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November / December 2013

Small Groups, Deep Connections November / December 2013
The UU Small Group Ministry Network
Covenant Group News
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In This Issue
  • Letter from the Editor
  • A Terrapinian (Slow and Easy) Start Up
  • Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles
  • Book Review
  • SGM Notes from Congregations
  • Upcoming Events
  • Web News
  • Publications
  • Who We Are
  • Contact Us

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Letter from the Editor


I am very pleased to announce that we have a new Editorial Team for Covenant Group News:
Susan Hollister, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina, Anne Haynes, Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana, and Diana Dorroh, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

We have been working together since August. I know we'll be able to provide useful and inspiring news about Unitarian Universalist small group ministry, but we need your help. Please consider sharing the news from your program by sending a note or a short article to us at

In this issue, we have an article by Rev. Jim VanderWeele, describing a slow and easy startup at Community Church UU in New Orleans, LA; an inspirational piece, Why I am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles, by Gayle Phillips, UU Fellowship of the Peninsula, Newport News, VA; a book review of Sticky Church by Larry Osborne; and a note from Jennifer Gallagher, at the UU Church of Vancouver, WA.

Under Upcoming Events, there is a note from Rev. Bill Breeden about a facilitator training at the UU Church of Bloomington, IN on February 1, 2014. It is led by the Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy. The UU Church of Bloomington is generously opening up this training to any congregation who wants to participate. The charge is $150 per congregation, regardless of the number of participants.

Diana Dorroh, Guest Editor
Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, LA

Write to with comments, questions, and suggestions.

A Terrapinian (Slow and Easy) Start Up
Contributed by Rev. Jim VanderWeele, Community Church UU, New Orleans, LA

There are various approaches to starting a small group ministry program. We took the slow approach, one a turtle might like, at Community Church UU, New Orleans, LA. We had experienced several failed attempts to launch small groups previously. The vexation of previous failures led to our taking things slowly as we began to launch our current program last spring.

The key to the revived attempt was linking to the theme-based Soul Matters program from the Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY and the Rev. Scott Tayler (now the Congregational Life Consultant at the UUA).

Our first step was introducing the congregation to theme-based worship. This was new for the members and friends of CCUU. Fortunately, one theme available in the Soul Matters packet was "Imagination." Using this theme, and augmenting it with announcements about a small group program, led our members and friends to imagine a transition soon to occur at CCUU.

I then prepared several newsletter articles about the Soul Matters approach to thematic worship and small groups. The July article, "Soul Matters" included this quote from the Reverend Scott Tayler,

"Unitarian Universalism is about connection. We are a religion that sees people struggling, not against our own sinful souls, but against a shallow, frantic and materialistic world that all-too-often leaves us disconnected from our deepest selves, life's gifts and needs greater than one's own. And so our congregations work to heal that divide by helping each other listen to our deepest selves, open to life's gifts, and serve needs greater than our own."

This introduction led to an August article on "Listening," a September article on "Opening," and an October article on "Serving." (Available at

These three steps (theme-based worship, church announcements, and articles) led to the start up of our small group ministry program in October. The slow pace of presentation allowed us time to find and hold an orientation for facilitators. The first attempt at leading a group occurred during a worship service, and this worked out magnificently.

There are now four small groups that have begun to meet at our church. About half of our church membership is participating. Each group has co-facilitators. It is a great joy to see, hear, and feel the energy and vitality that has appeared along with the start up of our small group ministry program.

Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles
Contributed by Gayle Phillips, Newport News, VA

Gayle is Fellowship Circles Coordinator at the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula and presented this testimonial as part of the August 4, 2013 "How to Listen" service.

I first became involved in a Fellowship Circle when they were initiated at the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula about nine years ago. We all wondered what was the purpose of these groups that met twice a month and numbered about six to nine members. We learned that our Fellowship Circle was not a conversation group, nor an opportunity for intellectual debates; rather it was a place that encouraged the inner journey of each participant in a safe and compassionate community.

All of us were new to the Fellowship Circle concept and we supported each other as we refined our abilities to both express ourselves and listen deeply to each other. The members of my circle grew closer together and learned to appreciate both our similarities and, most importantly, our differences. I soon realized that I truly looked forward to my circle's time together every other week and that this experience was making a profound difference in my life.

As our Fellowship Circle Program evolved, I was happy to continue and have been a member of five different circles over the past years. The experience has been transformative. I have learned so much from the amazing people I have had an opportunity to share my life with in these circles. So many rich ideas and new perspectives on a variety of topics (both serious and playful) have helped me grow personally and spiritually.

First, I have become a better listener-seeking to truly understand what someone is communicating, without judgment or comment. Listening with both your ears and your heart is how one Fellowship Circle friend described the process. I now understand that it is not only unnecessary to comment on another's statements, but sometimes it is actually detrimental to active and compassionate communication. Developing this skill carries over to my other relationships and impacts most conversations I have. I have found that it is very liberating to just simply listen quietly without feeling a need to verbally respond.

