June 24, 2016
Life is better connected. As a result, many parishes are finding their way toward small groups. Rev. Erik Arnold, Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) Parish in Ellicott City, MD, describes their church’s experience beginning small groups as one way to create “space and room for the Lord” to change lives in a way beyond the hour window on Sundays. As their website states, “Small groups bridge the gap between Sunday Mass and the challenges of daily life.”
Father Erik took some time to reflect on their approach, the challenges, and the blessings they encountered in the process, as well as encourage parish leaders who want to get their program off the ground.
In January of 2016, OLPH rolled out their first small groups. They gained enough interest to begin 16 groups of around 8 to 10 participants, depending on an individual or family’s time/day availability or group makeup (men’s/women’s, young families, etc.). Groups generally meet twice a month in a member’s home for about 90 minutes. One or two group leaders facilitate the event, which includes prayer, a short message or teaching, discussion, as well as time to enjoy the spiritual community the group generates. Father Erik outlines the four key elements or building blocks of OLPH’s approach to small group meetings.
Small groups are about growing in love of God and neighbor. By gathering in family homes during the course of the week, small groups aim to build Christian community by exercising hospitality, encouragement, care, and accountability in a comfortable environment. As a result, many feel their fellowship and worship is even deeper when they gather for Mass.
Every meeting begins and ends in prayer, and this can vary from group to group. Groups are even encouraged to incorporate music into their prayer, whether by singing a simple hymn together or even along with a recording or YouTube video.
Although the parish operates and encourages bible studies and other teaching media, small groups do not fall under the purview of traditional Adult Faith Formation. Small groups focus on practical teaching for transformation and “life change.” The primary content on the table is the daily lives and spiritual struggles of the participants, usually supplemented by a short video segment to launch conversation. They have found helpful SG curriculum specially designed to facilitate the sharing process that include questions and material that directly applies scripture, the lives of the saints, and other Catholic topics to daily life.
Small groups serve the mission of the Church to make disciples, including a contemplative prayer element, but primarily focus on the active element of Christian life Monday to Friday. Additionally, groups seek to provide opportunities to serve together in the community, which becomes easier to mobilize in a group setting.
Building a Team
The idea for small groups was first born in some lay members of the parish’s Evangelization Team, who then brought up the possibility with Father Erik and Associate Pastor John Rapisarda. Many were familiar with the program, Discovering Christ of ChristLife Ministries, which Father Erik helped produce, but small groups were a different avenue to explore.
Train Your Team
Father Erik’s first step was to train a leadership team, specifically on the four elements outlined above. They began meeting in Fall of 2014 hoping to roll out their first groups in Fall of 2015. During this time, the team developed their vision and spent time learning from other churches and resources they might use. When summer rolled around, they realized they needed some additional time to prepare rather than roll it out prematurely.
What most surprised the team, Father Erik remarks, was how the kid-friendly groups that included a children’s room or babysitting filled up the quickest, pointing to a spiritual hunger and desire for community in parents with young kids.
As pastor, Father Erik sees a great blessing in small groups as being “freed from a weight in Sunday Mass,” that placed the burden squarely on his homily and the liturgy as the only catalyst for growth in people’s hearts. Groups give him “breathing room” at church on Sunday by making room for God to speak in people’s homes on Monday.
By: Evan Ponton, Assistant to the Pastor, Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD