Reviving Small Group Ministry Programs
Calvin O. Dame
I had occasion recently to visit one of our congregations with my brother. He has moved to a new town and had been checking out for himself the possibilities of the local UU congregation. I was in town for the weekend and he invited me to join him.
It was a pleasant congregation in a well kept building, and the service moved along in a sprightly fashion. I was pleased to be joining them for worship. About a third of the way through the sermon, much to my surprise, I realized that the minister's intent in this service seemed to be to revive their Small Group Ministry/Covenant Group Program. It took me by surprise. My brother nudged me. I'd helped him start a program in his previous (UCC) congregation. He hadn't seen this coming either.
I felt so bad. Let me say that after more than a decade of engagement with small group/covenant group development and growth, I am more convinced than ever of the possibility and potential that covenant group programs hold for our congregations and our movement. A healthy covenant group program strengthens a congregation, can connect people in deep and supportive ways, and encourages individual spiritual growth in ways that deepen the spiritual capacity of the whole congregation. What's not to like?
So, it is painful to me when I encounter efforts that ignore the accumulated wisdom and experience of the last decade (which, I might point out, is made readily available through the Small Group Ministry Network! www.smallgroupminisry.net.)
So, I had to wonder: Why were we well into the sermon before I had a clue? Why were there no lay people up there sharing the effort? Where were the testimonials? Where were the attractive and fun handouts? Where was the vision of a stronger and more resilient congregation? I even bumped into someone on my way out the door who recognized me from a training she had attended years ago and who had helped start a program in that congregation years ago.
Now, there is no way to understand the situation of any congregation from the observations of a Sunday morning visit, but I did feel bad that this well intentioned effort did not seem to be informed by the good practices we have come to understand. I wish them the best, but I did not come away encouraged.
And, as it happens, a couple of weeks later I was in touch with a friend who had helped to re-invigorate a program in the congregation he had been called to serve. They have doubled their participation and a significant percentage of the congregation is engaged with one another in a covenant group program! Yikes! Good news.
I asked him if he would write a quick review of the important steps that he and the congregation took in turning around in their program and he wrote:
Here are what I consider to be critical steps in reviving a stagnant SGM program:
- Enroll the "converts." Find 2 or 3 SGM advocates who are willing to partner with the minister in the effort to revive/expand the program. This should be a lay-led initiative, not minister-driven (at least not visibly minister-driven)
- Train and re-train facilitators. Many existing facilitators need to brush up on their skills. New facilitators = new groups.
- "Brand" the program. Perhaps "Small Group Ministry" isn't the right term in your congregation (and maybe it is). Create a logo, catchphrase or other way to capture the imaginations of the congregation.
- Build a "buzz." Create a campaign to tease and entice interest. Posters, buttons, "Ask Me About Small Groups," testimonials (BRIEF) in worship services, etc. Build up to a "launch date."
- Start from scratch. Resist the urge to keep existing groups together. Require everyone, new and existing SGM participants, to sign up for the days/times that work for them (1st, 2nd, 3rd) without knowledge of the identity of the facilitators or other participants (no "favorites")
- Make the launch date a celebration. Make SGM the central focus for that Sunday, including in the worship service. I created space in our service for people to fill out the sign-ups, then had the ushers collect them. We got 75% of our participants this way.
- Prepare new topics, train new facilitators to keep it going and growing.
The most important consideration is in the first step: a successful covenant group program is a partnership. With that in place, and with a bit of planning, the next steps can help you build or revive a program.
And then -- and I just love this thought -- on a Sunday morning you can say to a visitor, "Welcome, we have a great small group ministry program, and if you are interested, in no time at all we can have you sitting down with a group where we can get to know you and you can get to know us!" Now, that's a welcome.
Small Group Ministry and Growth
Part 3 - Metrics for Numerical Growth - Diana Dorroh
We'll begin with a repeat of the information about three growth metrics from the August 2009 CG News:
Another system of three metrics that can be used to analyze church growth and help churches decide where to put emphasis is described in "Congregations Count," http://www.uua.org/documents/laskowskilinda/congregationscount_070519.pdf, by Linda Laskowski, UU Church of Berkeley. The metrics have been used as the basis for membership workshops offered by the UUA. These three metrics are described below:
(1) The Visitor to Member Ratio is the ratio of the number of first time visitors for a year to the number of members. In growing churches, it is 1:1.
