Small Is Beautiful: How Small Groups Can Transform Large Parishes

Part 2 of a Register series on why ‘small’ dynamics in parishes make them thrive.

Small groups make the large parish of St. Mark’s Catholic Church  in Huntersville, North Carolina, feel close-knit.
Small groups make the large parish of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, feel close-knit. (photo: Courtesy of St. Mark)

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Week after week attending Sunday Mass at her newfound parish, Mariette Coolidge had not yet made a friend. She had uprooted her life in California after the death of her husband and moved to Huntersville knowing nobody but her immediate family. As a community of 8,000 souls, St. Mark’s Catholic Church looked formidable.

“I met no one from going to church every week,” she said. “I spoke to the pastor and said the parish was a bit overwhelming. And he said he thought so, too!”

Thankfully for Coolidge, St. Mark’s already had a well-thought strategic plan to make their small-town-sized congregation feel close-knit through small groups. The pastor recommended Coolidge join “After the Boxes,” their parish introductory group for new arrivals. Coolidge hit it off with the other members of that group, and when one woman volunteered to host her own small group, she signed up.

“It turned out to be a terrific match,” she said. “It has made us feel we belong in the parish. We can go to church and know somebody there.”

Teens enjoy fellowship, and tacos, as part of a small group at St. Mark Catholic Church.

As the United States grapples with a reduced number of priests to serve its Catholic population, dioceses in some regions have sought to consolidate parishes from smaller churches, creating bigger buildings to accommodate more people in a single worship space and adding more Masses. But while supersizing Catholic parishes can provide them more financial resources to work with, large Catholic parishes vastly underperform both small Catholic parishes and similarly sized Protestant megachurches, showing comparatively low rates of attendance, sacramental participation and member retention.

But large Catholic parishes may be missing essential architecture for buttressing thriving parish life: a parish culture which encourages small groups to form within the larger body of believers in a parish, where parishioners can meet during the week and feel truly known, loved and part of a community living out the Catholic faith as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Catholic parishes in the U.S. today have an average of 3,300 registered parishioners — a size on par with most Protestant megachurches — according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. But bigger is not better: In parishes with more than 1,200 registered households  —  one out of three U.S. parishes are this size  —  just 38% of parishioners attended Mass regularly, and sacramental participation rates were similarly low. In contrast, CARA found parishes with fewer than 200 households — just 15% of Catholic parishes now — saw 79% of registered parishioners attending Mass and similarly high rates of sacramental participation. CARA has hypothesized “smaller parish communities may better inspire or promote more parish activity — including Mass attendance.” (Read Part I of the Register’s “Small Is Beautiful” series here.)

Small groups are essential for large Catholic parishes to replicate the dynamics that are key to a small parish’s spiritual success. At St. Mark’s, Father John Putnam, the pastor, wanted to create that kind of parish intimacy for his 4,800 families registered on the books and the 1,500 people worshipping on any given Sunday before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a desire to make something huge and impossible into something that was more of a community,” Father Putnam told the Register.

The parish had previously tried small groups based on geography from 2006 to 2010, with limited success. They renewed the effort in 2016 by building small groups around common stages of life, he said, so “when the groups come together, they already have something in common.”

St. Mark’s small groups typically are capped at 14 people and meet in homes over the course of six to eight weeks twice a year. Some groups, however, choose to continue meeting longer than that. The usual group format is a half-hour to socialize over snacks, a meal or wine, followed by another 30 minutes watching a video, and then the last 30 minutes for group discussion.

Father Putnam said the parish is at the early stage of its transformation, but they are seeing results as people grow in discipleship and have “a greater sense of ownership, of being home” in their parish. And the fact that a parish has a hundred ministries, he said, is no replacement for the small-scale community people are looking for.

“I’m seeing people who have found a place in a small group,” he said. “They’re more connected, and they identify more with the parish.”

The small groups have greatly expanded the priest’s own ministry. Father Putnam explained his visits to small groups for “fireside chats” provide them more opportunities to talk and know each other better than visiting individually.

When a group reaches a level of growth that makes it feel less small, Father Putnam said they are encouraged to form a new group so new people can join.

 “The ultimate goal is to have people go out and be evangelizing the culture,” he said. “These friends should naturally push each other out to go do the work of the Gospel.”


