Small Group Ministry

The Development and Implementation of a Small Group Ministry has been identified as a desirable

foundational component as we transition to being a Regional United Church with a Progressive Christian voice.  (From Neighbourhood to Regional)

In January of 2019, Margaret Harper was contracted to spend 5 hrs/week on the initial phases of research that would position us to proceed with subsequent aspects of project implementation. This contract was entered into partly as an act of faith, knowing that work on the project would need a dedicated amount of staffing prior to knowing whether or not we would be the recipients of a successful ProVision Grant. In mid-June, we were notified that first year funding had been granted. For the first 6 months Margaret’s work focused on research; interfacing with the Pragmatic Possibilities working group to deepen each other’s understanding; presentations to congregations and the joint board; one on one conversations.

Why Small Group Ministry?

Small groups provide an entry point for newcomers and seekers which is critically imperative at this time in the evolution of ‘church’. Small groups offer this entry point in a way in which is both invitational and intentional, yet does not overwhelm. Seekers, newcomers and folks who have been distant or estranged are afforded an immediate place to connect and meet others in a safe, secure and confidential environment. This is a forum where church can be ‘tested’ with minimal judgment or the expectation that they commit to anything beyond the group presence.

Small groups take seriously the biblical primer: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” Building on the success of the shared small group experience offered during reVision (Fall 2017), small groups comprised initially of folks from St. Aidan’s and CBUC will give people a chance to dive in and immediately play a part in the creation of our new entity, From Neighbourhood to Regional. The manifestation of this new ministry—right off the bat, will be owned ‘jointly’ by the participants. In the words of Chris Giffin, the new entity will be “Neither here, nor there, but among you.” 

What is the Central Purpose of a Small Group Ministry?

Healthy Relationships are at the center of the small group experience. It is within the development of the small group circle where (over time) individuals are able to connect in an intimate atmosphere of safety and trust. Small groups provide the vehicle for spiritual practice and growth, pastoral care and connection, shared study and action in community. (Roughly stated, these are the components that we have identified to be operational in every small group AND there will be great flexibility as to how the members negotiate and put these principles into operation.)

Small groups become the center point or HUB where individuals learn and experience what it means to live in a complex world as spiritual beings. This hub takes on depth and breadth–a place of learning, growing, questioning, sharing, testing, and evolving as the spiritual journey unfolds. We are fast moving away from the model of church where the Sunday morning worship service is the prime (sole) time and arena for people to have a shared experience as gathering as the body of Jesus Christ. To our detriment, mainstream denominations have been slow off the mark to create multiple opportunities and entry points

other than the Sunday gathering. For decades, we have placed the Sunday morning worship as the ‘pinnacle’ in the week, and for many, this no longer works or fits for any number of reasons. To be clear church can offer opportunities for transformational experiences in and through the sacred in any number of ways!

Many who have availed themselves of the intentional small group experience have found that a small group enables members to ‘go spiritually deep with others in community.’ The addition of small groups as a foundational component of our newly amalgamated body takes seriously our mandate to provide multiple ways to grow and learn together all the while supporting one another and the wider world of which we are but one small part.

With experienced small group leadership, small group members will learn to wrestle creatively with conflict, while at the same time, learning how to value and hold respect for one another—even when they disagree. This is a much needed skill to bring to other areas of life, as increasingly people are at a loss for how to have healthy conversations in  ever increasingly polarized systems and communities.

While there are a plethora of small group models in existence, at this point, we are proposing that our small groups be open in nature. Meaning that small group circles need to have the capacity to receive new members so they remain inclusive, dynamic and evolving—-Draw the Circle Wide…let this be our song, no one stands alone, standing side by side…

What do the evangelical churches get right about the nature of small group ministry, and why are the mainstream denominations so late to the party?

For decades, evangelical churches have utilized the small group experience as a prime vessel for church growth, biblical teaching, formation of disciples and evangelism. While the nature of our organizing content and process will be radically different, we would do well to take a page from their honed experience. So, what can we learn?

