Capturing an Historic Trend:
Decade of Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups
for the UU Small Group Ministry Network
Additional information can be found on:
Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry (SGM) has been changing the way congregations
interact since the late 1990’s. Where Small Group Ministry is practiced, individuals and
congregations have developed materials and are sharing them widely a cultural result of technology.
This workshop explores: 1) the importance of capturing history among those who are living; 2) the
influence of technological and cultural change on history; and 3) ways of using current trends and
technology to keep UU history alive.
The workshop will explore the development of the UU Small Group Ministry/Covenant Group
Movement, noting in particular:
The need for development of materials that are accessible in this age of information overload,
including the experience of the UU Small Group Ministry in developing historic documents.
Three years ago, the Network started annual compilations of materials: in 2008 the focus was
on collecting materials dating from the formation of the UU SGM Network (2004-2008); in
2009 the focus was on assembling the archives we were able to recover from the work of Bob
Hill and others from 1998 to 2004, and putting that together with the material from the 2008-
2009 period; in 2010 we celebrate that over 100 congregations are in various stages of using
Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups and we examine the struggles, trends, and issues of
longevity seen in Covenant Groups.
The evolution of models and defining terms, which includes using and incorporating materials
developed in congregations with their variations and disputes, and using the technologies that
make communication readily available. There have been various models in Small Group
Ministry, from the more intense model that is closer to adult religious education and
exploration, to the more informal model with little preparation for a session. There is also
discussion of the role of service projects within Small Group Ministry, which is being used far
beyond specific groups in a congregation, and the process of exploring specific topics and
relational religious education.
The potential for using Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups as a tool for connecting
historical figures and issues with the present. There will be an experience of doing this in small
groups within the workshop. There are some such session plans on the UUWHS website, and
this has been a topic of UUWHS workshops at GA
1.UU Small Group Ministry is changing congregations
Familiarity with SGM/Covenant groups
We shared experiences and familiarity with Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups, and reviewed
the “Basic Elements of Small Group Ministry” as delineated by the UU Small Group Ministry
The expectation of UU Small Group Ministry
Growth in congregations: numeric
To get to numeric growth, need to offer deeper experience in the congregation
Growth – people who come in will stay
Relates to Ultimacy and Ultimacy in the Basic Elements
Bob Hill, previously District Executive in the Southwest District noted in CGN Feb. 2000:
“I should have listened the day I heard Dr. James Luther Adams give a lecture at Andover
Newton Theological School. Now, twenty years later, I know he was saying something I
would need to discover myself in the midst of being a Unitarian Universalist Minister. In
response to a question about why people come to our religious communities at all, Dr. Adams
was quite succinct. They come for ultimacy and intimacy.
He went on to explain that they came to wrestle with (and from time to time actually find answers to)
life’s ultimate questions. Who am I? In what or in whom do I trust? In what community do I belong?
And they came for a sense of intimacy, a safe place in which they could be accepted while making
connections with others.
2. The history See Ten Years of Unitarian Universalist Small Group Ministry, the
complete -- and only – history of Unitarian Universalist Small Group
Congregations using small groups in the 1990’s
Rev. Donald Fielding-Covenant Groups, Oak Cliff UUF, Dallas
Brewster, MA used groups, more as affinity than SGM
Bob Hill, then District Executive in Southwest District, and Glenn Turner, then District Executive in
Northeast District (Maine and Maritime Provinces) started talking about the need for congregational
Glenn Turner wrote an article for CGN in October 1999 titled “Why Do Churches Stay Under 150
Members. And 83% Under 250?” (Ten Years, #10)
Let me continue with the quotation from Bob Hill that I started above:
Over the years, I have found Adams’ theory to meet the test of parish ministry. People come
into our communities looking for a place to belong (intimacy) and a place to seek meaning
(ultimacy) about living and dying and the spaces between. And though I hoped the churches I
served could meet these two needs, I sometimes found how short we fell.
To the question of intimacy, we offered positions on committees. To the issue of ultimacy, we
talked more about increasing membership or pledging rather than the depth of our
commitment to a cause in the world and to each other. And we often banked on Sundays to
meet both needs, as if these were even possible. Perhaps these are the reasons why the
overwhelming majority of our congregations are still under 250 members.
Ten Years, #11
Glenn Turner focused in on the Meta-Church work from the work of Carl George. In an editorial note
from Bob Hill in CGN 1998, (Ten Years #6) that “In the fall of 1997, the Interim Minister at First
Parish in Portland, Maine, Rev. Francis Buckmaster, introduced Glenn to the work of Carl George of
the Fuller Institute in California, the most prominent proponent of meta-church organization for
churches.” The term ‘meta’ means transformation.
Relational church: Kennon Callahan’s “Twelve Keys to an Effective Church” The keys were divided
into relational and functional. Callahan’s premise is that the relational keys were more of paramount
importance, and functions were to support the relational aspects. Glenn Turner had been using the
Twelve Keys in his district. Small Group Ministry Session Plan that I wrote based on the Keys this
way: [How Do We “Do” Church,” Opening]
Or to quote Carl George: “One of the goals of a Meta-Church and of any effective
organizational system [is to] assure the highest level of care at the lowest level in the
structure. And the more effective the structure is, the more the ministry is shared between paid
staff and volunteer leaders.”
