Small groups enhance Lenten experience

Imagine friends and neighbors regularly gathering around the Word of God and praying as a normal part of their Lenten journey.

That’s the vision of Jim Jansen, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

To that end, he said, his office held workshops earlier this year to help parish leaders around the archdiocese form small faith-sharing groups to help participants use Scripture, discussion and prayer to encounter Jesus more intimately during Lent and beyond. 

“This initiative exists to equip people to not just give up chocolate or beer for Lent, but to encounter our Lord and others in a new way,” said Calvin Mueller, coordinator of rural evangelization and catechesis, who works in Jansen’s office.

“We’ve equipped leaders to truly live mercy by first praying extensively and intentionally for their neighbors, both inside and outside the church,” he said. “And then we asked them to invite those neighbors to encounter our Lord in prayer, Scripture and real community by joining them for a six-week small group.” 

About 100 people from 20 parishes attended workshops at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Humphrey, St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Parish in Osmond, St. Patrick Parish in O’Neill, St. Isidore Parish in Columbus and St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Omaha.

As a result, more than 50 groups formed with more than 400 participants, Jansen said.

Efforts to form small groups have been underway for the past year, he said, with this being the first attempt with a Lenten focus.

And by all accounts, the effort has been successful.

Sarah Doerneman, a member of St. Isidore Parish, said her small group helped her grow closer to Jesus and “is helping me know he is with me in everything I do.”

As a member of the parish’s evangelization team, she attended a workshop March 5, along with her husband and four other couples, to learn how to form and lead a small group.

“We thought, ‘This would be something simple, so let’s each do a small group,’” she said. Doerneman formed a mom’s group to meet every Friday morning for six weeks.

Jansen hopes such groups continue forming as a means of ongoing evangelization.

“Small groups seem to have a particular genius for helping foster encounters with the Lord and each other,” he said.

They provide a comfortable, relaxed environment, usually in participants’ homes, and the ability to build strong, trusting friendships. They also allow flexibility for people’s schedules and needs, he said.

It’s also an approach that encourages involvement of non-churchgoers, who may be uncomfortable attending large, church-based activities, Jansen said.

The Lenten initiative was an easy format to follow, Doerneman said. In six weekly 90-minute sessions, participants begin with fellowship and prayer.

Then, the group reads from Scripture, silently journals and reflects on the passage, then shares their insights using the “WRAP” technique – write, reflect, apply and pray.

“We’ve touched so many lives through our Lenten small groups,” said Beth Dohmen, a member of St. Ludger Parish in Creighton who leads one of three groups that formed there.

She said she sees the spiritual progress participants are making through their responses. “Seeing them bow their heads and close their eyes during prayer tells me they’re trying to open their hearts and souls to Jesus.”

The experience also has enhanced Dohmen’s prayer life and her acceptance of life’s ups and downs.

“It all begins with prayer,” she said. “Over the years, my prayer has gone from rote prayer, like the Rosary, the Hail Mary and the Our Father, to actually opening my mind, heart and soul, and letting Jesus in as I begin my prayer and then experiencing a calmness – that calmness has never stood out to me before.”

That encounter with Jesus is the goal, Jansen said.

“Everything we do as Catholics in our personal lives of faith and in our service should be flowing from an encounter with the Lord. But everybody, from time to time, needs that encounter renewed or refreshed.”

“Small groups have a history of renewing individuals and communities like nothing else does,” he said.

They also are “a concrete embodiment” of the archdiocese’s vision of “One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, and living mercy,” Jansen said. 

“If even one participant from each of this year’s groups begins to lead a group next year, the potential for growth is very exciting,” he said.

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