To repeat what I have said earlier, the goal of a spiritual formation group is to help participants grow in self-knowledge and self-mastery in Christ. In other words, the aim of this type of group is vocational and ascetical and as such is a process grounded not only in the grace of baptism and personal experience, but also tradition. And again to reaffirm what I said earlier, group formation is not a time set aside for people to simply share their own, idiosyncratic (and often narcissistic) views on the spiritual life. Avoiding this temptation and keeping the focus on personal formation within the context of the tradition of the Church requires a leader who is him or herself not only personally mature spiritually and psychologically, but also well grounded in the tradition of the Church.
One of the great temptations in any formation group is for one member, either through force of personality or the collusion or passivity of other group members, to dominate their time together. Whether the dominate personality is that of a group member or the group leader is secondary; in either case the substance of the formation process is undercut to the determinate of all.
Ideally small group leaders should be chosen from among those who have already demonstrated their commitment to Christ and potential for leadership in and through not only the quality of their spiritual life (including regular attendance at Liturgy and frequent confession) but also their willingness to participate in the philanthropic, evangelistic and/or catechetical ministries of the Church on either the parochial or diocesan levels.
In addition to the careful selection of who directs such a group, there are I think some practical things that can be done in a parish setting to help make a formation group a fruitful undertaking for not only the group members themselves, but also the larger parish community. Let me suggest some things that might prove helpful.
As with any small group meeting, there is a temptation, and sometimes a tendency, for the group to become elitist. I remember in my own early experiences with Charismatic prayer groups this was certainly a problem that we often encountered. Besides being contrary to the Gospel, elitism is harmful for both the group members and the larger parish community. For this reason it is important that any small group ministry, but especially a formation group meeting under lay presidency, remain in regular contact with the parish priest, the council and the parish as a whole. This I would add, is also true for choirs, Church School teachers, parish Sisterhoods or Brotherhoods, and any of the myriad small groups that meet formally or informally under the auspices of the parish. Any group needs to make regular reports to the pastor, the parish council and the parish community as a whole. Cooperative ministry does not “just happen,” it requires planning and effort. Or maybe more accurately, cooperative ministry is built on the foundation of good planning, regular communication with the larger community, and under the supervision of the pastor. Let us look at these in order.
Any small group, but especially a formation group, needs to be planned. With a formation group one of the most effective things that can be done is to have the group leaders themselves be members of a formation group lead by the parish priest. Following the general structure I outlined earlier, this group should meet on a regular basis with the priest and look together at texts chosen to help them not only with their own personal spiritual lives but also with the demands of leadership. Some of my favorite texts for this are The Holy Rule of St Benedict, the various rules written by St Basil, St Augustine’s First Catechetical Instruction, and On Pastoral Care by Pope St Gregory Dialogous (in the West, Gregory the Great).
In my next post I want to offer some suggestions not only cooperative ministry between the laity and the clergy, but with the order of the laity.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcomed, they are actively encouraged by me.