June 9, 2014
One parish having extraordinary success with its small groups is Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Michigan. We spoke with its pastor, Fr. John Riccardo, and took away several insights about the purpose and implementation of small group ministries.
When it began its 10-session small group series, Our Lady of Good Counsel looked not to increase its number of parishioners, but to call each person already within the parish into deeper relationship with God, and with his or her own spirituality. The vision was not one of breadth but of depth, not of quantity but quality. It was always possible that Our Lady of Good Counsel would achieve both—but if a trade-off must be made, Fr. Riccardo knew which type of growth he’d choose.
Discipleship is demanding, Fr. Riccardo acknowledged, and not every parishioner feels able to give God more than an hour a week. He recognized, from the outset, that this would not be a course for everyone—and there would even be a certain amount of attrition.
Sometimes, the easiest path can be the most rewarding. One of the strengths of some courses, like Alpha, is their “plug ‘n play” nature—group leaders need only pop in a DVD to access quality, theologically-sound content. There are also some iPhone/Android apps that offer similar convenience. Fr. John Jirak at Blessed Sacrament in Wichita, KS has been using one app, Opening the Word, with his small groups. Opening the Word builds on the lectionary readings with video and lectio divina, and it also offers users a place for reflective ‘journaling’. Parishioners can use the app individually and, when they convene, share their reflections with one another.
Before Our Lady of Good Counsel “launched” its small group curriculum, parishioners were invited to informational dinners—for which 600 people signed up. This set the tone for the course to come; each session was built around catered food and good conversation, and there was little to no pressure put on those who attended. People wanted to attend. The catering bill, though considerable, had been worth it. In the event that there was only one day each week a parishioner could come, Our Lady of Good Counsel decided to have a session every day of the week—even Saturday morning—to be inclusive of all schedules. Several sessions were tailored to particular audiences: one session was just for teens, another for men, and another for young adults.
For Our Lady of Good Counsel, small groups was a summons for those in the pews who didn’t yet have a strong relationship with Jesus—and many, many people answered the call (to date, 1500 parishioners). Fr. Riccardo has built on the success of the first ten sessions with a follow-up of his own design (“Alpha 201”, which approx. 500 parishioners have experienced to-date). The particulars of the next steps are still taking shape, but the purpose is clear: to push parishioners toward lifelong discipleship, one structured step at a time. For Fr. Riccardo, from the start, small groups has been about true and lasting renewal.