The Catholic Genius of Megachurch Architecture

Catholic parishes have been made larger and fewer by diocesan bishops on track with the overall decline in the number of priests — an indication of unheard or unanswered vocations who could have otherwise theoretically administered these disappearing parishes. But the looming question is why large parishes are struggling next to their Protestant megachurch peers, many of which claim former Catholics as members of their churches.

Stephen Bullivant, the director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University in London and author of Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America Since Vatican II, told the Register that what makes a Protestant megachurch is not its largeness at Sunday worship, but its smallness found in Christian fellowship during the week.

“The actual engine of those churches goes on throughout the week in very directed, cultivated small-group culture,” he said.

A megachurch or large parish where the parishioners are all plugged into small groups, he explained, reflects Pope Francis’ understanding in Evangelii Gaudium of the parish as a “community of communities.”

Bullivant said that small groups right now are not a parish norm due to deliberate choices Catholics made following Vatican II. Devotional societies that upheld these small groups (such as various women’s altar societies, Rosary sodalities, Holy Name societies), which in turn buttressed large Catholic parishes, were “powerfully undermined by this sweeping away of traditional devotions.” Furthermore, as new parishes were established in the suburbs, Catholic leadership was “consciously not trying to replicate the devotional community cultures we were getting rid of” at the very time that suburbanization had introduced more competition for Catholics’ social attention.

At the same time, they were eliminating the small groups meeting in people’s homes, Bullivant said, they did not succeed in forming community with the only remaining opportunity for socialization — gathering a large number of people for Mass.

“Community is very difficult to create artificially,” he said.

But Bullivant said Protestant megachurches with small-group culture are following a Catholic script that was prevalent up to the 1950s, in which parishes had prayer groups (such as Rosary sodalities), Bible study, fraternal organizations (like the Knights of Columbus) and social activities (such as the parish bowling team, theater group and basketball pickup groups).

“Protestant megachurches reinvented that, and we never did,” he said. “And the old parishes that had that died away.”

Bullivant said what makes small-group subcultures work — whether it is a group Bible study for Vietnamese women 50 and up, Bible study for young professional singles or Bible study for “blokey dads who love beer and football” — is the human need for social connections.

“It’s much easier to believe anything and be seriously into anything if you hang out with people who are seriously into something,” he said, “and you’re more likely to do it if you have other interests in common anyway.”


Living a New Normal

Making the parish “a community of communities” drove the transformation of St. Charles parish in Hartland, Wisconsin, into a church where joining small groups is integrated throughout a person’s life of discipleship. Jessica Panlener, director of discipleship and evangelization, told the Register that almost everybody in the 8,000-member parish is in a small group at some point. She credited the normalcy of the small-group experience with helping make St. Charles “the healthiest community I’ve been a part of.”

“It’s just in the language of the parish,” she said. “One of our first questions is always: Are you in a small group? Can I put you in one? Can I connect you with a small-group leader? What’s your availability? Everybody does it, and it’s amazing.”

The parish did a revamp with Evangelical Catholic’s discipleship model. Panlener said this model normally suggests that small groups focus on reading the Sunday Gospel. The format both prepares people better for listening to Sunday Mass and provides an environment for people who are not Catholic to learn about following Jesus “in friendship with Catholic Christians” rather than introducing them to Mass where they can be overwhelmed, lost and “check out.”

St. Charles’ model is meant to disciple leaders who will ideally create “evangelical small groups” of five to seven people held in homes, local bars, restaurants, coffee shops or other places ideal for conversation that grow into groups of eight to 12 people.

“If they’re going to be evangelical, then they have to be visible to the local community,” Panlener said. “It is much easier to invite a friend who is unchurched to meet your friends at the coffee shop — saying, ‘Here’s a group of friends that meets and prays together at the end’ — than to get someone into a church building.”

Some groups at St. Charles can be as large as 20, but they want a “multiplier” effect in which small groups grow strong and then, when they reach a certain number, spin off another small group.

“We believe disciples make disciples. You can’t claim to be a disciple of Jesus without fishing and making people fall deeper in love with Christ and his Church,” she said.

After seven years, the parish has 80 small-group leaders with about 450 participants at any one time in small groups that typically meet for six to eight weeks in the Lenten season and the fall. Panlener said training small-group leaders takes three months. They focus on cultivating a prayer life, knowing Jesus by reading Scripture every day, and the call to discipleship.

