Small Group Nuts and Bolts — Some Concrete Tips from Ben Reed

There’s both a vision/strategic side of growing small groups for catechesis and evangelization in your parish, and a nuts and bolts side that addresses practical questions. This podcast (and transcript…so you don’t have to listen!) from Ben Reed via UnSeminary.Com offers some much appreciated nuts and bolts operational tips.

When to launch groups? The main times are January and August because these are two times of the year when people are looking to make new commitments or schedule changes. Other times for smaller new launches might be April or October, or specific outreach building off of a conference at the church. For Catholic parishes, maybe this means an opportunity for launching small groups right after a summer festival/feast or other popular community event involving the parish?

How to get people into groups? Have an easy on-ramp. Meaning, have a small group presence at the event/time period that’s going to propel people in. For Catholic parishes, I’d say this means something special after Masses on Christmas Eve/Day and Easter to give a tangible “next step” for those who might be coming back to Church, new to the parish, or in a “pre-discipleship” stage of their faith journey.

Who should be a small group leader? First off, having a “robust leadership development process” is critical because it enables Reed to take risks on people who haven’t previously led groups or wouldn’t be one of the “usual suspects” within a parish for such facilitation/leadership. Given the size of Catholic parishes (median 1050 or so families) in order to reach a large portion with small groups, most parishes will need to develop many more volunteer leaders than currently utilized in parish life. Reed also acknowledges that getting existing leaders (i.e. ministerial staff, deacons, parish council members, Knights of Columbus leaders, etc.) is important too, and I’d add that for these folks, serving in small group leadership positions shows how important this is to the parish. It models discipleship for the rest of the parish. It shows a team effort (staff/clergy/volunteers/laity) rather than one group placing a burden on another. 

Okay, what’s this robust leadership development process at Reed’s church? Reed uses 5, 1-hr seminars to coach and develop small group facilitators. The first two seminars happen before a group launches. Then the leader is linked up with a coach who will provide one-on-one mentorship as the leader is continuing with a group over many months. During the actual group leading time period (months, years, etc.) the leader will complete the remaining three 1-hr seminars. The seminars are about information transfer, the one-one-one coaching/mentorship is the relational aspect of training. 

When and where do small groups meet? Reed explains:

we define a small group as a group of people who are taking steps of faith together. It doesn’t matter where you meet. It doesn’t matter how long you meet. And so we have chosen a unified vision. Some churches have chosen kind of different paths for small group and Sunday School classes, but we have chosen a unified path that allows us to have a streamlined training process, a streamlined development process.”

I think the streamlined leader development and training process could be a huge “win” for many understaffed/underresourced Catholic parishes. By using small groups as the process or way of delivering discipleship, evangelization, catechesis, pastoral care, formation for service/justice, acts of mercy, liturgical service, etc. within the parish [read more about that here], a parish could up the quality of training, but decrease the various types of training for a more efficient and “deep” model within the parish.

Reed also notes that the church provides childcare at least one time during the week (Sunday nights) so that groups that choose to meet at this time have an option at the church building that makes it easy for families. Definitely a great idea for parishes! In many parishes childcare/nursery simply can’t be provided at most formation activities because the activities are spread throughout the week–but by massing formation groups at one time (and giving them an off campus option, say at a coffee shop near the parish) childcare coverage can stretch over a large number of groups.

And, final words from Reed on where to start:

One more thing that I would say is if you are kind of wrestling through how do we get groups going? What does it take to get groups off the ground? We don’t even know…we are exploring small groups we may do those, we may not….I would say this: grab 2, 3, 4 maybe even 8 people you know that you say these are leaders. Whether they are spiritual leaders or just natural leaders, grab those people and spend 8 weeks with them and invite them into your home. Just do life with them for the next 8 weeks and see if you like that. See if they enjoy it. I can almost guarantee that they will grow. And then you can kind of choose from there to launch out potentially 8 new groups out of that, but to start small groups, the easiest way to do that is for you to start your own small group. Gather the people that you know and start investing in them.

Definitely a challenge for me personally, especially since I’m not a staff member at my parish. My parish has many grassroots small groups of 4-8 folks, but we haven’t really been multiplying. Hmm….Come, Holy Spirit!

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