Backyard to the Universe
Small Group Ministries
Small Group Ministry is changing my approach to religious education!
The focus is on spiritual development rather than gaining information. The questions focus on how participants relate to stories rather than on how much they 'learn'. The 'learning' is from the impact of the story and the dialog, rather than on information gained. As Unitarian Universalist, without a specific body of knowledge that we expect everyone to have, we have the challenge and opportunity to focus on spiritual development and spiritual practices for a lifetime.
The language used in identifying components of the religious education program changes from an instructional model to a community, connection, and relational model -- Relational Religious Education. This changes the emphasis from religion education to an educational ministry.
The leader is a participant. The leader is part of the sharing and the dialog. Leader preparation focuses on considering the topic rather than preparing 'content'. The preparation for leading a group provides opportunity for spiritual reflection. How do we provide orientation and support?
The focus of curriculum writing is on the individual rather than on a group. What is available for the individual can be adapted to a group. This allows for the very small group -- even a participant and a leader or a parent and a child -- to use the material.
The leader's presence is with the group rather than with the content. Orientation and support empowers them to explore directions that standard curricula may discourage because of structure. Leaders may need assurance that this is part of the 'ministry' and the essence of bringing a topic alive. The leader can go deeper with a topic, with less 'content', more 'focus'.
There is greater latitude in grouping participants. We tend to group participants by participants by age. Groups that cover several years allow for variations in maturation and development of participants, more latitude in arriving at gender balance, and wisdom shared over several years. The model can be used with very small groups --even the leader and a participant in a mentoring situation, small congregations or family groups.
Arts, crafts and activities enhance the dialog rather then on illustrate the learning. Using activities allows various methods of expression and reacting. The outcome is increased interaction rather than a product related to the information.
Myths, Wisdom Stories become a major methodology. Understanding of the importance of mythology in our tradition -- mythology that surrounds our 'elders' -- gives clues to how their values. And stories also come from the participants themselves.
This is an overview of the influence of Small Group Ministry on Relational Religious Education, including suggestions and a few session plans for implementation. Please also see Adapting Small Group Ministry for Children's Religious Education, by Gail Forsyth-Vail, Director of Religious Education, North Parish, Unitarian Universalist, North Andover, Massachusetts, 2003. That implementation offers a slightly different model for implementation.
If a sense of community is essential for adults in a congregation, and if we hope that our children will be active Unitarian Universalists, Small Group Ministry is an essential part of "raising up" our children. Small Group Ministry has the potential to transform the educational ministry of the church! Indeed, the result would be relational religious education for all ages.
Small Group Ministry, also known as Covenant Group, is being widely discussed and implemented within the Unitarian Universalist congregations. However, applying the concept to children in our congregations and to the educational ministry of the church is "work in progress." To understand this "work," the first section of this paper -- a review of Small Group Ministry -- provides the background on which this description of Relational Religious Education is based. This presentation advocates for Small Group Ministry in general, with specific application to children and the educational ministry of the church.
This presentation is on the website www.hzmre.com and additional discussions and session plans will be posted as they are developed.
SMALL GROUP MINISTRY IN THE CONTEXT OF THE CHURCH COMMUNITY: Overview
Please review this section before going on to application to programs for children and youth.
There may be "small groups" within congregations now. What makes a small group a "ministry group"? How is "Small Group Ministry" different from how small congregations function?
The answer lies in the name itself.
In small congregations, everyone may know the "demographics" of other participants: births/deaths/ages, marriages/divorces/relationships, children, employment. However, even in a small congregation, there may not be specific time for dialogue about spiritual issues and spiritual journeys.
Four important components of ministry within a congregation that interact here:
Studies have shown that if people who come to worship services fail to make several personal connections within a short period of time, they will not continue to come. Likewise, deeper and personal connections, beyond just nodding or greeting, are made in groups of not more than 10 people. What occurs is a ministry to each member and an opportunity to go deeper in exploring spiritual issues. The concept of ministry in community is serving, caring about. The community caring can result in a service to the church community and to the larger community.
What makes a small group a ministry group? There may be various groups within the congregation that are "small." Committees, discussion groups and women’s or men’s groups might fit that category. The defining characteristic is that the focus of the group is on ministry. The defining ‘logistical’ characteristics ministry groups are:
The simple format provides a structure. For new participants, the format helps to see what happens overall. For participants who have been meeting for awhile, the format keeps the focus on the group as a whole, and defers side conversations to outside of the session time. The format allows each participant to be part of the group as he/she is comfortable.
A chalice lighting and/or opening words gathers people, and sets the time for being together as special. The opening may be:
Check-in/Sharing allows everyone an opportunity to speak, without interruption. (It may be helpful to set a time for this, such as 5 minutes, with the option of extending the time if needed and if agreed by the group.) Check-in can focus on
Passing on sharing is acceptable. If someone has passed, he or she may wish to speak after others have shared.
Topic/Dialogue provides thoughts or reflective questions for the group to start the dialogue. In using dialogue:
With the exception of divisive issues within the church, the group can use a topic that is consistent with our Purposes and Principles and the mission of the sponsoring congregation.
Closing words may be
Likes/Wishes. A quick notation is made of what people liked about the meeting and what they wish it could have been. This is also a time for clarifying the plans for the next session.
The development of session topics may be done by the minister, by a group with a designated person to coordinate format and consistency, or may rise from the group itself. The critical part of developing the session plans is the manner in which the questions are asked.
Both are vital, both are needed, both need to be identified as they are used. Some standard questions for Small Group Ministry might be:
What stories around this topic do I have to share with the group? What can I hear from the stories of others?
How does this topic relate to me spiritually and why?
What am I bringing from my past experiences to discussion of this topic?
How does my perspective of the topic influence my living and my actions?
FACILITATORS AND SUPPORT STRUCTURE
The person who volunteers to be the facilitator of a group does not need to be a "content expert." The facilitator models good process and listening skills and helps the group adhere to the group covenant, including starting and ending the meetings on time. Facilitators can be an active part of the group, remembering that their primary function is to ‘facilitate.’
It is be vital that facilitators don't ‘lead’ too much. They are to be present, to help keep things on track. They may have to move discussions along, but it is the members who "own" the group and have the primary responsibility for its success or failure.
One of the strongest parts of the model is the support that is available to the Facilitators.
Facilitator of Small Group #1
In implementing small group ministry, it is important to consider that: