Not by Twos, But by Groups They Shall Be

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, February 19, 2006 –

I love Dr. Seuss’ stories. As a kid, I loved his sing-song cadence, and his fantastic machines from a Rube Goldberg-like imagination. And I loved how a few sparely drawn lines could convey so much expression on his bizarre

characters. As I grew older, I marveled at Seuss’ ability to make a point, to teach a lesson, without sounding moralistic or preachy. His messages about justice and equity and compassion and ecology seem to arrive as naturally as the next rhyming word it’s simply the way it is or, rather, should be, since Seuss is always pointing us towards a more hopeful tomorrow. And yet as I revisit these stories again and again, I find how many different layers they carry within them.

Take The Sneetches. The conclusion is forgone, really no amount of money or interventions will lead, ultimately, to the happiness Sneetches seek. And, of course, who really cares about today’s fads star, no star in the face of Sneetches being just, well, Sneetches. (Note that I say the conclusion is forgone but no less needed in the face of Madison Avenue and powerful marketing forces). Yet there’s another message threaded through the story, as there are in so many of Seuss’ tales. Sneetches, if I read Seuss correctly, have a simple and very powerful yearning to belong, to be identified with others. And as the story progresses, Sneetches evolve from seeing one another narrowly defined by ‘bellies with stars’ or ‘none upon thars’ to Sneetches are Sneetches, regardless of adornment.

Belonging. This longing to belong is a fundamental human yearning, found in all times and all cultures. It manifests itself in different ways at different times in our lives, and what constitutes belonging is conditioned by our family experiences, our personality, and the societal context where we spend our time. But the need to belong is there nonetheless – to belong is to be reassured that brothers and sisters surround us.

It is this desire to belong that often leads people to seek a place like a Unitarian Universalist congregation, or any place where there is a possibility to connect with a community of like-minded people, to feel at home. No doubt one of the questions hovering inside each person crossing that threshold for the first time iswill I belong? For some, the answer – yes or no – comes quickly, and life moves on. But for others, the question remains unanswered, partly, at least, because it’s just plain hard to be sure.

Take my friend Sylvia, for example. Sylvia grew up as a Unitarian, but drifted away from her religion, as so many do, during her college years. Not until she was married and living in a new community did she seek a Unitarian Universalist congregation – a place she had once belonged, but as a child and teen. Now it was time to see if she belonged again – as an adult. She attended the local Unitarian church, First Parish, several times, and each time, overwhelmed by the number of people she didn’t know, she bolted for the door right after service. Until she was finally taken by the arm by a caring older member, and steered toward the crowded coffee hour. But Sylvia was still cowed by the crowd, and escaped as soon as she could. What she discovered was that right outside the back door, the First Parish smokers hung out together – the same people, at the same time, every week. And even though she didnít smoke, Sylvia started to stop and talk with them, every week. This is how she got beyond the prospect of facing the coffee mob and their talk that never seemed to go past hi, my name is and you are?? Sylvia found conversation, and connection, and together these answered the question for her – yes, she belonged there. In time, her belonging did move past the smokers at the back door, and into the rest of the life of the congregation. And P.S., Sylvia is now a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Sylvia’s experience points both to this idea of belonging, and the importance of small groups that exist for the purpose of connecting, of finding a home for ourselves. Itís the kind of story that many folks in religious circles have recently taken to heart, leading to a new way of doing church – inviting people to regularly gather together in small groups to talk about those things that have meaning in their lives.

Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams once said people come to churches for ultimacy and intimacy. Intimacy is about a place to belong, just as we’ve seen with the Sneetches – and with Sylvia. Ultimacy is about a place to seek meaning, an opportunity to engage in conversation about the timeless questions of what it means to be human on this planet. In short, people come to congregations in search of what they most likely do not find in other places in their lives.

Of course, this is supposedly why congregations exist – as places of connection, and to wrestle with the larger questions. But those of us who have been around these places for a while know that the business – and busyness – of congregational life can easily drown out these good intentions. There’s money to raise for the congregation’s operating expenses, all manner of tasks to be accomplished, plenty of work to do, and meetings – ah, many, many meetings – to organize, attend, which of course lead to more meetings. The truth of the matter is this – people can come to a congregation seeking ultimacy and intimacy, and end up serving on endless task-oriented committees, often not moving deeper in conversation than the business at hand. Now, that’s not to say that people can’t connect and get to know one another by serving together on the Board or on a committee – good grief, the Home Team just spent seven years together overseeing the design and construction of our new home. They must have shared more than opinions on architectural details in all that time! Yet the central purposes of committees are to achieve a particular goal and to keep things running smoothly, and the deeper conversations about life must move to the periphery.

This is where what is often called “Small Group Ministry” – think of that term in quotation marks – comes in. Over the past few years, across the continent, countless Unitarian Universalist congregations have begun what some call small group ministry, what others call covenant groups, what still others call sharing circles. These aren’t your typical Adult Education classes, nor are they committee meetings. In fact, they have nothing to do with the business part of running the congregation. Rather, these groups are intentional gatherings in which people meet regularly to engage in meaningful conversation.

More and more, Unitarian Universalists are realizing that the Sunday morning experience, including worship service, classes, even coffee hour, doesn’t give us time to truly engage in deep conversations with others. For many of us, if Sunday is the only time to ponder life’s big questions, our search for intimacy and ultimacy won’t be fully met. That’s why small group ministry is spreading so rapidly through our tradition. And that’s why I, and our Adult Education Committee, have decided to launch our own version here at the UUCSF. We have already started by studying other congregations’ experiences and models, and by May – just around the corner – we hope a pilot version will be up and running. Every one is invited to participate in this, if it sounds interesting to you.

Here are some details on how it will work.

From everyone who says yes, sign me up, we’ll be creating small groups of 8-12 people. And please know you need not be a UUCSF member, or even regular attendee of this congregation to participate. This is a great way for someone not yet a UU, or who hasn’t found what they were searching for on Sunday morning, to connect with Unitarian Universalists, and become acquainted with our principles and purposes. Each group will have designated facilitators. These facilitators participate in on-going training with me, when we look at upcoming topics and talk about the gatherings. Several people have already signed on for this training, including Marilyn Mehr, Sue Penny, Kent Martin, Eileen McCabe, Bill Dalsimer, Jaki Jackson and Jane Gray. These are good folks for you to talk with, along with me, as you contemplate becoming more involved, as they’ve already started exploring and experiencing this small group ministry. Folks will make a commitment to be in a group for an initial six-month period. At that point, everyone will have a chance to re-commit – or not – to staying in their groups. Though we are not yet sure what name we’ll use for this program small group ministry, or covenant groups, or sharing circles, or something else – we do know this: we see the program as an ongoing, open-ended ministry that can grow and expand with us in years to come.

Each group will meet at least monthly, for two hours. Each gathering will open with some opening words, and hearing one another’s news, maybe a joy or sorrow. And each time the group gathers there will be one subject to talk about, a topic selected ahead of time. The topic might be a single idea – like forgiveness, or mentors, or prayer. It might be a question, like what’s the difference between justice and vengeance? or what do you think of not “returning evil for evil”? Or the topic might involve an activity, such as sharing a favorite piece of music, or bringing an object that holds significant meaning for your spiritual journey. You see, the aim of all of these is to deepen our religious, spiritual and emotional encounters with one another. These are topics that ministers love to preach about, but congregants rarely have a chance to more fully unpack, explore, and discuss with one another. And, in each gathering, after talking about the topic, there’s time to say what people liked – and wished were different – about the two hours just passed, before closing with words drawn from within our tradition.

One more thing to know about these groups. Those who have refined this type of small group work have concluded that it’s important for folks to have opportunities to manifest private beliefs in public ways, and to enlarge their circles of connection. So each group makes a commitment to do some service, some helping out – once a year to the congregation, and once a year to the larger community. In this way, each small group stays connected with the UUCSF’s central purpose and mission of service to others.

