilitator for people engaged in Covenant Group work. (See for more information, including a full, not edited transcript of the proceeding.)

What follows is Part One of a two-part report transcribed from notes taken at that meeting. The quotations, of course, are not exact and we've edited for brevity and clarity, but we believe we got the gist of what each person said. (If you were there and you meant to say something different from what we say you said, please let us know so we can make a correction.) Part Two will be in the next CGNews. – Bob Hill


The Rev. Dr. Thandeka, CCV Co-President and Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and Affiliated Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, IL, began the discussions by saying, "Small Group Ministry is a spiritual practice for Unitarian Universalists. It is a sacramental act because it engenders and sustains feelings of acceptance, trust, and wellbeing and motivates service to others. Small Group Ministry is a spiritual journey for us. We have come together to deepen this spiritual work through thoughtful reflections and shared insights. Our work is to heal ourselves, each other, and the world."


Julia Rodriguez, CCV Director of Outreach and chair of the Small Group Ministry Council and SGM Content Team at First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA, identified four major challenges of providing content for Small Group Ministry:

  • To make content meaningful, varied, and of consistent quality
  • To enable ministry
  • To provide structure for relationship building for all kinds of people
  • To develop a common foundation of story

"The content of the sessions sets the tone for the whole program," she said. "The kind of care you give to content will be reflected in everything. Good content motivates people to show up. Content is the vehicle for the relationship building that happens within groups."

San José's Content Team, in consultation with the church's ministers, has written more than 60 session plans that fall into four types: general, seasonal, life rituals, and group milestones. Groups tend to synchronize with each other in the use of topics. "This helps foster all-church conversation," Rodriquez says, adding, "Sharing is not confidential unless confidentiality is requested."

Each session includes three items: an order of worship, leader notes, and preparation.

The formal order of worship distinguishes these Covenant Groups from discussion groups and social gatherings. "The order of worship provides a fairly formal structure," Rodriquez says. "This has the advantage of providing a place for some of our 'special grace needed' members. They are able to contribute within the structure, where they might have problems in a looser context. We even go so far as to recommend the appropriate style of sharing for a particular session."

Session plans to mark the milestones of groups include: starting the group, birthing a new group, adding new members, the departure of members, and a session to reflect on the group itself.

Groups that are just starting are asked to use four session plans designed to help the group bond while introducing the concepts of our Small Group Ministry. "Each session increases the depth and risk of the topic," Rodriquez says. "We find that groups that skip the four sessions are more fragile. Groups will often return to the four beginning sessions as a group-strengthener."

Rodriquez believes the church's team approach has led to varied session content and encouraged insights and innovations. Team leadership also provides continuity in times of ministry transition.

RESPONSES to Rodriquez's remarks included these:

Art Silver, Shelter Rock congregation, New York: Our group responds to activity more than to talking. For example, the group members brought meaningful objects, constructed an altar with candles, and each told about the object and its meaning.

Laura Schlatter, Unity Church, St. Paul, MN: Our program is one year old, and we have 200 participants. A leadership team of 10 people supports facilitators and does training. Curriculum has been prepared through the first year, with the goal that participants progress to more challenging, deep, theological questions. Not everybody wanted to use them.

Thomas Mikelson, minister, First Parish, Cambridge, MA: Our covenant group program started three years ago. Stories we had heard at GA were more glowing than what we have experienced. … We have four Covenant Groups with 30 people, and many other types of small groups. Our questions have to do with where to aim for the future. What role should Covenant Groups have in relation to other groups? How Small Group Ministry council should relate to the Program Council?


The Rev. Bob Hill, CCV advisor and District Executive of the Southwest District, spoke on leadership and quoted the Rev. Jim Robinson in saying, "The secret of leadership training is to choose the right leaders in the first place."

The combination of careful selection, training, and monthly sessions with each other in Covenant Groups for facilitators, however, is producing a crop of motivated and enthusiastic leaders for our congregations. We are, in effect, training "deacons," he said, lay leaders with special powers and responsibilities. "This means that we have to pay attention to accountability as well," he said, "including making sure our facilitators are aware of the ethical issues associated with leadership roles in a church."

Ministerial leadership, Hill believes, is crucial for a successful Small Group Ministry. What about churches that have ministers who are not enthusiastic about covenant group ministry? "Give them my book and information from Dame and Turner and the CCV," he advised, "but don't start a Covenant Group program unless and until your minister is enthusiastic about doing that."

RESPONSES to Hill's remarks included these:

Carl Tichnor, summer minister, Fairfax VA: The key words here are "shared ministry." Reluctant ministers need to be reassured that this is not something else put on their plates, and that this is not in place of something else.

Gail Forsyth-Vail, Religious Education, North Parish, North Andover, MA: We have intergenerational groups. One group is led by youth and is one-half youth and one-half adults. Our youth group is using Covenant Group format. When "bridgers" met, their parents also met. Their common experience allowed instant depth.

Tera Little, Pacific Southwest District Program onsultant: Different generations have different needs for leadership and programming.

The Rev. Calvin Dame, minister, Augusta, ME: We have 14 groups. One group of people in their 70s meets during the day. Family groups have kids wandering in and out; it's good for kids to see us discussing important things. Groups rise from different parts of the congregation.

Peter Bowden, Covenant Group newsletter publisher, RI: Youth work better with emergent curriculum where they generate the ideas. Young adults can do outreach.

(To be continued. See next CGNews.)

The next major CCV event will be in April. A weekend entitled "Spiritual Growth Through Small Group Ministry" will include presentations, workshops, and events at the heart of Covenant Group work in our congregations and beyond. Dates: April 2 and 3, 2004. Location: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA.

This Friday-evening, all-day-Saturday event for laypersons and ministers from over the continent will provide theoretical and practical guidance and training for both beginners and experienced practitioners of Small Group Ministry as a spiritual practice.

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.

Archived back issues and a sign-up link are available at our newly redesigned Southwest District web site: Look for the "Newsletters" section.

-- Bob Hill

The Rev. Robert. L. Hill,
District Executive, SW District, UUA,
405 701-2917