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September / October 2013

Small Groups, Deep Connections September / October 2013
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
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In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • Small Group Ministry Beyond the Congregation
  • Hearing Each Other Is A Two-Way Street
  • SGM Notes from Congregations
  • Book Review
  • SGM Resources
  • Upcoming Events
  • Website Resources
  • Publications
  • Who We Are
  • Contact Us

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Letter from the Editor


Many of our congregations have recently started a new season of covenant groups, and others are continuing groups from last year. Some are using a combination of different "flavors" of small group ministry organization. Perhaps you are reading this newsletter because you are seeking advice or inspiration for your program. As I've worked on the Publications Team of the SGM Network, served on the Board of the SGM Network, and attended a Small Group Ministry Institute, I have learned of the various interesting ways in which our congregations choose to implement small group ministry while still adhering to the basic principles espoused by the SGM Network. I have been truly inspired by the creativity within our congregations and the success of so many of our programs.

In this issue we bring you covenant group news from around the country. Alan Backler of Bloomington, IN writes on the often-neglected subject of training facilitators to be sensitive to the needs of group members with hearing challenges. Susan Hollister contributes a report on work that the Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy and others have been doing in northern New England using small group ministry in communities. Sandy Pearce writes about Covenant Groups at the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC. You will also find resources from the UUA, web news and website resources, and information on the SGM Network and its publications.

We would love to hear from you about what your congregation is doing! Send news items to

Anne Haynes, Guest Editor
UU Church of Bloomington, IN

Write to with comments, questions, and suggestions.

Small Group Ministry Beyond the Congregation
Contributed by Susan Hollister, Durham, NC

Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy, co-founder of the UU SGM Network, is doing innovative work with small group ministry in a variety of settings. "My vision," says Rev. Kennedy, "is to bring small group ministry out of our congregations and into the community. Folks in all kinds of settings are longing to experience friendship and spiritual growth in a supportive, non-coercive, respectful and diverse environment." One example is the work Rev. Kennedy has done as a volunteer Interfaith Chaplain at the Vermont State Psychiatric Hospital where she offered a group called "Friends on the Path." The group was enthusiastically received by patients and staff alike. "Group members told me that it was one of the only opportunities in that hectic environment for quiet reflection and deep connections. It had the unexpected benefit of dissolving the distinctions between patients and staff because in the group we are all just spiritual seekers." For a service project, the patients in the group designed and offered an interfaith Thanksgiving worship service for the hospital. It was wonderful for them to take pride and enjoyment in being in the role of offering something from their hearts and not just being recipients of care. "I'm offering a group now in my Mom's retirement home and the folks thoroughly enjoy it. I would love to see small groups offered in jails, prisons, assisted living facilities and wherever folks are in need of opportunities for spiritual exploration and friendship. It has tremendous potential as a social action outreach from our congregations into the community."

Rev. M'ellen Kennedy and Rev. Stephen Shick, Minister Emeritus of Unitarian Church of Marlborough & Hudson, MA, offer a workshop called Preaching By Heart ( on how to preach extemporaneously. The workshop was accepted by the UU Ministers Association CENTER as one of the endorsed workshops for UUMA chapters for continuing education options for ministers. "SGM is a significant part of what makes this workshop zing," says Rev. Kennedy. Workshop attendees participate in a small group in the morning which helps them get to know each other and explore together what they find both appealing and frightening about this approach to preaching. In the afternoon, they return to the same small groups and each person does a short homily without a text. The rapport they have developed in the morning small group is the foundation that makes it possible for everyone to give it a try and be successful in their first attempt. Rev. Kennedy says, "It's a very exciting process to see folks finding their authentic voice in the pulpit." Workshop attendees have included not just parish ministers, but lay leaders and community ministers as well.

The small group ministry model is also part of Rev. Kennedy's work with Peace and Unity Bridge ( an organization she founded that is dedicated to cultivating friendship and understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims. "I'm ordained as a Sufi minister as well as a UU minister, so I feel that I have a foot in both worlds which enables me to bridge the difference in a unique and effective way." Last spring she offered the workshop "Facing Islamophobia" at All Souls UU Congregation in New London, CT, in collaboration with All Souls' Rev. Carolyn Patierno, the local interfaith group, and the Islamic Center of New London. "We had over 75 folks in attendance, including many Muslims. The workshop was very well received. We use small groups as part of the process, and I'm convinced this is crucial in making it work so well. It's rewarding to see Muslims and non-Muslims in conversation and developing understandings with each other." Rev. Kennedy has offered the workshop in about 12 venues in the past 2 years with grant support from the Fund for UU Social Responsibility. Her work has been endorsed by the imam of the mosque in Portsmouth, NH, and by the current and past presidents of the Islamic Council of New England. Rev. Kennedy intends to keep finding new ways to use power of the small group ministry model to help people in diverse settings experience Intimacy and Ultimacy and in so doing, help heal our broken and aching world one group at a time.

