This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Rusty Zimmerman reflects on the fruit of failed small groups on a college campus.
“Progress shall mark our every step.” I first heard that motto in my college fraternity, a place where I lived brotherhood. “Strive for success and learn from our failures,” was my interpretation of this maxim. Over time, I realized that some of the endeavors I considered to be failures contained some valuable lessons. The Lord uses many temporal failures to teach us valuable spiritual lessons. How many times have I allowed my perception of success or failure to hold greater weight than what the Lord sees? Working with a college apostolate, I’ve learned repeatedly that my ways are not His ways, and my ideas are not always His ideas, no matter how sure I feel about them.
Last summer I prayed that God would help me gain insight into the true nature of brotherhood, because I was seeing more clearly this was lacking amongst the students I was working with. Through a college apostolate, I started leading several small groups but I kept being brought back to a group I “led” the previous year. This group was not exactly a “model” group. In fact, it was a failure of our “small group model.” But upon further reflection, the failures of this group taught me about brotherhood more than our model groups did.
The general formula for a men’s groups in my apostolate is the following: meet guys out on campus, develop a friendship with them, and invite them to be a part of a small group overseen by a trained leader.
“We can’t expect freshmen and sophomores to understand and crave brotherhood if they themselves haven’t experienced it.”
This is pretty common in effective campus ministries, usually being called a “discipleship” model, where we the leaders are making disciples of the small groups. They are invited to commit to one another by attending the group meeting weekly and to read through the provided content. The hope is that as they progress through the semester, and the content, they become more committed as brothers and see the importance of brotherhood in their life. Ultimately this experience should reinforce their identity as sons of the Father.
The “failure” group followed a different path.
They kicked off meeting weekly and started reading the content. They looked forward to hanging out with the other men. The group was on track. But then something happened. The men stopped reading the provided content. The leader struggled to steer conversations and keep them on topic. Slowly they stopped meeting in the prescribed apartment altogether, but they did start going to each others’ intramural games and going out to eat together after. They had gone rogue, but they maintained and strengthened their relationships. The content faded into an afterthought and all they wanted to do was hang out. I remember encouraging the leader to continue to spend time with them to see where it led. By the conclusion of the semester, they stopped meeting as an official group and never made it through half of the content.
As the supervisor I saw this rogue group as a failure in comparison to the other groups that met weekly and dove deep into the content. I deemed it a failure because of my expectations—they failed the formula. If we have the right content, the right location and set up, if we prepare just right and ask the right questions at the perfect time, these students will love and be sold on brotherhood, right? Wrong. The group failed the process, but they succeeded in initiating a brotherhood. Three of the men from the failed group now live together, one was baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil, one has a lead role in the community here at the school, and another helps lead high school retreats at his home parish.
You see, the other groups finished the workbooks but for many of them it ended there. Brotherhood is something we desperately need, but it’s more than just information. Brotherhood is not to be found in a workbook. It’s something organic and powerful that needs to be lived and experienced, and we need to have more confidence in that truth than in our ability to drum it up through information and systems.
We can’t expect freshmen and sophomores to understand and crave brotherhood if they themselves haven’t experienced it. It was a simple numbers game for us: one leader who has experienced rich brotherhood + 4 students who haven’t = 5 “brothers.” Spiritual multiplication, right? But instead of reading about it in a booklet with the leader sharing his experience, these men ended up just living it. They made it their own. They belonged. They found the treasure without using the map.
Most men I encounter don’t see the importance of brotherhood. I think this comes from the fact that they haven’t experienced it, not that they haven’t learned about it. Content attempts to tell a guy about why brotherhood is awesome and they should want it, but unless they witness it or experience it first hand, content can’t connect in reality. It’s a map to the treasure and can help men to get there, but the experience of belonging is the key. As I look back at the ‘failed’ small group I see these men didn’t have to be told brotherhood was important, they witnessed that truth.