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January 2010

Small Groups, Deep Connections January 2010
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
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In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • Comments from Katrina Beneker, Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, MA
  • Ministry Objectives for Small Group Ministry
  • Extra Grace or Care Required Situations and People
  • Question from Don Skinner, Editor of Interconnections
  • Covenantal Faith by Helen Popenoe, River Road UU Congregation, Bethesda, MD
  • News and Events
  • Publications
  • Who We Are
  • Contact Us

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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.

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Letter from the Editor

I hope your small group ministry programs are all thriving in this new decade. Please share your ideas, questions, and experiences with the other 1300 subscribers. Send them to me at

We have a note from Katrina Beneker at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, MA. She describes the specifics of their small group ministry program and how well it works for them. I'd love to hear about your success too. In actuality, there is a wide range of successful strategies for the length of time of groups, frequency of meetings, composition of the groups, and startup process. This range of successful program design choices is the major focus of the latest edition of the UU Small Group Ministry publication, Implementing Small Group Ministry: For Starting, Restarting and Enhancing a Program. Just $10, or $6 for Network members, plus $5 shipping. To order:

I've started a list of ministry objectives for small group ministry. The first cut is in the article below. I welcome additions, comments, and stories. I also included an edited version of a talk I gave at the Mountain Institute on SGM last summer. It includes advice for facilitators. We also have a question from Don Skinner, editor of the UUA web publication Interconnections, on small group ministry and gifts ministry.

And, finally, there is an article on our covenantal faith tradition and small group ministry by Helen Popenoe. Helen quotes Rev. Suzanne Meyer. Suzanne died just a few days ago. She was the inspiration, trainer, and counselor for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, as we implemented our small group ministry program in 1999. We owe her a great debt. Many of us knew her well and will miss her.

Under Events, below, there is a description of our UU General Assembly 2010 Planning Committee sponsored workshop Enhancing, Revitalizing, Restarting Your Small Group Ministry. See you at GA. We will have a booth in the Exhibit Hall. If you are a Network member, consider volunteering to serve at the UU SGM Network booth. It's an opportunity to meet GA participants from every UUA district and talk about a topic dear to all our hearts - small group ministry and covenant groups! A special request goes out to our friends at First Universalist Church of Minneapolis and First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. Join us at the booth! Sign up at

Also under Events, there is more information about the Small Group Ministry Institute 2010, August 31-September 3, Camp deBenneville Pines, Angelus Oaks, CA. Download a flyer and registration form from the UU SGM Network, website http://

The Winter 2010 SGM Quarterly, packed with articles by and for coordinators, ministers, and facilitators, has just been mailed to Network members. If you are not a member of the UU Small Group Ministry Network, join now and we'll send you this winter issue. PayPal makes it easy to join or to renew your membership. 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. See a list of publications below.

The Network website,, contains information about the UU Small Group Ministry Network, articles by leaders in the Small Group Ministry movement and an extensive selection of sessions that people have contributed, as well as a complete archive of Covenant Group News and the SGM Quarterly. It is updated twice a month. On the homepage, you will find a list of recent additions to the website.

Coordinators, if you send me the email addresses of your facilitators, we can put them on the distribution list for Covenant Group News. They can unsubscribe at any time, of course.

Thanks to Anne Haynes, UU SGM Network Board member from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IN, for proofing this edition and to Network Board members Susan Hollister and Rev. Helen Zidowecki for providing comments.

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

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

Comments from Katrina Beneker
Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, MA

Our covenant group program was started about 7-8 years ago and is still going strong. We generally have between 45-55 people enrolled in 6-7 groups of about 7-8 people each. Each fall we register participants and assign them to groups, based on their available times. We find that creating new groups each year allows the participants the option to meet many new people. It has worked well for us. Each group meets 12 times from Oct to June, or about every 3-4 weeks. During their session, the group will do one or two service projects. The facilitators also hold periodic meetings during the calendar year, usually with the minister participating.

This year we have a group of four members who are writing the topics. The inspiration for these comes from a variety of sources. Your SGM website has been a good resource for us. Thank you for the extensive list of topics used by other congregations.

This is how we set up our groups at the beginning of our church year in September. First we get the facilitators lined up (e.g. in August). Many of these are repeats from previous years. The facilitators generally pick a time when they are available to lead a group. Registration is open for about 3 weeks. People sign up for 2 or more preferred times. Then we juggle the participants trying to balance the mix of male, female, new members, single and married, younger and older. The groups are reviewed with the facilitators, who then contact the participants and set up a time for the first meeting. This year our interim minister spoke of the value of small group ministry, giving a boost to the registration.

