Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Compilation on Small Christian Communities

by Catholic Culture Staff


Here is a compilation of excerpts from the book Creating Small Church Communities by Arthur R. Baranowski, with the addition of some links to articles by orthodox Catholics on whether or not small church communities are good for the Church.

Publisher & Date

Catholic Culture, June 30, 2005

Ecclesial Base Communities?

The program features a three-year cycle divided into five six-week seasons; the first season, "God, A Community of Love" was initiated in October 1998. The program employs a small faith community structure familiar to many Catholics who were introduced to that format in the original RENEW programs during the 1980s. Renew International dispatches "Service Teams" to participating parishes as guides for the selection and training of parish leaders. The chosen leaders, after attending "formation sessions," graduate to a permanent Core Community. The Core Community (CC) uses a separate set of leader's manuals that instruct CC members on how to shepherd the lower level "Invitational Ministry," which in turn invites parishioners to join "Small Christian Communities" (SCCs) composed of ten to 15 parishioners. These small communities meet weekly to read the season's assigned booklet and share faith experiences according to listed questions and activities.

That tightly structured training and implementation of a program closely identified with notable dissidents sparked a brushfire of concern. Parish leaders conversant with national "We Are Church" demands and methodologies were alert to those same dissident themes and tactics embedded in RENEW 2000 materials. It has been pointed out that "small faith communities" (SFCs) are the strategic hallmark of Call to Action and its satellite groups, which adapted the format from socialist political agitator Saul Alinsky and his liberation-theology-style "ecclesial base communities" (see "Inside Call to Action"). The small faith community format was also used by Marxists to subvert the Church in Latin America. Even more troubling is the involvement of two priests with clear ties to Call to Action. Both have made public statements supporting the use of SFCs to subvert the hierarchical structure of the Church. Msgr. Philip Murnion—author of Called to Be Catholic, the manifesto of the Common Ground Project, a participant at the 1976 Call to Action meeting called by U.S. bishops (Later, heterodox catholics adopted that title for the dissident organization, "Call to Action"), and a devotee of Alinsky—wrote the forward to a volume of RENEW 2000. Coordinated, controlled small faith communities can become "para-churches" serving as the main spiritual support for participants. A master of the technique is Fr. Art Baranowski, a Call To Action regular and founder of the conspicuously titled National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring Into Communities, who is listed as an adviser to RENEW. His group compares SFCs to the earliest Christian "house churches" and points to many parish groups, especially Marian devotional groups, as common examples of the form.

Not quite, retort wary parish leaders, who point to the ominous connection between RENEW and Call to Action, whose 1998 national conference headlined a session titled "Imagining Future Church: Small Christian Communities." The session featured Rosemary Bleuher, the director of RENEW 2000 for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.

Excerpted from Buried in the Fine Print: An Inside Look at RENEW 2000

The following are excerpts from the book Creating Small Church Communities by Arthur R. Baranowski.

page 5

RCIA-A Model for Being Catholic

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the process for incorporating adult inquirers into the church. But the RCIA is much more than an initiation process for that small group that enters the church at the Easter Vigil. It provides a mirror for seeing clearly who we are as the church. For the way we bring newcomers into the church says a great deal about what being the church means to the rest of us.

The heart of RCIA is the Catechumenate. It creates a smallgroup setting where trust can build; invites participants to get in touch with their own faith stories ("How has God been active in my life and how have I responded over the years?"); encourages participants to share their faith stories with each other, challenges participants to compare their personal faith stories to that of the church; provides an experience of the care, interest, prayer and support from the people of the church during the RCIA journey.

Each person's pace is respected; no one is ever rushed. The formation is not only intellectual (learning the beliefs of Catholics), but the formation involves the total person's history and experience and also involves personal warm, sharing relationships with a few members of the church. The community's story in Scripture and Tradition gives a focus of meaning to the individual's experience. In other words, this new rite, now mandated by the U.S. bishops as the way all parishes are to welcome new members into the church, gets back to the basics of becoming a Catholic Christian and being a Catholic Christian. Just as the Catechumenate calls participants to an ongoing, experiential process involving the total person and bonding the person to others in the community through mutual prayer and faith-sharing, so are all the rest of us called to that process by the very fact that we are church.

