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February 2009

Small Groups, Deep Connections February 2009
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
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In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • Questions of the Month
  • Featured Article: "On Preventing Facilitator Burnout" - Continued from the January Issue
  • Full Circle
  • News and Events
  • Publications
  • Contact Us

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Letter from the Editor


Surprise! A new, colorful and re-organized CGNews. I hope you will find it easier to read and more useful and that you are motivated to share questions and answers with the other 1300 subscribers. Let me know what you think. Please send your comments and submissions to

The questions for both January and February focus on maintaining the health of continuing groups and revitalizing programs that have stagnated or shrunk. These seem to be the hottest topics at the moment. The featured article is a contribution to preventing facilitator burnout from Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, the Program Minister at the Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, OK. Jonalu coordinates one of our larger and more established programs.

We'll publish answers to the Questions of the Month in the March CGNews and in an upcoming Quarterly issue. The Spring Quarterly journal, to be published in April, will focus on mature SGM programs and their unique challenges. Join the Network now to receive your copy. Archived Quarterlies are available on our website. Members receive the current issue several months before it's posted on the web.

The UU Small Group Ministry Network exists to facilitate sharing and to support small group ministry work in our congregations. If you are not already a member, please join the Network and make sure your congregation is a member. The UU SGM Network does not receive financial support from the UUA; individual and congregational memberships are our major source of revenue.

The Network's website is updated twice a month. The newest items are listed on the homepage. Consider submitting your sessions and articles. Send them to

In faith that we're making this a better world, Diana
Diana Dorroh
President, UU Small Group Ministry Network
Editor, CG News

On Preventing Facilitator Burnout
Contribution below by Rev. Jonalu Johnstone

We used the topic of Facilitator Burnout at our January facilitator meeting (In addition, some of our facilitators submitted answers for the January issues of CG News.). Here are some of the factors they named as making a difference, along with my ideas:

  1. Co-facilitators are a great way to reduce burn-out. They share energy, capitalize on one another's strengths, and support one another in the work of the group. They never feel alone.
  2. Sharing responsibility with group members. Whether it's bringing snacks, hosting meetings, offering opening and closing words, or planning entire sessions, shared leadership helps groups do their best. Several of our groups include in their covenant or ground rules how they will assign various responsibilities within the group. The facilitator does not need to be responsible for everything.
  3. We allow leadership to change. If someone wants to let go of the facilitator role, the first place we look for a new facilitator is within the group. Often, someone will step forward, especially if it can be a shared responsibility as described in #1 and #2. At least one of our groups used to change leadership every year. Many of them have experienced leadership transitions. This can enliven a group.
  4. Facilitators who attend the every other month meetings with the minister find it a strong support. Hearing other people's ideas and challenges invigorates them and helps them to realize how much they know.
  5. Finally, when it's time for a group to die, we let it die. A facilitator does not need to keep beating a dead horse. If people aren't showing up, aren't enthusiastic, can't keep going, then it's time to find a way to celebrate the group for what it has been and let it stop meeting. This is possible because each year we make an effort to start new groups. We talk about the natural lifecycle of a group, and don't try to force them to be something they aren't.

Those are the hints our facilitators and I came up with. Hope it helps!

Questions of the Month

Question One: Renewing Small Group Ministry Programs

Our SGM program has been in place several years and we're in the process of renewing it. We added 6 new groups in the fall and they're doing well. We plan to celebrate the end of our first revitalized year (September through May) with a potluck dinner for all participants. Our concerns at this point are:

Do we consider those long-standing groups that decided not to follow the model of accepting new members as part of our program and include them in functions such as this dinner? And how would we encourage these groups to take new members?

Do others have experience in deciding at the end of a year whether to offer continued membership in existing groups, try to start all new ones in the fall, or extend invitations to join an existing group?

Question Two: Youth Programming

The UU Small Group Ministry Network is working with Lifespan Faith Development at the UUA on small group ministry for youth. Currently there is the SGM for Youth book published by the Network in 2005, and a section on Small Group Ministry in the UUA Coming of Age material. We would like to know:

  • Are you using small group ministry (covenant groups) with youth? If so, how?
  • Would you be willing to share some session plans that you have developed with the Network? Please send them to
  • Are there specific topics that you would like to see developed for youth?

Full Circle
Share your small group ministry experiences with others.

Last month's question:

From Joyce Cable, UUnity Circles Coordinating Team, Unitarian Universalist Church West, Brookfield, WI:

How can we maintain or increase participation over time?

Our Church has been doing small group ministry for four years. It has been a time of learning for the coordinating team: publicizing, training facilitators and forming groups, which we call UUnity Circles. We have had 10 circles each year, with 8-10 members in each circle. Our church membership has been growing in the past couple of years, since we went to having two Sunday services, and we felt we needed this program to help people feel connected as we became too large for every body to know everybody. We're over 465 members now.

Now we have gotten to the point where we have some questions; I have been reading in The UU Small Group Ministry Network website, but have not found any information concerning the program over a longer period of time. We're wondering if the program is cyclical in nature, if there is a fall off in participation after a few years, and its effect on church membership retention. Statistics?

Our Reader's Answer...

The Concord NH UU church has had covenant groups for the last 8 years and we have stayed steady at about 100 + members. Some people leave, but most stay with their same group and have strong feelings about ever leaving this group. They feel strongly connected to these people and while their attendance at church may wax and wane, their attendance at their covenant groups never does. We have bi-monthly facilitator meetings which keeps all the groups connected---I think this is key to maintaining the program. We used to discuss problems we were having, although over time these have decreased. But it is a good way to have an umbrella group keeping all groups connected to each other.