Shared ministry: We were talking about Ministerial Associates, developing training programs within
the denomination. Embracing shared ministry is essential for the development of Small Group
Ministry. “Small Group Ministry is intentional lay-led small groups that deepen and expand the
ministry of a congregation.”
Getting back to the history of the movement, a third major party in this period, in addition to Bob Hill
and Glenn Turner, was Thandeka, who started the Center for Community Values in Chicago. This
group was instrumental in hosting a number of meetings that brought together various people who
were working on the Small Group Ministry/Covenant Group concept.
The UU Small Group Ministry Network grew from such a meeting in April 2004, hosted by
Michael McGee in Arlington, VA.
The founders were Calvin Dame of Augusta, ME; Peter Bowden from Rhode Island, and
M’ellen Kennedy form Vermont. The intent was to provide a way to promote Small Group
Ministry, to make it more accessible to more congregations
Please note that the work that we had to do was two-fold:
Taking the theories and methodologies from other traditions and making them UU.
*Bob Hill noted the Wesley Groups of the Methodists in the 1700s –small groups of 10-12
that met in homes for study.
*John Morgan, in his article in the Ten Years, points to the Universalist heritage. But that is
not evident now.
*The major influence is evangelical Christian.
Taking the variations that occur congregations start Small Group Ministry, developing a
model that holds major components that have evolved – again in the articles in Ten Years
– yet allow flexibility in implementation. The work over the years can be found in the
ever evolving document, Implementing Small Group Ministry, with the latest edition
being October 2010. Some of these variations are noted in Ten Years, #13.
3. Capturing the History
The development of the UU Small Group Ministry Network marked an attempt to provide a place for
ongoing conversation about Small Group Ministry/Covenant Groups in a coordinated manner.
Bob Hill had been writing Covenant Group News (CGN), an electronic
newsletter, at least monthly since December 1998. He turned CGN over to the
UU Small Group Ministry Network to continue.
Peter Bowden moved the web site that he had started to the Network and
managed it for a number of years.
M’ellen Kennedy started the SGM Quarterly.
When I assumed responsibility for the website, I realized that the wealth of articles and resources,
especially from the CGN and Quarterly, were being buried on the site. Articles appear in these
publications, are placed on the website as part of the publications, but not indexed.
I had not become involved with SGM beyond my own congregation (Augusta, ME) until becoming
involved with the Network in 2005. I wondered what had happened to the previous copies of
Covenant Group News. I figured that this was where the history was. This was about 2008. Bob had
stored them on his district website, but that had been cleaned after he retired and moved to Australia.
We were finally able to locate the archives, and found the rich body of knowledge that I quoted from
when giving you the history – and added depth to my own understanding of the impact and the
importance of Small Group Ministry.
So the challenges here are to:
Maintain records as we live and are in essence making history.
Track materials through the various evolutions of technology.
The writings about SGM have come from over 150 congregations, continuing through Covenant
Group News and the SGM Quarterly. We have been capturing these writing in published documents
regularly – hard copy as well as electronic.
4. Using Small Group Ministry to keep history and heritage alive
As we capture the history, we also create the history.
Why should the ultimacy and intimacy, and way of being in relationship be limited to adults? If we
want to bring up our children and youth to participate as adults, let’s start implementing Small Group
Ministry with them. Several of us worked on this, including Gail Forsyth-Vail, who is now working
with Multigenerational Congregations at UUA. We will undoubtedly see more of her work with
Small Group Ministry coming into play. And the new Tapestry of Faith selection, Sharing the
Journey, is designed for youth.
Small Group Ministry is here to stay, at least for the present.
Small Group Ministry is a program within the congregations.
It is also a process of listening and exploring that is available on more immediate and time-limited
basis. Several years ago, I started writing some Small Group Ministry session plans based on the
worship services created by the UU Women’s Heritage Society for General Assembly. This is called
“riding the current trend”. [Sessions are available on
Break into groups of not more than five people each.
Self select the facilitator.
Listening and learning, rather than discussing and convincing
The outcome will be deeper understanding, rather than a product or agreement
SMALL GROUP MINISTRY: UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST WOMEN’S
LET US NOW PRAISE THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
From Let Us Now Praise Universalist Women
Created by the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society
and originally presented at General Assembly, 1993
Chalice Lighting/Opening Words
For all who came before,
who founded churches and Sunday schools,
who shared their faith through their preaching and teaching,
For all who fought inequity and cruelty,
often at great personal cost,
For all whose faith fueled their work
for a just world,
May the stories of these few inspire us to find more stories,
and to create our own,
Our paths illuminated by this light of Universalism.
Share how a Unitarian Universalist woman, historic, contemporary, or in your own congregation or
family, has influenced you.
What in that woman’s life honors our faith tradition?
By our very presence in the company of Unitarian Universalists, we are showing the way for
How are you showing the impact of Unitarian Universalism on your life?
[This can be repeated to name additional women.]
There are those who will come after us and create new things on the foundation of the work that
we, in our turn, do. As our lives span the years, so do they intercept and interlock with one
another that the generations seem not to be separate, but one. In their deeds and actions, their
interests and motivations, the women of [the past] are as much a part of us today as they were
in the beginning...
Because these things are true, a grave responsibility rests upon each... of us—the responsibility
of cherishing the trust which is ours, of fashioning it to serve the purpose of our day and of
transmitting it in wholeness to those who follow us.
(Laura Hersey, in Souvenir, published c. 1960, p. 30, adapted)