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October 2011

Small Groups, Deep Connections October 2011
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
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In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • Evolution of UU Small Group Ministry, Part 1 by Rev. Helen Zidowecki, UU SGM Network Board President
  • SGM Myths -- Rethinking Program Design Choices - How Long Should Groups Continue?
  • The Case for Time Limits in SGM -Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, Main Line Unitarian Church, Devon, PA
  • Note and a Question from Marion McCord, Covenant Group Coordinator, First UU Fellowship of Hunterdon County, Baptistown NJ
  • SGM Program Leadership by Susan Hollister, UU SGM Network Board
  • A Formula for Facilitators to Use to Answer Challenges to the SGM Model
  • A Note About a Workshop at First Unitarian, St. Louis, MO from Kathy McVoy
  • 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:

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Letter from the Editor


In this issue, we launch a new series on the Evolution of Small Group Ministry with an article on Making Small Group Ministry Unitarian Universalist by Rev. Helen Zidowecki, UU SGM Network Board President. We also continue the series introduced last month on Small Group Ministry Myths - Rethinking Program Design Choices with an article on How Long Should Groups Continue? and another on The Case for Time Limits in SGM by Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, Senior Minister at Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, PA.

We have a question from Marion McCord, Covenant Group Coordinator at the First UU Fellowship of Hunterdon County, Baptistown, NJ. Marion asks whether the full program structure, including minister, program coordinator, steering committee, and perhaps registrar and content team are needed for every size program and church. This continues our discussion of myths and choices, because the answer is "it depends." We have an answer with an article on UU SGM Program Leadership, from Susan Hollister, UU SGM Network Treasurer.

Please send in your small group ministry myths and program design choices that you are reconsidering. Next month's myth will be "Facilitators' Meetings Don't Work" and we will consider the purpose of facilitators' meetings and ways of planning and conducting them. Please send me your experiences, successes, problems, and issues with facilitators' meetings.

In this issue, we have a formula for facilitators to use whenever members of their group challenge the model they've committed to implement. I'm fully aware that with almost 1500 subscribers, many of you are more interested in becoming a better facilitator than in program design and implementation. Facilitators, please share your tips and successes. Send them to me

And, finally, there's a note from Kathy McVoy at First Unitarian in St. Louis, MO, about a workshop produced and attended by several St. Louis area congregations. This cooperative model could work in many other areas of the country.

The UU Small Group Ministry Network is financially independent of the UUA. It depends upon membership and publications sales to cover the modest expenses. You can check on our website to see whether your congregation is a Network member. As an added incentive to membership, we offer a member discount of 40% off all our UU SGM Network publications and $25 off of Institute registrations. As a member, you will receive the Quarterly journal by email or by mail.

The fall issue of the Quarterly was just sent to members in September. If you aren't currently a member, consider joining to receive this issue. In addition to the article that launched the CG News series on SGM Myths, this fall issue of the Quarterly featured:

* Show Instead of Tell From "Initial Facilitator Training" by Susan Hollister, SGM Institute, August 2011

* Covenant Groups as Community Pastoral Care by Reverend Heather Janules, Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, Bethesda, Maryland and

* UU President Morales' Vision As Seen Through Small Group Ministries by Reverend Judy Tomlinson, Associate Minister, UU Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey

The Network website,, contains information about the UU Small Group Ministry Network, articles by leaders in the SGM 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.

If you are a coordinator and would like all the facilitators in your program to receive Covenant Group News, just send me the church name, city and state and facilitator names and emails and we'll add them to the email list.

Please share your ideas, questions, and experiences with the other 1,483 Covenant Group News subscribers. Send them to me at Thanks to Anne Haynes, from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, IN, for proofing this edition.

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

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

Evolution of Unitarian Universalist Small Group Minisry - Part 1 --
Making Small Group Ministry UU -
Rev. Helen Zidowecki, President UU SGM Network

Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry was not created overnight. Last October I presented a workshop on Small Group Ministry at the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Convocation in Massachusetts. My focus was on capturing a movement as it was happening. I realized that the history of Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups was an evolution. Actually, various stages of evolution. And it is still evolving. You are reading this, you are part of the evolution!

