My Experience as a Branches Facilitator
By Bobby Thompson, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA
I was one of the first group of church members to be trained as Branches (small group) facilitators. Our minister, Rev. Steve Crump, did a wonderful job of giving us a model of what the groups should look like, and more importantly, what they should feel like. Even so, interacting with humans, on this level, in real time, there is no training for that. Mark Gilbert, co-facilitator, and I had the luck or bad luck, however you look at it, of forming a group that decided, right out of the chute, to fly without a net, as someone put it. In other words, they wanted to be a covenant group without a covenant. No matter how much Mark and I pushed and prodded, they were not going to have it. They wanted their bond as a group to stand alone, with no strings attached. To make matters worse, we seemed to attract new people into the group that were just as rebellious. While Mark and I commiserated over it, Steve said that indeed a covenant had been made. It was an unspoken one.
That was nine years ago. The membership has ebbed and flowed for different reasons, mainly members moving away. Still, we have retained a core group of dedicated members.
At our last meeting we were discussing "transformation" from a series on Process Theology. It was about how being accepted by or accepting someone or a group can be transformative. Each member expressed in some way what the group has meant to them, new and old members alike. We have seen each other through good times and bad. Some mentioned what a boost it has been to their spiritual growth to be a part of and have the support of such an open and accepting group. Others talked about the transforming power of a phone call, a card, a face at the hospital, prepared food after surgery, or checking on each other after a hurricane. Some said this was the best or smartest thing the church could have come up with. Others said it is the thing that keeps them connected to the church.
I add my voice to the transforming power of being a witness to, as well as a part of this process of small group ministry. We provide a safe space, once a month, for two hours where we can count on being heard and not judged. We are not there to fix, but if we can help, we do. It has been amazing to me to be a part of this group that has bonded without a written covenant and flies without a net. We do it, I'd guess, by holding each other's hand.
Small Group Ministry at the UU Church of Eugene
By Dick Loescher, SGM Steering Committee Chair, UU Church of Eugene, Oregon
The Small Group Ministry program, called Shared Ministry Groups in the early years, began in 2003 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, Oregon, under the direction of our minister at that time, the Rev. Carolyn Colbert, and a steering committee. We have had a SGM "term" each year since then, and one year had two "terms." Approximately 15 to 25% of church members and church friends participate each time, with up to 10 groups of about 10 people. Each church year we have a defined number of sessions, and then the groups disband. Once the groups have started meeting, we do not add new people to the groups. Registration is held each fall for new groups and facilitators are recruited and trained. In recent years the groups have met for two hours twice a month for a total of 10 sessions from January through May. In earlier years the sessions started in the late fall, with breaks around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We got feedback that people appreciated not having the program starting up around the holiday times which were already very busy. Each group does a service project for the church or the community. The lesson plans for the groups are developed by the SGM Steering Committee in conjunction with the minister. Often there has been an overall theme for the term. The theme this year is the 7th UU principle, "The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. "Each group has the same lesson plan in the same order.
For the 2007-8 church year, the Steering Committee developed a standard "Small Group Ministry Covenant of Right Relationship" for all of the groups to use, rather than having each group start from scratch each year trying to come up with a covenant. There was overwhelming enthusiastic acceptance and appreciation by the SGM facilitators and group members for having the covenant already defined and available for review and discussion in the first or second session. The covenant has guidelines listed as "Core Components to Meet Our Needs and Support Our Values," as well as "Optional Meeting Strategies," which have helpful suggestions for facilitating equal opportunities for respectful sharing. We continue to use that covenant, with the possibility of further modification in the future.
There is general agreement in our church that the SGM program has had a very significant positive impact on our congregation. Many people have commented that their participation in the SGM groups has greatly increased their sense of connection and friendship with others in the church, and provided the opportunity to explore topics related to values and meaning in life. Also, many have observed that since the SGM program began at UUCE, interactions among church members and friends, both individually and in meetings, have become more respectful, with careful empathic listening. Additionally, many other groups in the church now incorporate into their meeting structure a number of components of the SGM format, such as candle or chalice lighting or sounding a chime or bell, opening words, check-in, check-out/likes and wishes, closing words, and extinguishing the flame or sounding a chime or bell.
Additional details about the UUCE program, including the current version of the UUCE Small Group Ministry Covenant of Right Relationship, the current version of the UUCE Facilitator Training Manual, and the currently developed SGM lesson plans for this church year, are visible on the UUCE web site on the Small Group Ministry web page, www.uueugene.org/SGM/about.html
|Question of the Month|
Question One: Keeping Groups Focused
Most groups use questions as a discussion guide. Others may use only a theme. As a facilitator or as a group member, how do you keep the conversation focused on the topic? How much digression is OK? What do you say or do when a group member criticizes a public figure or a political party? Tell us your stories and your solutions.
Question Two: Community Outreach
Have new projects or all-church events sprung up with involvement from SGM/Covenant Group participants? Have you as facilitator noticed a correlation between group members being part of an intimate, caring group and a desire to help out in the congregation, in social justice efforts, and/or in the community?
Question Three: Share A Recent Successful Topic
Send us a paragraph describing a successful session. What made it work?
We Want To Hear From You!
How has your Covenant Group/SGM program dealt with a similar or related issue?
Share your insights, strategies and experiences.
Send your answers to Diana at email@example.com
We'll print them in the next CGNews.
Share your small group ministry experiences with others.
Last month's questions:
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?
SGM Program Coordinator
Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS
UU SGM Network Board Members Answer...
From Diana Dorroh, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA
If the existing long-standing groups seem to you to be small ministry groups, I'd include them. Are they about sharing lives and mutual ministry? Do they follow the standard format of check-in, reading, discussion, and checkout.? Do they meet at least once a month, with leaders who meet with the minister or program leaders? It's a difficult decision, but if they seem to be small group ministry, I'd include them in the potluck dinner. If they don't seem to be small group ministry and don't choose to change, you might consider giving a new name to the new groups and considering the old ones a separate program, perhaps an adult program.
To encourage them to take new members, you might say that your small group ministry program is a church program and other people need to benefit from it or that their group has something to offer new people coming to your church. Eventually, they will need new members, so the question of whether to accept new members may be settled after they have open slots and need new members to continue.
My answer to the second group of questions would be: in our program in Baton Rouge, all groups are continuing and we invite new people to join them when they take our newcomers class. Currently, we have 18 groups and they are very full, so we'll open a new group soon. I'll either recruit new leaders or experienced leaders will lead it temporarily, until new leadership can be identified within the group. Our program is quite organic and responds to the needs new people have for connection and maturational growth . However, many different models have been successful in UU churches. You just need to choose the one that seems best for your church
From Alicia Hawkins, First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM
Fern, congratulations on renewing your small group ministry program. Adding 6 new groups is great!
You are asking several questions here. The first question concerns how to deal with groups that don't follow the model you've set up. We've dealt with this here in Albuquerque. In determining whether a deviation from the covenant group model is allowed, we had to ask ourselves what we considered to be at the core of our small group ministry program. Here's the core of our program: people meet in a small, safe setting where they can share without judgment or any feedback or advice from others, and they explore spiritual/life issues through stories and sharing. As long as deviations don't take away our core items, we allow it. So spend some time deciding what is a "have to" in your program and what is relative and can be tinkered with. Small group ministries often evolve, as do most worthwhile programs. We have experienced several modifications to our program.
So to answer your second question, Fern, about how to deal with folks that don't want to stop at the end of the term you've specified. If you have decided that this is an area with some give and take, here are some options we have experienced.
We established a model of meeting for six months, October-March. Groups are closed during this six month period; in other words, we don't add any new people once these groups get going. If we have people who want to join groups after the initial start-up, we form new groups rather than have new members join a group already in progress. The next fall the groups start up again with a different mix of members and facilitators.
Once a group said they didn't want to quit in March. We supplied materials/sessions to them over the summer months. The next fall their group simply continued on, perhaps adding one or two members if they had lost some in the fall transition. Although they didn't fit our expected pattern of meeting, they were certainly still in our program. Their purpose remained the same: to bond closely in a safe setting and explore their spiritual/life journeys with one another.
Another group changed from meeting twice a month to once a month. Again, this didn't change the core purpose of the group.
One group wanted to continue through the summer, but their co-facilitators couldn't make that commitment. So the group evolved to a book group. They are no longer in the covenant group program, as their core purpose changed to sharing input on books. However, they are closely bonded and bring the skills of deep listening to their book group, as well as to our church.
Another group asked if they could add a time at the end of the meeting to allow for asking questions and cross talk. They said their group members wanted to get others' ideas on their issues. We said no, that this would eliminate the safe place to speak about issues with no judgment, advice or feedback. Allowing this change would have taken away one of the core issues we felt necessary for covenant groups.
I encourage all of us to be clear about the purpose of small group ministry and make sure our programs remain true to that purpose. Other details don't need to cause us to worry. Each group will naturally evolve in some way.
Worries about the possibility of ongoing groups becoming insular and exclusive have vanished in our program. We find that our ongoing groups have become great sources for grooming new facilitators. In one of our ongoing groups every member but one has become a co-facilitator in a second group.
So I encourage you to embrace your groups when they explore new ways to experience the small group program. Help and encourage them by supplying them with whatever they need as long as they remain constant with the core goals of your small group ministry program.
From Susan Hollister, Main Line Unitarian Church, Devon, PA
Many programs have struggled with "closed" groups, knowing how changing the group make-up can be energizing, and wondering how to inspire closed groups to welcome new members. I would say, yes, invite the long-standing group members to the SGM potluck and encourage everyone to sit with folks they don't already know. During the dinner, you might ask the participants what has been their favorite thing about joining a small group. "Making new friends" and "finding a place in this church" will likely be frequent answers.
Facilitators Meetings are a good opportunity to restate the purpose of small group ministry and the intentional design of expanding and including all those who haven't yet experienced SGM. Make sure the facilitators of long-time groups attend the meetings. Invite the facilitators to talk about how they minister to their groups and to each other, and the benefits of having a SGM program they see in the congregation as a whole. The hope is that all facilitators will see themselves as part of something much larger than their own small groups: that they will look forward to the positive changes in group dynamics when new personalities and perspectives are added to the mix, embrace the role of connecting their group to the congregation, and help to widen the circle of shared ministry.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Are there specific topics that you would like to see developed for youth?
Rev. Helen Zidowecki, Augusta, ME
Look for answers to this question in the April issue. There's still time to have your responses included.
News & Events
The UU SGM Network at General Assembly
June 24-28 2009, Salt Lake City, Utah
The Network will present Facilitator Training: The Key to Small Group Ministry Success
with Diana Dorroh, Rev. Melissa Carvill-Zeimer, Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, and 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 the Network booth in the Exhibit Hall where our newest publications and resources will be available.
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 http://www.youtube.com/smallgroupministry.
Small Group Ministry Institute, August 16 - 21, 2009
The Mountain Retreat & Learning Centers, The Highlands, NC
Join us in the majestic Appalachian Mountains for a week-long immersion in small group ministry! The Institute offers general and in-depth sessions to match every program, and features daily small group experiences plus a take-home plan. Emerging resources and developments included. 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 SGM Quarterly journal is distributed to members of the UU Small Group Ministry Network four times a year. Issues are added to the web site after the subsequent issue has been sent to members. The SGM Quarterly features articles by ministers, program leaders and facilitators, as well as tips and other resources on Unitarian Universalist small group ministry and covenant groups. Join the Network to subscribe. Download a membership form from www.smallgroupministry.net.
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: http://www.smallgroupministry.net/forsale.html.
HEART TO HEART: Fifteen Gatherings for Reflection and Sharing
by Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins
From Skinner House Books, UUA Bookstore, www.uuabookstore.org, April, 2009, $14
Resources for fifteen group conversations on topics such as forgiveness, loss, nature, money, and friendship. A reimagined model of small group ministry, Heart to Heart offers readings, journaling suggestions, and thought-provoking exercises to help participants prepare for the spiritual practice of sharing in community.
Christine Robinson, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM, has participated in many versions of this spiritual sharing model, both as a leader and a participant. Most of the gatherings began as sermons on these topics.
Alicia Hawkins, an inveterate collector of quotations and resources for the spiritual journey, has led the SGM program of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque for five years. She is currently on the board of the UU SGM Ministry Network.
Who We Are
The UU Small Group Ministry Network is a grassroots organization of Unitarian Universalist congregations, ministers, small group ministry/covenant group leaders and participants.
Our mission is to help create healthy Unitarian Universalist congregations and a vital Unitarian Universalist movement by promoting and supporting Small Group Ministry.
The purpose of the Network is "to support small group ministry and related shared ministry models in Unitarian Universalist congregations through developing new resources, networking, and training opportunities."
In addition to the SGM Quarterly journal for members and the free, online Covenant Group News, we publish new resources for program coordinators and facilitators, sponsor a consultation booth and SGM workshops at General Assembly, offer a week-long SGM Summer Institute, help local leaders plan regional SGM conferences, and give workshops in congregations and districts across the nation.
The UU SGM Network is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization supported solely by congregational and individual memberships, donations and publication sales revenue. Network Board members donate their time and personal resources to spread the good news of small group ministry.