I see a lot of “groups” in diocesan and parish life. I commend the efforts of the founders, whose motivations seem targeted toward more bonding among members of parish, or spiritual growth, or education, or the addressing of a particular need. (Hats off, by the way, to parishes who invite outside groups like AA or CHADD to use parish facilities.) My pastoral and psychological concerns run more along the lines of purpose, training, effectiveness, and legal understanding.
The purpose of a group needs concrete statement. Making our big parish feel more like a home is at least a start, and it is a good intention, but can it be more focused? Given that the underlying goal involves community, here might be a place to start. Meaningful personal communities of active, affective connectedness lose intimacy at some point, perhaps 10 or 12. You may think of your parish as a spiritual, interactive, territorial community; an anthropologist or sociologist would be much more conservative about that kind of claim. I recently signed up for one such group, and discovered that no one else in my group attended the same Mass that I do. Given that parishes contain substrata of multiple communities, among them the various Mass time congregations, would it help to work a small group system where people of the same Eucharistic celebration gathered in common from time to time? There are many other possibilities, of course.
The training of group leaders is probably one of the most overlooked and neglected aspects of religious ministering formation. Yes, I have seen the how-to manuals of church group leadership for multitudes of various programs, dating back to CFM (my parents were members in the 1960’s) to RENEW (which my home diocese adopted in the 1980’s). My impression was and is that the success and longevity (not to mention the retention rates) of any group depends not just upon written direction, but on “seat skill.” As a leader, how do you engage, stay on focus, assist the members in helping one another, keep an eye open for a member in stress, etc.?
I take a dim view of the assumptions underlying proliferation of “study groups,” and particularly those involving Scripture. Tell me if this isn’t the common template: the group reads a passage, there is a period of silence, and then each member is asked to share his or her reaction or “feelings” about the passage. At best, you will leave with your neighbor’s well intentioned but limited impressions; at worst, you may actually hear something inimical to the faith—fundamentalist interpretations condemning peoples or other religious faiths.
I have been involved in two kinds of successful group learning experiences: college comprehensive exam preparation, where each member is responsible for a thorough review of one aspect of the discipline; and second, graduate school, where students read at least a book a week and meet for two hours with the professor to describe the key points of each book to classmates. The key component is preparation. In parish bible study, for example, while the Bible is the center of attention, it is hard for me to imagine a discussion of any book of the Bible without each member progressing through an adult-level commentary that provides an overview of the entire book, such as our Year B Gospel of St. Mark.
And finally, there are some legal considerations, believe it or not. A group leader or group literature cannot guarantee confidentiality. “Everything you say here is confidential.” We have no control of that. We urge people to practice confidentiality, but we have no idea if they will or not. Medical professionals must warn group patients of this fact as part of an informed choice.
“Group” is a word we take for granted in our church work. Perhaps it is time to revisit what it means.