But is this how we see ourselves as church, experience ourselves as church? Is the wider parish the kind of church the RCIA prepares catechumens to be initiated into? Does your parish create small-group settings where parishioners can learn to trust one another? Does your parish invite parishioners to get in touch with their own faith stories and encourage sharing with others? Does your parish challenge individuals to compare their faith stories to the church's story in Scripture and Tradition? Does your parish provide an ongoing experience of care, interest, prayer and support for each parishioner?

page 7


We are a couple 60 years of age-cradle Catholics, Irish, very traditional. We attended Catholic schools at all levels and made sure our own children did the same.

Both of us did all the Catholic things as we were taught them. We are loyal Catholics, always supported the church financially, and ran the bingo for years at Bishop Foley High School. But we also sat in the back of the church, never touched the host, and went to communion only to the priest. We had faith but it was kept inside. The difference the SCC has made for us personally is to bring us to a different concept of faith.

We no longer have to go to church. We want to go and share a meal with our parish family.

In the past our faith was a very private matter. Now, however, we can openly discuss our doubts, fears, happiness with those in our group, and know they will help us. We are considerably older than the other members of the group but that doesn't make a difference. The honest sharing-not agreement, but sharing-has helped us to be aware of God in different ways in our own lives.

Because of many job transfers, we have been in many parishes in several states. St. Elizabeth Seton is unique, however. The love and concern shown among the people has to be the result of our small communities. Retirement could come this year for Matt. This is more home to us now than St. Louis, our hometown where we have relatives and old friends. We will probably stay here, if our health holds out, because of these people in our small group and in our parish. We would never have said that a few years ago.

page 9

The first step in becoming better at being church is not taking a course or reading the right book. The first step is focusing on the basic process of Christian life, beginning it yourself if you have not already done so, and promoting it among other parishioners. What is this basic process? Discerning God's personal daily call in your life. To discern means to take note of daily events, decisions, personal encounters-and of their effect on you-in order to discover their meaning. Sometimes discernment requires a look back over longer periods of time. Anyone, regardless of education or temperament, can develop discernment skills, but it takes practice and time.

Talking with others who also try to find God in their daily lives helps a great deal; it is, in fact, almost indispensable. Most people in the church at this point in time have nobody to listen to them try to sort out how God might be speaking in their lives. Every baptized person has the right to tell his or her faith story and to get a hearing in the faith community. Without this telling-and the community's response-our consciousness and appreciation of the Lord in our lives develop poorly.

People talk about religion easily enough. We can discuss the changes in the church, what we like and dislike in our parish, even a particular theologian or philosophy of life. But most of us find sharing personal faith-what religion means to us-more difficult.

More difficult still is taking the next step-comparing my personal experience to the church's experience of the Lord in Scripture, Sacrament and Tradition. Only through making these connections can we discover the Lord who gives a focus to our personal life story through the church's story. This kind of sharing of faith in order to grow more aware of God's presence and action in our lives is essential in living out a Catholic Christian identity in today's world. Being a Catholic Christian has to make a difference experientially, not just theoretically.

page 21

Today Romeo might not-have to come to see me (Fr. Baranoski) or any parish staff because he and Anna have these fellow Catholics as a prayerful support. The people of the base church actually minister to each other instead of depending on the staff or the priest of the parish to handle everything. The most important work of the staff is to find a way to bring people together to be church for each other.

I think Romeo's statement that I brought people together is the highest compliment I can be paid as a pastor. It is not what I can do as one individual for other individuals in my parish, but what I can enable them to do for each other.

Summing Up

Bringing the people of your parish together in small church communities is not the only way to be church. I am, however, convinced that it is the most effective way. I am writing this book to try to convince interested parishioners, pastoral staffs and pastors that: (1) Small Church Communities are possible in most, if not all, parishes; (2) the average pastor or staff person is capable of effecting this parish restructuring; (3) restructuring your parish into small communities is well worth the effort.

