Small Group Ministry

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Small Group Ministry

by John Rasmuson


Following the lead of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Tom Goldsmith launched Small Group Ministry (SGM) at First Church in 2004. The intent of SGM—which brought groups of 10-to-12 people together each month for facilitator-led discussions (of subjects other than politics!)—was to engender deeper personal connections and spiritual growth. Recalled Tom: “We were certainly not a large church, but too large for people to make connections with each other that would sustain something deeper than superficial coffee-hour palaver.” The cohesion of the congregation was strengthened by the friendships made in SGM.

I joined a group of ten a few years later. After a year in the ranks, I volunteered to be a facilitator, joining Sandi Greene, Christine Wood, Joe Martone, Flo Wineriter, Mark Gardiner, Shirley Ray and others. Tom served as the Lead Facilitator, and Sandi Greene organized the groups at the beginning of each of SGM’s October-to-May seasons. The facilitators met in Tom’s office on the first Tuesday of the month. He handed out a topic on a sheet of paper and led a discussion of it for 90 minutes. The facilitators then carried the topic to their groups in the following days.

Tom also facilitated a group at Friendship Manor and a young adult group that met in the church. Most groups met in a member’s home.

A few years later, sidelined by a broken ankle, Tom passed the SGM reins to Mark Gardiner for a time and then to me. It was an unsettled time in SGM. Among the distractions were simmering disagreements among facilitators. Some thought the discussion topics were not “spiritual” enough. One advocated for a series of discussions rooted in quantum physics. Some were frustrated by the check-in that began each meeting. Interminable check-ins took up time allotted for discussion, they complained. Others felt untrammeled check-ins were important to group cohesion. Even food and drink was a source of disagreement. Some facilitators discouraged wine and nosh at their monthly meetings; others presided over potluck dinners.

I took it as my first task as Lead Facilitator to address the contentious issues. Using the UUA’s SGM procedures as the frame, the facilitators developed a set of written guidelines for SGM at First Church. Click on this link #1 to read what we wrote.

Writing those guidelines exposed two opposing viewpoints of how groups should be formed. In the UUA model, all groups were reconstituted each year—new groups, new members. In the received, First Church model, groups tended to be clubby, the same people meeting year after year, the meeting space too limited to accommodate a new member. Tom settled the debate, and we subsequently wrote this Solomonic solution into the SGM guidelines:

The annual registration reconstitutes the groups

with returning members and new arrivals. Although

the membership of some groups remains static

for several years, change is desirable: the

congregation benefits when people join new

groups and make new friends.

We required everyone to register each September. Sandi Greene was instrumental in developing an electronic SGM registration procedure using the First Church website. Besides eliminating paper, it enabled her to organize groups based on registrant preference of meeting day and time—even location—on an Excel spreadsheet. We had a Park City group, a Bountiful-based group and one in South Valley. (An initiative by Jim Turner to form a joint small group with South Valley Unitarians failed.)  Most groups met on weeknights, but we did have two daytime groups (including a long-running one facilitated by Flo Wineriter until his retirement in 2013.) We chartered a group, which was co-chaired by Emily Normandeau and Anne Morrison, that met in the church in order to make childcare available. (It lasted only a year.) We also established a process by which referrals from the Welcome Committee could be placed in a group throughout the year. (Referrals were rare, however.)

The registration process from year to year revealed a surprising number of people who participated in SGM but never attended Sunday services. In that regard, SGM was similar to Jazz Vespers.

According to Sandi Greene, registration peaked at about 150 in 2013 when there were 14 groups. Since then, the average enrollment has been about 120 a year with 12 groups operating in 2018-19.

SGM operated as an autonomous program in the First Church family of committees, so we were on our own when it came to maintaining a stable of facilitators. Each March brought a few resignations, and we spent April and May searching for replacements. We oscillated between feast and famine. When we had an abundance of volunteers, we appointed co-facilitators to groups. In shortage years, we singled out prospects and cajoled them. We were fortunate to have had many facilitators who were well organized and diligent. We also had a few who weren’t. I came to believe that a contributing factor to a failed group—some foundered before the Winter Solstice—was a lackadaisical facilitator. Acting on that theory, I arranged for Gaylan Nielson to provide how-to-facilitate training.

