Website offers support for small group ministries
The New Testament is filled with stories of how early Christians came together to see one another through difficult times. And so it is today, said Father Joe Goldsmith, administrator of the cluster parishes of Dinwiddie, Hopewell and Prince George, that many find spiritual nourishment and support in small group ministries.
In January, the Diocese of Richmond’s Christian Formation Commission launched a website aimed at helping such small groups to fledge and to flourish.
“Where Two or Three Are Gathered: Encountering Jesus in Small Groups” is a free, online resource guide designed for anyone wondering how to start a group or for anyone endeavoring to keep a small group ministry together and thriving.
“The small group format is very life-giving,” Father Goldsmith said. “It’s all about building relationships – with Christ and with one another. There are certain conversations that just can’t happen anywhere else.”
The commission, composed of laity and clergy, began the project in the fall of 2019 with the support of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation.
“Back when we started, COVID wasn’t even on the horizon,” said Teresa Lee, director of evangelization at St. Mary, Richmond. “But now, small group ministry is more relevant than ever before – to help to build that sense of community we’ve all been looking for.”
A place to share ideas
The first step in creating the online guide, Lee said, was to look at how small groups are already working within our diocese.
Commission members interviewed representatives from more than 80 small groups — including Bible study groups and young adult ministries, prayer circles and casual groups of retirees — from 35 parishes.
“We wanted to listen to people’s experiences, to find out what worked for them and to give them a place to share their experiences with others,” Lee said.
Interviewers asked the parish group leaders about the purpose of their small groups, how often they met and if they had any thoughts or suggestions to share.
“There was a lot of data,” Lee said, “so we tried to identify some common threads.”
The commission compiled the parishioners’ tips, Lee said, into a “Words of Wisdom” page for the website, which contains advice on hospitality, meeting times and small group facilitation.
Inspiration during isolation
Emily Filippi, diocesan director of Christian formation, said that while interviewers gathered information from local parishes, others on the commission searched for the best resources available to feature in the online guide, including videos on how to moderate small group discussions, Zoom meeting tips, prayer guides and Bible study links.
The commission was especially grateful, she said, to Boston University and Ascension Press for allowing them to link some of their materials for free.
“We definitely put a lot of thought into how it all should be organized,” Filippi said. “We wanted the site to be inviting and easy to use.”
The guide places an emphasis on small suggestions that can make a big difference in keeping groups together, she said.
An environmental committee, for example, which gathers to iron, sweep and tend to plants in the sanctuary, might find inspiration and purpose by beginning their assembly with a prayer “to take a moment to identify their task, and to reflect on how creating beauty is a way of helping others to see God’s grace in the world,” Filippi said.
She added that the rewards found in fostering a deeper sense of community in such groups are well worth the effort.
“There is an isolation in our times that can weigh heavily,” Filippi said. “There’s no real substitute for listening to one another, and laughing a little, and for sharing heartfelt thoughts.”
What seeds lay hidden?
When he was in college, Father Goldsmith had the opportunity to lead a men’s Bible study group. It’s an experience, he said, that has been an inspiration to him since.
“We started out as a group that didn’t know one another, and we came to care about each other’s lives,” he said. “I was lifted up by it. I knew, even then, that I always wanted to be a part of a small group like that.”
Father Goldsmith said that, while he’s found a real longing among people of all ages for connection and for spiritual conversation, he also understands that the idea of facilitating a group can seem daunting.
“Some people may think that they aren’t able to moderate a small group,” he said, “but it’s a skill you learn with practice, just like anything else.”
The commission hopes the guide will help people to take that first step.
“When Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he often speaks in terms of the kneaded bread that rises, of the seed that is sown,” Father Goldsmith said. “Often the work is a hidden process, and so the question is, ‘What is there hidden in our own parishes that might bear fruit ?’”
Editor’s note: Further information is available on the CFC website.