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!