(2) The Conversion Rate is the number of new members divided by the number of first time visitors over a period of at least a year. 20% is a very good rate for a UU congregation. 14 - 20% is the expected range.
(3) The Loss Rate is the percentage of members that leave a congregation during one year. We're told to expect 10-12% loss, with half from moves or death.
An example may be helpful: A church of 100 members has had 100 new visitors over the last year. 15% of those 100 visitors became members. The Loss Rate was 12%, as 12 members left the church. The net growth was 3 or 3%.
What effect can a good Small Group Ministry (Covenant Groups) Program have? Let's assume your church has quality worship and children's religious education, good volunteer involvement and a competent and adequate staff; that is, nothing that is obviously holding back growth.
Visitor to Member Ratio - Wow. It should be 1:1! That's as many visitors every year as you have members. At my church it's currently only 250:380 or 66%. This is obviously where we need to put some effort. Can Small Group Ministry help you attract more visitors? It might attract people looking for a church with a Small Group Ministry program. And it could be a good advertisement. "Come join us and we'll offer you an experience of intimacy and ultimacy and help you learn to listen and be more accepting of your family and friends." Some of our congregations are advertising their Small Group Ministry Programs on their websites. You can see a list of websites of interest on the UU Small Group Ministry Network website http://www.smallgroupministry.net/membership.html.
The Conversion Rate - If an invitation to join a covenant group is extended to newcomers, I would expect more first-time visitors would join your church. In Baton Rouge, we invite participants of our newcomers class to join a covenant group. If a newcomer joins a covenant group, church membership usually follows. We have only about 10 of our 220 participants who are not church members. What happens in your church? Do covenant group members join your church? Our Conversation Rate was 25% the last time I calculated it. Like most churches, we have some other good pieces in place, a good Visitor Table, visitor follow-up and a newcomers class taught by the minister. It seems to me that the pieces work together to welcome visitors to our church. I'd like to hear about your numbers. If you're starting a program or have just started one, perhaps you could send us the comparison of Conversion Rates before and after your program was implemented.
The Loss Rate - I would absolutely expect a good Small Group Ministry program to allow your church to retain more members. Why would a member ever want to leave your church if they're participating in a Covenant Group, experiencing support and acceptance, getting to have deep conversations on relevant topics and getting connected to 8 - 10 other people and to the church? Getting new people into groups should especially reduce the losses of our newest members. This is why we started our program in Baton Rouge ten years ago. We wanted a way for new members to make immediate connections so we wouldn't lose so many so fast. I was able to compare the loss rate of new members before and after we implemented our program. I didn't keep the numbers, but I remember that it was quite a dramatic change. I also remember summarizing that people in Covenant Groups rarely left our church unless they moved or died. The people who do drop out of the Covenant Group program should be candidates for special follow-up.
Small Group Ministry can help prevent large losses in times of crisis and change. Example of crises: an unexpected or acrimonious ministerial resignation or damage to the church building from fire or flood. Examples of change: An interim minister and new minister, erecting a new building or living with less income. 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. With skillful leadership, the groups can even be a vehicle for sharing feelings and concerns related to the change or crisis. By helping keep the congregation intact, it can prevent massive (15 - 25%) membership losses and thus contribute to growth over the long term.
So will a new or bigger and better Small Group Ministry Program make your church grow? Yes, if you:
(1) have enough visitors to make growth possible (80 - 100% of membership per year), and
(2) offer membership in a Covenant Group to visitors and get your new members into a group.
If you do (2) for a few years, you'll soon find that a majority of your members are in the program. Then, you should see a larger growth rate. Your rate could increase by 1 - 5%.
What? All this effort to get new people into groups and new visitors into the church and then I still have to wait for significant growth? And even then, it would take years for my congregation to double in size? Might not be worth it unless the program also made it a better church, would it? Luckily, it does. As we saw in Part 2 of this series, it brings maturational, incarnational, and organizational growth, as well as the numerical growth we've been focusing on in this article and so, you'll have a better church, and, oh by the way, bigger.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series are available on the Covenant Group News page of the UU Small Group Ministry Network website. http://www.smallgroupministry.net/cgnews/index.php.
