Covenant Group News

UU SGM Network Home | Subscribe

October 2009

Small Groups, Deep Connections October 2009
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
is an interactive
Small Group Ministry and Covenant Group
newsletter read by 1300 forward-looking
Unitarian Universalists.
CGNews is distributed
by the UU Small Group Ministry Network.
Visit us online at

You may automatically unsubscribe from this list at any time by visiting the following URL:

In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • New Life for Small Group Ministry at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, MN - Heidi Mastrud
  • Small Group Ministry and Growth at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IN - Anne Haynes
  • How Small Group Ministry Helps Us Through Katrina - Gay Digiovanni, North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society of Louisiana, Lacombe, LA
  • Tips for Facilitators - How to Use Silence
  • Questions of the Month
  • News and Events
  • Publications
  • Who We Are
  • Contact Us

Join the Network
If you are not already a member, please join the Network and make sure your congregation is a member. The UU Small Group Ministry Network facilitates networking among SGM practitioners and makes current, practical information and resources available to ministers, program coordinators, and facilitators. Your membership funding will enable us to continue this important work. Download a Membership form: Membership%20Form.pdf.

Individual and congregational memberships are our major source of revenue.
The Network is financially independent of the UUA.

Letter from the Editor

Please share your questions and experiences with the other 1300 subscribers. Send them to me at

We have a fine article from Heidi Mastrud about restarting a SGM program at the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, MN. Our most frequently asked questions are about restarting, enhancing, or starting a Small Group Ministry Program. Please consider sending your stories.

The conversation about Small Group Ministry and Growth continues with an article from SGM Network Board member, Anne Haynes. Anne describes growth occurring alongside a successful Small Group Ministry program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IN. She notes that their program is helping with the "conversion rate" of newcomers to members. Gay Digiovanni tells a story about SGM helping her congregation, Northshore UU in Louisiana, survive Katrina. I also see evidence of maturational and organizational or leadership growth in Gay's story. Crisis and change come to all congregations. When they do, Small Group Ministry can help by maintaining connections and a place where congregation members can minister to each other. By keeping the congregation intact, it can prevent membership loss and thus contribute to growth over the long term. It is interesting that the ministry intention for both these churches was a congregation-wide program.

I remain committed to providing some information for facilitators each month. This month, it comes from me, and is a recap of discussions at the 2009 SGM Institute about the use of silence. Please share your own tips. I promise to print them.

The Fall SGM Quarterly, focused on keeping SGM programs vibrant, was distributed to members in October. If you are a Network member, you received a copy. If not, why not join now and receive this fall issue. You can check on our website to see whether your congregation is a Network member. We are financially independent of the UUA and depend upon membership and publications sales to cover our modest expenses. We offer a member discount of 40% off all our UU SGM Network publications.

The Network website,, contains articles and sessions that people have contributed. It is updated twice a month.

In faith that we're making this a better world,

Diana Dorroh
Editor, Covenant Group News
Program Director, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge

New Life for Small Group Ministry
at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota
by Heidi Mastrud, Director of Congregational Life

First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, a church of approximately 850 adult members, recently started a small group ministry program after a long break.

Years ago we started Sharing Circles, what we called our small groups at the time. The groups were lay led and content was created by Rev. Kate Tucker (Associate Minister) in collaboration with the facilitators. After 4 years, Sharing Circles had dwindled, but there was still hunger for small group ministry that would help connect individuals in our large church. Challenges to the program were lack of men's involvement, no staff support in administering the program, and too-complex session plans.

It had always been a dream of the church to have a vibrant Small Group Ministry program that would connect people across age, gender, and affinity, but we didn't know where to start.

In a wise move, we decided to take things slowly. Our first step was to go to The Mountain for the Small Group Ministry Conference in the summer of 2008. An active lay leader, Jeff Sylvestre, board member Candace McClenahan, and associate minister Kate Tucker accompanied me. There, we began to dream big. We learned about administration, content, process, facilitator training, engaging in service, etc.

When we returned, we gathered together numerous lay people who we thought would make great facilitators or process observers and gathered together in a group that met to engage in small group ministry sessions and to dream about how we might bring this ministry to the larger congregation. We settled on the name ARC groups. ARC stood for Action, Reflection, Connection, our three primary goals of the groups. Next we piloted two groups that met for eight sessions, to see how our ideas might work in real time. The pilot groups pointed out some challenges in our original design. As we evaluated the pilot process and welcomed our newly called senior minister, Justin Schroeder, we made more changes.

We changed the name from ARC to Sermon-Based Small Groups. One of our congregational goals is to become more transparent to newcomers. We felt that it wasn't readily apparent what ARC was. Also, we thought that newcomers might not understand the aim of the group, or think that they shared anything in common with the other members and wouldn't sign up. By shaping content around the worship themes, and specifically Sunday morning sermons, we could give any member of our congregation the capacity to stand on equal ground to participate in reflection, discussion, and deep listening. Sermons are available during the service, of course, but also immediately available on CD in the church office and they're pod-casted on the church website within the week, so that all can listen before their groups meet. Listening to the sermons is part of the covenant that participants agree to in their groups.