We may be found at
Best wishes, Trina

Ministry Objectives of Small Group Ministry
Part 1

Let's start small, by compiling a simple list of reasons that church leaders give for starting a small group ministry program.

  1. To have a place for new members to connect, and to learn abut the church and Unitarian Universalism, so that they won't get lost in our church.

  2. To connect current members to a group, so they won't get lost in our church.

  3. To have a new way of "doing church," where almost everyone is in a group and issues and church, local and national crises can be addressed institutionally via one session plan for all groups.

  4. To organize the entire church into groups so that in a local crisis, there is a natural "contact" structure and leaders automatically contact group members to assess the effect on each member and find out whether anybody needs special help.

  5. To allow members to get to know many other members well.

  6. To extend the work of the professional ministry by providing more ministry--more listening, acceptance,

  7. To extend special care to those who are ill or in crisis, often expanding the work of the Pastoral Care Team.

  8. To teach congregation members the skills of right relationship, caring, and listening.

  9. To provide our members with an intense experience of intimacy and ultimacy.

  10. To develop church leaders and other committed volunteers.

  11. To give people an opportunity to serve, through group service projects.

  12. To achieve numerical membership growth for the church.

  13. To provide a forum for further discussion of Sunday sermon topics in an intimate setting.

That's a beginning. What can you add? Why does your church have a small group ministry program? Are the goals being realized? Did you have some unexpected benefits? I'd love to hear some stories. Send them to me at

Extra Grace or Care Required
By Diana Dorroh, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA
From a talk at the Mountain SGM Institute in 2009

Situations where Extra Grace is needed will all be easier to handle if your program has:
(1) Strong ministry objectives, mission and model for small group ministry.
(2) A process to make sure that everyone who joins a group understands the program and what is expected of them. This can be done with an orientation session or by the group leader.
(3) A process for choosing strong leaders who can carry out the objectives and mission and implement the small group ministry program your church has designed (sometimes called your model.)

Extra Care Required (ECR) people. What's that?
(a) people who are not able to be in right relationship and cannot seem to listen or share time fairly.
(b) people who continually challenge the model.
(c) people who challenge the boundaries, with sharing that would be more appropriate for a therapy group or that contains over-sexualized, racist or homophobic comments, etc.
(d) all of us who have ever had a bad day or been through a life crisis.

If you encounter any of the first three situations, you should seek advice from the minister, program director, or your coach. You need this support. Give one of them a call.

The fourth type, all of us who have ever had a bad day or are going through a life crisis, highlights the truth that all of us need extra care at some point. When a member temporarily needs extra care, your group should be flexible enough to provide it, but intentional enough not to focus on the ECR member. Everyone else needs ministry too.

Type (a) ECR people, those who are not able to be in right relationship and cannot seem to listen or share time fairly, can often function in a group. To welcome them into the group is the ultimate expression of radical hospitality. There they should be held to the covenant and expected to be in "right relationship" with other group members. And under no circumstances should the ECR member become the focus of the group or absorb an unequal amount of what is supposed to be mutual ministry. Sometimes it will work and the ECR person learns new skills of listening and sharing time. Obviously, the group should feel very proud when this happens. In other cases, holding the person to the group covenant will cause them to resign from the group, as they discover it's "not for them."

Sometimes a church may have a situation where one person is very difficult to integrate into the group and there is no group that can handle them. In this case, it can be the job of the minister or the lay leader of the SGM program to tell the applicant that small group ministry is not the best option for them. As a facilitator, you may need to refer the situation to your minister or program coordinator.

The type (b) challenges to the model can be very subtle and unexpected. The person may be very socially skilled and share time and listen well. But they just can't follow an established program without trying to improve it or break some of its rules. We are UU's after all. But, in a covenant group, this can be very destructive. I think of the model as a bowl, within which we can have a wonderful and safe experience, but only if the bowl is left intact. One example of challenging the model: "Instead of our next meeting, why don't we all go to this program I've found out about. Nobody should miss it." Another might be: "I've just read a fascinating book on economics and politics. Why don't we all read the book and discuss it." or "Let's exchange information about our lives via email, so we can get to know each other faster." The leader or facilitator must handle these challenges. One way is to say "I'm authorized to implement the church's small group ministry model, but not to change it." You can then explain why it would not support your church's model.

The type (c ) challenge of the boundaries occurs as "over-sharing," or talking about inappropriate or unacceptable topics. "Over-sharing" refers to sharing that sounds like it belongs in a therapy session. If it sounds to you, as the leader, like it's too much sharing, then it probably is. A description of sexual experience would probably be inappropriate; a statement that "sounds racist" to the group would be unacceptable. As a leader, you need to be prepared to handle all three categories of boundary challenges.

