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Small Group Ministry Advice

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I need some advice on leading small group ministry. I've participated in small group ministries for about 25 years, and they have been the real transformative part of my spiritual life - helping me to grow in my faith, pray, find spiritual friends on earth for my journey, and be a part of my parish community. Many of the groups I've been a part of have been people from various denominations, more recently I attended a dynamic Catholic church that had its own thriving small group ministry. However, I moved, and hosted a small group at a new parish, and ran into some "Catholic" problems - mainly people totally unfamiliar with small group culture and unable to understand it, engage, and get out of it the full potential.

So before my questions, I want to clarify by "small group" I mean a group that gathers regularly, that isn't a Bible Study per say, but that usually has a topic rooted in scripture to discuss, that isn't a prayer group per say, but takes time to pray together when they meet, that isn't a theology lecture, but a discussion, that isn't a social group, but usually takes time to socialize and has periodic social events, that isn't a service group, but that usually chooses to participate in some form of service throughout the year. Not a psychological dumping ground or group therapy, but a place where people can let their walls down and share briefly about challenges they may face in life and receive prayer and social support. A places where people of any age, but often adults who can't find it anywhere else, can receive not "theological indoctrination" but get to discuss a message that will help them to growth in their faith - their relationship with God, their prayer life, and virtue, and where they can make friends who pray for them, encourage them, and share similar spiritual goals.

Here are the challenges I've run into, from some of the most wonderful Catholics that attended my first small group, many older and have never seen the small group model so difficult for them to understand:

1. People are used to a "leader" such as a priest lecturing them about correct doctrine.

Thus discussion was almost impossible for them. I think may people have been rewarded for being passive and listening. If they did talk, they would often "make up" theology that was wrong, or go on a talking tangent that was off topic and maybe not related to spiritual things or the lesson. They didn't understand that discussion is usually about thoughts on how to apply some of the ideas to our own lives in order to grow in faith - a time to share thoughts/reactions to the topic, raise questions about it, or share thoughts on how it applies to every day life.

2. People are used to the leader rambling through a memorized prayer.

I don't believe in forcing anyone to do anything they are uncomfortable with. But small group is more of a group of equals, and I would like those who feel comfortable to be able to pray freely. People were so scared of praying openly in a group, that I had to do it. In fact, they have been rewarded for being "passive" and "following the leader" and not a single person was comfortable or willing to try to pray in public. In fact, they LOVED my prayers, and preferred I close in prayer at the end. How can I get more people to have the courage to participate and pray in public? All of these people clearly have active prayer lives, and I think they "talk to God" not only memorized prayers in their own spiritual life. I can't say I'm the best at praying in public but I'll take a stab at it. It wasn't that they preferred memorized prayers (I usually prayed talking to God without structure, then closed us all in the Our Father), they really liked my "freestyle" prayers.

I couldn't even get people to share prayer requests - by the very last meeting one person had a friend with cancer to pray for, another asked to pray for their family. While I do not expect people to share embarrassing personal details, there are small things that can be shared in public but people were not even doing that.

Let me note that everyone was very friendly and welcoming. It wasn't an awkward environment. I know people have to be comfortable enough to talk, pray, and share prayer requests in public, but the environment was friendly and welcoming.

I think that people need some training to introduce these ideas to them - it is so new they don't understand it - so any resources people have would be great. Best case scenario is that one new person attends a functioning group to see what it looks like, but that doesn't exist in my area.

Has anyone else faced these problems? All advice appreciated. We have taken a break and in the fall small groups will start-up again. Thank you!!

I am familiar with two types of resources that I like, and I am going to suggest my parish use some of these materials, the previous material were not good. The materials I am suggesting are posted lessons from Church of the Nativity in MD http://www.churchnativity.com/, and books from The Evangelical Catholic https://www.evangelicalcatholic.org/reach-more/.

Please note, I'm not interested in debating the merits of small groups, criticizing Church of the Nativity if you don't like it, etc, but I'm hoping to hear from people who have successfully introduced this idea and led others at their parish, thank you!!

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Era Might

I've been in a few small groups over the years, not in a parish context, but I imagine the dynamics are the same. I've  been to random groups that sounded good on the surface, like discussing a movie or a book, but if the other people in the group just don't have the same habits of thinking, it doesn't work, at least for me. I don't mean they think exactly what you think, but they are interested in different questions, or the conversation had no room for fruitful silence.

I've known some people who were great at leading a discussion. That's not absolutely essential, if the group has similar habits of thinking, but even then it's good to have someone who is able to see where the discussion is going, draw out what's being said, frame the right questions, etc. That's a real gift.

I think ideally a group needs to be a sort of community in miniature. In a true community people can be themselves, can bring their own gifts for the good of the whole. Some people are better in the background, they get the most out of the discussion that way, occasionally chiming in. Others are guiders. Others are askers. Others are readers. Etc.

I'm selective about groups. For some people, it's a way to socialize, the conversation or just being around friendly people. But it's a big investment of time and energy, for me, to be around people if I'm not getting anything substantial out of it. That's not easy to achieve, it's more about finding the right collection of people, kind of like forming a religious community. A Franciscan probably wouldn't fit in well with Carthusians, and vice versa.

My experience of parish life is it's very socially-driven. You get friendly people doing stuff together. That's fine, but, I don't think that's what a real small group is about. I was part of a group ran by a Presbyterian assistant minister, held at a pub every week and every week was a new topic, could be anything, the group wasn't religious but it was his way to get to know people and minister in a non-church context. That was a pretty good group because the topics were specific but the conversation was completely open, and could go in any direction. Plus there was beer. It got too big at times, though, which is a problem too...to be comfortable you need to limit how big it is, maybe breaking into smaller groups if necessary.

Edited by Era Might

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I found the best way to engage people in the prayer process or sharing process is through the actual material you're using. There are bible studies that do that. My favourite was Serendipity. Not Catholic so I did hand out sheets in case I had to change something. 

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