Content for the sessions is still being developed by Rev. Kate Tucker. She has been choosing questions that get at the heart of the sermon's message. We have found it essential to group process to limit our reflection questions to one or two, and the readings that we use are typically the readings used in the sermon that we're focusing on. Thus far, we have been pleased with this content. It allows us all to go deeper into the sermons, rather than just letting them wander in one ear and out the other.

Right now, during the fall semester, we have seven active groups, with between eight and ten participants in each group. All of our facilitators are trained. We were delighted with the Facilitator's Training Manual developed by the UUSGM network, and easily adapted it to our use. In two of our groups, we paired newcomers to the process with more seasoned facilitators to co-facilitate. This gives our leaders a chance to mentor individuals who have been recognized as possessing the qualities essential to good facilitation.

The groups will break up in December, 2009. We hope to form twelve to fourteen groups in January to offer this experience to more of our congregants. At that time, we'll integrate service opportunities into the groups. The most important thing to recognize is that we are constantly evaluating what we're doing, and how we might change it to make it better for participants and facilitators and help all congregants connect, engage, and be transformed.

Small Group Ministry and Growth
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana
Anne Haynes

The UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana (UUCB) has just launched its fourth year of Chalice Circles, our small group ministry. Our model is that of a congregation-wide ministry, well supported by the ministers and church leadership and funded by the congregation, and including service projects to the church and the community. We had spent an entire year planning this program and securing the buy-in of our Board of Directors and ministers before the initial startup, and we attribute the strong continuity of Chalice Circles to this firm foundation. We form new circles each year in September and they meet through May. We have had approximately 90 participants each year, including ten or eleven facilitators trained by our two ministers. We have sent several Chalice Circles coordinators to the UU Small Group Ministry Institutes at Ferry Beach and The Mountain for leadership training in this area.

There are many factors that can contribute to church growth. We are a vital congregation with many strong programs, a dedicated and stable staff, a very strong religious education program, a campus ministry, and co-ministers. While I don't know if we can correlate our congregation's growth (from membership of 378 in 2006 to 415 in 2009) specifically with the Chalice Circles ministry, one thing we know is that Chalice Circles began at a time when our growth had taken us from one Sunday service to two and many people were feeling more of a sense of anonymity in the congregation due to our larger size. With a crowded, lively fellowship hour between the services, some people are better able to relate and meet new people in a smaller setting. We needed a way to allow many people to experience the connectedness they needed to stay involved with the church. Many people have said that this was an invaluable opportunity for them to get to know others and themselves better.

Much positive feedback from the participants through our annual evaluations is evidence that Chalice Circles has helped them meet their expectations of feeling connected in this large church. We do know that this year and last year more Chalice Circles participants have been new church attendees than in its first two years. We know that several people have joined the church as a result of making Chalice Circles their entrée into the congregation, so at least for this group we can relate small group ministry to growth.

Getting Through Crisis: Care and Ministry or How Small Group Ministry Helped Us Through Katrina
By Gay Digiovanni,
North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society of Louisiana

Here on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain in southeast Louisiana, we support a small congregation and define ourselves as a regional church. We started our small group ministry program in 2003, and very deliberately set up the structure. This included a governing council, a facilitator training and support program, lots of information beforehand to the congregation, a kick off sample session, and a series of 4 sessions before we settled into groups. We started six groups incorporating nearly 70% of our congregation. We called our groups chalice circles and included two interest groups (one for visual journaling and one for writers).

We needed that strong start to keep us afloat after Hurricane Katrina hit our area in August 2005. We experienced all the drama of lost homes, possessions, jobs, members, families, and neighbors. Our church and lovely gardens suffered some damage, but perhaps the biggest loss was when our full-time minister decided to discontinue his ministry after allegations of misconduct in early 2006.

Within a few weeks of the storm, those who could gathered for services. Our small groups were a manageable way to keep track of our congregation. As electricity and phone lines were restored, small group facilitators were able to report back through email the whereabouts of the rest of our flock. We compiled a list of those in need and kept in touch with those still out of town.

Without a minister, we gathered every Wednesday evening. The potluck meal was offered to anyone who needed food and a big hug. This was often sponsored by a different chalice circle to share the burden of organizing food, setting up, cleaning up afterwards, and facilitating the sharing conversations. The Wednesday evening sharing circle became a lifeline for many who needed to tell their stories in order to make sense of the surrounding chaos. We ministered to each other in very meaningful and spiritual ways. People were able to share and in that sharing, heal, because we had already learned through our chalice circles how to speak from the heart, how to listen deeply, and how to acknowledge that sharing.