Calling people together to be church for each other is hard work and demands a steady effort over many years. There are no magic or immediate results. But the process is worth our best efforts, for through it parishioners revitalize each other, the staff and the parish in an ongoing way.

The rest of this book will attempt to explain how all the existing aspects of parish life are affected by this pastoral plan—and to outline the practical steps any parish can take to move in this direction.

page 24

A Three-Phase Process

Phase One: A Beginning Experience. The first phase is a "beginning experience" in a small group with eight to 12 people who communicate honestly and value each other. This experience can be provided in a number of ways. RENEW was one way to introduce large numbers of parishioners to such a small-group experience.

Come As You Are (available from the National Alliance) is a program specifically designed to provide this beginning experience.

The beginning experience has often already occurred in a parish and may be the very reason why the pastoral staff or certain parishioners are thinking in new ways about what it means to be church, what it means to be parish. How often we heard the remark: "We just finished RENEW. Now what?"

The important requirement is that the beginning experience, whatever format is adopted, bring participants together weekly The goal is to foster a sense of belonging to the group and to help members develop these skills: listening to others, paying attention to one's own experience and priorities, and self-affirmation.

The Phase One program should provide the following:

  • good group dynamies, using smaller groupings of twos and threes
  • an easy format to allow more than one person to facilitate
  • a practice in listening and content based more on life experience than "church talk."

page 27

The format for Phase Three grows out of Thomas Groome's model of shared praxis. At each meeting the Small Church Community uses the Sunday Scriptures as a way to look at their own lives and experience. This looking at life through Scripture and Tradition is done with the help of specifically prepared focus questions. (More on this in Chapter Five.) Members try to connect their individual faith experience and the life experience of the society and culture in which they live with the experience of the church in Scripture and Tradition. The goal of this phase is to support the small church for the long haul.

It is in Phase Three that we can really begin to speak of the small faith community as a "base church." There isn't any Phase Four because Phase Three is the mode for indefinitely continuing to live and renew one's Catholic Christianity.

page 35

I'm Father Dick Kelly. I've been pastor of a working-class, long-established parish of 1,100 families for seven years-and I've been the only priest. We have different ages and a large group of Mexican-Americans. There are lots of calls at the rectory door for all kinds of help.

What I like best about this parish restructuring plan is that it's possible for "tired old ministers." We are swamped by the day-to-day demands of ministry, often the demands of the moment. The restructuring does not just add more programs to get done and cause further burn-out. It gets away from having to relate directly to each person in the parish and gets people to relate to each other.

I also like the fact that this parish plan is "on-the-job training": You learn how to run groups by first going through as a group member. You learn to form pastoral leaders of the small communities by following the basic steps outlined in this plan. As you follow these steps, they become part of you and you pastor differently.

Most "front line" pastoral people don't have time to read lots of theory. This hands-on process, following five or six points and filling in between the lines, is what we need. We get formed ourselves by the doing.

Why haven't I restructured my parish into small basic communities? Last Lent we had many small groups meeting to share on the Sunday readings. They used experiential focus questions and prayed. But when Lent was over, so were the groups. It was the usual story-the everyday pace and the fact that it's easier to go by the call of the moment. But it was a beginning. The parish got used to small sharing groups.

Are we going into small communities parish-wide? I'm all for it. This time I've begun differently. My staff and I have begun to meet weekly using a beginning program. After two sessions, we are saying something more about ourselves to each other.

page 45 - 46

A false sense of what it means to be religious can be an obstacle for many parishioners in getting involved in a beginning experience. Organizers need to stress that you can "be religious without being religious." So many of us hold an image of a religious person as always unruffled by the stresses of life, always kind and giving, always praying, knowing the Bible, having special experiences of God. Most ordinary Catholics, however, do not identify with this image. Nor have they ever experienced God in a dramatic way. They therefore conclude they are not religious people. They live an ordinary life of job, family, kids, aging and financial concerns. To get into a religious group with religious people from church sounds like having to pretend "to be nice."

One early group at St. Elizabeth Seton included an Irish Catholic defending Holy Mother Church against all odds; two 40-year-old men who played devil's advocate about church issues to the embarrassment of their wives; a couple living together without marriage and deciding if being Catholic was part of their future; an agnostic non-Catholic, sincere and sensitive to others, married to a Catholic. Needless to say, this small community was not traditionally religious. The members were free to be themselves to the point that eventually the blood boiled about values and life-styles and a few tempers flared.

The group met for years, however, and the core stillcontinues. The unmarried couple married in church with all ofthe group present. When the agnostic and his family moved toChicago, the whole group visited over a weekend, camping onthe floor in sleeping bags. Although he never formally entered the church, he did enter into a close association with Catholics and he also made a contribution to their lives. He certainly had access to a sense of belonging to the church in this small group in a way that the larger parish could not have provided for him. Another couple now in California keeps in touch and has been visited by members of the group who were vacationing or traveling for business.

How to be themselves and to appreciate each other-that's what this group learned. Something happened to the members of that Small Church Community over the months and years, and they were all different-and better-for it.

The strongest message to keep communicating as we motivate people to join a small group is this: The only requirement is to be willing to simply be yourself. You can say as much as you wish, or say nothing for a while. Listening to others, of course, is an absolute must.

The premise here is that God speaks through all people and through their everyday experiences. People have to be themselves with each other. Religiosity can get in the way of people being real with themselves. But real religion begins with each person appreciating the life he or she has, even with all the weaknesses, because the Lord communicates through that life. There is no question here of neglecting the church's moral stands or belief system. The beginning experience, however, has to create an environment of trust, openness and freedom. Therefore the program used has to keep people focused on life and life experiences and not become a study group or theology program.

page 48

Phase Two: Praying Alone and Together

Through a program such as Come As You Are, group members begin to belong to each other. They also begin to pay attention to their own experience and to feel comfortable sharing that experience with others. To notice one's life, even without bringing God into the process, is a big step for many people. Our culture does not encourage a reflective life-style. So, something quite significant is started in Phase One.

page 53

Pastoring the 'Pastors'

The Small Church Community is really a church. Therefore, that church needs a pastor! The term carefully chosen at St. Elizabeth Seton to designate the pastoral leader of the small community is pastoral facilitator. The "PF" is often a couple, especially if the small community is mostly couples.

The word facilitator in this title refers to the PF's being at the service of the other members of the group, helping them relate to each other, keeping the group true to its purpose. The critical presumption is that the Holy Spirit speaks in each person in the small community and through each person for the others. Thus the small community's PF (like the parish's pastoral staff) need not necessarily be the wisest, holiest or most articulate.

The leader, in fact, works at not being the expert-the person everyone else addresses comments toward, the one giving approval. The facilitator is also not the problem-solver, not the counselor, not the teacher. Rather, the facilitator insures an environment where all members of the group can contribute to each other and where each person takes responsibility for the rest. The church always fails when only one person tries to take care of the community.

The very term facilitate means to bring out the best already present in people through a process of interaction. Thus the small community's leader facilitates communication.

page 54 - 55

The pastor of the Catholic Small Church Community does what the parish's canonical pastor or the bishop does: enable each person to bring his or her gifts to the entire group, help people in the church listen to each other, keep the vision of church before the members, connect this level of church to the other levels of church.

Keeping Pastoral Facilitators a Top Priority

Commitment, or lack of commitment, to the parish plan to restructure into Small Church Communities shows clearly in the amount of time and energy -spent on pastoral facilitators. Commitment to the church at any level demands that great care be given in providing that church community with a pastor. You will know that Small Church Communities are your parish's real goal when the selection, initial training and continuing formation of pastoral facilitators becomes the top priority of your parish and its staff.