There’s a lot more I could say about this new initiative, but details are bound to get lost in this kind of telling, so look for more in coming newsletters and handouts. And talk to the great group of folks who have already come forward to help lead this new phase of ministry.

For this, indeed, is a ministry. The conversations that happen in these circles are about listening more than speech making; about discussion more than debate; and about sharing of personal stories more than critique. Whatís called for is openness to spiritual exploration, unprejudiced listening, and commitment to friendship within an intimate community. If, at root, these groups are about belonging, then the tone of each group must be one of acceptance. Each group will be constituted of a cross-section of our congregation, so that diversity adds to the group’s experience. The result – a rich and challenging environment where, hopefully, trust allows exploration and growth, and connections deepen. In the words of the Rev. Calvin Dame, a significant voice in the small group ministry movement,

“From the beginning, we envisioned our groups as a way that we could better care for one another. People would be connected at a deeper level than is possible Sunday during the Fellowship Hour, and there would be the opportunity to pursue some of the deeper spiritual questions which in our lives we so rarely take time for. But these groups would also form the framework in which we could reach out to one another in caring and support, where we could be present in each others

lives in the forms that describe ministry. (Dame, 4.)

Another Unitarian Universalist who has written extensively about covenant groups is thealogian Thandeka. It’s her assertion that small group ministry is the hope of our movement. That’s because, in her words, our Unitarian Universalist belief in human dignity is not a creed; it’s a liturgical practice… as Unitarian Universalists, we affirm right relationship as a reverential act … today, we are doing it ten at a time as an embedded ritual practice of our congregational life. (Hill, ix) Thandeka relates a particularly vivid memory, a moment when she fully understood the power of small group ministry. She says,

“Several years ago I spent an evening discussing Small Group Ministry with members of a New England church who were interested in starting a covenant group program. At the end of my formal remarks, I asked the members of the audience if they might be willing to simply get together in small groups over a meal and talk about their unmet needs in

their church.

One of the most respected elder statesmen of the church stood up and slowly walked to the front of the assembly, faced his fellow congregants and said he was interested in joining a covenant group. He had wanted something like this for years, he said, because he was lonely I do not have any friends, he finally confessed. Waves of shock rolled through the gathering. How could he be lonely? He was a revered and beloved member of the congregation, a pillar of the church. Many people expressed disbelief.

When the group quieted down, the man spoke again, saying, Every man in this room who is my age knows what I am talking about. Our social upbringing has taught us not to talk about our feelings. We are not supposed to be emotionally vulnerable or close to anyone except our wives.

As I listened to him, something changed. I could hear his heart beating. I could hear my heart beating. I could hear other hearts beating in the room.

At that moment, we were all one heart and thus all one breath. One deep, long, loving breath infused each heart with new life.

And at that moment, I learned why covenant groups are transforming our Unitarian Universalist movement today. They are ministries for the heart.” (Hill, x-xi)

Some of you may wonder at Thandekaís words, even doubt their veracity. With the folks in that hall, you might feel disbelief that such loneliness exists in the midst of congregations. Let me say, as a minister, I know this to be true. It matters not if you walked in for the first time today, or you have been here for 20 years. Or if you are single, or partnered, or young or old, or an introvert or extrovert. Despite the best intentions of all of us, me included, the promise of deep belonging that congregations hold high can still be elusive.

Let’s be clear – small group ministry is not a panacea, nor a fix-it-all. Let it not come off sounding like Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s ‘star-on’ or ‘star-off’ machine, handing out belonging with a klonk and a berk. But, leaving this room today, allow the idea of gathering together to dare to speak our heart’s whisperings, and to listen to the murmurs of others’ take root in you. Let it work its way through you. Then come and be a part the fun. In fact, help us to create it – together.

References:

Calvin O. Dame, An Updated Small Group Ministry Resource Book (Unitarian

Universalist Community Church, Augusta, Maine, 2001)

Robert L. Hill, The complete Guide to Small Group Ministry (Boston: Skinner

House Books, 2003)

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