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Covenant groups thrive at Ferndale, Walla Walla

By Kathie Forman  - Adult Spiritual Formation Task Force

It’s a Tuesday evening at United Church of Ferndale, and a small group has just finished checking in with one another, sharing joys and concerns. Now participants are turning their attention to the evening’s topic, “Taking a Leap of Faith.”

Covenant groups enjoy sharing both companionship and food at the United Church at Ferndale.          Photo courtesy of Bobbi Virta

After the facilitator reads aloud some thought-provoking passages about leaps of faith, each group member has an opportunity to share a related thought or experience before discussion begins. 

This is a Covenant Group meeting. Participants are able to speak without interruption, be heard without judgment and know that whatever they choose to share will be held in confidence. In this safe space, people deepen relationships as they engage in conversations about things that matter. 

Covenant Group Ministry began at Walla Walla First Congregational in 2013 under the leadership of interim minister Cecilia McKean. Covenant Groups have continued to thrive there with the support of current pastor, Nathaniel Mahlberg.

In 2015, Bobbi Virta introduced the United Church of Ferndale to this form of small group ministry.

Nathaniel and Bobbi recently shared their churches’ experiences with Covenant Groups.

Why Covenant Groups? What called your churches to this form of small group ministry?

Nathaniel: Cecilia initiated the groups after a church-wide survey revealed that many members were yearning for more ways to get to know each other through church—beyond worship, fellowship hour and committee meetings. When I arrived, people made it very clear that they wanted the Covenant Groups to continue, and I was happy to provide support.

I’d had my own experiences with small group ministry and know how valuable it can be in developing friendships and spiritual companionship.

Bobbi: I walked into a Covenant Group workshop at the 2015 Conference Annual Meeting and was surprised to find other members of my church’s delegation already there! Our congregation is a mix of longtime Ferndale residents who know each other well and people newer to the community who long to feel more connected within the church.

I think that’s what called several of us to the workshop. We left feeling that Covenant Groups could be just what we needed to strengthen relationships within our congregation.

Now that you’ve both been involved with Covenant Groups for a couple of years, how would you describe the benefits?

Bobbi: I have definitely seen deeper connections develop within the church community because people have walked more closely beside each other, through joys and tragedies. This was especially evident when one Covenant Group lost two participants to death. The other members enveloped those people and their families with care and support and love and strength during every step of the journey.

Nathaniel: I’ve witnessed the kind of connections and care that Bobbi’s just described. I also know that Covenant Groups fulfill a spiritual longing as well as a longing for relationship. Another major benefit is that Covenant Groups can bring people into the church. Group members can invite friends to join their Covenant Groups, and some of those people are now active participants in the life of this congregation! Small group ministry outreach is a powerful way to address the spiritual hunger that’s out there.

Are there comments you’ve heard from Covenant Group facilitators and participants that you’d like to share?

Bobbi: Participants have said: “This is my family.” “These are my people.” “I would never want to miss a Covenant Group meeting.”

Nathaniel: Comments include: “We have spiritual discussions that wouldn’t happen otherwise.” “We’re truly honest with each other.” “I wouldn’t still be coming here without the relationships I’ve formed in Covenant Groups.”

Any additional thoughts?

Nathaniel: I’d like to say that in Covenant Groups, our UCC diversity really comes out—in a healthy way! People are able to express their beliefs and doubts and talk candidly with each other because Covenant Groups create such safe space. People listen deeply. They’re respectful. They can say, “I hear you. I don’t really agree with that. Here’s what I think…” And it’s okay.

Bobbi: I have officiated at many memorial services over the past 10 years. Often, people have said to me at the close of a gathering, “I wish I’d known all those things, heard all those wonderful stories, before now.”

Covenant Groups fulfill that longing. In Covenant Groups, we can share our stories, share our experiences, and other people can receive the gift of knowing those things about us now.

The task force encourages local churches to consider Covenant Group Ministry, as a small group model. 

The task force can provide information about how to start and maintain groups.  Free sets of sessions are also available. 

For information, call 206-799-9248 or email


Pacific Northwest United Church News © September-October 2017


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