snail Backyard to the Universe snail
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.

In educational programs, we give tools for the spiritual journey, such as information, traditions, and spiritual practices. However, it is in expressing and sharing spiritual journeys that we integrate the learning. Small Group Ministry connects people as a ministry that enhances spiritual journeys and church connections. This is a key to Relational Religious Education as educational ministry throughout a lifetime!

 

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.

  • "Small" means a group with a maximum of 8-10 people, so that even small congregations could probably have more than one group. Groups of this size are designed to provide an opportunity to relate on a more intentional level.
  • "Group" is a gathering of individuals, sometimes selected at random, sometimes selected for a specific interest or characteristic. What separates these groups from others in the congregation, is "ministry."
  • "Ministry" is the process or act of caring for another, so that the focus of the group is the well-being of each member in the group. Set in the congregational context, this related to the spiritual as well as they physical and emotional well-being of the others.

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.

 

COMPONENTS

Four important components of ministry within a congregation that interact here:

  1. Community worship or celebration. People feel more comfortable with the larger gathering and with the celebration itself when they have a sense of connection with at least with some of the participants on a more personal level.
  2. Community connections and caring. Small groups provide opportunity for deeper connection with a smaller group of people than is possible with a larger group.
  3. Personal spiritual growth. Small Group Ministry encourages individual spiritual journeys that are enhanced by sharing in the group.
  4. Service. Small Group Ministry provides a way to live out the meaning of the caring and spiritual journeys beyond the immediate group itself.

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.

DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS

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:

  1. Size is preferably at least four or five and no more than eight to ten people, including facilitators. Participants are placed in groups through the minister or a coordinator to match the needs of the individual and the group, in consultation with the facilitators. Facilitators may suggest people for their groups, but this is done with the coordinator. When the size of the group increases beyond eight, starting a new group is considered.
  2. Frequency of meetings is at least once a month, and preferable at least twice a month, in a quiet, private, comfortable setting. Meetings usually last for 1.5 to 2 hours.
  3. Format includes worshipful or centering readings, personal check-in and time to reflect on how the topic relates to our own life and spiritual growth. (See Session Format below.)
  4. Facilitators are selected and trained by the minister, or a designated coordinator. Facilitators are chosen for their interpersonal skills and commitment to the program. The minister or another designated person, often called a "coach," facilitates a Facilitators Group that meets at least monthly. Training is on-going and shared. (See "Facilitators and Support Structures")
  5. Empty Chair symbolizes those who have not yet joined the group or who are absent for some reason. This visually presents the concept of outreach, and that the group needs to remain open to change.
  6. A Covenant is a sacred promise that defines how the group participants will talk, work, and be together. A covenant is reviewed at least annually and when there are difficulties with members not fulfilling the promises. This allows the group as a whole and the members individually to reconsider and to reaffirm the covenant. There are some implied expectations related to participation, starting and ending on time, and confidentiality.
  7. Connection with the church community is explicit: ministry groups are developed under the sponsorship of the congregation. Not all participants are members of the congregation. Participants who has been active in the congregation for a number of years find that the group gives additional importance to the place of the church in their lives.
  8. Support system for the development and maintenance of the program is key to the continuance of the groups. The support system includes orientation and support for facilitators as well as an established way for people to become part of a group.
  9. Service to the congregation or larger community helps keep the small group from becoming self-absorbed and disconnected and is part of a growing spiritual life. The service activities can include ongoing elements of church life as well as projects in the larger community.

SESSION FORMAT

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:

  • Generic, focused on calling the group together or
  • Specific related to the topic of the meeting

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

  • Sharing accomplishments or concerns
  • Sharing highlights in your life since the last session

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:

  • Participants talk about the topic as it relates to them, without being disputed.
  • Participants share from their own experience
  • Participants can learn from the stories and sharing of others

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

  • Generic, or used for each session
  • Related to the topic.

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.

  • To elicit or impart information is an educational approach.
  • To engage the individual from their spiritual base and feelings is ministry.

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.

  • Facilitators meet together regularly with a designated person, such as the minister, who functions as a "coach." The focus is to strengthen the process, to give ideas for sessions, and to share successes and issues.
  • Facilitators' meetings are held at specified times and can follow the pattern of the small group meetings, including personal check-in, groups' status as the content/theme, and closing with inspirational reading, and likes and wishes.
  • This support follows a pyramid pattern. Just as there are up to 8-10 people in a group including the facilitator(s), up to 9 facilitators meet with a coach, who would be the tenth person in the group. Then a second group of facilitators is established with another coach. The coaches then meet with another coach, and the process continues at that level. In this manner, there is support at all levels.

Facilitator of Small Group #1

< ;

Person

Person

Person

Person

Person

Person

Person

Person

Person

Coach A

< 7

Small

Group 1

facilitator

Small

Group 2

facilitator

Small

Group 3

facilitator

Small

Group 4

facilitator

Small

Group 5

facilitator

Small

Group 6

facilitator

Small

Group 7

facilitator

Small

Group 8

facilitator

Small

Group 9

facilitator

Coach AA

< ;

Coach A

Small Group 1

Small Group 2

Small Group 3

Small Group 4

Small Group 5

Small Group 6

Small Group 7

Small Group 8

Coach B

Small Group 1

Small Group 2

Small Group 3

Small Group 4

Small Group 5

Small Group 6

Small Group 7

Small Group 8

Coach C

Small Group 1

Small Group 2

Small Group 3

Small Group 4

Small Group 5

Small Group 6

Small Group 7

Small Group 8

Coach D

Small Group 1

Small Group 2

Small Group 3

Small Group 4

Small Group 5

Small Group 6

Small Group 7

Small Group 8

Coach E

Small Group 1

Small Group 2

Small Group 3

Small Group 4

Small Group 5

Small Group 6

Small Group 7

Small Group 8

In implementing small group ministry, it is important to consider that:

  • Not everyone in a congregation needs to be in a group; nor does everyone have to "join" at the same time.
  • This is a mechanism for including people as they enter the church community in a relational manner, that is, not "being on a committee."
  • People from outside the current church community are invited to join a group.
  • The small groups in this context are not therapy groups or educational groups; they are ministry groups.
  • There is an appointed facilitator of each group who meets regularly with the minister (or a designated "coach") other group facilitators.
  • Group members covenant with each other about being together in the group, and about how the group can serve the church and larger community.
  • Plans are made for new groups once the "magic number" of 8 members has been reached.
  • In starting the Small Group Program in a congregation, it is a good idea to start at least two groups, possibly representing diverse parts of the congregation. In this way, the small group ministry is a congregational activity and decreases the potential for a small group to become exclusive. This also gives the facilitator(s) support.


All materials copyright © 2008-2017 by Helen Zidowecki unless otherwise noted. - hzmre@hzmre.com - http://www.hzmre.com

Top Printable Version