This issue of CG News includes consideration of the "First Evolution: Making Small Group Ministry Unitarian Universalist." This article has evolved from the Convocation through the 2011 SGM Institute, to a sermon in Chattanooga in October 2011. Subsequent CGN editions will include the "Second Evolution: From the Small Group to the Congregation" and "Third Evolutions: Small Group Ministry for Everyone."

The First Evolution started in the late 1990's. There was a concern about the lack of numeric congregational growth. Rev. Bob Hill, Executive Director of the Southwest District, and Rev. Glenn Turner, of the Northeast District (namely Maine), started looking at this growth issue. What draws people to a congregation, and what keeps them connected? Both Bob and Glenn were aware of a statement made about 1980 by James Luther Adams, a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister, that people come looking for Intimacy and Ultimacy.

This tied in with the work of Kennon Callahan (not a Unitarian Universalist), namely The Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. Callahan focused on the relational keys and the functional keys. The logistics of keeping a church running (functional keys) were to support people and connections (relational keys). Glenn Turner introduced this work to the congregations in the Northeast District.

Add to the desire for growth and the focus on the relational, the work of Carl George (an evangelical Christian leader) focused on the Meta-Church, or the church in transition. The Meta-Church movement focused on groups of 10 people within congregations or congregations made up of small groups. The title of Bob Hill's book, "The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World, Ten at a Time", is a direct connection to this evangelical approach. Several Unitarian Universalist congregations were using small groups in various ways. It was the focus of Bob and Glenn on these factors - growth, relations grounded in Intimacy and Ultimacy, and the use of small groups - that created Covenant Groups (Bob Hill's term) and the Small Group Ministry (Glenn Turner's term) movement.

But I doubt that even the work of Bob and Glenn would have had this much impact if it were not for the development of shared ministry. This intentional sharing of ministry between clergy and laity changed "ministry" being the purview of the minister to the inclusive responsibility of the congregation. (In Augusta, Maine, we had a Pastoral Care Associate training in 1997. We started working on Small Group Ministry in 1998. Connection or coincidence?)

This First Evolution transformed the theories and methodologies developed by others into a model that was accessible for Unitarian Universalists through our own literature, our own terminology. The intimacy is undoubtedly part of the use of small groups within various faith traditions. The uniqueness of Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry may be in the ultimacy or the search for meaning that is grounded in our varied life and spiritual journeys, rather than creeds.

The model itself evolved as congregations implemented Small Group Ministry. Key factors for successful programs seemed to emerge, even with variation in implementation. The Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry Network started defining the basic elements of the model several years ago.

*This model is described by its name - Small (up to 10 people) in a Group (with commitment, over time) Ministry (caring and being present for each other along life's journeys).
*The model focuses on Intimacy and Ultimacy
*This model is based on the concept of covenant, or the promises that we make to each other and the congregation to be in right relations, in openness in groups, and in serving this and the larger community.
*This model includes leadership development and support .
* See the UU SGM Network website: for a full description of the small group ministry basics that the UU SGM Network recommends be included in your church's model.

For the more complete history of Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups, see Network publications, such as Ten Years of Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry.

Small Group Ministry Myths --
Rethinking Program Design Choices -- How Long Should Groups Continue? --
Diana Dorroh

As Editor of CG News and as a frequent volunteer at the UU SGM Network's booth at General Assembly, I've heard lots of stories from ministers and small group ministry coordinators and participants. Some congregations want their groups to continue indefinitely. Some have 9 -- 12 month groups and begin new groups once each year. Others have a mixture of the two formats. This summer, at General Assembly, we heard from a few people who wanted to let some of their groups last longer than a year, but thought that would be a violation of the basic elements of small group ministry. The length of time that groups meet is not part of the basic elements for small group ministry success.

