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The joys and challenges of covenant groups

Some groups don't work because they weren't set up as covenant groups to begin with.
By Donald E. Skinner
Winter 2005 11.1.05

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Soon after moving to Texas from Mississippi, Meredith Bahl joined the fifty-member Spindletop Unitarian Church in Beaumont and found it welcoming. But once she discovered the New Moon Women’s Circle at the church, her experience was “incredible,” she said. “We talk about everything in the world and do projects together,” she said. “The women are very supportive, we’re there for each other, we celebrate birthdays, and I’ve learned to think about God as female. It’s just added another level to my life.”

The New Moon Women’s Circle, one of six at Spindletop, is part of the small group ministry movement that has swept Unitarian Universalism. Nearly unknown in the denomination eight years ago, such groups have sprung up in more than 50 percent of congregations. Often called covenant groups, the groups of six to ten people typically make a covenant to agree on how they will operate and how group members will conduct themselves. They help church members and newcomers get acquainted, deepen their relationships with one another and with the church, and provide a forum for spiritual reflection.

Yet many congregations are finding that, as covenant groups increase and mature, keeping them vital takes work.

Six years ago Jane (who requested anonymity) helped organize a small group ministry program at her Midwestern congregation. The initial enthusiasm carried the groups along for about five years, she said. Then some difficulties arose.

“When we formed the original groups,” she observed, “we were careful to adhere to all of the elements called for in covenant groups, including adequate training for the leaders, making sure prospective members understood the program, and having the meetings follow a standard format. Then a few years later we formed more groups but didn’t take quite as much care in setting them up.”

The early groups are still going strong, but later groups suffered from membership dropout, changes in leadership, and complaints that a few individuals were allowed to dominate.

Church leaders realized that the later groups were formed too hurriedly, without adequate leadership training, regular group leader meetings, and an agreement that the intentional groups required regular attendance. Once they corrected these oversights, the problems went away. “We found we’d gotten away from some of the basics,” Jane said.

One of the main reasons some groups don’t work is because they weren’t set up as covenant groups to begin with. “They omitted or changed key elements,” said the Rev. Robert L. Hill, one of the founders of the UU small group ministry movement. “There are even covenant-free covenant groups, I’m told, but my view is that without a covenant agreed to by the participants and regularly reviewed, you don’t have a covenant group. There are elements that are essential to the magic, to the success of small group ministry.”

Another common reason that small group ministries fail or drag along is that ministers are only lukewarm to the concept. “Ministers need to catch the vision,” he said.

Small group ministry began in an organized way in UU congregations in 1997, when the Rev. Glenn Turner, a UUA district executive, began studying the teachings of Christian evangelist Carl George. George advocated a “metachurch” (as in metamorphosis) approach for growing congregations, using covenant groups to nurture members and welcome new people.

Turner, along with the Rev. Calvin Dame of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta, Maine, adapted the strategy for UU congregations. Shortly after, Hill, then district executive of the UUA’s Southwestern Conference, met Turner at a meeting and liked the idea. Hill also thought that small groups could help solve congregational problems he had identified: Many UU congregations could be more hospitable and less contentious, with more emphasis on community than on debate.

Together, they began to spread the message throughout the denomination, with presentations at district events, articles in UU publications, and Hill’s book, The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World Ten at a Time (Skinner House, 2003).

The groups have made a difference in people’s lives, says June Streibe, coordinator of about a dozen groups at the 600-member Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. One group is supporting a member with terminal lung cancer, she said. Many small group members have found the confidence to lead group discussions, she added, and have gone on to take other church leadership roles.

“I was going to Sunday services and teaching religious education and was just in and out every Sunday without making many connections,” said Emma Noel, who now belongs to a group at Birmingham. “Through my group I got connected with seven or eight people, and they introduced me to others. It’s been great fun. We’ve explored spirituality issues and social and ethical issues.”

Small group ministry--along with Sunday worship and the children’s religious education program--is at the heart of the High Plains Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle said. About 75 of the 120 members are involved in its small groups, which have helped the congregation feel less anxiety about the changes that come with growth.

Have covenant groups changed the High Plains congregation? “New people feel welcomed and included,” Johnson-Doyle said. “The groups help train people in hospitality, and that’s very important to the health of our congregation.”

At First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Stow and Acton in Massachusetts, 110 people are involved in eleven covenant groups. It’s part of an effort to “give the ministry away,” says the Rev. Thomas Rosiello. “There is no way one minister of a midsized church can meet everyone’s needs. One of the great blessings of small group ministry is that these groups can, in a fairly short time, help people minister to each other. They help develop the whole church not only numerically but in a deepening way. And as a denomination, I think they’re going to help us get away from insularity and move forward.”

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