This is the second of several installments on "small faith groups" I composed as part of a project earlier this month.
2. WHAT IS THE IDENTITY OF OUR GROUP?
The purpose of a group identifies what we do, but the identity of the group involves the interactions among us the members. The very nature of a small group—church or otherwise—is a level of intentional companionship between the members. The assumption is that a cluster of us develop a closer fraternity than that available in the multi-thousand congregation to which we all belong. We have a responsibility toward each other to insure a maximum and rewarding experience, to enrich the group by our good will and insights, to take each other seriously, and to protect one another from harm resulting from group experience.
A very basic question we have not addressed in our group is what we expect from each other. The profits of group membership rise or fall with the level of commitment of each member, or put another way, how well we come to know each other and invest our interest in each other. My sense of two years’ experience in our group is that there is some divergence on the level of personal investment—the group may be more essential to some than to others. This is to be expected. There is no present contract between us that we will commit to more personal bonding in faith. We are currently under more of a gentleman’s agreement. There has not been a moment for all of us to step back and say, “Well, this is a bit more than I can manage right now.” There is no shame in any of us admitting that lifestyle or disposition makes a more intense commitment to the group inadvisable at a particular time. A formal recommitment to the group at set intervals (perhaps in a recurring January meeting prayer segment) might attract more individuals to join, particularly those leery of an open-ended commitment.
As a group matures, its responsibilities toward its members grows. When I began therapeutic groups, and today when I begin theological seminars for professionals, I state at the beginning that I as the leader will hold all shared information confidential (a legal requirement in mental health groups) and I encourage all the participants to give each other the moral courtesy of doing the same. I must warn participants in my groups, though, that I cannot guarantee everyone in the group will respect confidentiality. At some level the group’s health and survival depends upon our faith in each other that “what happens in the group stays in the group.” The operative word is trust, and the intimacy of significant group experience will over the course of time encourage us to know and understand each other better. The degree of openness in the group cannot be mandated or coerced, but at any level it commands adult discretion.
This is particularly true in issues of faith or health, or of third parties not present in the group. The sharing of a faith journey will of necessity involve personal experiences that command confidentiality within the group.
Similarly, the use of our email addresses and phone numbers should be protected and restricted to internal correspondence within the group.
Two years ago, my wife and I joined a small faith group during a recruiting evening in my home parish. I’m not quite sure why I joined; I know my wife was enthusiastic about it, and I thought it might be nice to meet new people, though quite honestly it is a struggle to maintain good relations with the folks I already know. I guess I thought there were things to be learned in these groups, perhaps like a Bible study. That evening some individuals gave testimony that their lives were enriched, but it was unclear to me precisely how that happened.
As a historical note, I reached a point somewhere in my 30’s where I stopped joining groups, for example, except when it was absolutely impossible to do so. It may have had something to do with a mental health course I was taking at Rollins College in the 1980’s on group dynamics. I had an opportunity to study the holy grail of group process, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, by Irvin D. Yalom. It is a measure of the strength of this work that in 2017 the fifth edition is rated #752 of all books marketed by Amazon.
Immediately the opposition is raised that small parish groups are not the same thing as “psychotherapy groups.” Actually, this is the genius of Yalom, who correctly recognized that all groups—business, self-help, community organization-- have a psychological template that either helps or hinders the group’s unity and accomplishment of goals. Yalom isn’t selling all those books to shrinks. For example, every group may have talkers who monopolize the room, users who manipulate its direction for personal purposes, high needs members, histrionics with crisis agendas, pseudo-saints, occasional visitors, you name it.
The worst mistake churches make in many ventures is the belief in a “religious exemption,” that because we gather for a holy purpose we are exempt from the laws of human nature. I was wary of groups before encountering Yalom and other social scientists; at least now I know my reasons were not irrational. I get invitations today—sometimes high pressured ones—from existing groups who want me to join, particularly from our married couples group who line the path from parking lot to church door armed with harpoon guns, in some cases yelling that “you need to go.” More likely, I need an anger management group when someone who doesn’t know me presumes to tell me what I need.
So anyway, here we are on the second anniversary of our group, and we have exhausted the wheel barrel of mimeographed monthly meeting outlines that have passed through our parish over the years like volumes of Aristotle passed to St. Thomas Aquinas from Islamic merchants. It seems we have reached a moment—our first—where we are taking stock of our group. I volunteered to do a little research on the issue, partly from the mental health perspective and partly from the Protestant tradition of small faith groups, whose tradition of such things dwarfs our recent Catholic interest. What I quickly learned in my research is that small faith groups are a major pastoral headache in Protestant traditions. When I came across a Protestant journal piece entitled “Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups,” I could only think of the late Father Andrew Greeley, who oft remarked that “Catholics always arrive on the scene a little breathless, and a little late.”
