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Extended Family Groups

Extended Family Groups are multi-generational church groups that meet together for fellowship, and to build cross-generational connections. Below are some materials that explain Extended Family Groups.

Extended Family Groups in larger congregations (started off well)
Extended Family Groups in a small congregation (did not work out)

Extended Family Groups in larger congregations

In the winter and spring of 2004, when I was minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (UUCB) in Kensington, Calif., I got interested in creating a program to promote intergenerational contact between members of the congregation. A couple of years ago, my father joined something called an "Extended Family" in his Unitarian Universalist church, First Parish of Concord (Mass.). This was a well-established program at his church, and one Extended Family group there has been going strong for for more than thirty years there.

UUCB was a large congregation (525 members, 350 average attendance), and communication proved to be the most difficult aspect of implementing the Extended Family Groups. I developed the following handouts to communicate the program to potential participants:

Extended Family Group Frequently Asked Questions informational handout
2004 Extended Family Group Form application form for individuals and families

These two handouts should tell you much of what you need to know about starting Extended Family groups in your congregation (and feel free to copy whatever you need from these forms for use in your own congregation).

Planning details

Here are some things you should know about setting up an Extended Family Group program in a large or mid-sized congregation:

(1) Publicity should be widespread, using whatever channels work best in your congregation. Word of mouth always works, so you should also talk up the program yourself.

(2) I held an orientation meeting a month before the deadline for submitting forms. I made sure people knew that this was simply an informational meeting. I found that families with children did not attend this meeting, and I did a fair amount of direct, one-on-one contact with parents of children and teens to get the information to them.

(3) (Don't tell anyone, but of course I planned on stretching the deadline a week beyond the advertised deadline. Families with children often have overloaded lives, and probably half of the families with children sent in their application forms in the week after the deadline.)

(4) I set the groups up myself, paying attention to the following details:

(5) Be sure to plan on a few complaints and one or two last minute crises before the first meetings.

(6) Be aware that some people will experience the first couple of meetings as uncomfortable or difficult. When people call you to talk with about you this, normalize their feelings, and tell them to hold on for another couple of months. Things seem to settle down after those first two or three meetings.

(7) Finally, this is a very easy program to start up. It took very little of my time, and logistics were simple.

Unsolved problems:

(1) Should Extended Family groups be open or closed? If Extended Family groups are going to be open to new members, how often will they open up perhaps once a year? If they are closed, what happens when the inevitable attrition (from people moving out of town, etc.) takes place?

(2) Quite a few people wanted to get involved with Extended Families, but could not commit in this initial round. When would be a good time to try to set up another round of Extended Families perhaps in a year?

(3) We started two Extended Family groups with 22 people in each group. The membership of the congregation is 526, with just under 300 people at worship on Sunday, and under a hundred children registered in the religious education program. By any measure we did not get a large percentage of the congregation to participate in the program. It looks like this is a program that will work best in mid-sized or large congregations, but I can't be sure about that.

(4) We did no formal evaluation of this program. Informal feedback seems to indicate that the programs are successful, but in the long term there will need to be a way to do more formal evaluation. (For example, I envision the Extended Family group program as another form of small group ministry, filling a similar role to Covenant Groups or Evensong classes formal evaluation will tell us if Extended Family groups do fill that role.) A proposed evaluation form may be found here, but note that the form is still under development and subject to change.

Extended Family Groups at a small church

As I had expected, the Extended Family program did not get off the ground at First Unitarian. While a few people expressed interest, the congregation was really too small (50 active members, a dozen or so shut-ins) for the concept to take hold. My guess is that you need at least a hundred active members (determine active members by average worship attendance for 52 weeks) to have enough people to form a single extended family. Remember that small churches act much like a big extended family!

But for the record, here is the newsletter announcement we used:

New group forming at First Unitarian

Want to make connections with other people at church? Interested in meeting people from church of all different ages? Then you might be interested in being a part of an Extended Family Group.

An Extended Family Group is an intergenerational group of 10 to 12 people from at least four different unrelated households, who commit to sharing a meal once a month. The goal is to open up new connections between people at First Unitarian simply by sharing a meal and socializing informally.

Here's how the Extended Family Group will work at our church. The group will meet on once a month on a Sunday afternoon after church, and can meet either at the church or in people's homes. To start out, we're looking for a seven month commitment (May to November, with one month off in the summer). The meetings will last about two hours, long enough to share a meal and to spend some time talking or playing board games. All meals will be "pot luck," that is, every household brings a dish to share with everyone else. If you have any more questions, ask me for an information sheet that outlines exactly how the group will work.

If you're interested in joining the Extended Family Group, let me know as soon as possible. Just call the church office at 555-111-1212 and leave me a message.

— Dan