Small Group Ministry
Seeking a deeper sense of connection, community, and belonging?
Feeling connected and having a sense of community is an essential part of being human. During this time, when our lives have shrunk down dramatically, connecting with others (via phone or online) has become incredibly vital to our mental and spiritual wellbeing. Whether you are new to Emerson or a long-time member, one of best the ways to get connected in this congregation is by joining one of our small group ministries. Our Small Group Ministries are the core of our adult spiritual development program at Emerson in which we explore worship themes in greater depth. These groups, of about 6-10 people each, commit to meet once or twice a month, at church or in one another’s homes, to explore monthly themes over the course of a year.
DURING THESE DIFFICULT TIMES OF COVID-19, OUR SMALL GROUPS HAVE MOVED TO ZOOM. Each facilitator has an account. Please contact Reverend Matthew firstname.lastname@example.org, or Renee Lancon email@example.com for more information.
Goals of Small Group Ministry
The Small Group Ministry program deepens and broadens personal spiritual growth and helps create a vibrant and vital religious community. This is done through five components:
- Listening: Deep listening is a gift for both the speaker and the listener. A connection forms when we share and give this gift to each other.
- Worship: Worship is central to the life of our congregation. Small Group Ministry is intended not to replace, but to augment and strengthen our shared experience.
- Community: Small groups meet the need for connection and intimacy that is both a hunger in our society and essential to the ongoing life of a religious community. The spirit of community that develops in a group radiates outward, increasing the members’ connection to Emerson and to society at large.
- Learning: People come to the church seeking spiritual growth, seeking to know themselves better, to grow into their understanding of the world, and to ponder the age old questions of faith: how to live, what to believe, how to act, what meanings we can decipher from the mystery of life.
- Service: A life of faith is a life of service. As human beings, we seek to be of use, and a healthy congregation needs to provide avenues through which we may serve. Each group agrees to take on some kind of service in the church and another in the community.
Each month the small groups all explore the same spiritual theme. There is a lot of richness in those monthly themes, which participants can engage with their group and their daily lives through reflection and spiritual practices related to the theme. What’s great is that the monthly themes are integrated into other aspects of church life, including worship services, and our religious education classes—so the whole congregation is exploring the same theme in different ways and from different perspectives.
Small group ministry participants also have access to a monthly packet, which includes spiritual exercises, questions that encourage reflection on daily living, and provocative resources that help members see the “old themes” in a new light.
A Switch to Touchstones
For the past four years, our small groups have been using Soul Matters, and now we’re going to be switching to a different program: Touchstones. The Touchstones meeting format is slightly different (it’s closer to the format of the small groups before we switched to Soul Matters) but the essentials are the same: a small group of people getting together once or twice a month to explore themes that are vital to living lives of greater meaning and purpose.
Touchstones also has overarching annual theme. This year’s theme is “Deepening Connections,” which is so relevant to this time. Contemporary society is plagued by isolation, loneliness, and despair. While social media facilitates connections and networking, it tends to be superficial. People do not have deep relationships that foster connection and support. In times of crisis, too many people have no one to turn to. Our congregations must strive to nurture deepen connections among members, newcomers, and strangers. These small groups exists to support this journey of reconnection to life, others and ourselves, as we help each other deepen our personal spiritual connections and strengthen our bond to each other as members of this faith community.
Although exploring the theme with a group of people will always be a richer experience, you don’t need to be part of a small group to benefit what Touchstones has to offer. Anyone is free to read the Touchstones Journal, which contains readings, short reflections and wisdom stories, and a daily quotation, connected to that month’s theme. The last page of the journal also contains an outline for the small group meetings, if you’re curious about the format.
TOUCHSTONES THEME FOR APRIL: MINDFULNESS
The practice of mindfulness in meditation and throughout each day slows us down so that we can attend to all that is happening around us. Being more present to ourselves, we are more present to others, and this is a step toward deepening connections. In place of the judging mind, we find that observing is enough. Relieved of the burden of judging, we seek compassionate understanding. Rather than, “Oh, no!” we often respond to life with, “Ah, yes!” Instead of living on the surface of life, mindfulness equips us to plumb the depths with “full awareness and appro- priate attention,” according to Thích Nhất Hạnh. He adds, “Our true home is the present moment.” Setting aside past and future, we deepen our experience of the present moment and all the connections it involves.
In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thích Nhất Hạnh shares the following story. “In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, ‘Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.’ Jim replied, ‘Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?’ I answered, ‘There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.’ Jim was delighted and said, ‘I choose the second way—to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.’ From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the ‘responsibility’ to him for an entire week.
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. keep reading this and more in the Touchstones Journal for April.
If you would like to be part of a group, sign-up HERE.
