Small Groups and Parish DNA — Takeaways from Alan Danielson

Just finished listening to a podcast from unSeminary featuring Alan Danielson, a former small groups pastor and small groups consultant. The intended audience for the podcast is most definitely not Catholic parishes (i.e. at one point they muse about an old congregation having a 30-year history ;-)), but there were still some important lessons that shed light on why many Catholic parishes struggle to build a small groups culture or meaningfully expansive small groups ministry. Here’s what I learned…

1. Importance of adapting, rather than cut-and-pasting. 

Danielson identifies this problem when congregations and leaders tend to say:

 ‘Hey, we see something that works over here and we’ll try that. And we see something that works over here at this other church and we want to try that.’ So they just kind of cut and paste certain things and they smash them all together. So instead of having this kind of cohesive thing that really makes sense for their church, and their culture and their DNA, they wind up with this kind of mishmash of stuff from all kinds of other cultures, and other DNA’s and then it doesn’t work and sometimes they are stumped as to why it doesn’t work.

I think in the world of Catholic parishes this often shows up with the temptation to simply start a particular curriculum/program (i.e. ChristLife, LifeTeen, etc.) that was successful at another parish and assume the content itself will make it successful. In reality, there’s a behind the scenes culture and leadership aspect that is as, if not more, critical.

2. In order to adapt, parishes need to understand their “DNA.”

By this, Danielson means their bias toward either growth or control, the senior pastor (aka the “pastor” in Catholic parishes)’s vision, and their local traditions/customs/way of doing things. When a parish thoroughly understands these factors, then they can “pick their problems,” meaning choose the model for implementing small groups that has risks the parish is most equipped and comfortable handling. For many Catholic parishes, this means a real hard look at communications capabilities, outreach ability, engagement of people in the pews, and level of discipleship present in parish to start with.

Understanding these factors and formulating a strategic plan is probably more important than deciding between a Renew Int’l course or a ChristLife (just to use the example of two great programs)–yet in most parishes the “decision” surrounds the curriculum and dates, while the other factors go without analysis.

Our challenge as leaders and volunteers is to help cultivate a broader, more strategic, more transformation approach. I’ll be the first to say–it’s hard! 🙂 Any success stories or lessons to share…I’d love to hear them!


3 thoughts on “Small Groups and Parish DNA — Takeaways from Alan Danielson

  1. This is spot on, although to recognize the problem is pretty easy compared to sussing out the solution. But knowing the problem is a good start. See, at my parish we have all these ingredients that contribute to an evangelistic culture: transcendent liturgy; substantial homilies; a half-dozen self-sustaining weekly opportunities for faith-formation-Bible-study; nuns; a very lovely Gothic Revival church building with all the Catholic knickknacks; music the congregation sings well; about 10% of the congregation actually likes to talk about faith, Jesus, and Scripture, and loves the chance to evangelize; another 10% that’s getting there; self-maintaining groups with a particular interest or charity; a tasty, well-attended monthly parish breakfast; being a small school of fish in a big fundiegelical ocean; a boys-only altar server corps which generates vocations to the priesthood; and big-name Catholic speakers once a year or so. But I can’t tell you how each bit contributes to the whole; and some of it is by chance, some by management decisions, and some by individuals acting on their own initiative using their own gifts. The pastor never says ok we’re all gonna start doing X; or Religious Ed is going be different from now on; there’s just a gentle, orthodox, forward motion.

    My point is that I’d have trouble looking at my parish, and then another parish, and then being able to say, “OK, y’all want to plug items 1, 4 and 6 into your parish, and that’ll get ya where ya wanna be evangelizin’-wise.” Nor could I look at mine and decide we need some of this or that. And a neighboring parish is on the ball, their culture is based on the Latin Mass. In some sense that’s what they can point to. My parish is diffuse, there isn’t a one main thing that I can see.


    • Yeah, there are a lot of nuances to parish DNA. And your description of your parish is a great one, probably more detailed and in-depth than how many understand their parish. I think another challenge that Danielson doesn’t really hit on is–okay, let’s say some of us in the parish really get the DNA and what makes it tick, but see some real weaknesses, i.e. if the DNA itself is really opposed to or uncomfortable with an overt emphasis on discipleship for adults. Doing that delicate genetic modification 😉 that still keeps the organism alive is a hard balance to strike in many Catholic communities.


      • I believe that. I was out of my Upstate cocoon for a Catholic convention a couple of weekends ago, and man, I had a tough time finding Catholics to talk with about, you know, Catholic stuff. Sports, fundraising, work, etc., ok, but Jeezy or Church was mostly a no-go. Changing the DNA….yikes, that’ll take some patient prodding.


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