Hearing Each Other Is a Two-Way Street
Contributed by Alan Backler, Bloomington, IN

At the core of each small group ministry session is deep listening. Facilitators pose questions and each participant responds in turn. The other group members provide the speaker with rapt attention. They don't ask questions; they don't give advice-they listen deeply. As more and more congregants get involved in small group ministry, the issue of hearing, which is critical to deep listening, becomes ever more significant.

With this concern in mind, members of the Hearing Committee of the Elder Focus Taskforce of the UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana took part in the facilitator training session for this year's Chalice Circles (Small Group Ministry). Committee members emphasized that hearing each other is a two-way street. They told about microphone/speaker equipment, available at the church, to help with small group interaction. Most significantly, they shared a number of simple communication strategies for all Chalice Circles members to use to improve hearing and therefore deep listening. For example, they recommended that facilitators adjust the environment in which Chalice Circle sessions are held, by reducing background noise, the greatest interference with hearing, by arranging the room so that participants sit close together, and by choosing to meet in a place with good lighting for members who rely on visual cues when listening.

The Hearing Committee suggested that good communication practices be reinforced when creating group covenants-not interrupting, facing each other, addressing the whole group, pausing between speakers, and avoiding cross talk. They also recommended that procedures to follow when members cannot hear someone else be written explicitly into group covenants. Chalice Circles are about openness and accessibility. With these communication strategies in place, we hope that this year we will not have Chalice Circle participants withdrawing because of unresolved hearing challenges.

SGM Notes From Congregations

UU Fellowship of Raleigh, North Carolina, hosted a facilitator training session in November 2012, led by Susan Hollister from nearby Eno River UU Fellowship. The training was experiential and allowed us to ask questions and talk about our previous experiences in small group facilitation. In February 2013 we started 5 new covenant groups with about 30 members, all committed to following the original structure outlined in The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry by Robert L. Hill. We agreed that group members would re-evaluate their commitment in a year and determine whether they wanted to continue, take a break, or join another covenant group in order to meet more people. In August and September we recruited new members for our covenant groups and assigned 9 new people to groups that had lost members for various reasons.

Several of the older small group ministries at UUFR (Fellowship Circles) joined with us to use the structured format, and we now offer covenant groups Monday through Saturday. Covenant Group facilitators meet monthly to talk about how their groups are going, receive support, and share session plans. Two covenant groups have already started their service to UUFR (part of each group's covenant) by setting up a Blue Tag table at coffee hour. They escort visitors to the coffee hour space and bring them to a special table for visitors so they can meet people and hear about UUFR activities, including covenant groups. Two facilitators just completed a three-week open covenant group at Wellspring, our Wednesday evening faith development program, using the Heart to Heart guide. Several of those who visited these sessions asked to join on-going covenant groups. We are excited about our success so far with covenant groups and hope that they will continue to flourish.

- Sandy Pearce, Covenant Group Assignment Coordinator, UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC

The North Texas UU Congregations (NTUUC) hosted an all day training for small group ministry on Sept. 28 in Fort Worth. Participants came from UU churches around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Some of the participating groups already have small group ministry programs operating, and others were considering their options. Participating congregations included: Arlington, First Jefferson, Horizon, Pathways, Community UU Church of Plano, and First Dallas. The trainers, Marcia Niemann and Mary Koi, shared the manual and procedures used in the CIRCLES program at First UU Church of Dallas. At regular intervals during the training, the participants responded to the presentation by considering what they might do in a program at their own church. Topics ranged from covenants, facilitation and operation of the small groups to how to set up and manage a program over a period of years.

- Marcia Niemann, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX

Book Review

Review of Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, by Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas
by Rev. Michelle Collins, Assistant Minister, First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, Delaware

When preparing for an overhaul of my congregation's small group ministry program, I began reading both UU and non-UU sources, particularly evangelical ones. The evangelicals often do an amazing job with small groups! The book Activate is based on the model and strategies used by The Journey Church, a multi-site evangelical church in New York City. Authors Searcy and Thomas describe their four-stage strategy: Focus, Form, Fill, and Facilitate, which tracks the life cycle of running a small groups program. Many of the insights were revolutionary to me! For instance, making the distinction between a church WITH small groups and a church OF small groups, they claim that if you want to have more than 30 or 40 percent of the congregation in a small group, the congregation's identity has to be a church OF small groups. While we're still working on that in my church, this shifted my own thinking about our program's relationship with the programmatic life of the church. This book goes through practical strategies related to all parts of planning and implementing a program. Just the chapter on promotion and publicity (Fill, from their four F's) is worth reading the book. While there is some translation needed of evangelical to UU context, this book is chock full of useful strategies for any size congregation or small group ministry program.

SGM Resources from the Unitarian Universalist Association

Don Skinner, editor of the UUA publication Interconnections, wrote and published a great article in online Interconnections on the effects of small group ministry on a congregation and especially on its capacity for growth. He asserted that more than 60% of congregations have small group ministry programs now.


Healing and Transformation in Small Groups
Saturday, November 2, 2013
9 AM to 4 PM

Registration, coffee and light snacks starting at 8:30
Hosted by the Unitarian Church of Nashua
58 Lowell St., Nashua, NH 03064
Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy, Leader

See registration form at

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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 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.

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