Start With the Big Picture
Studies that focus in-depth on the individual books of the Bible can be life-changing, but for Catholics who’ve never delved deeply into the Scriptures, they’re not often the best place to begin.
A better option is to start with a study that introduces people to the Catholic vision of Scripture and the big picture of salvation history.
“The average Catholic today hasn’t received good catechesis at the parish level,” said Tom Davis, who has led Bible studies in two California parishes for the past eight years. “Helping them learn the basic themes and start seeing the connections between the Old Testament and the New, as well as learn how the Church understands the Scriptures, gives them a foundation on which you can build.”
You don’t have to be a priest or a director of religious education to launch a Bible study. But even if you are, leading a study for the first time can be intimidating.
When Tom Davis first heard about the Journey Through Scripture studies, he said, “I knew the only way we’d get these into my parish was if I did it myself.”
But with no previous experience, he knew he needed help. So, he signed up for one of the St. Paul Center’s day-long training sessions — offered both at Franciscan University’s Applied Biblical Studies Conference every July, and in parishes and dioceses around the country throughout the year. Designed to equip Catholics with the practical know-how to start a study in their parish, the sessions also increase future presenters’ familiarity with the material and provide them with all they need to launch the study.
Meeting that same need for training was actually the impetus behind the first National Catholic Bible Conference in 2005. Although the conference has expanded in scope over the past eight years, the Ascension Press sponsored event, which takes place every June, continues to offer workshops for leaders at the conference, as well as training days year-round for those interested in learning more about leading a study.
To learn more about the leadership training offered through Ascension Press, visit biblestudyforcatholics.com.
To find out more about the St. Paul Center’s training sessions or to learn how to host one in your diocese, visit salvationhistory.org.
Pick the Right Time
The day and time a parish offers a Bible study can make all the difference in terms of its success.
That’s why Tim Carpenter, the director of religious education at St. John the Baptist Parish in Howell, Mich., recommends first deciding the study’s target audience.
“Do you want to do a study for moms? For retirees? For working professionals? Those are the questions you need to ask going in,” he said.
Once a parish knows its audience, he continued, it should set the day and time accordingly.
That means if retirees or stay-at-home moms are the target group, a weekday study, in the late morning (when children are at school and nap time hasn’t started yet) is often best. Free babysitting for small children is an extra help.
When it comes to attracting a more general audience and working professionals, parishes usually find an evening study works better. Better still, said Carpenter, is scheduling the study on the same evening as children’s religious education programs, so that parents more easily can attend. But if you choose to do that, he warned, make sure to coordinate the schedules.
“On the nights there are no religious education classes, it’s best not to have the Bible studies either,” he explained. “If they’re not bringing the kids to the parish and have to find babysitters, most parents won’t come that night. And if they miss one night, many won’t come back.”
Market, Market, Market
You can have the best studies, the best leaders and the best schedule, but in the end, if people don’t know about the study, nothing else matters. That’s why everyone agrees that a solid marketing plan for a parish Bible study is essential.
According to Matthew Leonard, executive director of the St. Paul Center, the best way to do that is to, “Put up signs. Put it in the bulletin multiple times — at least a month before the study begins if not more. Talk about it to everyone you know at the parish. And above all, make sure the priest invites people.”
“The more the priest talks about it, both in and out of church, the more people tend to turn out,” Leonard said. “When they hear about it from their spiritual father, people take it more seriously.”
“I’ve also found it helpful for someone to give a personal testimony,” added Sarah Christmyer, co-developer of The Great Adventure Bible study series. “When someone who has experienced a transforming encounter with God’s Word gets up and tells her story, that can make a tremendous difference. And once people come and have a similar experience, they just keep coming back.”