Later, as we worked through the trauma of the minister's abrupt departure in our circles with session content focused to promote discussion and healing, our chalice circles became a very effective way of taking the pulse and feeling the heartbeat of our congregation. The facilitators reported back to the chalice council and the board of trustees about the concerns and needs of our members. The two interim ministers that followed sat in on our facilitators meetings, heard those concerns, and worked with us to devise ways to reach out.

In a very real way, our chalice circles were the glue that held the church together. We modeled deep sharing and listening that fostered real friendships and compassionate ministry. The facilitators became another layer of leadership when the storm and missing members made normal modes of communication difficult. And we were able to keep the church business going during traumatic times.

We made it through the storm and the tough times afterwards and can now look back at the progress we made. We stayed together, strengthened our church community, and nurtured our leaders. Our chalice circles are still going strong (although we have fewer groups), and we have now incorporated several new members. We continued the Wednesday evening potluck gatherings for 2½ years and occasionally host visiting volunteers helping in the rebuilding effort. We are a more caring congregation and look to the future with confidence and trust.

Tips for Facilitators - The Use of Silence by Diana Dorroh

Silence is a powerful tool for any facilitator. It can be used after a particularly moving sharing occurs. For example, if one members tells a story about the death of a family member, the facilitator can call for a moment of silence. This honors the sharing that just occurred and prepares the way for the next member, who may have been planning to share something joyful.

Some groups routinely allow 15 seconds of silence after each sharing. This honors each person and creates a clean finish of one sharing before the next begins, similar to passing a talking object. It's also like a small silent prayer after each person's sharing.

Silence can also be used when a difficult situation occurs. This could happen anytime during the meeting and is always a judgment call. In Baton Rouge, we tell our leaders that they should trust their instincts; if comments seem out of place, then they probably are out of place and, as leaders, they are authorized to address the situation. It could be over-sharing, when a member begins to sound like he or she is in a therapy session. Or it could a "boundary" violation, when somebody says something that sounds unacceptable to the leader, such as a racist, homophobic, or over-sexualized comment. Admittedly, this does not happen often, but when it does, you, as leader will likely feel compelled to "do something." Calling for a moment of silence may be enough or it may allow you to think of something gentle to say, something beginning with "I" and followed by a loving statement to call everyone back to the model and the covenant.

Questions of the Month

Question One: What's your growth story? Have you experienced growth after implementing Small Group Ministry? What kind? Maturational, Incarnational, Organizational, or Numeric? If numeric, was that growth steady or did it accelerate, decline, or peak? When did you start Small Group Ministry? What percentage of your congregation participates in Small Group Ministry?

Question Two: (Will be repeated during 2009): Are you planning to start a new program soon or restart an existing program? Why did your church decide to do it now and what issues and problems are you facing?

Question Three: Facilitators, please share your experience with the thousand other facilitators on this list. What is your greatest challenge and how have you met it? What tip could you share?

News & Events

* We plan to have the 2010 UU Small Group Ministry Institute in Southern California during the week before Labor Day.

The Small Group Ministry Network is now on Facebook! Join us and contribute to the ongoing conversation around Small Group Ministry and Covenant Groups. The link is:


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, facilitators, and group members, 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

NEW! Implementing Small Group Ministry: For Starting, Restarting and Enhancing A Program, UU SGM Network, November 2009
This evolving document presents considerations for Small Group Ministry program development, ongoing administration, groups, facilitators, session plans, and visibility, with a new section on uses of Small Group Ministry. Information from congregations, the Summer Small Group Ministry Institutes, and CGNews has been incorporated. Available November 2009

Network Members: $6 plus $2 shipping     Non-members: $10 plus $2 shipping

NEW: Ten Years of UU Small Group Ministry, UU SGM Network, June 2009
This anniversary collection traces the rationale, vision, and magic of the spiritual revolution and presents the rich history of the small group ministry movement in classic articles and conference proceedings from its earliest proponents.

Network Members: $20 + $5 shipping     Non-members: $30 + $5 shipping

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. Covers basic elements of SGM, program structure and promotion, the minister's role, 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:

HEART TO HEART: Fourteen Gatherings for Reflection and Sharing, April 2009
by Christine Robinson, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, NM, and Alicia Hawkins, SGM program director at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque.
Resources for fourteen group conversations on topics such as forgiveness, loss, nature, money, and friendship. Offers readings, journaling suggestions, and thought-provoking exercises to help participants prepare for the spiritual practice of sharing in community.

From Skinner House Books, UUA Bookstore,, April, 2009, $14

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.

Contact Information

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

The UU Small Group Ministry Network
The UU Small Group Ministry Network,

Write to us by email:, Attn: Rev. Helen Zidowecki

or by mail: UU Small Group Ministry Network
c/o Treasurer
4303 Swarthmore Rd.
Durham, NC 27707

Copyright © 2004-2009 the UU Small Group Ministry Network