During the trip to my seminary class reunion about two weeks ago, I reflected upon the changes in my province of the Franciscan Order over the past five decades. The very seminary in Callicoon, N.Y. that we all attended fifty years ago and toured again on Saturday, September 22, was sold in the 1970’s to the federal government and now serves as a secular vocational/job training center. About four years ago the Franciscans relinquished pastoral responsibility for the parish in Callicoon back to the Archdiocese of New York after at least a century of Franciscan pastoral presence there. Change is never easy and the reasons for the Franciscan disengagement from the area are many: decline in enrollment and available priests, finances, the new demographics of the Northeast, and the need for friars in new, more pressing ministries of need which have cropped up over the years.
One of the more serious and discouraging challenges to any group—religious or otherwise—is facing the twin questions of self-evaluation and the possibility that a group or ministry has served its purposes or at least given it the old college try. Religious orders understand the need for self-evaluation, and such a process is usually written into an order’s constitution. My Franciscan order held a triennial evaluative meeting or “chapter” to take stock of our ministries and our common life.
It has always struck me that Catholic parishes generally do not have a “corrective” built into their operations, i.e., a process of periodic reflections on the progress and outcomes of its ministries. Put another way, parish groups and ministries have the right and the duty to correct themselves and even to disband if a goal is met or the prospect does not appear on the horizon. [In my work with parishes and parish personnel over the years, it has been startling to see an even greater omission: the absence of realistic job descriptions and at least annual job review of hired professional parish staff or senior volunteers. Everyone gets cheated when this learning venture does not take place.]
Let’s bring this closer to home. About four years ago my wife Margaret and I attended an orientation at our parish of registration for “small faith groups.” To be honest, I never quite understood the purpose of small church groups, and certainly not as it was laid out for us at the orientation in 2014, aside from the generic explanation of St. Peter that “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” As the evening progressed, I had more doubts than answers. When I started graduate school toward a mental health psychology degree in 1984, I learned that The State of Florida requires all mental health practitioners to have earned at least three graduate credits in group leadership and to have mastered Dr. Irwin Yalom’s flagship text on group dynamics. Yalom’s text is described by one reviewer as “the quintessential book in the field of group work. It covers all the main ideas and pragmatic methods that anyone leading a group of any kind must master before beginning such a task.” Consequently, I had some idea of the things that might go wrong in church groups. My wife convinced me, though, that it would be good to get to know some of the parishioners better, as we are members of a mega-church.
Given that I write a daily blog, I receive a lot of news and insight from a multitude of sources, and I have been paying more attention recently to the experience of Evangelical Churches and small faith groups. Evangelicals see the small group experience as intrinsic to congregational health. In an article here from Christianity Today [The Billy Graham Center] the authors argue that at least 70% of a congregation ought to be in intimate small groups, with 100% the target membership. However, I wonder if all members of Evangelical groups would subscribe to the third priority of small faith groups as described in CT, accountability: “the third factor is that small groups deliver deeper friendships that double as accountability. When people know you, really know you, your life becomes far more transparent, including your sin. Others learn to read you and will call you out for those sins, creating opportunities to deal with real life difficulties as they surface. This is part of what we should expect from good friends.”
This is a much more intense definition of group experience than we ever received from our parish, and thanks be to God for that, because it does not take much imagination to see how delicate and even damaging such interactions could become in an amateur format. [When I ran therapeutic groups, I had to get each member’s signature indicating that I as leader would not be held accountable or sued if someone in the group violated confidentiality.] Wise old Dr. Yalom would probably hold that such a group might have considerable chances of success—saving each other’s souls—if all 660 pages of his admonitions were followed to the letter.
As Professor Jim McCarthy would tell us students at Rollins College, the word “group” is so broad that without precise qualifiers it can be stretched like taffy. Evangelicals such as those cited above can call their intense encounters “groups.” In my parish, however, we have taken a safer approach to “groups” in several ways—we meet once a month and we follow a text from our parish. It is rare for us to have full attendance of a dozen. We are in the second year of the RENEW format, which is better than the home-made outlines we were first presented four years ago. RENEW attempts to merge learning and interaction in a very tight framework of time. There is a lot to read at the 2-hour meeting, and very little time, really, for targeted or extended personal reflection and interchange. Were Yalom to observe us via camera, he might ask, rightfully, what is it exactly that you are trying to achieve here? To be honest, the best sharing and mutual support seems to happen at the coffee hour, which often provides a better smorgasbord than a high-end cruise ship. [I am the group brew master, no surprise there.]
I suppose that we could continue in this fashion except for one thing: four years ago, the group made a commitment to trek to a Catholic Charities shelter before dawn and prepare a hot breakfast periodically for a residential shelter for the sick and indigent. As last Saturday’s date drew closer, we were able to muster only three of the group to help, and that included Margaret and me. Fortunately, three good folks from outside the group joined us and bailed us out of what might have been an awkward dilemma. After we were finished cleaning up, my wife offered to write a letter to the entire group with the question of whether our group was able to meet this periodic responsibility of cooking breakfast. It was not a question of individuals slacking off, but a recognition that perhaps we are no longer able to assist this facility because of the circumstances of everyone’s life.
I fully agreed with the idea. But I also saw the Saturday difficulty as symptomatic of a bigger issue we have not been able to address—whether at this point in our collective lives we can sustain a small faith group. This, of course, returns us to Yalom’s question about all groups: what are we really doing here? The specific mission of our group—in bold, concrete letters—was never truly defined by our parish or our group once we began to meet. I am no closer to understanding it than I was four years ago. I need to make clear that everyone in our group is extraordinarily active in other ministries in our parish and beyond, devoted to family care, professional involvements, raising children, etc. When I was teaching catechetical programs for the diocesan religious education training program, I would advise catechists to be cautious about overextending themselves in other ministries [except liturgical ministries such as lectoring.]
Most ministries—to the sick, the young, the elderly, catechetics—require full attention and ongoing study. A catechist, for example, needs hours to devote to Bible study and theology in general, well beyond the time devoted to immediate class preparation. Throwing one’s self into a multitude of involvements results in “Rio Grande Syndrome,” a minister who is “a mile wide and a foot deep.” Moreover, a prerequisite of ministry is “a life.” We are better people, better ministers, when our most essential involvements are well tended to. Personal worship and prayer, sacred reading and study, time with spouse and family, cultivation and nurturing of old friendships, communion with the arts, physical fitness, community awareness.
In my own case, my two major ministries are mental health counseling through my diocese’s Catholic Charities in multiple locations, and the [almost] daily production of my adult education blog site, “The Catechist Café,” which is coming up on its fourth anniversary and 1000th post. Both ministries are extraordinarily rewarding, and I am happy that at age 70 I still have the stamina for both. The challenge, to put it bluntly, is quality of work, which involves time and a full psychological investment. Having returned to more intensive clinical time, I am frequently reminded of how my profession has changed even in the few years since I closed my practice. While the state requires continuing education to maintain a license, I know that this is a minimal requirement that must be reinforced by my own initiative. With the Café, I feel an obligation to bring the best and the most current publications to adult Catholics, particularly ministers, who are under the gun for time and wish to use their reading time productively.
Consequently, I am beginning to contemplate saying good-bye to my small faith group in favor of more dedication to my major involvements and, equally important, “my life.” One never knows what kind of a reaction this will get, but I must wonder if there are others in my group who might be thinking the same things about their own situations. There should be no shame here. The Church has initiated and terminated ministries since its inception under the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit do not include stress and anxiety from attempting too much.