What Makes a Small Discipleship Group Different from Other Groups?

Last month I wrote about the critical importance of small groups in parish life.  Even though we may feel a sense of belonging in a large community, genuine social interaction, including evangelization and discipleship, can only occur on the micro-scale. It is thus essential for parishes to offer a wide variety of types of small group opportunities.  This month I’d like to look at what constitutes a spiritually-effective small group.

The Tale of Two Nights Out

I’ve been a member of a particular Catholic association for many years, and one popular activity we hosted was “Mom’s Night Out.”  Just as the name suggests, perhaps a dozen mothers might congregate at a coffee shop or someone’s home for an evening of time with just the ladies, when we could compare notes, support each other in our vocations, and just unwind.  It was a great group, and I always enjoyed attending.  But it was missing something.

Then one year one of the mothers said, “I’d really like there to be a Bible study on Mom’s night.”  We changed the format ever so slightly.  We didn’t ever get quite so far as reading the Bible, nor did we set up a prayer group.  We did start picking out a spiritual book of some kind, but most months we’d be lucky if even one mother had actually read the book.  But the focus changed.  The monthly gathering switched from being a generic social time among fellow Catholics to being a time specifically set aside for discussing our spiritual lives.  The “book study” was really just a theme to get us started, and from there participants might ask questions about the faith or discuss spiritual difficulties, knowing that they’d get responses from a group of fellow disciples who had some experience with the challenges of our common vocation.

When we talk about “small groups” what we mean are small discipleship groups.  That is: Groups whose purpose is to help each other with explicit concerns about how to live out the Christian faith.

Any Group Can Generate Small Discipleship Groups

Within the parish there are already many functioning organizations with the potential to spawn “small groups.”  The Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul society, the choir, the grounds crew . . . any parish organization could be the home of one or several spiritually-effective small groups.  The key feature is that there be a time set aside for 5-15 members to intentionally gather and work on becoming better disciples.

The trick, though, is to not confuse “practicing” the faith with “learning” the faith.  Think of your faith like learning an instrument: There’s a time to sit down with an instructor or a self-study course and learn new techniques and correct old errors, and then there’s the rest of the week when you just work on what you already know.  If we imagine, say, the typical parish men’s group, there is likely lots of “practice” time, when the men get together to do works of service, or socialize, or pray the rosary together.  That’s essential stuff – ask any piano teacher who’s student doesn’t practice between lessons: You need to practice.

But if we want to become better Christians, we also need intentional training and correction to grow in our faith.  So that same men’s organization could choose to also offer an intentional discipleship time focused on study, guidance, and mutual support.  Out at the pro-life Rosary rally, the men get together en masse to practice their faith.  But the small group is the place where a man might ask, “What do you do when your mind wanders while you’re praying?” or “How do I get my family to pray together?” or even, “Isn’t the Rosary kind of weird?  Why do we do this?”

Informal Micro-Groups: One-on-One Discipleship

Not every parish organization will be well-suited to spawning discipleship groups.  The crew might work together beautifully when it comes to putting a new roof on the picnic shelter, but find that when it comes to discipleship, the logistics don’t work out or the group members are spiritually incompatible.  Still, the small community that meets regularly to perform some work of mercy can make a good home base for discipleship on a micro-scale, for the simple reason that you and your fellow group members see each other frequently, so it’s easy to stay in touch.  Thus, for example, if you the soup kitchen manager observes that the new volunteer seems to be interested in learning more about her faith, you could just say, “That question you asked the other day got me thinking.  Would you like to meet for coffee sometime, and we could chat about it?”

Because micro-groups are the most flexible of formats, they are well-suited to those who have the spiritual maturity to be effective mentors, but may have sharp limits on the times and places they can meet.

Big Nets are Full of Holes

When we look at a discipleship-driven parish, what we see are many layers of small-group opportunities.  The formal faith-formation program may offer some smaller classes that have a discipleship component.  Multi-purpose groups such as a parish women’s group might offer small-group discipleship as one of many service activities.  There may be spin-off small- or micro-discipleship groups that grow out of organizations like the music ministry that don’t in themselves have any “discipleship” type purpose.  There may also be a freestanding parish discipleship program that exists solely for gathering together those parishioners who wish to meet for the purpose of growing in their faith together.

These layers of opportunities create a big net: Any given parishioner will have many different ways to get plugged in with a discipleship group that works well in terms of logistics and spiritual compatibility.

Some parishioners, though, will fall through the holes.  It is essential that the parish have in place “emergency net” ways to hold onto members who are easily forgotten.  Severe illness, a loss transportation, a change of work schedule – any major life change is a time when it’s easy for someone to simply quit showing up and never be seen again.  This loss can be forestalled if there’s a mechanism in place to “transfer care”.  We can imagine, for example, the food pantry manager dropping a quick e-mail to the homebound-ministry, letting them know that one of the volunteers was recently diagnosed with a serious illness and is probably going to miss Mass frequently – could someone make arrangements to check on her periodically?

The Imperfect is the Friend of the Good

As we develop strategies for reaching as many parishioners as possible, and for making sure we don’t lose track of those in transition, there’s a tendency to try to develop a perfect system for soul-management.  We might say, for example, “If someone in your group gets sick, the group members should organize meals for the family.”  That works great until you discover that the Bible study leader knows a lot about scripture and nothing about casseroles.  Often parish staff and volunteers are already working at the limits of capacity — “one more little thing” added on to their to-do list can end up being the one little thing that causes a pretty good effort to disintegrate.

A more realistic expectation is that everyone will put in their best, according to the gifts they’ve got.  As we become aware of a growing need, we don’t need to so much ask, “What is the perfect system to make sure that this need is always met 100% of the time?”  It suffices to say, “What different ways can we tackle this problem from a variety of angles, so that we give it the best we can?”

New needs don’t have to fall on the same old shoulders.   When a parish is discipleship-driven, there will always be a steady flow of new disciples, or newly-available disciples, looking for ways to serve.  We don’t have to look for the perfect staff member who can be everything to everybody.  It’s good enough that we use who we have in our parish as best we can.

Copyright Jennifer Fitz 2014

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

One response to “What Makes a Small Discipleship Group Different from Other Groups?”

  1. sensiblycatholic says:

    Excellent piece and right on the money to my mind, as your pieces always are.

    Maybe there’s something wrong with me (and if there is, I want it pointed out, as I really want to be doing the right thing), but here’s my heresy:

    I’ve started asking questions as I’m getting very uncomfortable/scared about what I term ‘Weddellism’ which I think might lead to some serious pastoral problems not too far down the road.

    What’s making me more cautious is that I’m not getting any cogent answers to any questions, even from highly capable catechists, but just being told to shut up.

    Forming Intentional Disciples is one thing, as it’s about ‘one person at a time’, but when it becomes a movement – or franchise – as it seems to be becoming – Intentional Discipleship (TM) – it seems we’re heading for something which stands in direct contrast to small groups: a ‘McDonaldisation’ of Parish life where if you’re not an Intentional Disciple, then you’re outside the fold. It seems to be getting an ‘ideological’ flavour about it. It seems to be heading for more towards a uniformity of a school, and the potential alienation of so many good souls who don’t fit the expected profile.

    Interestingly, the only positive feedback I’ve had in discussions is from people who’ve found themselves, or members of their family, ‘bullied’ in their parish by people who think they are God’s answer to saving the Church with their programmmes, ‘motivational’ conferences and courses, and have thanked me for speaking up for them.

    It seems to me that what is being suggested in the above article, is exactly what’s required to prevent a ‘Monochrome’ Parish, and has a healthy diversity which prevents the kind of elitism or ‘two tier’ Catholicism I’m beginning to see appearing wherever ‘Intentional Discipleship’ is being promoted.

    I have no axe to grind against the concept. I think ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ is a great book. But then, when I read it, I saw it as a work of Spiritual/Pastoral Psychology, as an outstanding analysis of the formation process and aspects of that which need to be considered in catechesis. That is, as something very informative and descriptive.

    However, it seems others have been reading it more as something prescriptive, as if we can control grace, or can guarantee certain outcomes, from performing certain practices, or participating in certain workshops, like a spiritual vending machine: ‘If you X, then God will Y’.

    It seems to me that when things start becoming prescriptive in Spiritual matters, not only does a legalistic mentality ensue, but also people start seeing it as THE solution and – intentionally or not – begin to try to make everything in it’s own image, quashing any concerns or diversity outside its own purview.

    To me, what is being suggested in the article seems so much more likely to reach souls effectively, owing to its ‘One-on-One’ approach, and therefore less likely to alienate as it’s not based in a ‘Procrustean Bed’ or ‘one size should fit all’, mentality, which, to me, seems to end up speaking only to a coterie of like minds, missing anyone unlike themselves.

    Sorry it’s been a bit of a rant, but I’m really scared, particularly that, as an ex-Evangelical, I’m getting a real sense of deja vu and foreboding, seeing the same thinking and behaviours beginning to emerge which damaged so many people and communities in Evangelicalism. In Evangelicalism, of course, they go to another ‘Church’ and it doesn’t matter, it’s the accepted collateral damage. But lapsing or becoming Evangelical are the only paths open to Catholics if they get caught in the potential fall-out from this one if it starts going the same way, I feel.

    Any help greatly received if I’m misunderstanding this one, as I want to do the right thing.

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