© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 11, 2007

Meditation Preceding the Sermon

We invite you now to join in a two-part time of prayer and meditation. During the first part, each of us will go within and reflect or pray according to our own personal beliefs and customs. Then I will begin a guided meditation about your experiences of small groups. After that we'll have time for a little sharing. (Silence.)

Now continue with your eyes closed, and I invite you to remember some positive experiences you have had with groups of people. Think of some group that you were very glad you belonged to. It might have been a close-knit unit such as a psychotherapy group, or a looser aggregation such as this Mission Peak Congregation. It might have met for many months, or for just a little while, such as our spiritual retreat last weekend. What was there about the group and the people in it that made it special? And what did you do that helped make it a positive experience? How did you participate? How did you invest yourself and involve yourself? Now begin to come back to this room by taking a few deep breaths, and open your eyes when you are ready.

I'd like to hear from a few people about: What there was about the group and the people in it that made it special? And what did you do that helped make it a good experience? (Discussion, followed by Musical Interlude.)

The Sermon

Long before Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, Unitarianism and Universalism made friends with change. In fact Unitarian Universalism has become a religion of permanent revolution. We realize that if a denomination stays stuck while life moves on, it becomes either irrelevant or terribly dangerous. For example, why should we fight against new scientific discoveries and new insights into the human condition? By embracing these breakthroughs we can stay alert, alive, and young in spirit. Perhaps our benedictions should end with, "To be continued" instead of "Amen."

Unitarianism and Universalism changed an enormous amount in the past 200 years, and we continued to evolve after the two denominations merged in 1961. I think most of our progress occurs on a grass roots level, in local congregations like this one. There is astonishing creative power in collective wisdom. Without relying on the guiding vision of any single great prophet, Unitarian Universalism has somehow given birth to an entirely new approach to spirituality, centered on shared values rather than on shared beliefs. This is a huge step forward, and such a fundamental change calls for other changes in the way we approach spirituality. One of the latest positive developments is the Small Group Ministry movement, also known in some congregations as Covenant Groups.

I remember 35 years ago, Unitarian Universalism went through another small group revolution, as many of our congregations became deeply involved in the human potential movement. That's when I was a counseling minister, and my specialty was leading intensely emotional encounter marathons. How many of you ever went to an encounter group or something similar? Lots of crying and screaming and pounding on pillows. That can be a transforming experience, but unfortunately there are certain complications in opening up that much in front of people you see every week. Small Group Ministry is much safer and less threatening, and yet it can still create a profound sense of closeness and support.

Why do we call this a ministry? What is spiritual about these groups? Spirituality means many different things, but if you ask a UU to define spirituality, you may hear something about "connection." Connection with nature, connection with the universe, and connection with people. At this year's spiritual retreat our theme was "Building Connections" and you could watch that happening the night we arrived, seeing people singing and playing games, our children talking and having fun together.

You can also sense people bonding with each other on Sunday mornings. I love the ripple of chatter as we gather, and the buzz of conversation during the offering - if I didn't ring the bell to close the offering we'd keep talking till 11. Some people feel that to be spiritual everyone needs to sit in hushed reverence before the service. We can be nourished by quiet inwardness. That's why we provide a half hour of meditation most Sundays at 9:15. Silence can be sacred, but so can the noises of neighborly greeting.

Many years ago the Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams said that people come to churches for "ultimacy and intimacy." (Robert L. Hill, The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World Ten At A Time, p. 3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this source.) Intimacy develops when we are real with each other, in both our joys and our sorrows. And "ultimacy" is a word used by the Christian theologian Paul Tillich in speaking of our ultimate values, ultimate commitments, and ultimate concern. In small groups we can consider the big questions of life, asking questions of ultimacy in a setting of intimacy. That's a powerful combination. In fact, many of us would say that intimacy itself is one of our ultimate values. We want to be known as we really are, and know others that way too.