In an over-sharing situation, the leader would likely speak to the minister or program director first and then speak to the person outside the group. If the participant can't stop over-sharing, they might not be able to participate in a covenant group at this point in their lives. Again, get help with this.

The other boundary violations are rare, but more dangerous to the group. An over-sexualized or racist comment can be disturbing and make the group feel unsafe. Boundary challenges may never happen in your group, but if they do, as leader, you are authorized to pay attention to your own reactions and address the situation. My advice is to declare a few minutes of silence and then pray or prepare what you can say that starts with "I felt" and addresses the situation in a non-threatening way. Probably the lighter the touch, the better. And sometimes it could be covered in the Check Out or at the next meeting by reading the covenant... or by a personal conversation outside the group. But I recommend that you not avoid dealing with boundary challenges altogether.

Question from Don Skinner,
Editor of Interconnections

I am preparing to write an article for InterConnections on Creating a Gifts Ministry, aka "Getting Folks to Volunteer." I'd love to know if the UU SGM Network has developed program plans for this topic and if you've heard of any congregational SGM groups that have had success with this topic.

I've heard that small groups are an excellent place to invite people to talk about why they joined the congregation, what they hope to get out of it, and how they'd like to contribute.

Editors Note: Send answers to Don's question to me and I'll forward them to Don and print them in a later issue issue of Covenant Group News, after his article has appeared in Interconnections. Our minister, Rev. Steve Crump did a service on August 30, 2009 on vocation and ministry. During August and September many of our small groups also did a session on Ministry. There are two on the UU Small Group Ministry Network website.

Unitarian Universalism - A Covenantal Faith Tradition of Liberation by Helen Popenoe,
River Road UU Congregation, Bethesda, MD

I need to talk about some givens I have, including the personal responsibility that goes along with belonging to our covenantal faith tradition. Unitarian Universalism is a unique religious movement. We are not really a true denomination with a priestly hierarchy and book of revelation that gives us a creed and dogma to adhere to. Because we are a free association of congregations we are used to the responsibility of being independent in basic congregational decisions such as whom we call to be our professional ministers. Out of this UU covenantal polity comes a UU culture of personal liberation to bring out our original goodness (not original sin.) The covenantal responsibility of what this culture of freedom gives each of us makes it necessary to apply reason and assess our experiences in order to grow into living one's religion, fully. Each is turning what we determine is the ideal into the real according to the gifts we each have to give for the common good.

We are a religion of ethical and caring relationship. This kind of relating allows for failure, forgiveness, reconciliation and the grace of empathy. The UU culture invites us to be as truly ourselves as we can be with one another. How do we make these UU covenantal relationships? The covenanting (a relationship of promises we make for our togetherness) inherent in the small group ministry is a ready-made way. As Rev. Suzanne Meyer puts it, "We are united not by our theological beliefs, but by the promises we make to each other. We are bound not by rules or bylaws or by transient political agendas, but by a commitment to right relationship." This gives an expectation that we develop the spiritual practices of giving confidentiality for a person's intimate sharings, of accepting each other as whole persons who change and grow, of sticking with commitments we make to one another, of being respectfully open to differences and open to one's own changing into being more mature and understanding than we are now. These covenantal habits of spiritual discipline are not a secular kind of contractual agreement. They are the present-day heritage of our faith tradition.

That's my quickie description for why I believe small group ministry is so important and natural for our UU movement. I bet you can look at your own experiences and add to my list of promises that are inherent in how we support one another's empowerment. Speaking of one's own experiences brings me to the spiritual realm of how our ministry's small groups give opportunity for finding awareness of what is ultimate for each of us. Our kind of covenantal right relating most easily comes from deep sharing of meanings in our lives. This facilitates one's expectation to grow and change for the better in living our religion. If we go to an authority, it's through the knowledge gained from our experiences and reality checks.

Why do I use the word "spiritual" for all this UU talk? "Ours is not the la-la land being blissed-out kind of spirituality" (as Rev. Marilyn Sewel puts it.) She goes on, "Our kind of being spiritual is being engaged and aware with the understanding that enters through the feeling self." Regardless of the theology we each have, we all have two ultimate questions to answer if we are so motivated: 1. What meaning can my life have? and 2. Do I have faith in the sustainability of my having the inner strength to face life's problems? For me, knowing what my best talents and skills are for collaboration with others can give the answers to these questions. Also, knowing my best talents and skills for enhancing the common good can give opportunities for me to live in spiritual ways.

