EAST STROUDSBURG – In a big parish, sometimes it is better to go small.
That is the lesson that the ministry team at the Church of Saint John is learning as they recently launched a pilot program known as “Small Groups.”
At the beginning of Lent, the parish began offering parishioners the opportunity to participate in small group discussions about their faith, spiritual growth and real life experiences.
“It is the power of sharing testimony and sharing your faith and making those connections matter,” Kathy Fisher, Small Groups Leader, said.
Fisher helps to coordinate a team of facilitators who run 11 different small group meetings each week. Participants range in age from people in their 20s to mid-80s.
“I believe that it has been inspiring, having other members of the group speak about their day to day struggles, faith sharing and how God plays a role in helping them through their struggles or questions,” Leslie Pettenati said.
Pettenati facilitates a small group of men and women that meets on Monday afternoon. Having moved to the Poconos only three years ago, she only knew one of the people who was initially in her group.
“So many people are hungry and thirsty to have connections and know more. The small groups are a safe space where everything you say is kept confidential and respected,” she added. “Everyone can speak freely and without judgment. It is a safe space to say, ‘I’m struggling with this or I have questions about that.’”
Reverend Gregory A. Reichlen, pastor, Church of Saint John, said the “Small Groups” initiative is part of the REBUILT network that consists of parishes all around the country that are striving to apply certain strategic priorities and ideas in their community.
“The small group becomes a school of discipleship, where people are learning from each other and their own life experiences and that is where the spiritual growth is happening. People who didn’t know each other previously are connecting, sharing, becoming vulnerable, opening up and trusting each other,” Father Reichlen said. “We have seen the immediate, very positive impact of all of this.”
As the parish was developing its “Small Groups” program, organizers said they would have been happy to have 50 people participate. Instead, more than 115 signed up.
“We were amazed,” Father Reichlen admitted.
“I was expecting a big response,” Fisher said. “Coming out of COVID, people need more opportunities to connect with each other than ever so I knew it was going to be big.”
Each week, the “Small Groups” conversation is rooted in the previous weekend homily given by Father Reichlen. Questions are even included in each weekend bulletin to get participants thinking ahead.
“We are all called to be life-long learners of the faith. It’s just a continual learning process and that is the beauty of it, learning from each other,” Pettenati said.
Participants in the “Small Groups” program recently came together for a Potluck dinner at the parish. They shared their thoughts on the program so far.
“It gives me so much hope about the Catholic Church,” Pettenati said following the first nine weeks of the program. “To me, it is inspiring. People take it very seriously when they’re in the group.”
Fisher said the power of the “Small Groups” was recently on display when a parishioner who is participating in a group suffered a medical emergency during a weekend Mass. While an EMT quickly attended to the man, all of the other individuals in the man’s group also quickly came to his aid.
“Every single group member was around him, supporting him,” Fisher said, noting the bond that quickly develops between people.
While the “Small Groups” will take a break during the summer, the initiative is expected to continue in September at the Church of Saint John.