So much of our lives is spent being seen by others as less than fully human. Many businesses view their "human resources" as warm-blooded machines, useful only for making products and delivering services. This disdain for the humanity of workers comes through in an old Dilbert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss tells an employee, "In this company we have regular goals and we also have stretch goals." "Tell me about the regular goals." "To reach the regular goals you must abandon all family and social life, and put your physical health at risk." "Oh. And what are the stretch goals like?" "The stretch goals all involve some sort of serious criminal activity." (Dilbert, by Scott Adams, paraphrased from memory)

Even within our families and friendship circles we may not be seen in our full humanity, partly because we are so busy that we don't really encounter each other. We just glance off each other in passing. We need to slow down and take hands and walk together through this vast, complex, mysterious universe, knowing each other as fragile creatures, sometimes weak, always fallible, yet capable of stunning insight, wisdom, creativity, and loving-kindness. We need companions on this journey to tell our stories and even some of our secrets, to be heard as persons rather than manipulated as production inputs. That can happen in Small Group Ministry. This movement is evolving into a distinctive Unitarian Universalist spiritual discipline.

Whenever we do anything important, we are probably taking some risks. So what are the hazards of Small Group Ministry? One danger is that groups can bond so tightly that they lead to cliquishness rather that to greater community. "These are my friends and we stick together." To counter this tendency, I hope you will consider taking part in more than one group, over time. We will have a break between the end of our first Small Group series and the beginning of the 2008 series of meetings. I invite you to make a mental note, now, to consider switching groups during this break. If you switch a couple of times, then over the course of three years you'll get to know 20 to 25 people at a much deeper level than you do today, instead of just seven or eight people. And that will change the way you experience Mission Peak.

Another possible downside of these groups is focusing small when life is calling us to focus on the big picture. My sermon title is adapted from the subtitle of Robert Hill's book on Small Group Ministry, and Hill seems to think that if people connect with each other in depth, new energy will be generated for social change. He writes, "... we have faith that some finite number of people, consciously working to make a difference, can literally save the world from the hoard of ... devastations that may be lying in wait for us all and for our earth." (p. 38)

Right, but will this work be generated in covenant groups? "Although there are glorious exceptions, probably only a few of our Small Group Ministries have fulfilled their commitments to work as groups in their larger communities." (Hill, p. 44) "In congregations where covenants to serve others are being made and kept, service to the church seems to be far more frequent than service to the larger community.... If there is any substantial number of wonderful projects being aided by Small Group Ministries today, we Unitarian Universalists are being uncharacteristically modest, hiding our good works under bushel baskets." (Hill, p. 82)

It's easy to stay warm and cozy in our little Mission Peak nest while the planet withers away. That's why we ask every small group to carry out one or more service projects, and I hope some of these projects will address the larger world.

When they work well, what makes Small Group Ministry successful? I'll mention two factors that seem to help.

First, we need commitment. We need to decide that intimacy and ultimacy are top priorities. When people first hear about these groups they often doubt that they have time to devote two hours twice a month. But one thing UUs could learn from more traditional churches is that commitment works. If we put a lot into a group we'll probably get a lot out of it. This kind of dedication may stretch us. It may take us out of our comfort zone, but that's how we grow.

Second, the Small Group movement has also learned the importance of ground rules. Paradoxically, clear rules can end up giving us greater freedom to explore. For example, some groups covenant to use both structured and free-flowing conversation. When participants check in at the beginning, people just hear their sharing without commenting. Since we know we're not going to comment, our minds stop whirring about what we might want to say, and that frees us to really listen. Then in later portions of the group people may share "popcorn" style, each person popping up with a comment as the spirit moves them. We need both structure and freedom, interwoven with care.

People often come to church hungry for intimacy and ultimacy. We want to be known, and we want to explore life's ultimate meanings, to live as more than just inputs for corporate machinery. If we want real connection with others, that takes commitment, and it takes clear ground rules. Is this a formula for saving the world? Well, at least it's a good way to start, right here where we live. The Small Group Ministry movement is one more step in the unending evolution of Unitarian Universalist spirituality.

I close with words from Kenneth Patton: "We come to be assured that brothers and sisters surround us, to restore their images on our eyes... The warmth of their hands assures us, and the gladness of our spoken names. This is the reason of cities, of homes, of assemblies in the houses of worship. It is good to be with one another."

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