Tips for Facilitators - A Resource for Readings
Linda Thompson, The Community Church of Chapel Hill Unitarian Universalist, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I found a helpful resource for small groups when I was looking for some thoughts or readings about the topic of "Empathy" for my covenant group. Susan Hollister told me about www.wisdomquotes.com. I tried it, and found three quotations, concerning "empathy" (one from Barack Obama), that captured my attention. I wrote the session, utilizing the quotes as chalice lighting words, a focus reading, and closing words. I added three questions of my own. I asked the participants of the covenant group to use the quotations, the questions, and/or their own experience during the focus part of the session. Facilitators and participants commented on how meaningful the session was for them. This is such a great resource. I am pleased to share this site with others who are composing small group ministry sessions.
Communication from Rev. Kathleen Ellis -
Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, Austin, TX
From our November Newsletter:
Chalice Circles are small groups of 6-10 members who are led by trained lay people. They usually meet once a month, either at Live Oak or in group members' homes. They have proven to be an excellent way to make lasting friendships and to consider deeply important matters.
Two groups are already underway: Everyday Relationships, (usually on the 4th Friday evening each month); and UU Spirituality, (on the 3rd Monday morning each month). If you would like to join one of these groups, let me know!
New groups will begin in January: a 3rd Thursday evening group focused on Tarot; a Saturday morning group to make quilts for the Linus Project; and a group especially for newcomers to Live Oak will have its first meeting Sunday, Jan. 3.
Communication from Bill Elwell -
First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY
The Small Group Ministry that meets in my home has been meeting over 5 years. We are members of First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY and our group is the longest running group. We have a strong affinity for each other. Our recent topic might prove of interest to readers of your column.
Our focus was on the question, "What do the rooms inside our homes and ourselves have to tell us about the way we live our lives?"
"Before he closed his eyes, he let them wander round his old rooms...familiar and friendly things...which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted on for the same simple welcome". Kenneth Grahame
We opened with the poem from Joyce Kilmer, "The House With Nobody in It."
What is your favorite room in your home and why? How have your rooms changed and when and why? What "familiar and friendly things" welcome you home?
It has been said, "I'll make room for that in my heart." What does that mean to you? What have you made room for in your heart recently? Another person? Courage to do something? New experiences?
We closed with a reading from Dick Gilbert's book, On the Cusp of Life, Being at Home.
Question from David Throop
Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, TX
Do you have a model on how to start a Covenant Group (CG, our name for our Small Group Ministries) for those doing service to the church?
Some background: We're a ~ 340 member church. We have ~15 active CG, with 100+ adults participating in at least one CG in the last 3 months. We have two Sunday services. When Rev Bob Hill planted the Covenant Group program at our church, 10 years ago now, he highly recommended the Carl George books on small group ministry. George's books mention SGMs for groups who volunteer for the church - the team that helps with the parking, the ushers, the greeters, but gave no special instructions on setting them up. His examples, such as they are, describe Bible Study groups.
Our church has chronic trouble staffing the ushers and greeters slots. It's our intention to have (4 ushers + 2 greeters) x 2 services = 12 slots per Sunday. We have two couples who often volunteer for both services. We can actually sort of get by with as few as 1 greeter and 1 usher, but it limps and makes us a less welcoming congregation than we'd like to be. Our Membership committee chair emails out a sign-up to a list of about 30 members, but few people respond. Hey, we're a UU congregation near NASA and we've got many introvert members who find ushering / greeting uncomfortable. And they don't find it rewarding.
Is there a way we could make it more rewarding by structuring the ushering / greeting as a Covenant Group? Has anybody else done this? How do you structure it? What about existing volunteers who don't want to join a small group?
Share your insights, strategies and experiences.
Send your answers to Diana at firstname.lastname@example.org
We'll print them in the next CGNews
News & Events
* We plan to have the 2010 UU Small Group Ministry Institute in Southern California during the week before Labor Day. August 30-September 3, 2010 at Camp deBenneville Pines, Angelus Oaks, California. You can access a brochure from http://smallgroupministry.net/events.html.
* SGM FACEBOOK
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: http://groups.to/smallgroupministrynetwork
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 www.smallgroupministry.net.
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: http://www.smallgroupministry.net/forsale.html.
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, www.uuabookstore.org, 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.