I expect every covenanting group session to be a spiritual experience for me. Here's what I find to be most important for these spiritual opportunities to occur in the covenanting process. What follows is inspired by the philosophy of Rev. Henry Nelson Wieman in Rev. Harold Rosen's book, Religious Education and Our Ultimate Commitment. In the group, we have religious conversations, not discussions about religion, in full bodily presence, giving great potential for creative transformation and the birth of new values. When we hear one another's words, we listen for the meanings more than the words. We ask questions for clarification. Wieman's Golden Rule of Face-to-Face Interaction is "We ought to listen as we would be listened unto, and help others to listen as they would be listened unto." It's a co-creativity that comes out of each person's sensitivity and responsiveness. This quality of creative interaction between individuals brings about human growth from the accumulation of meanings, the enrichment of applying one's experiences, and the expansion of appreciative awareness. Wieman looks at this natural growth process as a wonderful mystery sustained by a creative power we can come to know and cooperate with. This knowledge and cooperation is the high calling for us facilitators, he believes. We are here to draw out a person's natural goodness and his/her value-quest. It's a self-discovery process for development of that person's ultimate values for living.

As the covenanters progress through creative interchange, central puzzlements/questions come out for people's reactions. We facilitators are constantly tuning-in to provide conditions of support and encouragement. An effective process to employ is called Socratic Questioning. This, often, takes the form of paraphrasing and making inquiries for clarification in order to lead a person to the next step in his/her thinking. Hopefully, the whole group engages in this respectful questioning. Through this facilitation of creative interchange, Wieman says, we "are addressing the highest calling of the human condition - to co-create, which means to help bring new values into the world." Wieman has a Three-Fold Procedure: "I will express my experience clearly, help you to express yours clearly, and then explore the interrelationships between our viewpoints."

Wieman's special kind of religious conversation that he calls "creative interchange" gives opportunities for liberating a person's inner wisdom. Wieman calls this process Four-fold Development:

  1. Each gets from the other some value (meaning, perspective) which he or she never had before in just that form; [remove extra space here]

  2. This new value is subconsciously integrated with the values already had by each individual;

  3. This expands the range of values accessible to the valuing consciousness of each; and finally

  4. This deepens and expands the community of values shared by the two or more participants.

In River Road's covenanting, we try to carry this unfolding process into meditation/silent reflection and addressing common threads found in our interchange. At the end is a feeling I have (and, I know, others have) of heartfelt acceptance, being immersed in loving kindness and giving the same love in return. The possibility is alive for each of us to reach a connection that has exercised "the human capacity for relationship that goes beyond the senses and that is experienced not as an act of will, but as a gift or as grace, framed by [the UU liberating] tradition and lived in creative action," as Rev. Judith Downing puts it. These sparks of co-creativity we have in our creative interchange is "when God happens" according to Wieman and I know this to be true for me (substituting the name of Goddess or Spirit of Life.)

Note: Bracketed words are mine. H. Pop

Nov., 2008

News & Events

The Network at General Assembly 2010, June 23-27, Minneapolis, MN
Enhancing, Revitalizing, Restarting Your Small Group Ministry

Presenting strategies used by congregations to sustain and enhance vibrant ministries, and to rejuvenate and restart programs that have decreased in vitality. Holding a vision, the minister's role, and assuring success will be highlighted. Speakers are Rev. Peg Morgan and Steve Becker, Westside UU Congregation, Seattle, WA; and Rev. Peter Friedrichs and Joyce McKee, UU Church of Delaware County, Media, PA. Moderated by Rev. Helen Zidowecki. Time and date TBA

Small Group Ministry Institute 2010, August 31-September 3
Camp deBenneville Pines, Angelus Oaks, CA

Designed for SGM program leaders and religious educators, an opportunity to learn and practice small group ministry in a mountain forest setting overlooking Jenks Lake. Send a team and take home a vision and plan for small group ministry in your congregation. Download a flyer and registration form at

Facilitator Training Workshop
March 12, 7:00PM - 9:00PM
and March 13, 8:30AM - 3:30PM,
Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA

This workshop will provide in-depth training and enrichment to current leaders and an introduction to Covenant Group leadership for potential leaders. Registration is $10. Speakers are Rev. Steve Crump, Senior Minister; Diana Dorroh, Program Director, and the SGM Leadership Team; Ray and Kristie Boudreaux, Bob Dorroh, and Rhye Gray. Area churches, especially those within driving distance, are invited to send their leaders to this workshop. Some home hospitality will be available. See the website calendar for more information: or contact Diana Dorroh,

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

Implementing Small Group Ministry: For Starting, Restarting and Enhancing a Program October 2009
How do congregations decide on group duration and meeting frequency? Does it take a team to manage a program? These questions and more are addressed in this evolving document, a series of 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. The chart incorporates current information from congregations, the Summer Small Group Ministry Institutes, and Covenant Group News. Mix and match features to build a SGM program that meets your ministry objectives.

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 on CD 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:

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
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