We Need To Talk About This: Another Small Group Option for Discussing the Crisis in Our Church
Earlier this month, I shared honest reviews of the three most prominent resources available for facilitating small group discussion about the abuse crisis: RENEW International’s Healing Our Church, Bishop Robert Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church, and Dr. Matthew Halbach’s The Wounded Body of Christ. (I also wrote a post about the benefit of offering this kind of conversation at the parish level, which you can find here: Should My Parish Offer a Small Group Discussion about the Abuse Crisis? Thoughts for Parish Leaders.)
In these posts, I mentioned that I have personally been facilitating small groups on this topic and that I created my own model for these groups. (I’m partway through my third group, and I have the fourth group set up to begin in July.) Since then, quite a few people have reached out and asked me to share what I’ve been doing. Honestly, it’s very simple, and I don’t have it all written out in a way that’s designed to pass along to others, but I’m definitely happy to share if it might help others who are trying to decide what to do. So, I’m including below a few principles that I worked from in designing this process, as well as a basic outline of the first meeting. If you are interested in using this yourself, please reach out to me for more information and I’ll get the second and third meetings written out for you as well!
My approach to these discussion groups is based on my years of experience facilitating various small groups at my parish. While the topic of sexual abuse and leadership failure in our Church is very different than anything I have addressed in a small group before, many of the basic principals are the same: Build trust. Invest in people. Leave plenty of space for conversation. Let the Holy Spirit lead.
In any small group, trust is important. For a group focusing on this painful topic, it’s even more essential. Participants need to know that all of their thoughts and feelings (including their anger, despair, and doubt) are welcome in the conversation. If you are offering the group as a member of a parish staff, it’s going to be especially important for everyone to know that you are present as a fellow Catholic wrestling with these issues, not as a spokesperson or defender of the Church. In your first meeting, make sure to set a tone of welcome, trust, and support and offer gentle affirmation for all honest comments. Sharing the way that this issue has impacted you personally will also go a long way toward building a sense of trust among participants.
Invest in People
In my vision, these groups are not so much about faith formation as pastoral care - This is an opportunity to care for people’s spirits during a difficult time. So, as a facilitator, your approach to these gatherings should make clear that you value the people participating more than any “material” you bring to the table. Also, your role cannot be confined to the 90 minutes you are gathered in this small group meeting. It’s important to make a personal connection with each participant before the first gathering, so that you have a sense of who is coming and what they might be bringing to the conversation. Following up with people between meetings is also valuable - especially if a discussion was particularly emotional on a given week. Ideally, the conversation will not end with the final small group meeting, but will instead take shape into something new. In the end, you want each person to leave this small group feeling supported, valued, and encouraged at this moment on their spiritual journey.
Leave Plenty of Space for Conversation
I know other small group resources on this topic give a lot of material for each session - Scripture passages, long reflection sections to read out loud, discussion questions, action steps, and more. I can see the value of offering more “content” to participants, especially because many lay Catholics do need to learn more to have a well-informed approach to this topic. However, after having lots of one on one conversations with Catholics about the situation in our Church, my instinct is to leave much more open space during these meetings, to allow people time to share from the heart. Especially in the first meeting, the goal should be simply to create a safe, prayerful space, and allow people to pour out their thoughts and feelings, however long it takes. So many Catholics don’t feel like their voices are being heard - This group is one opportunity to make sure every person has time and space to speak up, and you don’t want a long list of “stuff we have to cover” to get in the way of that.
Let the Holy Spirit Lead
When you’re leading a small group, it’s important to take plenty of time to plan, pray, and prepare for each gathering. You want to have a general structure and schedule in mind. You should have plenty of content ready to fill the time. But then, when you show up for each gathering, it’s time to place the whole thing in God’s hands. I recommend you specifically call upon the Holy Spirit in your opening prayer and also silently pray “Come, Holy Spirit” throughout the meeting, especially when you’re not sure what to do next. It’s tempting to want to be in control of the process, but ultimately, healing is the work of God, not any human being. Trust that the Lord has brought each person to the group for a reason and that He will lead and guide all of you along the way.
Logistics for an In Spirit and Truth Small Group
Groups meet three times for about 90 minutes each.
The ideal group size is six to eight people. For this topic, I wouldn’t recommend any more than eight.
Participants should commit to all three gatherings so that they can experience the entire process.
Make sure to offer friendly hospitality (including refreshments) and a comfortable setting at each group meeting to create a feeling of welcome.
Meeting One: Lamentation focuses on welcoming group members, building trust, and allowing people to share their thoughts and feelings related to the abuse crisis.
Meeting Two: The Body of Christ offers an opportunity for participants to reflect on each member of the Church, including survivors of clergy abuse, as part of the wounded Body of Christ.
