Launched in 2017, Gather Groups are an experimental small group model at Foothills Unitarian whose mission is to catalyse a culture defined by: care, depth, and growth; both within groups and the wider congregation. Two beta test group were launched in Fall 2017 to test and refine the model and the public beta launched in early 2018.
Gather Groups are groups of 6–10 people that gather at least twice a month (ideally weekly). The groups can have a specific affinity (men, families with young children, etc) but this is not necessary. Primarily we have experimented not with affinity but with neighbourhood (geographic) proximity for group composition.
Gathering take place primarily in members homes, lasting around 2 hours, and can include snacks or a meal. Family Groups were children attend follow a similar but modified process.
The groups goal is to create an environment in which everyone can pursue healthy relationships and spiritual growth.
Group Members’ Responsibilities:
Each group member is invited into three core responsibilities:
- Show Up — Make it a priority to attend your Gather Group’s meetings.
- Join In — Don’t be a bystander. Instead, be an active participant and share leadership.
- Be Real — Practice vulnerability. Bring your truth to the group.
Beyond the above responsibilities the group are guided by a set of six values that form the basis of the groups covenant:
- Relationships- The driving force behind the group is building meaning-filled relationships that encourage growing.
- Authenticity- Your group’s community should create an environment in which each person feels able to be fully themselves and share as deeply as they can.
- Trust / Confidentiality-Trust is built by honoring our commitments, asking for forgiveness when we mess up, and refraining from repeating outside the group what is said within it.
- Availability- Being willing to nurture relationships with your group’s members outside of meetings is a primary commitment. Being open and available to accompany and assist other members will transform your surface-level relationships into deeper ones.
- Respect- Each person has inherent worth and dignity and holds a unique piece of the truth. We honor each person’s truth and dignity by being mindful of our actions and words, honoring a person’s right to not share, and by not attempting to fix, save, or set another person “straight.”
- “Radical Welcome”- The group will recognize that one of our church’s goals is for each Gather Group to start at least one new Gather Group during its lifecycle (about 18 months). This is a stance of “radical welcome”. Radical comes from the word ‘root’. It is the deepest of welcomes to invite more members of our community to experience the relationships of a Gather Group. (More on this concept to follow.)
Core Aspects of the Gather Group Model
The Gaither Group Strategy has a predictable and scalable lifecycle for each individual group but also for the formation and ending of groups. This ensure the strategy is constantly part of the culture of the church and becomes more than a program but integrated into it’s very culture.
Stage 1: GroupLink
Strategically place during the year the GroupLink event invites all those wishing to join a group to attend a 2 hour even in which Gather Groups are formed. GroupLink prioritizes building relationships between attendees, emparting the core DNA of Gather Groups, forming groups that fit peoples schedules, and identifying Group leaders. Each person is asked to commit to weekly meeting for eight weeks. The Groups are formed by the participants and are not created in advance of the event (this can be messy but seems to have been rather effective in creating ownership early own from groups).
Stage 2: Launch
Newly created Gather Groups are given the Launch Guide — an 8 session guide to kick off their group initial set of meetings. The sessions lead the group through relationship building, and introduces them to each of the five catalyst for spiritual deepening.
Stage 3: Discern
At the end of the eighth session the group discerns if they want to become an ongoing group and continues to meet or if they will celebrate their time together and disband.
Stage 4: Ongoing Groups
Groups that decide to continue are assigned a coach to support them and are invited to select topics for continued deepening from the library of Deepen Guides.
Stage 5: Repeat!
Staggering GroupLink events allows for people who joined groups that are not continuing to find a new group, and it allows seasoned veterans to step into group leadership.
Step 6: Radical Welcome
After being a group for 18–24 months the Gather Groups are expected to embrace a radical welcome and bring their original Gather Group to an end and form some new ones.
Why do groups disband after a set period of time?
First, the goodness of a Gather Group should not be limited to only those in the group now. It should always be aimed outward, to invite more people into meaning-filled relationships.
Second, experienced Gather Group members can equip new groups with their experience, and learnings, helping new groups grow and develop.
Third, all groups have a natural life cycle. Embracing their impermanence from the beginning enables us to accept that they will change meaning over time and eventually end.
Gather Groups are relationally focused whose goal is to to create an environment in which everyone can pursue healthy relationships and spiritual growth. Even at GroupLink the composition of the groups prioritizes relationships (ie. groups are constructed allowing people to be in groups with people they may already know).
The rhythm of a regular Gather Group gathering is simple and each of the three sections promotes a distinct yet essential practice of relationship building
Connect is a chance to hang out, catch up, and connect after the week apart. It’s unstructured and groups are encouraged to incorporate snacks or a meal as part of their connect time.
Deepen is not simply a listening circle as is typical, but a time to collectively engage questions of faith and living and challenge each other to live out our faith bolder and with greater accountability. Carving out time to deepen in relationships and grow in faith.
Companion is about finding time to pause and reflect. Through silence, ritual, and community reflection, the group opens a space for each person to express what is alive in their heart and mind.
Because of the flexibility in structure groups are invited to add additional types of gatherings to the life of their group:
- Social Gatherings
- Justice and Service Work
Organic Leadership Cultivation
“The scope of your influence is determined by the success of your leaders.” — Reggie Joiner
Gather Groups cultivate leadership in three distinct ways:
Collective Ambient Leadership
Small groups are micro-congregations intentionally practicing covenantal relationship as they work through through interpersonal dynamics, discern together their future, cultivate an atmosphere that facilitates growth for all, supporting each other through the body blows of life, living together in the tragic gaps of our age.
Formal Group Leadership
Groups are led from within. One or two members of the group take on responsibilities for being the groups leader: Thinking about the spiritual deepening of everyone in the group and creating a community where everyone supports everyone’s spiritual growth. The Group Leader also provides an essential connection point between the small group and congregational life.Small Group Leadership becomes a laboratory for wider congregational leadership.
Adding Ministry & Leadership Layers
Gather Groups add layers of ministry and leadership. The Staff Leads supports coaches and the implementation of the entire strategy → Coaches support 6–8 groups and their leaders → Group Leaders support their 5–9 other group members → Group Members support each other. In a large church the question of who do you turn to for support or answers to questions to streamlined and simplified. Multiple leadership layers also cultivates the depth in leadership as moving up the latter necessitates personal growth and skills composition. .
Real Life Topics
This is no time for a casual faith, it demands spiritual deepening that is not ethereal but raw, honest, challenging, that meets us where we are. Thus our strategy is flexible enough to allow each group to select their own Deepen materials based on the realities of their group, while committing to providing excellent meaningful and gritty guides that provide real life application and skills cultivation.
Let’s be honest, there are limits of the traditional discussion guide. People struggle to complete the homework, distributing resources can present a challenge, you know the drill. We are piloting the development of media based guides. The media can be watched at home or as a group, allowing everyone to do the homework together. Beyond this our Deepen Guides aim to go beyond simply going round the circle and each person sharing for three minutes. They aim to embody a process that is akin to real life: relational and yet not loose the deep listening often associated with small groups.