Making pastoral facilitators a priority keeps the church at the smaller level a priority. And the further into the process you get, the more time and energy pastor and staff will have to devote to PFs to keep them in first place. Each new small community means another pastoral facilitator who needs initial training and continuing formation. For that reason, a parish should begin small communities a few at a time. It does no good to restructure a parish into Small Church Communities, if you can't train and support PFs for them.

How much staff time are we talking about? Initial training consists of six sessions. Ongoing support and formation involves monthly meetings for small groups of PFs with pastoral staff-plus an annual retreat. (The materials we developed at St. Elizabeth Seton for each of these settings are available from St. Anthony Messenger Press under the title: Pastoring the 'Pastors': Resources for Training and Supporting Pastoral Facilitators for Small Faith Communities.) In addition, some staff person needs to be available outside of these formal settings for one-on-one advice-giving.

Pastoral facilitators are pastoring the church with the pastor. Yet they develop slowly into the pastoring role. Some pastoral facilitators at St. Elizabeth Seton-even after several years and to my great consternation!-would still slip and call their small communities "prayer groups." Other PFs found faith-sharing difficult and were mostly silent at PF meetings for as long as a year. I was always disappointed when I found pastoral facilitators who were not taking time regularly for individual prayer and reflection. And some PFs who would get involved in other parish ministries would be puzzled at the staff's suggestion that they focus on pastoring as their sole church involvement.

page 60

Who. What qualities make for good pastoral facilitators? The same qualities the church seeks in its pastors at every level of church. Here is a partial list of characteristics that would help a person or couple pastor well:

  • a love and concern for the church at all levels
  • the ability to make people feel comfortable and at ease
  • a personal sense of God
  • a good listener
  • the ability to affirm others
  • freedom from parish controversies; not hooked on particular issues
  • responsibility and follow-through
  • openness to change
  • good self-esteem (Avoid like the plague the person who needs to be noticed, who grabs for attention, who appears unproductive in other areas of life and unhappy at home.)

The pastor/pastoral staff must be able to work with the PF-not necessarily like the PE And the role has room for various personalities. As long as the PF has the qualities to facilitate a small community and can maintain enough of a trust level with the parish staff to share faith with that staff, that PF can work.

page 66

This method of blending the objective truth of the church's story with one's own story is ascribed to Thomas H. Groome and called Shared Christian Praxis. (See chart on page 68.) Often referred to simply as Groome's process, it takes the church's experience in the form of Scripture, Tradition and Teaching as a focus for understanding one's own experience of life and God. Much of the process in the Adult Catechumenate follows this pattern, as does the modern approach to religious education. So does the modern homily.

Shared Christian Praxis helps us get beyond both the purely personal-"What does the Gospel say to me?"-and the merely factual-"Who wrote this passage and when?" Always there is the opportunity to reflect on one's experience and to listen to others' experience of life and faith.

The sharing makes the experience better and completes the experience. Hearing others' experiences in the group opens a person in new ways to the church's story. This process repeated over the years has great potential to enrich individual lives, the life of the Small Church Community and the life of the parish. The Gospels are no longer the same old familiar stories heard since childhood, stories of long ago, of wonders past.

page 74

Naming the Experience, Evaluating the Progress

After the small community has been praying together and connecting their personal stories with the church's story for several months, members should start to articulate that this small group is the church at another level. Members often have to hear themselves say why they are meeting together: not simply for spiritual enrichment or personal support, but also to bring about the church.

This gathering of eight to 12 people is not simply a prayer group or a Scripture-sharing, therapy or support group. This small community is "the church in miniature."

Each member would do well to read this book, Creating Small Church Communities, but only as the group has become quite comfortable in the third phase. While sharing with good focus questions on the Sunday Scripture comes first, discussing this book, chapter by chapter, can help everyone in the small community better appreciate the vision of the church. Another very good resource to help the SCC member appreciate the larger vision of church is the video 20/20 Vision For the Parish, with its study guide.