Meeting Three: Hope challenges group members to discuss what it means to have Christian hope in the midst of a broken Church and explore how God might be calling each of them to take action in this spirit of hope.
Meeting One: Lamentation
The main goal of this first meeting is to welcome group members and establish a sense of solidarity and trust in your group. Participants will be invited to honestly share their own thoughts and feelings regarding the abuse crisis, which will likely take up the majority of the meeting time. Near the end of the meeting, the group will seek both comfort and challenge in the words of Lamentations, leading them to place their experiences in the hands of a loving God who understands their suffering.
Welcome all group members and thank them for participating in the group. Make sure to set the tone by saying that this is a safe space to share honestly and that all perspectives are welcome.
Give a general overview of today’s meeting so that people know what to expect (you should also do this via email before the group begins). Let everyone know that this meeting is mostly about getting to know each other, building a safe space for honest sharing and conversation. Explain that after prayer you will start with basic introductions around the circle, followed by a second time to around the circle to allow each person to share a bit about why they are here and what they have been feeling about the clergy abuse crisis.
Offer an opening prayer in your own words, inviting the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit
Ask each person to introduce themselves and share their basic information - name, state in life, family, work, and any other simple details. You may also want to add some kind of personal touch to this sharing, like having each person mention one thing that brings them joy in their life right now.
Share how this group came about and how you came to be leading it, as well as what you have in mind as the goal of the group.
Offer some basic ground rules for group conversation (everything we share here will be confidential, please be conscious of making space for everyone to share, etc.)
Go around the circle to have everyone respond to this prompt: Why did you choose to join this group? What have you been feeling about the clergy abuse crisis? How has it impacted you?
It helps to answer the question yourself first, to set the tone for others who will go after you.
Let people know that it’s ok if this sharing takes up most of the group time.
Scripture: Lamentations 3:17-24
Make sure everyone has a Bible or just use a printed handout with this passage.
Begin by mentioning that the whole range of emotions we just shared can be found in the Scriptures as well. We don’t have to separate them from our experience of faith; God knows our suffering, anger, doubt, and sadness, and He wants to be with us in all of those feelings.
Have a volunteer read the passage out loud.
If you have time, ask group members to share what resonates with them from this passage.
Draw people’s attention to the “turning point” in the Lamentations passage: The author begins by pouring out his sadness and despair, then in verse 21 says “BUT…” and explains how he finds hope in the Lord, in the midst of the darkness.
Ask group members to share (around the circle again) what their “BUT” is at this moment in the Church. Where do they find hope right now? What is keeping them committed to their faith? (For example, someone might share that their “BUT” is receiving the Eucharist, or taking comfort in the Gospels, or remembering the important work the Church does in feeding the poor, etc. The aim is for people to connect with what helps them remain hopeful and faithful, while never ignoring or dismissing their negative feelings as well.)
You may want to go first to model this and give others time to think, or give a few minutes for quiet reflection before asking people to share.
Thank everyone for their honest sharing. Wrap up by reminding people that it’s ok to feel angry, sad, betrayed, or whatever other feelings were expressed, and that we can turn to God with those feelings. Encourage them to also cling to the sources of hope that they just named.
Invite people to look at the group members seated immediately to their right and left and to pray specifically for those two people in the week(s) before the group meets again (review names at this point if needed!).
Remind participants of the next two meeting dates, and let them know that you will be following up in the next few days to ask for their feedback about the first meeting.
Close with a simple communal prayer - This could be an Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be, or a different prayer you find appropriate and provide for everyone to read together. (Be sensitive to the fact that “father” language can be difficult for some abuse survivors; choose a different prayer if that might be the case in your group.)
Do your best to connect individually with each group member before they leave, especially after the first meeting. Tell them you are glad they are part of the group.
So, that’s the basic outline of Meeting One. I could offer much more detail, suggestions, and advice, but hopefully that’s enough to give you a general idea of my approach. If you are interested in more information and the outlines for Meetings Two and Three, please feel free to reach out to me here. I would be happy to share details and talk you through implementation.
If you are going to facilitate a group, I would also recommend viewing the facilitator training that was recently offered by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This training was designed specifically for those using The Wounded Body of Christ for discussion, but most of the content would be helpful for any small group on this topic. I would particularly recommend Video 2: Small Group Facilitation Concerns and How-Tos for some very pastorally-sensitive guidance from my wise friend Rich Harter and the first part of Video 3: Special Concerns and Closing for helpful advice on caring for survivors who might be present in a group.
If you are in the Milwaukee area, I would love to have you join a small group as a participant before jumping into facilitating one yourself. I have a few spaces left in a group specifically for lay ministers that will begin on Monday, July 8 at 7:00pm, and I am just starting to collect interest for another group that will begin in late July/early August. Please let me know if you would like to join us!
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
- Jesus, speaking in Matthew 18:20