Small Is Beautiful: How Small Groups Can Transform Large Parishes

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.”

. . .

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.

Small Is Beautiful: How Small Groups Can Transform Large Parishes