More about Small Group Ministries: A different way of doing church
The Small Group Ministry idea has spread quickly through Unitarian-Universalist churches. Of course, there is nothing new about parishioners meeting together in small groups and having discussions. However, the groups of a Small Group Ministry program have a unique set of features that make them different from study groups, classes, committees, task forces, support groups, affinity groups, or any of the other groups that one typically finds in a church.
- The groups are people-centered rather than task-centered. You may get to know people by serving on a committee with them, but that’s not why committees exist. Committee meetings are designed to get something done, not to foster connections between people.
- The groups are ongoing rather than running for a set term. Not everyone who joins a group will stay with it for years and years, but the possibility is there if you want it.
- The groups are not isolated, but are part of a program that is integrated with the larger life of the church. They are an important ministry of the church.
- The groups give back to the church and the wider community by annually performing two group projects, one for the benefit of the church and the other for the community at large, to be determined by the group.
SGM is not a debate society or a study group. The point is not to convert other people to our own opinion or to impress them with our intelligence and knowledge, but to speak our truth so that others can know us, and to listen to others speak their truth so that we can know them. The topics are not ends in themselves; we don’t talk about, say, community or forgiveness because we want everyone to become experts in community or forgiveness. The topics are means to the end of getting to know ourselves and each other. By watching and listening to each other grapple with the topics, the participants learn about each other in a different way than they would by serving on a committee or meeting at a coffee hour or some other social event.
SGM is also not therapy. The point is to get to know one another, not to solve each other’s problems or give each other advice. People get to know each other not by confessing their deepest darkest secrets, but by participating together in discussion.
The topics are intended to focus the group’s attention on the things we have in common just by being human. Therefore, SGM groups are not affinity groups; the topics do not assume any shared special interests or experiences. But everyone was born and everyone will die. Everyone has successes and failures, loves and losses. Everyone has the same fundamental needs and the same basic emotions. Just being human gives us a great deal to talk about.
Finally, the purpose of a small group is not to replace Emerson’s other activities or to cut group members off from the rest of the congregation, but to draw them further in. Many other UU churches have found that SGM does not satiate or exhaust the participants’ appetite for community, but whets it. Having discovered how much common humanity they share with an apparently random group of parishioners, SGM participants become more curious about the rest of the congregation. Having been listened to, accepted, and treated with respect in one church activity, they are encouraged to try others.
What are Small Group sessions like?
- Opening Words: Gathering in, settling down, reminding participants of the special opportunity of the gathering, possibly reflecting the topic of the session. The meeting may begin with the lighting of a candle or a chalice.
- Check-In: Participants share news of what has been happening in their lives. Each group develops its own customs as to the length of sharing. This portion of the meeting may expand from time to time when circumstances call for it.
- Topic/Discussion: A paragraph or two lays out a topic and presents questions that will elicit thoughtful discussion and significant reflection. A group may stay with a topic several weeks or be done in one evening.
- Check-Out: Likes and Wishes: This is an opportunity for feedback.
- Closing Words: This brings the formal session to and end. Groups are encouraged to start and end on time.
What is expected of members?
Group members are expected to commit to regular meeting times and to practice deep listening. Deep listening is a way of focusing intently on what another person is saying without interruption or simultaneously formulating a response. Deep listening also gives an individual an opportunity to speak without interruption or comment.
You commit yourself to making the group meetings a high priority.
Everyone from time to time runs into unpredictable events (like illness) that make it impossible to attend a particular meeting. But if you know from the outset that you will not be able to attend the meetings regularly, don’t sign up.
You commit to give the group and its members a chance. You may already know a number of the people in your group and may have prior opinions about them. Or you may have prior opinions about people like them — opinions about old people or young people or men or women or whatever. We ask that you do your best to put aside your prior opinions and give everyone in your group a chance to surprise you.
You initially commit to attend four consecutive meetings of your group. In the experience of the congregations that have tried SGM, four meetings is what it takes to give the group a chance. If four two-hour meetings is too much for you to risk on a group, don’t sign up.
If you continue with the group after the initial four-meeting period, you commit to stay with the group for a year. If it becomes necessary for you to break this commitment, please tell the facilitator or the minister. It’s important for the minister to know the true size of a group when s/he is making decisions about whether to add members.
You commit to abide by the group covenant. Unitarian Universalism is based not on creeds but on covenants, agreements about how we will be together and how we will treat each other. Each group will establish its own rules and practices for showing respect to each other. The initial covenant of each group will be the “Guidelines for Discussion” contained in the SGM handbook. Each group can alter these rules as it sees fit, while retaining the goal of honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.
?? Frequently Asked Questions about Small Groups ??