People make a different kind of commitment to a small community they perceive as church and not just a group of people they enjoy or even connect faith with. And the way the group needs to evaluate itself is to ask how well the church is being realized in their midst.

page 79

People in the group say what the priest might preach in the homily, but the people are speaking the church's faith from their own experience. One ordinary example comes from a 35year-old man in a second marriage who had been sporadic about Mass on Sunday because of lack of motivation. I heard him say to his small community that he decided to attend the parish Mass the previous Sunday (after his initial decision not to) because he recalled comments from the last two group meetings. People had said that just as being there is important to the small community, so somehow that gets translated into being there for the larger community as well.

All the homilies about the church community needing every member for the Eucharist to be complete did not communicate what the Small Church Community said to that man-and he was doing the talking!

People speaking from experience and connecting that with the basic truths of why we are Catholic or Christian-that's the ordinary life of the small church. Out of this ordinary life grow many extraordinary stories of care.

page 80

Large Church/Small Church

Striking a balance between what is best done in and by the Small Church Community and what is best done by the larger church remains a continuing tension for a parish which restructures. At St. Elizabeth Seton, for example, a parish council member suggested that small communities welcome new parishioners. Sounds great!

New people should receive a personal welcome by the parish.

But there is a problem in attempting to co-opt the parish's small communities for an ulterior purpose, albeit a good purpose. These small churches are authentic churches and have a life of their own that must be respected. The parish can present its needs or objectives as possible services a particular Small Church Community could assume. The choice, however, is the small church's and not the parish's to impose.

A parish is not a branch office of the diocese but a different level of church with a separate, though very interdependent, existence. Just as no diocese would write the detailed Christian service program for a parish, no parish should attempt to do so for it base churches. Service will emerge from the small community itself.

Please understand: The larger parish benefits immensely, actually is transformed, by the small communities. People do understand that the care received in a small parish group is the care of the parish and the church. As they experience the parish caring about them, they come to care about the parish and realize the responsibility to give something back. After the first two years of operative small communities, our parish was never short of people coming forward for any parish ministry. We always had catechists, parish council and commission people, and so on. People in small groups simply become more aware of other people and look beneath the "sea of humanity" at the Sunday Eucharist and elsewhere in life.

page 90

Some parish activities may have to go. Many of us simply cannot continue our present hectic pace and begin restructuring the parish, as well. Sometimes essential parish services can be covered by additional staff, sometimes by parishioners trained for a parish ministry. Sometimes, however, we simply may have to let go of some necessary parish activities and do other programs less than perfectly-at least for awhile.

Here's an example of what I mean: A program demanding a lot of energy and time in every parish today is the catechumenate. Now the catechumenate has a good number of roles to be filled: parish sponsors, personal sponsors, catechists and so on. The entire RCIA process is very important, of course, and has great potential for the parishioners taking on the various roles, for the inquirers/catechumens/elect and for the parish itself. But preparing people for these roles and involving the community take time and effort on the part of the staff, keep many people-usually promising leaders-from being in small communities, and may deprive the parish of pastoral facilitators.

Now weigh that against these points: (1) Small Church Communities, eventually, may have more of a direct role as a sponsor for catechumens. (2) These small communities provide an ongoing faith formation and an experience of the church for the whole parish. (3) Small Church Communities will produce fresh leaders for the RCIA as well as every other ministry-not just the same people doing the same jobs year after year. (4) The restructured parish gives the new Catholic who enters the church through RCIA a community to belong to and to share faith with long after Easter and Pentecost.

So, for awhile, some parishes may judge that the catechumenate may have to be trimmed down for the sake of restructuring the entire parish. This investment in the future will pay off because, in the end, the purpose of the RCIA will be better achieved.

page 99

Where Do We Go From Here?

W are all called to be church. Structuring all the parish activities to allow ordinary people to help each other connect everyday life and faith and structuring the parish into small permanent communities are viable ways to be the church in our time and in our culture.

Bringing people together to be church for each other-this is the pastoral role. So if you are a pastoral minister, or if you can influence one, I hope this book has provided you with a vision that inspires, as well as with practical steps for actually proceeding.

"...realistic, holistic and much needed. The plan is based on lived experience, good theology and the personal stories that even make it enjoyable reading. A preview of the American church around the corner." Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

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