Engagement Groups: Congregations in the Community

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Part of the GA’s ‘Congregations in the Community’ series on 26th May 2021.


• As we promised in the ad I’m going to talk about Engagement Groups tonight – tell you why I think they’re so important for us as Unitarians – how they enable us to embody our values and better ‘walk our talk’ – how they can have a powerful impact on those who participate, and those who lead, the congregations they emerge from, and the wider community.

• This term ‘Engagement Group’ may or may not be a term you are familiar with – and the thing I want to make sure I’ve said upfront is that when I talk about Engagement Groups I’m talking about something quite specific. Not every small group is an Engagement Group. Engagement groups have a particular intention, structure, and process (I’ll elaborate on all these as we go).

• And – just a note on terminology – ‘Engagement Group’ is the preferred name that’s been promoted within UK Unitarianism for the last 20-odd years – but if you look at UU literature you’ll read about ‘Small Group Ministry’, ‘Covenant Groups’, ‘Chalice Circles’ – all the same. Doubtless there are similar things going on by other names in other churches/organisations.

• So in the next 22 minutes(ish) I’m going to give you an extremely brief history of Engagement Groups, then outline the key features of these groups, and considerations to bear in mind if you want to set up such a group of your own. I’ll end by saying a bit about ‘Heart and Soul’, a group based on Engagement Group principles which is currently getting a bit of attention.

• Before any of that though I want to tell you why you should care about Engagement Groups. One of the key motivations behind my love of these groups is that, at their best, these groups create safer, softer, kinder spaces, where we can go into the depths together, and share authentically about the realities of our lives. They enable us to connect on the level of our common humanity and vulnerability – laugh/cry together – bring our whole selves to church.

• I can only speak from my own experience but over years of attending Sunday services I have only rarely got into deep-and-meaningful sharing from the heart with people during coffee hour. I’m not saying it never happens but there are obstacles to authentic sharing. It’s a cliché but often we can default to a socially acceptable script of: ‘how are you?’ ‘notsobad, musn’t grumble’ even if we’re falling apart. In most congregations – especially small ones which don’t get lots of new people visiting – there’s a risk of cliquey-ness as (understandably) people who’ve known each other for a long time mainly want to catch up with their old mates – OR alternately there can be overzealous pouncing on newcomers which scares them off. Carefully structured Engagement Groups can provide a great way to cultivate meaningful, boundaried, connections with new people relatively quickly (also to facilitate conversations on meaningful matters that people who’ve known each other for years might never have broached before).

• Engagement Groups, through having such a clear intention, structure, and process, take us out of our default social scripts and habits, in a way that can be really beneficial to how we relate. Unitarians speak a lot about welcoming all, and valuing diversity but, in my view, we often have default ways of behaving in groups that shut people out in ways we’re mostly unware of.

• In my experience, if you just put a bunch of people in a (zoom) room, and say ‘let’s have a discussion about X’ (without going to the trouble of worrying about intention, structure, and process) then things are likely to unfold in a certain predictable way. Anything labelled as a discussion tends to default to a head-y exchange of opinions where a few voices dominate (and little attention is given to consciously making space for different voices to be lifted up). Certainly I’ve been to loads of events down the years, including some quite recently, where there’s that ‘debate-y’ atmosphere, and I get the sense that whatever I offer might be slapped down, so I tend not to contribute, indeed I tend not to bother going back a second time. The same goes for online groups, which are often adversarial by default. The dominant culture has trained us to comment, to judge, to fix or set straight, to do anecdotal one-upmanship.

• Engagement Groups enable us as Unitarians to be who we say we are, in terms of welcoming diversity, in terms of valuing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, in that these groups are purposely designed to make sure everybody’s voice gets a chance to be heard and honoured. Engagement Groups set up an expectation that participants can feel safe to share their story, their experience, their perspective, and have it be valued and held with care by the group. And we are all enriched by that brave sharing. This can happen organically in congregations but Engagement Group practice helps create the conditions for it to occur more regularly; and in my experience a congregation which gets the taste for Engagement Group practice will find these safer, softer, kinder ways-of-being with each other will slowly shift the congregational culture as a whole. They cultivate trust, belonging, and – yes – engagement as a community (and perhaps help with retention of newcomers).

• I want to share a few words from the Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer who’s spoken a lot about the value of such groups – he promotes something similar to Engagement Groups except he calls them ‘Circles of Trust’ – and this quote says something vital about why they matter: ‘Storytelling has always been at the heart of being human because it serves some of our most basic needs: passing along our traditions, confessing failings, healing wounds, engendering hope; strengthening our sense of community. But in our culture of invasion and evasion, this time-honoured practice cannot be taken for granted. It must be supported in special settings and protected with strong ground rules. Instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives. Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse become more abstract, the less connected we feel.’

• As this hints: Engagement Groups are counter-cultural; a tool with which we can transform congregational cultures, transform lives, and (with a bit of luck and a following wind) perhaps play at least a small part in transforming the culture of our wider communities for the better.

History of Engagement Groups in the UK:

• So that’s quite a lot of preamble but I wanted to lay it on thick about why these groups matter (and emphasise that you can’t just gather a group together and call it an Engagement Group; when we use this term we’re talking about something in particular as I’ll spell out now).

• The concept was first imported into UK Unitarianism from our Unitarian Universalist chums in the US nearly 20 years ago when a UU minister and theologian called Thandeka came to give a prominent lecture on them at the GA Annual Meetings in Sheffield in 2002. I was there!

• Following this ‘launch’ the denomination in the UK actively promoted the spread of these groups in our churches (for a while) with facilitator training and a peer support network.

• This is not currently happening in such an organised way (I hope there’ll be a revival!) but there are still people dotted around the denomination who can support and advise on Engagement Group facilitation (in non-pandemic times I would say that the denominational centre-of-excellence for Engagement Group experiences is Hucklow Summer School).

Key Features of Engagement Groups:

• The first key feature of Engagement Groups, as I’ve always understood it, is that they are groups with a spiritual purpose; spaces in which to cultivate right relationship with ourselves, each other, and God (or that which we hold to be of highest worth). The intention is that these groups bring about spiritual deepening, and deepening of connection, in our communities.

• In these groups we pay close attention to the ways in which we interact with each other, we listen and speak with care, and we gently but firmly hold each other to account so we establish new habits instead of falling back into the default patterns of the world-at-large. (As I said) the hope is that cultivating these good habits in small groups will create a healthier culture which radiates out into participants’ lives, the rest of the congregation, the world!

• I have come to think of this in even bolder terms: these groups can help cultivate a culture which courageously models the way the world ‘ought’ to be – however you want to name it – embodying the Kin(g)dom of God, Beloved Community, or an Outpost of Paradise.

• Engagement Group practices might seem very contrived and self-conscious. If you haven’t experienced this way of working before you might resist it as – precisely because it is so counter to the prevailing culture we’ve mostly been socialised in – it feels quite unnatural. Even people who have tried and liked Engagement Groups often feel an irresistible urge to slip back into everyday ways of speaking (commenting, judging, fixing, one-upmanship etc.) But the self-conscious practice interrupts these habits and gives us a chance to be different.

• It’s probably worth mentioning that the standard Engagement Group principles and practices can act as a set of ‘training wheels’ for people who haven’t led groups of this sort before to do so within the confines of a structure which supports best practice in creating a safer space. This was my way in to leadership as a not-at-all-confident twenty-something twenty-odd years ago which is part of why I’m so evangelical about encouraging other people to give it a try.

• So the key features of Engagement Groups are intention / structure / covenants / facilitation. I’ve spoken at some length about the intention – the purpose, the why, which underpins it all – that’s why I really wanted to lay it on thick. But in terms of running a particular Engagement Group, if you’re thinking of starting one, I encourage you to think about your particular ‘why?’ Why are you doing this? What is your spiritual purpose? Try to get a handle on that first.

• A key thing to acknowledge is that I’m going to present this, at least to start with, as a strict set of rules: this is what the structure’s got to be, this is how the process goes, otherwise it’s not an Engagement Group. In truth it’s more like a recipe. You’ve got a lot of license to improvise around the basics ONCE YOU’VE MASTERED THEM! It may seem like a rigid framework but everything’s there for a reason – to serve the stated intention and purpose of cultivating ‘right relationship’ and bring about spiritual deepening – so I strongly encourage everyone to stick to the specified structure relatively rigidly and ‘keep your training wheels on’ when you’re new to this way of doing things. Don’t go off-piste too lightly. Please don’t go thinking ‘oh this is all unnecessary fuss and OTT’. Please practice doing it ‘by the book’ until that’s second nature (by that time you will have developed skill and sensitivity). If you think you already know exactly what you’re doing… you’re probably over-confident and heading for a fall! So be careful. People are precious.

• So the basic structure of an Engagement Group is really simple and anyone who’s been around the block in Unitarianism will most likely have experienced it in some form: There’ll be some sort of welcome and simple ritual (typically a chalice lighting) at the beginning to acknowledge the spiritual purpose of the gathering and give people a moment to settle (and also to denote ‘we’re moving into a different space now from our everyday mode of being’).

• Then there’ll be some sort of reminder of the purpose of the group, the process, and any group covenant/ground rules that participants are asked to abide by. The covenant is absolutely key to making it a safe space to share. It is EXTREMELY important in spiritual groups, in person or online, to establish a particular way of being with each other that is both safe-enough and free-enough. There is always a balance between giving people the freedom to express themselves and taking care that everybody’s needs are met as far as possible.

• Part of the reason why I personally love engagement groups so much is that group covenants spell out the terms of engagement (no pun intended) – I’d say I’m quite an anxious and sensitive person – so it really helps me to (a) have my expectations carefully managed and (b) know that everything is by consent and I can opt out at any time without being judged for it. So we haven’t got time to go into detail about what should be in such a covenant tonight but I do have a really detailed ‘gold standard’ covenant which I can send you afterwards, which suggests about a dozen group agreements that I reckon should be in place if you’re doing any serious spiritual delving, something we developed at summer school and I’m happy to share.

• Then there’ll usually be a check-in where everyone is invited to say their name and a few words about how they’re doing so they can properly ‘arrive’ and share how they really are.

• Then there’ll be the ‘content’ of the session – and this can be almost anything – maybe some prompts for conversation, or guided activities, or something much more free-form – tonight I’m particularly thinking about groups focused on deep spiritual sharing but I’ve known book groups, craft groups, bible study, social action, run in Engagement Group frame which gives the activity a different quality than it would have if it was happening without that framing. Tends to give a depth and sensitivity to the sharing that isn’t necessarily there otherwise. As a rule I’d say ‘don’t overdo it on the content’ and ‘don’t make it all about you’; really all you need is a holding framework & something to invite people to share their own stories/wisdom.

• Importantly the group needs at least one, preferably two, co-facilitators to hold the space, look after the process, and keep people on track if they veer off the agreed covenant/rules. Ideally the co-facilitators should have some training and be involved in peer-support. It’s hard! You WILL get people who push the boundaries / talk too much / comment on others etc. Sometimes you will have to intervene sensitively. Might try using a talking stick in-person.

• At the end of the session there’ll usually be a check-out where everyone is invited to say how they’re feeling at the end of the evening or perhaps if there’s anything they’re taking away. This’ll be followed by some sort of simple closing ritual and words (e.g. chalice extinguishing).

• Some practical factors: I would typically say the optimum number of participants for an Engagement Group is 8-12. I’ve had it work OK with as few as 4 and as many as 18 (and have done variations with a larger group which splits into breakouts which work fine too) but there’s a sweet spot where it’s small enough to feel safe for intimacy in sharing but not so small that people have no hiding place if they aren’t in the mood to contribute much.

• Some groups are one-off gatherings; some are time-limited courses (i.e. six consecutive Thursdays); some are not-time limited (i.e. every Friday night, ongoing indefinitely).

• Some groups are open (anybody can turn up to any session), some are closed (you have to sign up ahead of time and no new people are admitted after a certain date), some long-running groups close to new participants for a set period and then re-open. There are pros and cons to all of these options; if you are tackling sensitive subjects or following a particular course where continuity is important then closed or semi-closed often feels safest.

Case Study – ‘Heart and Soul’:

• So to wrap up I wanted to say something about ‘Heart and Soul’ in particular. This is a small group that I started up back in 2013 at Kensington and a team of volunteers took turns to run it once a month in-person until the pandemic (and I’d plugged the format to my Unitarian friends around the country so it was already being run in other congregations here and there). It’s essentially a contemplative group for prayer, highly structured, with a thematic element, and an opportunity to share experiences and wisdom on the theme, but all framed in a way which is very different from a ‘discussion’. The prayer practice is derived from ‘Simply Pray’, a book by UU Erik Walker Wikstrom, and the words guiding the prayers are exactly the same every time (but the prayer time – ‘the Heart of Heart and Soul’ – lasts 30-40min as participants speak their own prayers afresh each time – moving through prayers of gratitude, self-reflection, silence, and candle-lighting). Last March we quickly switched to offering it on Zoom and I’ve been running it at least twice a week since then and sharing session plans with others so we can reach as many people as possible across the country and beyond.

• I need to admit that Heart and Soul is an example of me ‘breaking the rules’ of Engagement Groups to some degree. I would nearly always, with Engagement Groups, advocate having a detailed/explicit conversation about the group covenant to make sure everyone’s on board. However, at Kensington, I was launching it into a setting where we did a lot of such groups, and people generally understood well enough how to behave, such that when new people joined they tended to pick up the norms modelled by all the regulars without having to make too much of a fuss about it. This might not be the case in your setting; err on the side of stating and re-stating the covenants to the point where you’re all sick of hearing them.

• This is now all I say at the start of each Heart and Soul and it is a very condensed reminder of the intention and the culture of the group and – mostly – it seems to be enough to keep the group on track. I say: ‘This is a contemplative spiritual gathering where silence is welcome and we don’t rush to fill it; not a chatty space, not a debate-y space, not a discussion space or a space for conversational one-upmanship; the invitation is to share from your centre to the centre of the gathering and to receive what others offer in that spirit’. And then at each point when people are invited to speak I say ‘let’s leave a little pause between speakers so we can properly honour what’s been shared’ (I say ‘thank you’ after each contribution). Sometimes I say ‘we’re a large group so please monitor how long you’re speaking for so that everybody who wants to has time to share before we have to wrap up’ etc.

• H&S has been a joy and a lifeline for many regulars (including me) during pandemic. Groups are open but each slot has developed a core of regulars who come back every single week because the depth/intimacy of the sharing / praying together has created a deep bond. Yet (I’m really proud of this) both of my regular groups are extremely welcoming to newcomers. The groups have a wide range of ages and demographics and it’s been really heart-warming to see people come to care for each other and get a window into different lives, identities, values that they might otherwise not rub up against (e.g. in one of my H&S zoom groups several of the younger members of the group have been using our pronouns in our screen names as a show of solidarity for trans rights, and one or two of the older members of the group hadn’t heard of this practice before, and asked about it in an open conversation that might not have occurred otherwise).

Concluding Words:

• As you can tell I could talk about Engagement Groups for hours, if not weeks, but I hope I’ve given you enough to stir some enthusiasm up in you too. I occasionally run trainings and would be up for doing something over Zoom to go into the practicalities a bit more if there’s sufficient interest. I hope I’ve got across how this ‘recipe’ for groups, which might seem kind of simple and obvious, is in fact a spiritual practice which can lead us into places that are really profound, and an art which takes a lot of practice – and perhaps courage – to do well.

• I just want to leave you with a few words from UU minister Rebecca Parker which kind-of bring us full-circle to where we started, with the ‘why?’, with the purpose and intention behind these groups. Parker writes of ‘a new quest for liberal and liberating community life’ where ‘congregations can be “communities of resistance” – countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture… an embodied experience of covenant and commitment… which ground life in shared rituals that nourish and strengthen people spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and intellectually, providing a deep foundation for courageous and meaningful living.’ It might be a bold claim, but this is precisely what I believe Engagement Groups do.

Talk by Jane Blackall

A video recording of this talk is available:

(coming soon)