So, how do you decide which choice to make? To some extent, it depends on what your congregation's goals are. If you want to maximize participation and you don't have a paid coordinator, you might want your groups to continue indefinitely. If achieving deep sharing and intimacy is important, you probably want to have groups that last for several years. If your goal is to promote connections across the congregation, you would probably design shorter term groups. You might also make that choice if you were concerned about cliques in your congregation.

A note on timing---It can be difficult to convert a group that started as a continuing group to a time-limited group. So, if you are designing a small group ministry program for your congregation, it's important to give this decision some careful thought. If you have only continuing groups and want to change to time-limited groups, you might want to start your new groups as time-limited and give the older groups the option to convert and with a commitment to end after a year or two.

At the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, we do not limit the time of groups though many of them have ended for a variety of reasons. Our goals are to put new members into groups as soon as they take the newcomers' orientation, and to have as many of our 398 church members as possible in the groups. I am the volunteer SGM program coordinator and, to me, restarting 24 or even 8 groups every year sounds more difficult than supporting the leaders as they continue the groups. All of our groups are willing to accept new members, but we do have a few groups that don't follow all the elements of the model. so a time limit might have prevented that problem. Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman makes a good case for time-limited groups in the next article.

I'd like to hear your experiences, problems and solutions with time-limited and continuing groups. Please include your congregation's goals for small group ministry.

The Case for Time Limits in Small Group Ministry --
Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, Sr. Minister,
Main Line Unitarian Church, Devon, PA.

Editor's Note: Rev. Osterman submitted this communication in response to the article in the Fall 2011 Quarterly that launched this series on Myths and Choices.

While I agree that SGMs need not be rigidly restricted to one year in length, the failure to implement time limits on SGMs seriously undermines the effectiveness of this ministry for a number of reasons.

First, SGMs are a breeding ground for new leadership in congregations. The first step up the leadership ladder is very often becoming an SGM facilitator. By limiting groups to a maximum of two years in life span, group facilitators can identify potential new facilitators within their group after one year, mentor them during the second year, and then launch them into leadership of their own group in the third year. A regular obstacle to this leadership development process is that potential new facilitators resist leaving their groups. By failing to limit the length of SGMs, we undermine their ability to cultivate leaders and deprive our congregations of the full benefit of the "first rung" on our leadership ladder.

Second, the aim of SGMs is building "spiritual friendships" and helping members expand their circle of friends in the church. By belonging to a series of time-limited SGMs over the years, people develop a larger circle of friends in the church. If you belong to the same SGM for six years, then you may know 10 people very well. If you belong to three different SGMs over 6 years, then you have a much larger circle of friends in the church. Especially in a church the size of ours (600+ members), time limited SGMs are a real aid in helping members to get to know each other. One goal of SGMs is integrating new members into the congregation. We accomplish this much more effectively when they know 30 people, rather than 10.

Third, contrary to all claims to the contrary, SGMs do become cliques, if they remain closed circles over time. Even when existing groups "open" to allow newcomers to join them, they are gathering people into an existing group culture. Newcomers who do not conform to the culture do not thrive in the groups. In some cases, closed SGMs even resist new members. If people who bond in SGMs want to meet regularly years after the groups dissolve, then they most certainly may do so; however, enshrining their long-term gathering under the umbrella of an SGM undermines the effectiveness of that ministry.

There are entirely too many UUs who are completely comfortable within their little closed systems -- whether it is their congregation or their SGM -- and they are not helping to grow our faith by only talking to the people that they already know and with whom they feel comfortable. We really ought to be challenging and equipping our members to be more comfortable making new friends and talking about their faith with those people, and SGMs ought to be the very place that they learn to do just that.

I appreciate all that you, and the other volunteer leaders of the UU SGM Network, do to promote the strength and health of SGMs in our congregations. I am mindful, in our moments of disagreement about particular issues, of the words of our Unitarian forebear Francis David, "We need not think alike to love alike."