Peg Herbert
Second Congregational Society Unitarian Universalist
Concord, NH

UU SGM Network Board Members Answer...

From Rev. Helen Zidowecki, Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Augusta ME:
I find that anything long-term has natural cycles. That being said, I do not think we have documented enough that, for Small Group Ministry, the concern is keeping the program and the groups 'fresh'. I think there may be some key points here, such as:

Keep the program visible. SGM should be as visible as other programs, such as Religious Education. Some of the ways that this is done in Augusta, ME, are regular newsletter articles, bulletin board notices, Sunday bulletin/order of service, and annual Small Group Ministry Events (celebration dinner, Sunday morning service, etc.).

Not everyone is interested or able to participate in a Small Group Ministry group. Some people may participate for awhile, drop out for while, and possibly return to another group.

Keep a good data base. The way to tell how a program is doing is to track both numeric data (numbers of groups and members per group, changes in groups, number of participants related to total congregational membership) and anecdotal information (why people may have left a group). Having this type of data will also allow analysis of the length of time people stay as members. Not many congregations have good analyses of why people join and why they leave, so the direct impact is difficult to concretely measure.


  • Read "Reflections on Maturing Small Group Ministry Programs," on Online Resources on the web page Directory.
  • Congregations send people to The Mountain Institute, and we will have this as a discussion focus.

From Diana Dorroh, Program Coordinator, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA
Our groups at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rougebegan for the same reasons yours did. We wanted to grow and knew people would need a way to connect to a smaller group within the larger congregation. We adopted a model that focuses on new members. At each newcomers class, our minister, Rev. Steve Crump, promotes membership in a covenant group. At the last session, I invite group leaders to come to the class and invite participants to join their group. Most do join a group. We also invite established members to join the program either at the fall program recognition, or by personal invitation from a leader. The total participation grew over five years to about 200 participants and 18 groups. After reaching 200, we've grown more slowly and currently have 220 participants and 20 groups.

When our program began in late 1999, I was able to measure the difference in membership retention between the years 1999 and 2000 and it was very impressive. Since I no longer have a control group, all I can say is that people in groups are much less likely to leave the church and are more likely to become leaders. Another very rough way to measure success in retaining members is to look at the overall membership loss percentage. According to the UUA Department of Marketing and Outreach, 10% is good.

From our experience, I'd say that bringing new people into the existing groups and setting up new groups, as needed, is one key to vitality. Another is to keep trying new things and continuously support the leaders/facilitators. This takes intentionality and probably requires a very dedicated program director or coordinator, either volunteer or staff.

Churches often choose one Sunday a year to promote the program and offer new group sign-ups. I think of this as an alternative to expecting new members to join a group and inviting them to one, though you could certainly do both. There are several articles I recommend. They're under the free articles section on the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

  • Reflections on Maturing Small Group Ministry Programs by Calvin Dame
  • Behind the Scenes of Small Group Ministry and Coordinator's Role by Susan Hollister

I'd also recommend the Network's two newest publications:
UU Small Group Ministry and the Facilitator Training and Development Manual
Both can be ordered from

News & Events

Building and Sustaining a Strong Small Group Ministry Program

A workshop by Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy. Saturday, March 14, 2009 9:30 am - 4:30 pm. (Snow Date: Saturday April 4, 2009.) Registration and coffee from 9:00 - 9:30 a.m. All Souls Church UU, 29 South Street, Brattleboro, VT 05303.
For Flier:

Announcing Small Group TUBE!

Peter Bowden, co-founder of our Network, has launched a new small group ministry video series, making the content of his consulting and trainings available to all our congregations, a boon to church budgets. Find the new videos and subscribe to the video channel on Youtube™ at

Small Group Ministry Institute, August 16 - 21, 2009
The Mountain Retreat & Learning Centers, The Highlands, NC

An opportunity to explore the varied ways Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups enhance our congregations and Unitarian Universalism. Includes basic information and in-depth sessions around special focuses (Example: facilitation or program coordination). Ever-emerging resources and developments will be presented. Discounts for early registration and UU SGM Network membership. Flier and Registration form available on the Events Page of the UU Small Group Ministry Network website.

The UU SGM Network at General Assembly - Our Sixth Year!

The Network will present Facilitator Training: The Key to Small Group Ministry Success, at GA 2009 in Salt Lake City. Speakers include Diana Dorroh, the Rev. Melissa Carvill-Zeimer, the Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, and the Rev. Bret Lortie. The workshop will provide a concrete plan for designing and implementing a comprehensive training program. The minister's role in sharing and blessing this ministry will be a special focus. Visit our booth in the Exhibit Hall to talk with other SGM enthusiasts and view our newest publications and resources.


Facilitator Training and Development Manual, UU SGM Network, December 2008
The guide to implementing in-house training programs. Covers facilitator selection, initial training, and on-going facilitator support. Includes the Facilitator's Guide to customize for your program, use in training sessions and distribute to all group leaders.

Network Members: $15 + $5 shipping       Non-member: $25 + $5 shipping

Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry, UU SGM Network, June 2008
A compilation of more than fifty articles from five years of the Network's website and newsletters. Arranged by topic: basic elements of SGM, program structure and design, starting and promoting your program, the minister's role in shared ministry, facilitation, group development, session plans, and the application of SGM principles in multiple aspects of congregational life.

Network Members: $15 + $5 shipping       Non-member: $25 + $5 shipping

To order:

Contact Information

Diana Dorroh, President (
Steve Becker, Vice President (
Rev. Helen Zidowecki, Secretary (
Susan Hollister, Treasurer (

The UU Small Group Ministry Network
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