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Getting Started with Small Group Ministry

UU Planet Ministry & MediaBy Peter Bowden (c) 2007
UU PLANET Ministry & Media
Co-Founder UU SGM Network

* Permission granted to reproduce the content of this page in any form with attribution.

What is Small Group Ministry?
When the terms "Small Group Ministry" and "Covenant Groups" were introduced to the Unitarian Universalist Association in the late 1990's many people said, "Hey, we have some small groups meeting in our congregation. Guess we've got small group ministry!" Time and time again I meet leaders in congregations who are working with small groups and think they are doing what I mean by small group ministry. Below is my defintion and resources I personally recommend you start with. Note that there are many wonderful kinds of groups meeting and ministering in our congregations. I value the majority of them. However many are not what I am talking about when I say Small Group Ministry. This leads to a lot of confusion so let me clearly state my defintion.

Peter Bowden's Defintion of Small Group Ministry
Small Group Ministry a way of "doing church" which strives to deepen and expand the ministry of a congregation using an intentional system of lay led small groups. Imagine all that your congregation is trying to accomplish, everything your minister, staff, leaders and members are called to do as a community. We have learned that we can design lay led and clergy supported small groups to accomplish this work and ministry. At the heart of healthy congregations and life/world changing ministries we find 1) strong relationships, 2) engagement with meaningful issues, 3) leadership/leadership development, and 4) inspired action. You might think of Small Group Ministry not as a new program, but an alternative model for doing what Unitarian Universalist congregations have been doing for years.

How do you start a small group ministry?

Step one is to do your homework. Congregations who start too fast end up regretting it. You have my personal guarantee on that point. There are many ways congregations implement small group ministries. How your build your culture of small group ministry, the purpose for groups, and how you train and support group leaders will determine whether your group ministry thrives.

As you work on developing your ministry, remember not to work in a vacuum. Talk to the person on your district's staff who has small group ministry in their portfolio. Talk colleagues with small group ministries. Look to congregations you respect and interview their leadership. Take the time to bring in an outside consultant to work with your team. Working with someone who knows this ministry inside and out can save you massive amounts of time. If you can't find a consultant or trainer in your area contact someone (like myself) who offers independent consulting/training. Check with your district office for the best person to support you. More on consulting/training.

Resource suggestions to start with
My #1 recommended resource for those wanting to start a congregation wide small group ministry -- a group program that is is generally focused on expanding and deepening the work and ministry of the church -- is Glenn Turner's paper Designing and Implementing a "Small Group Ministry" Focus for Your Congregation" by the Rev. Glenn H. Turner. In this paper Rev. Turner gives a general overview of small group ministry, a specific plan for studying the topic, and suggestions on designing and launching your own program.

Again, heed the words of the Rev. Bob Hill. Speed kills. If you try to launch or grow a program too quickly you will run into problems. Take the time to study, contact other congregations. Don't make decisions until you have learned what the terrain is like, including the common pitfalls. We now know what makes a small group ministry thrive, bumble along or flop.

After you have a basic handle on what Small Group Ministry is (from Glenn Turner's paper) I'd work with an "exploratory group" or as Glenn calls it, an "implementation team", and study the following material. At a minimum make sure you have read Glenn's paper, Bob Hill's book, and the resources by Calvin Dame.

I would also recommend reading at LEAST the following three non-UU resources. Our UU literature is not complete. It is essential - I think - that you hear Andy Stanley's arguement for being a RELATIONAL CHURCH, that you learn how to DESIGN COACHING STRUCTURES necessary for growing healthy groups, and that you are exposed to Carl George's vision and passion. Carl George's work inspired our UU small group movement.

Don't stop there. Keep reading...
In addition to these UU resources, make sure you take the time to read the resources by denominations that have been working for years to master "doing church" via small groups. Below are my recommendations.

It isn't rocket science, but it is harder than it looks
Small group ministry is not rocket science, but it is a lot more complex than one would think. I often talk about it in terms of being like an iceberg, what you see above the surface is held up by what you don't see. If you don't take the time to learn what is under the surface, all those things that need to happen to support this ministry, it is more likely than not that your small group ministry will sink instead of grow.

In faith,

Peter Freedman Bowden
UU Planet Ministry & Media
(401) 855-0037


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