Second, I believe I have learned a lot about myself. My Fellowship Circle participation has helped me define what I believe and truly value. And I have had the opportunity to articulate these beliefs to a group of caring and supportive friends, my Fellowship Circle. As a result of participation in my circles, I feel much more connected to the entire UUFP community. My time as a Fellowship Circle member has been one of the most enjoyable and meaningful experiences of my life.

Book Review

Review of Sticky Church, by Larry Osborne
Contributed by Diana Dorroh, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Larry Osborne explains the term "sticky church" as follows: "We've discovered lots of ways to reach people... But we've often become so focused on reaching people that we've forgotten the importance of keeping people. And that's the thesis of this book: Our churches need to be stickier."

His recommended method is sermon-based small ministry groups. In Osborne's North Coast Church, these groups use questions for the weekly small group discussions that are based on the Sunday sermon. He develops numerous ways that small group ministry changes everything when a church has 40-60 percent of its attendance in groups and leaders and staff are engaged. Among them: challenging the Holy Man myth by shared ministry, challenging the Holy Place Myth by using dispersed meeting spaces, empowering leaders, and providing more genuine opportunities to do meaningful ministry.

Osborne explains that when he started sermon-based small groups, he became a better preacher. People began paying more attention to his sermons, knowing they'd be discussing the topic later in their small groups. They were able to have spirited dialogue on the ideas from Sunday morning-a ministerial dream come true. Also, people who hadn't attended on Sunday downloaded the sermons. People actually learn spiritual truths after processing the topics in small groups.

In the last section, Osborne addresses what makes a sermon-based small group program work. There are many insights and observations. These are the ones I found most interesting:

  1. People Have Connectors - If you think of people as Legos, new people have more empty connectors, while older members have most of their connectors filled. So the people benefit from being in a group together.
  2. It's important to Cut the Competition - At North Coast, they drastically trimmed other programs that competed with the sermon-based groups.
  3. North Coast also found it useful to Hamstring the Competition. Every time a new ministry or program is considered, they ask the question: How will this impact our growth groups?
  4. Since they have weekly small group meetings, time is limited and they hold only two leader meetings a year. Throughout the year, they provide short training messages for the leaders to listen to during the week.

I found Osborne's articulate endorsements of small group ministry inspiring and compelling. And if you've implemented or are considering implementing theme-based small group ministry, this is a terrific source. The term "sticky church" is also a useful one. Improving retention of members and increasing member involvement is perhaps the most important congregational benefit of small group ministry and this is a great term for it. He also includes some entertaining stories and a wealth of information about what works and what doesn't.

SGM Notes From Congregations

Chalice Circles at the UU Church of Vancouver, Washington
Contributed by Jennifer Gallagher, Director of Shared Ministries

How We Started: Our Chalice Circle program at UU Church of Vancouver began in 2004. Beforehand, our Minister and Planning Team developed a Covenant and created a session template, guidelines for training facilitators, and a brochure. The Minister recruited and trained Facilitators. We began with eight groups of 9 people each, and sustained that level of involvement for three years before participation gradually declined.

Our Chalice Circle Team: The Team consists of our Minister and four lay leaders, including a Coordinator who handles administrative tasks. They meet three times a year to brainstorm topics and do initial planning of the selected sessions. One person is the "lead" for each session, further developing it with feedback from the group. When finalized, the Coordinator distributes the session to the Facilitators.

Our Groups: Sign-ups are on a first-come, first-served basis in September, and groups meet monthly from October to June. We currently have five groups with 45 people participating. This year, to serve those who learned about Chalice Circles after September, we are piloting a "mini-program" of five sessions offered February through June. We also offer a "drop-in" Circle (using a modified format) once a month. Our Minister meets with group Facilitators three times a year.

The Future: In 2014, we hope to enhance our offerings with specialized groups for parents, newcomers, and young adults in "the gap years" of age 19-24.


Facilitator Training - February 1, 2014
UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana
Led by Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy

We are offering a one-day workshop for small group ministry facilitators and would-be facilitators February 1, 2014 at the UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana. This workshop will be led by the Rev. Dr. M'ellen Kennedy, one of the leading voices for small group ministry in the UU denomination. It is intended for congregations that have small group ministry (covenant group) programs or would like to start one.

Any congregation that wants to take advantage of this workshop may do so for $150, and can send as many participants as they wish. We will provide coffee and a light breakfast at 9:00 EST, and will have pizza for lunch available for $1.50 a slice, both vegetarian and meat varieties. The workshop will end at 4:00.

Please fill out a registration form for each participant and mail them to us by January 15th, 2014. We will not turn away late registrants, but it would be nice to have a ballpark number ahead of time.

If you have questions, feel free to email me, or call

Rev. Bill Breeden
Office: 812-332-3695 ext. 20
Cell: 812-360-1779

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