- WHO IS IN CHARGE OF SMALL GROUP MINISTRY? The minister is the most visible face directing our program but is not alone. A SGM Implementation Team planned the introduction of Small Group Ministry into the Congregation. The Board of the Congregation officially adopted their proposal. In doing so, the Board asked the minister to devote time in helping to direct and coordinate SGM. Facilitators bring feedback and ideas to their meetings that help to guide the program. Additionally, there is a Steering Committee that meets with the minister to try to anticipate what we could be doing now so that the program will continue to be a strong part of our congregational life three, five, or ten years from now.
- WHERE DO THE GROUPS MEET? Each group decides whether to meet primarily in members homes or at the church. Some groups alternate locations.
- HOW LONG DO MEETINGS LAST? Sessions are designed to be two hours long. By common consent, most groups are respectful of the time.
- WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE MINISTER? The minister coordinates this ministry of the congregation, helping to recruit and train facilitators, meeting with them each month to counsel and guide, assigning new members to existing groups, and developing new groups. In addition, the minister may write and/or edit the sessions that guide group meetings.
- WHAT IS EXPECTED OF A MINISTRY GROUP PARTICIPANT? Participants are expected to bring a positive attitude and a willingness to share and learn. What has emerged as the most important expectation that participants have for one another is to give the agreed-upon meetings a high priority. While no one can make every meeting, members make every effort to attend.
- WHAT DOES THE FACILITATOR DO? The Small Group Ministry Facilitators promote and assist in the progress of the life of the group. They make sure the group begins and ends on time, or they delegate someone to do so. They remind people of the next meeting and contact group members who miss a meeting, or delegate someone to do so. During the meeting, they read from the Session plans and guide the discussion, or delegate someone to do so. They meet each month with the minister and other facilitators and help to maintain the connection between individual groups and the larger church.
- WHO WILL KNOW WHAT I SAY? There is an expectation of confidentiality within groups. The level of comfort around confidentiality will vary within groups, so Participants are encouraged to review this expectation from time to time and renew their covenant of this aspect of the groups. When there are significant pastoral concerns, a Facilitator may ask if they can share that concern with the minister.
- HOW DOES SMALL GROUP MINISTRY GROW? We will always be in the process of forming new groups as people become interested in joining a group or as new people arrive. As new groups are formed, apprentices or experienced group members step forward to become facilitators for new groups. As the circumstances of peoples’ lives change, the membership of a group may change from time to time. While it is sad to say goodbye, new members are warmly welcomed and expand the circle of connection.
- IS SMALL GROUP MINISTRY THERAPY? No. While Participants in our groups often report feeling better connected and happier in their lives, SGM is not therapy. Professional therapy is readily available in our communities. The purpose of SGM is to offer connection, reflection, community, and spiritual growth.
- HOW DOES THE IDEA OF SERVICE FIT IN? From the beginning of our planning, the idea of service has been woven into the fabric of Small Group Ministry. We ask that every group, over time, take on some kind of service in the church and in the community. This might be covering all the sign-up jobs on a Sunday Morning, adopting a family in need at Christmas, or guiding a fundraiser during the church year. Service beyond the group is important for two reasons. First, it helps to offset the natural tendency of small, intimate groups to become self absorbed and disconnected, and second, because a necessary aspect of a growing spiritual life, a life of faith, is service.
- WHY CALL IT SMALL GROUP MINISTRY? Over the years, we at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church have come to envision the ministry of the congregation as being widely shared. The called and settled professional minister is an important component, certainly, but so is the ministry of the laity. The ministry of our religious community is the work of the whole community.
- HOW OFTEN DO GROUPS MEET? Each group develops its own schedule; the most common pattern is to meet twice a month on the first and third or second and fourth weeks. That makes scheduling easier and allows a three-week interval from time to time. Some groups choose every other week or once a month. Experience has shown that the most successful groups meet twice a month. Groups may tend to meet less often through the summer and over holidays.
- HOW LONG WILL I BE IN A GROUP? The commitment to a group is open ended. Experience has shown that people often stay in their group for years. And, for reasons of their own, other members leave from time to time. We have built an annual reassignment date into our program when everyone has a chance to recommit to the group they are in or ask to join another group.
How to Join
To join, fill out an online registration form, or, when we meet again on person, ask for a registration form at the welcome table or in the office. Return the form to the minister or to the office, or mail it to Emerson UUC, 7304 Jordan Avenue, Canoga Park, CA 91303.
Please give us a variety of times and days you are available. Groups are formed by the minister who exercises judgment to decide which groups are best able to accommodate new members. The more options you provide will permit the best fit for your placement. After consultation with the group facilitator, the minister can add new members to a group at any time.