By: Christa Meland
When COVID-19 hit Minnesota in March, Centenary UMC in Mankato—like most churches—hustled to move worship online. It wasn’t easy, but an even bigger challenge came later when it became clear that people were missing the relational aspect that in-person gatherings offer.
“How are we going to hold people to the church and create a sense of stickiness?” wondered Rev. Michelle Hargrave.
She kept coming back to the idea of small groups and thinking about John Wesley’s way of describing them as “watching over one another in love.”
“As Methodists, we understand the power of small groups,” she said. “We’re in a very different moment in the church and our country and the world. We trust that in times of distrust and disorder, there’s a possibility for new life and resurrection. We as clergy cannot take care of all of our congregation’s needs, but we can take care of a team of leaders, who can each then do the same for another group of people.”
So Hargrave came up with the idea of “Circles of Care.” She asked 14 people (in some cases, couples) in her congregation about their willingness to lead a small group of about 15 people for one year. To her surprise, every single one said yes—which affirmed to her that she was onto something with this concept.
All of the leaders met via Zoom and selected households for their groups one at a time, draft-style, from a large master list. This way, each leader could initially select some people they knew well and wanted to invite into their group—and each one later selected some they didn’t know as well. Leaders then individually invited everyone on their list to join their circle; not everyone invited decided to join a circle, but many did.
Starting this month, each circle meets at least twice a month through Zoom, email, text, phone, or mail. Some also decided to meet in-person outdoors with masks and social distancing. Hargrave encouraged each group to be guided by Centenary UMC’s four cornerstones—compassion, justice, worship, and devotion—and she gave ideas for each one. For example, a circle could “adopt” a group within the church, like children, college students, or guests of its breakfast ministry for those facing food insecurity, and send cards or messages of support. Group members could use the scripture readings and study guide that the church sends out weekly and have a discussion about them. Or they could invite one of the pastors to join them and serve communion to them during a mini worship service. (View leader resource guide.)
So far, the feedback on the Circles of Care has been extremely positive. Mike and Lucinda Mitchell, longtime church members and circle leaders, led their first (socially distanced) gathering outside their home on Aug. 9. Nine people attended, and they appreciated the opportunity to connect in-person, share about their lives, and offer ideas for navigating the pandemic.
“We all long for the good old days but need to find ways to keep our church family connected,” said Mike Mitchell.
Hargrave leads a monthly Zoom conversation with leaders to offer support, guidance, and problem-solving. Already, the circles are accomplishing what she hoped they would: Group leaders are passing individuals’ concerns on to her, thus helping her better minister to those needing pastoral care. Group leaders have helped tech-challenged individuals figure out how to use Zoom so they can stay connected virtually. Members in residential living centers are being connected to Zoom with the help of their caregivers so they can participate.
“My 15 years of experience leading covenant discipleship groups teaches me that one of the best gifts the church has to give is a place where people are deeply known and loved,” said Hargrave. “Small groups are more easily able to care for one another than the more anonymous space of the congregation. They are a more natural place to grow spiritually as people support one another and ask questions of each other.”
She expects the coming months to be very difficult in our country, pointing out that the pandemic and politics are dividing people, isolating them, and creating great stress.
“The church has a great opportunity to provide people with support, security, and a safe space to grow in these days,” she said. “I am passionate about resurrecting this very Wesleyan way of being in this difficult season.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church