We invested even more effort in the discussion topics. Not a year passed without trying to improve them. The UUA website provided a large selection, but more often than not, we wrote our own. Mark Gardiner crafted discussion topics as did I for several years. (Click on #2 to read one of my typical discussion topics.) Some felt my topics were “too intellectual” and too skewed by an old man’s worldview. Both criticisms were accurate. I enlisted Shirley Ray to help me write “spiritual” topics, but I don’t think any of those I wrote received unanimous approval. One year, the eight discussion topics were chosen and written by the facilitators. Some topics were arcane and were quietly discarded within minutes of the Facilitators Meeting (a fate shared by a few of my topics over the years.)  We then tried to correlate the discussions with the First Church Strategic Plan without much success. In 2014, another initiative linked the SGM discussions to one of Tom’s recent sermons (available on YouTube.) Tom would e-mail the text to me, and I would re-work it into a discussion. Concomitantly, Gaylan Nielson introduced a new format for the topics  (Clink on #3 to read an example.) Under Don Walton and Shirley Ray’s leadership, which began in 2018, the interest in sourcing discussion topics in Tom’s sermons continued, but they also tapped the UUA website and the seven UU principles.

After serving several years as Lead Facilitator, I asked Bill Ashworth to take over in 2015. I continued to write all the discussion topics for the following two years. Derek Gersdorf replaced Bill Ashworth in 2016. Two years later, Don Walton and Shirley Ray took on the job.

As registrar, Sandi Greene has been the backbone of SGM from its earliest years.

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First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City

Small Group Ministry



References:  (a) The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry by Robert L. Hill                                          (b)  The UU Small Group Ministry Network

Lead Facilitator:  Bill Ashworth

Registrar:  Sandi Greene 


Small Group Ministry (SGM) is the heart of our church because it provides a secure, intimate setting in which people can share stories, experiences, ideas and feelings. As they expand personal horizons or explore interior spaces, group members develop lasting friendships.  The cohesion of our congregation is dependent on those friendships.

Groups of about 12 people meet in monthly, two-hour sessions from October to May.  The meetings are held either in a member’s home or at the church.  Some groups meet during the day; most meet on weeknights.  Each group is led by a facilitator.  All the groups discuss the same topic each month.  The topics, which are correlated with one of Tom’s recent sermons, are written by John Rasmuson

Organizational Guidelines:

  • The minister appoints a lead facilitator to manage the SGM program. The minister meets with the lead facilitator periodically to discuss progress and concerns.
  • SGM is the best way to personalize Unitarianism for those who have an interest in learning more about our church. The Welcoming Committee refers interested people to the registrar for placement in a group with vacancies.  The registrar provides the Welcoming Committee with an updated list of vacancies as changes are made.
  • New facilitators are recruited in May; however, if there is a spike in registration, additional facilitators may be needed in late September. All facilitators are provided minimal, how-to-facilitate training.
  • Sign-up publicity begins in August in the church’s in-house publications.
  • The facilitators meet on the first Tuesday of each month to work through a topic and to prepare for the meetings of the individual groups.
  • Registration:

—  Each eight-month SGM season begins with registration.  The annual registration reconstitutes the groups with returning members and new arrivals.  Although the membership of some groups remains static for several years, change is desirable: the congregation benefits when people join new groups and make new friends.

—  Everyone must re-register each year.   All registrations are made on the church’s website in Google Docs.

—  The registrar maintains a membership database and organizes the groups.  No group will have less than seven members; 14 is the optimal number.

—  Registration will be completed by the third week in September.  The registrar then provides names and contact information of group members to facilitators by the end of September.

  • Meeting Format:
  1. Light the candle
  2. Introductory reading
  3. Check-in: Facilitators have discretion to tailor “check-in” to their groups.  All topics will have a check-in question.  Other options include such question as: “What’s most on your mind today?”  “What do you need to leave behind for a couple of hours in order to be fully present here?”  “What moment of happiness have you had recently?”
  4. Text-based discussion guided by facilitator’s questions
  5. Check-out: All topics will have check-out questions.  But facilitators can deviate.  For example, each person could be asked for a word or phrase to describe his or her feelings about the session as the meeting ends.   It could be expressed as “likes” and “wishes.”
  6. Closing Reading
  7. Extinguish the candle

Expectations for group members: 

  • To make attendance a priority knowing that my presence is essential to the bond of my group.
  • To be punctual.
  • To RSVP each month, especially if I must be absent, and notify the facilitator promptly if I need to drop out or if I desire to change groups.
  • To share with the facilitator the responsibility for good group process by watching how much time I take to speak and noticing what is going on with others.
  • To honor the confidentiality of the discussions and to refrain from gossip and from speaking disrespectfully to or about others.
  • To honor the safety of the group by listening with an open heart to what others share.
  • To refrain from cross-talking, judging or giving advice.
  • To share as deeply as I can when I choose to speak and to listen carefully when others are speaking.

Guidelines for Facilitators:

  • Attend Facilitators’ meeting on the first Tuesday of each month.
  • Appoint a co-facilitator to assist in group management and to attend meetings when necessary.
  • Prepare for each meeting so you can provide the structure necessary for a meaningful discussion.  E-mail long or dense texts in advance of meetings so members arrive prepared for the discussion with the text in hand.
  • Have one empty chair in each meeting to symbolize those not yet reached who need what SGM members have found in their group and to reinforce the expectation that new groups will be spawned by SGM members who move on to make new friends.
  • In the October meeting, emphasize SGM expectations for members.  Consider handing out printed copies.
  • Steer don’t row.  Steer by asking questions.  For example:  “Does anyone who hasn’t spoken yet have a reflection on what has just been said?”
  • Model listening not speaking; be careful not to dominate the discussion.
  • Reading long or dense texts inhibits responsive discussion.  If the texts are long, rotate readers.
  • Focus on meeting dynamics so members can focus on content.  Rein in the long-winded, encourage the mute, disallow tangents with questions like: “And how is this relevant to the topic tonight?”
  • Be attuned to members’ needs and make referrals to the Caring Committee when appropriate.  If a member is missing, find out why.  Organize group support of a member in need.
  • Report drop-outs to the registrar.
  • Be prepared to accept new members from Welcoming Committee referrals.
  • Reach consensus whether wine or other refreshments will be served at meetings and where and when the meetings will be held.  (Consider cat/dog allergies in selecting venues.)  If the meetings are to be in the church, reserve a room and sign out a key. In choosing the church option, the facilitator takes on the responsibility to turn out lights and lock doors.
  • Arrange for childcare for group meetings, as necessary.  The Religious Education Department will provide childcare so long as the meetings are conducted in the church.
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The Matthew Effect


Prior to the meeting, have members complete the quiz at:

Check-in:  How thick is your social and cultural bubble according to Charles Murray?

Opening words:

(Robin Hood) is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity.  He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights,that we don’t have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does.”    Ayn Rand

Reading 1 from Matthew 25:

14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

15 And unto one he gave five talents*, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.

17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.

18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.

20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.

21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.

23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:

25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.

26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

* The talent was one of several ancient units of mass, as well as corresponding units of value equivalent to these masses of a precious metal.


Does any part of Jesus’s parable surprise you?  What does the parable teach?

In which verses do you see the character of the master revealed?  Which of the four characters in the parable comes

out on top?

The so-called Matthew Effect, a term coined by sociologist Robert Merton in 1968, derives from verse 29.  How

would you paraphrase that verse?  How is the Matthew Effect like compound interest?

Reading 2 from a review of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart:

The “new upper class” making up the “most successful five percent of adults ages 25 and older” enjoys the highest incomes and IQs, lives in pockets of “SuperZips,” intermarries and ensures that their children constitute the applicant pool for the elite schools and essentially practices “lifestyle choices” that would be approved by the Founding Fathers. These include industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. With the elite isolating themselves in SuperZips and making most of the decisions for the rest of the country, they have, however, little idea about the lives in the lower strata. Murray creates a detailed comparison between two communities: Belmont, a suburb of Boston inhabited by the aforementioned elite, and Fishtown, outside Philadelphia, where undereducated citizens are mired in low-skill jobs and blighted by a breakdown of the founding virtues—e.g., children out of wedlock and lack of industriousness by able-bodied men.


According to a report by the Congressional Budget Office, the share of total, after-tax income between 1979 and

2007 of the top 1 percent of the population with the highest income more than doubled whereas the share received by low- and middle-income households declined.   How is the Matthew Effect manifest in Murray’s characterization of “the new upperclass”?

Are we witnessing the fulfillment of the American Dream for the 1 percent?

If we are witnessing an aberration, what is the remedy?

Closing Words from Daniel Rigney:

A dispute has raged for years over the legitimacy of “Robin Hood” funding for schools, which redirects some tax revenues from richer to the poorer school districts where the financial need is manifestly greater.  This legal and moral dispute requires that we understand and address Matthew Effects when advantages become self-amplifying and cumulative in the absence of intervention.  Should we and our institutions intervene to prevent the destructive consequences of self-amplifying loops of social and economic advantage?  The Sheriff of Nottingham had one view. Robin Hood had another. When I was growing up, Robin Hood was portrayed as a moral hero.  Times have changed.  It seems now to depend mainly on which side of Nottingham you live on.  

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Small Group Ministry

April 2017

Proper Place(s)

Watch Tom’s sermon:


  Readings Questions Notes
Light the Candle Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden


Introductory Reading And behold, one came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful for he had great possessions.

Matthew 19:16-22

Check-in The following of thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

Vladimir Nabokov

As your penultimate check-in of this SGM season, can you describe a theme (e.g. new cars, gardening) that runs through your life or family history like a thread in a tapestry?


1. Discussion    Giving something to panhandlers is “always right,” said Pope Francis recently.

But what if someone uses the money for, say, beer?  His answer:  If beer is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K.  Instead, ask yourself, ‘What happiness do I seek in secret?’ Another way to look at it, the pope said, is to recognize how you are the luckier one, with a home, a spouse and children, and then ask why your responsibility to help should be pushed onto someone else.

The pope then posed a greater challenge. He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.

New York Times Editorial

To help the poor, the conventional wisdom is that you should donate to organizations like Feeding America and Habitat for Humanity instead of giving money to panhandlers.

Who’s right?  What would you say to the pope?


UU principles invoke “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “compassion in human relations.”  What is the proper UU response to poverty in Salt Lake City?

2. Discussion


Weight does not necessarily tend toward the lowest place but towards its proper place.  Fire tends upwards, stone downwards.  By their weight they are moved and seek their proper place.  Oil poured over water is borne on the surface of the water.  Water poured over oil sinks below the oil.  It is by their weight they are moved and seek their proper place.  Things out of place are in motion.  They come to their place and are at rest.  My love is my weight.  Wherever I go, my love is what brings me there.

Saint Augustine


Do you find yourself in repose?  Or are you in motion, seeking your proper place?  (Or is it proper places?)


What does “proper place” signify in your life?  A McMansion in the suburbs? A social activist? A teacher?


Consider the many forms love takes as you evaluate Augustine’s assertion that love is willful.

Angle of repose:

The maximum slope, measured in degrees from the horizontal, at which loose solid material will remain in place without sliding.




Parental love, fraternal love, romantic love, love of dogs, love of chocolate….

3. Discussion













  Russians tend to regard love as a sort of divine madness that descends from the heavens. Love is regarded as a destiny, a moral act and a value; it is irresistible, it requires sacrifice and implies suffering and pain.

Americans view of love is more about “the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest.  A Russian Regime of Fate versus an American Regime of Choice.  The latter encourages a certain worldly pragmatism. It nurtures emotionally cool, semi-isolated individuals.

If the Russian model is too reckless, the American model involves too much calculation and gamesmanship.  The dating market becomes a true market, where people carefully appraise each other. The emphasis is on the prudential choice, selecting the right person who satisfies your desires. But somehow as people pragmatically “select” each other, marriage as an institution has gone into crisis. Marriage rates have plummeted at every age level. Most children born to women under 30 are born outside of wedlock. The choice mind-set seems to be self-defeating.

David Brooks


Do you regard love as a Russian “regime of fate” or an American “regime of choice”?


Is self-interest the equivalent of self-love?  Are other forms of love enabled by self-love?


Do you agree with Brooks that the institution of marriage is in crisis?  If so, what do you think should be done?


On the other hand, what difference does it make if marriage rates are on the decline?


How might the marriage crisis be related to poverty and homelessness?


Read David Brooks’ entire column at:














4. Discussion


In my experience, most people imagine they’ll be happy if they get something that they now don’t have — whether it’s a new job or a new car — and I don’t think that’s a good place to pin your hopes for positive moods. Genuine happiness comes from within, and often it comes in spontaneous feelings of joy. I think it’s much more important to strive for contentment, which is a percent of fulfillment that’s relatively independent of external circumstance.


What’s the difference between happiness and contentment?


Which do you regard the proper place for yourself, happiness or contentment?  Are you in motion toward it?






What single aspect of the discussion has resonated with you?


Closing Reading 19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


Matthew 6:19-21


Extinguish the candle