Note and a Question from Marion McCord,
Covenant Group Coordinator,
First UU Fellowship of Hunterdon County, Baptistown, NJ

My question is this: looking at the training materials from Peter Bowden and others, it is clear that the UUA currently supports a model of covenant groups that includes a ministry team, steering committee, registrar, and content team, as well as covenant group leaders and participants. We are a relatively small congregation already struggling to fill committee and leadership roles. Our current structure includes ministry--our minister is the 'leader' of our CGL (covenant group leaders') covenant group, and I am the coordinator. But you will probably agree that we do not have what could be called a 'ministry team' in place. Nor do we have a registrar, or content team. (That begs the question about the current structure for our covenant groups...definitely not a 'top down' model such as the one outlined here.) But my question is, should we wish to conform more closely to the new model, "how should we go about finding people to fill the roles outlined above when our congregation is already so challenged by volunteer over commitment?"

SGM Program Leadership --
Susan Hollister, UU SGM Network Board

The number of people needed to lead a Small Group Ministry program has a lot to do with the size of the congregation, the number of groups, and the capacity of the coordinator. When a congregation is just starting out in small group ministry, one volunteer coordinator can direct the program, particularly when it is endorsed by the board.

In a small or lay-led congregation with fewer than 5 covenant groups, the coordinator receives sign-up forms, assigns people to groups, keeps a list of participants, and provides resources for topics and session plans. Other responsibilities are facilitator selection and training, regular facilitator support meetings, a program flier or brochure, and a sign-up table.

If the small congregation has a called minister, the coordinator and minister can share leadership responsibilities. For example, the coordinator might manage membership while the minister develops session plans. Together they recruit and train facilitators and lead the facilitator support meetings. The coordinator writes an article for the newsletter and displays brochures and sign-up sheets on the Welcome Table. During Sunday announcements, the minister issues an invitation to join a covenant group.

As small group ministry grows in a medium or large congregation, the coordinator may form a steering team of two or more people to help manage the program. This can happen as early as 5 groups or as late as 15 groups if the coordinator has the time and resources to devote to the job. Team members are often selected from among current or past facilitators or group members with a particular interest in small group ministry and in seeing the program grow. The coordinator remains in the major leadership position and continues to oversee groups, train facilitators, assign new people to groups, and evaluate the program. Team members assist with these basic functions or with additional projects that the facilitators or minister have requested. Many congregations are professionalizing this coordinator role. Some assign it to existing staff, but many others are hiring new part-time paid coordinators or hiring new staff with portfolios of small group ministry and several other functions.

For further information about program leadership, see the following articles in the SGM Quarterly journal archives on the Network website,
The Coordinator's Role, Fall 2006
Supporting the Vision Caster, Winter 2007
Behind the Scenes of Small Group Ministry, Winter 2008

A Formula for Facilitators to Use to Answer Challenges to the SGM Model -- from the Editor

At the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Rev. Dr. Steve Crump has been exploring the topic of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) from the book on that topic by Marshall B. Rosenberg. We wanted to continue the exploration in our small groups and Rev. Helen Zidowecki graciously wrote an introductory session for our groups to use. (Her session, Compassionate Communications: Connections is posted on the UU Small Group Ministry Network website

Here's Helen's summary of the NVC process:
The concrete actions we are observing that are affecting our well-being.
How we feel in relation to what we are observing.
The needs, values, desires that are creating our feelings.
The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives.

One of our leaders had the following experience:

During our last Branches session we were using the NVC format and things were moving smoothly until a full blown debate ensued. One member shared an idea as being universal, and was challenged by another member. The discussion went back and forth, no one willing to consider the other's point of view.

As co-leader of the group I observed that we would be stuck until this discussion was resolved or redirected. It occurred to me that since we were focusing on the NVC model, this presented an opportunity to see if it would work.

I made three statements:
1. "I observe there is a disagreement in the group" ...
2. "I feel uncomfortable"...
3. "I request we move move a position of allowing difference of opinion to be okay."

There was an immediate smile on the faces of the "debaters" and the energy in the room shifted. I was amazed that three simple statements had created such a dramatic change.