  • Small groups will enable us to value and honour the ‘individual’, by ensuring that there is a place where the individual is noticed, appreciated and given the space to spiritually grow and learn with others in community. Jesus was a master at this—people felt seen, heard, valued and loved into being in his presence. Jesus extends this invitation to us: To accept unconditionally. To love wholeheartedly. To encourage others to be all they can be! However, this ‘honouring’ of the individual will be very different from the conservative, individual right wing Christian agenda where the rights and freedoms of the individual trump others at all cost. Individuals will learn that we are indeed stronger when we come together, and afforded intentional opportunities to grow and learn in relationship with others.
  • Small group leaders are equipped with substantive, ongoing training so they feel confident enough at the beginning to honour their inherent skills, even as they feel safe to experiment, to fail, to regroup, to celebrate their successes and to learn along the way. Education, encouragement and mentoring will be key as we prepare to launch this ministry.

What is required to transition from being a church that has ‘small groups’ to a ‘church of small groups’? 

Understanding and teasing apart this distinction took up a lot of concerted time, both within the Pragmatic Possibilities Working Group, and in conversation with many individuals, and it will continue to need intentional unpacking as we move into this next phase. It is a difficult concept to grasp indeed, the UCC prides itself upon the understanding that for decades we have been able to meet the needs of many through a variety of small groups.

Rev. Kevin Watson [United Methodist Church]  helps to unpack  the difference between Affinity Groups (people getting together for an activity) Information Groups (people getting together to learn) and Groups that are TRANSFORMATION driven…..and while we may not utilize the phrase ‘creation of disciples’, Watson says….The best small groups for forming disciples, are transformation driven. I think [These groups provide] the need that every person has for meaningful connection and an appropriate place to be deeply known.” And while many of our current small groups contain some of the components that we are striving to incorporate—very few have the structure that will afford the vehicle for what we are attempting to achieve overall.

In Summation:

We need to recognize that we are in a unique position to try something both radically new and old at the same time. Encouragement of laity is key as we risk, learn and grow  this program in the next many months, particularly in the beginning stages.

Not only are the roots of small group ministry found within the early Christian house churches,  what we are proposing is also along the lines of what the UCW groups (United Church Women)  modelled for years. They met together—sharing food for body and soul…each meeting contained a devotional, as well as a yearly mission study (with an action component). They were part of a larger congregational body, yet exercised and nurtured their relationships in a small group setting. They exemplified what it meant to offer healthy pastoral care for each other, because of the relationships they had built and nurtured through the years. All the while sustained through the Spirit of the Living God.

Moving Forward:

The second part of the Small Group Implementation requires additional staff time and the grant application included a movement toward a .5 ministry position to help prepare the congregations, train leaders, discern the format and shape of the small groups and begin the task  of transitioning folks both currently involved and those who are new or on the margins into such groups.  This is no small task but will be accomplished over time as people are willing to try something new at the onset or perhaps wait till they hear about others experiences before they enter into it themselves.

Timeline for Introduction

Formation of Small Group Support CircleOctober 2019
Continuation of researchOctober 2019
Pilot survey (Step 1) to garner feedback for congregational survey (Step 2)October-November 2019 (Pilot) January 2020 (congregational)
Communication and Interpretation of Program to CongregationsOctober-Ongoing
Discern, Identify & Approach Small Group LeadersNovember- January 2020
Develop Training Program for Small Group LeadersNovember-January 2020
Roll Out of Small Group ProgramFebruary 2020-Ongoing
Visibility & Accessibility of Small Group Coordinator on both campusesJanuary 2020 (possibly sooner)
Evaluation: Small Group Leaders TrainingJanuary, 2020 and ongoing
Evaluation: Small Group ParticipantsApril-June, 2020  (Initial groups) and ongoing