“Our first step is to make them disciples, ignite that love for evangelization in their hearts, and when they make their small groups, it just flows out like that,” she said. “And disciples make disciples.”

The initial involvement getting small groups off the ground was high for Panlener, but after that her involvement has been less direct and more about facilitating action and new ideas for each of the groups at St. Charles. Now, small groups are deeply embedded in the identity and life of the parish, Panlener explained, where small groups are seen as naturally integrated with baptism, sacramental preparation, parish missions and RCIA.


Pastoral and Staff Commitment to Vision

Reforming small-group discipleship as the norm in large Catholic parishes takes sustained effort, starting with a change of mindset. Katherine Coolidge, director for parish and diocesan services at the Siena Institute, told the Register that research into evangelization shows people are “looking for a connection to a person not an organization.”

Small groups provide a personal entry way to the larger parish community, she explained, because they “break down the big parish experience into something smaller and intimate that resonates with people today.”

As the Register reported in Part I , Coolidge explained Catholic churches, whatever their size, need to match the financial commitment that allows Protestant churches to operate with those small, interpersonal dynamics. In order to do this, Catholics at a minimum would have to double their level of giving from an average 1.1%-1.2% of their weekly household income to 2.2%-2.5%, bringing in an estimated $9 billion per year to fund U.S. Catholic parishes, as reported by the Register.

Coolidge explained parishes need sustained support for this transformation from the pastor, not just the congregation.

“This [small-group culture] needs to be preached from the pulpit this is normal,” she said. At evangelical megachurches like pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback, small groups are “part of their lifestyle and how you live as a disciple.” For large Catholic parishes to do that requires a vision that is personal and connects with people, has a concrete plan that shows what the pathway of discipleship looks like, and provides small groups as “on-ramps and off-ramps” along that road of discipleship.

A parish needs to meet demand for small groups with an able supply of small-group facilitators; but it also needs to expand its staff support as the groups grow and multiply. Coolidge explained the parish leadership only has so much bandwidth to oversee these groups, so the leadership corps, either as volunteers or paid staff, would have to be expanded and cultivated as disciples themselves commit to this vision.

“It doesn’t take an army of paid staff, but it does take the right people with the right gifts,” she said.

Completing this “huge paradigm shift” large parishes need to make takes decades. With U.S. bishops generally term-limiting priests to two six-year terms as pastors, the small-group cultivation process in Catholic parishes faces unique risks with that kind of turnover in pastoral leadership: A new pastor who is not on board with small-group discipleship can imperil years of work. At the same time, other pastoral leadership may inhibit efforts with such small groups.

Coolidge said a pastor, at the minimum, has to have the temperament of being “willing to let things emerge around him even if it isn’t his cup of tea.”

“A savvy pastor with a large parish recognizes he can’t be the be-all and end-all for everybody,” she said, but is open to people who come to him with a “cogent plan” that has minimal costs and impact on the parish space.


Seeing the Effect Take Hold

Seven years into small-group discipleship at St. Brigid’s Catholic parish in San Diego, Father Steve Callaghan is seeing the effects take hold on parish culture, turning its focus outward, reaching out to those not going to church, and inviting others to know Jesus Christ for the first time.

“The thrust from the beginning has been that these groups not be turned in on themselves, but rather always to go out and reach out to others, which then might form a new group on their own with a new leader,” he said.

The parish, which has 2,000 registered households, with 1,200 persons attending Mass on the weekend before COVID-19, has “Connection to Christ” small groups that meet chiefly over the spring and the fall, with some meeting all year.

Julie Colman, St. Brigid’s associate director of evangelization, told the Register that a newly completed parish survey showed people are growing in their relationship with Christ. People like being able to share and pray with a group, grow deeper in their faith, and meet others. People reported their experience of prayer, community, evangelization and return to the sacraments was strengthened after their participation in a small group.

“We see growth every time” in year-after-year participation, Colman said. They found the small groups played a key role in helping 80% of parishioners report their faith grew or remained stable through the COVID-19 shutdown.

Father Callaghan said he encourages pastors to pick a model for starting small groups “and go with it.” He said small-group discipleship requires the active involvement of the pastor but in a way that facilitates small groups and parishioners to respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting to take the initiative.

“We now look at anything we do through the lens ‘Is this going to help people grow as disciples?’” he said. “And if it isn’t, then we don’t do that anymore. And if it is, then we’re happy to do it.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.