With that background, I penned some critical reflections and recommendations which I will post for the next few Wednesdays in the professional development stream, which I admit is not the best tended of the Café sites. My first entry is group purpose. Forgive any repetitions from my earlier remarks.
1. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF OUR GROUP?
It is true that Jesus blesses every group of two or three gathered in his name, but this does not answer the question of why we gather as we do monthly. Jesus gathered groups for many distinct purposes—for teaching, praying in the Synagogue and elsewhere, breaking bread, working miracles, witnessing his death and resurrected being, commissioning missionaries. All of Jesus’ groups were “intentional, “established to do specific things in specific ways for specific outcomes. The greatest example of an intentional group from Scripture is the establishment of the Twelve Apostles, where Jesus sought to symbolize the fulfillment of Israel and prepare those he would send forth to announce the Kingdom of God and call forth to saving baptism.
My own experience with church groups goes back to 1969 when I was assigned to provide weekend meetings or retreats to Catholic high school and CCD students in the Washington, D.C. area. Over the years, it has been my impression that participants believe Catholic small church groups are a good thing, but they are hard pressed to define precisely why. At the organizational meeting my wife and I attended in 2015 for our present program, several individuals from the parish spoke with positive high affect about their experiences, but again no one addressed a statement of purpose. Perhaps a specific purpose is assumed, but in two years it has eluded me. The closest thing to a purpose statement I can determine is the birthing of other groups from our membership. If this is in fact true, then it is even more urgent that we ourselves understand who we are and what we do.
An omission in the present small group program in our parish is the absence of visible parish leadership coordinating communication between the groups, so it is hard to say how parallel small faith groups in our parish focus their energies. In fact, the neighborhood faith groups are not included in the Church Bulletin’s posting of parish ministries as of [January 8.] We have little or no experience from other parish groups to draw from.
I did find a description of small faith groups on the parish’s website, in the adult formation menu: “Small Faith Groups enable people to gather together to share their faith in a more intimate setting much like the early Christian Communities. We have several small faith groups and we support and encourage the formation of other groups. We have many resources to assist our Small Faith Groups.” That said, there is no designated overseer of our program on the parish staff. My wife and I made overtures to a senior staff member for sample small group resources, who provided us with the Why Catholic? guidebooks (four years’ worth), possibly based upon the program’s success in other parish settings. Other faith formation adult programs—such as the bible studies—evidently have access to other structured formats.
In the apparent continuing absence of a parish-wide director and a specific program format, it would appear that our group is free to spell out its purpose more explicitly. This is an exercise in honesty, profiting both present members and those who may wish to join us in the future. Our purpose statement can be reviewed periodically at specified intervals, allowing members to determine if and how long they may wish to remain participating members, assuming their full responsibilities as members.
Purpose statements [or mission statements in general, for that matter] are like computer passwords: some are weak and easily bypassed, while others bring strength and security, particularly for the leaders. We have all heard the humorous stories of people who use the word “password” as their password. It can’t be denied that “password” is an easily remembered security clearance, but its weaknesses are obvious. When you set up an on-line service to do your banking and you submit a password, you usually get an indicator of “weak,” “adequate,” or “strong.” The same principle holds true in determining group purpose. Let’s experiment with three hypothetical statements of purpose on the weak/adequate/strong continuum:
Purpose: Our group meets to better know and love Jesus. Weak. An admirable purpose, to be sure, but it gives no indication of what the leader and the group do when they come together, or how they differ from other groups and missions in the parish.
Purpose: Our group meets to encounter Jesus in the Sacred Scripture. Barely adequate. At least there is some indication that membership will present opportunities for deeper involvement in the Word or the Bible, but there are still questions of competency, resources, connectedness to the mother church, etc. As it stands, the purpose stated here does not identify the group as Catholic!
Purpose: Our group meets for monthly study, reflection, and sharing the Gospel of the present Catholic Liturgical Year, in communion with the faith formation program of the parish and utilizing its recommendation for authoritative resources. Strong. The purpose is focused enough to address many reasonable contingencies and presents a prospective candidate with enough information to make an informed choice about joining or departing.
I hasten to note that I am not recommending we become a bible study group per se. (The parish has several established bible studies already, for one thing.) I used the above examples to explain that our group purpose must be concrete.
NEXT WEEK: IDENTITY