Such a good story. It occurs to me that this is a formula we can all use to bring our groups back to the model when they go astray. It would work like this:
I observe (XXX)
I feel anxious, because, as facilitator, I need to implement our church's model and part of it is that we YYY.
I request (that we stop doing XXX and get back to YYY).

I think this solves a problem for me. When a group I'm leading goes off topic, or starts doing impersonal reporting and not personal sharing or begins to criticize a politician or any of the various ways of challenging the basic small group ministry model, I always sit there for a few minutes wondering what I'm going to do or say. Now I have a formula. If you try it, send me your story.

Note About A Workshop at First Unitarian, St. Louis, MO from Kathy McVoy, Covenant Group Committee Chair

First Unitarian church of St. Louis hosted a Covenant Group Workshop October 8, 2011, from 9:00 - 2:00. We had a great mix of people from First Church, Eliot Chapel and Alton Unitarian church. Most of the 30 attendees were covenant group members and there were a few newcomers who came to learn about covenant groups. Reverend Thomas Perchlik of First Church gave Opening Words and played the flute to start the day. Reverend Terry Davis of Eliot Chapel spoke about covenant groups at Eliot chapel and Don Allen, coordinator of covenant groups at Alton Unitarian, said a few words about groups at that church. Kathy McVoy, chair of the covenant group committee at First church, gave a brief didactic presentation about CG's.

The larger group broke into 5 small groups for a covenant group experience. The topic was "Mindfulness on the Human Journey." We had much to talk about at lunch which everyone stayed for. There was an hour after lunch for facilitators to discuss how mindfulness affects their role and to share about ways they facilitate and ask questions of one another. The workshop was an enriching sharing of our lives and our spiritual/human journeys.

Share your insights, strategies and experiences.
Send your comments to Diana at
We'll print them in the next CGNews.

News & Events

UU Small Group Ministry
Program Development & Renewal with Peter Bowden
Friday - Sunday, November 4 - 5, 2011
UU Fellowship of Winston Salem
[Winston Salem, NC, 27106]
Hosted by the Southeast District

The Southeast District is proud to offer a weekend Small Group Ministry training with Peter Bowden, Unitarian Universalist Growth Consultant and co-founder of the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

This training has been designed for clergy and lay leaders seeking to strengthen congregation-wide small group ministry programs. This program will cover the following core areas, as well as opportunities for worship, networking and hands on small group experience.

See Events for all events, more details and registration information.

The source for session plans, networking opportunities, Small Group Ministry resources, news of events and workshops, membership renewal forms, and back issues of Covenant Group News and the SGM Quarterly.

For information on training opportunities see the Event Announcements

UU SGM Network Publications

Order forms available from

NEW! Small Group Ministry with All Ages, June 2011
Imagine a congregation where all ages are talking together. From its firm foundation in adult programming, Small Group Ministry is evolving to become an inclusive opportunity for all ages to connect, listen, reflect, and learn with each other. This publication explores small group ministry by age group and with mixed ages and presents ways for covenant groups to become an integral part of the momentum toward multigenerational congregations. Includes implementation strategies, session plan development, and sessions for single and multi-age groups.

NOW ON CD! Spiritual Journeys: 101 Session Plans for Small Group Ministry Programs
This exciting new book offers a wide range of original, ready-to-use sessions covering Spiritual Journeying, Personal Beliefs and Values, Spiritual Challenges, Holidays, Just for Fun, Being Human, and Special Use subjects for events that affect our lives. Themes are drawn from art, literature, UU liturgy and hymnals, current events, and religious scriptures.

Small Group Ministry 2010: Celebrating Congregations
The 2010 compilation celebrates the work of over 100 congregations that have contributed to the UU Small Group Ministry movement since 2004. There are profiles of contributing congregations, including when and how their program started, how many groups and participants they have, and their unique challenges and success stories.

To order any of the above publications or to get a list of all our publications:

Small Groups, Deep Connections

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

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

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