keys to great discussions
In carefully reading the Scriptures we directly encounter God’s Word. The Latin root of lectio divina indicates that its goal is to pluck out portions of the text in which God is speaking to us at a given time in order to more deeply reflect and meditate on them. Lectio divina isn’t a scholarly reading aimed at understanding every nuance of the text. It’s a spiritual reading, an opening of oneself to the living Word of God.
Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies rely on solid, well-organized discussions to ensure that all participants leave each week inspired by God’s Word and feeling more connected to their faith and to each other. Even a mediocre discussion of the Bible probably is better than no discussion at all, but great Bible-study discussions inspire people to keep coming back for more—and to bring their friends. There are a number of ways a discussion leader can guarantee that everyone is participating, comfortable, and having a good experience. The following keys to great Bible-study discussions include practical tips for organizing and leading successful study groups.
pray—It’s impossible to overemphasize prayer. The goal of Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies is to help people to draw closer to God. The primary ways that God speaks to us are through Scripture, through the liturgy of the Church, and through the intimacy of prayer. We encourage you to pray privately before you prepare your lesson. Pray with your group at the beginning of your Bible study, and pass out copies of your opening prayer so that everyone can participate. Pray together again before dismissal, adding prayer intentions if you like. Check out our suggestions of prayers suitable for Bible study groups—including opening prayers, intercessory prayer, and how to compose Scripture-based prayers. Encourage members of your group to continue to pray privately about the Scripture that they’ve read and discussed, and to pray as they prepare for the next lesson.
approach the Bible as the living Word of God—We strongly encourage every participant in a Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible study to watch The Bible as the Living Word of God, Matthew Phelps’ video discussion of the practical benefits of Scripture study based on lectio divina. This inspiring talk, which explains the Catholic approach to Scripture in down-to-earth language that anyone can understand, was recorded at our 2015 retreat at Conception Abbey. Discussion leaders especially might find Matthew’s ideas helpful when directing group prayer and study sessions.
size matters—If you’re organizing a new Bible study, you may not immediately have enough participants for more than one discussion group, so you probably should serve as discussion leader. If you’re adapting an established study group to the Turning to God’s Word method, however, you may need to work with multiple discussion groups. That means you’ll need reliable discussion leaders. Choose people you can count on, and look for people who are more interested in helping others than in showing off their own knowledge. As a rule of thumb, eight to 10 is a good size for a discussion group. We recommend breaking any group of 12 or more into two groups. If a lot of people are absent on a particular week, combine those present to avoid having only two or three people in a discussion.
read the Scripture, then read it some more—Many people find that reading Scripture aloud—even when studying alone—helps them to focus on details. You even can do this when you read the biblical text at home. In your discussion groups, always ask someone to read the bold introduction to each numbered question aloud before anyone attempts to answer the questions that follow it. The bold introductions signal where in Scripture you can find answers to the questions. When you watch the lesson videos, you’ll notice that the presenter always reads aloud all of the main Scripture passages covered in the lesson.
memorize the books of the Bible—One of the best ways to begin familiarizing yourself with Scripture is to learn the books of the Bible. If you take the time to memorize these, you’ll never have to flip to the Table of Contents again when looking up a particular verse. To make the process more fun, Tami Palladino has prepared a video that runs through all the books of the Old and New Testament. She also has created a short video in which she discusses the benefits she’s received from memorizing verses of the Psalms in connection with the Turning to God’s Word study Sing a New Psalm: Communicating with God Through the Prayers of the Church.
homework—One of the main concerns of members in the pilot groups for Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies was that they not be required to do homework. Strictly speaking, our study participants don’t need to do anything ahead of time except read through the Scripture covered by their lesson. Some people may want to read through all of the study lesson and write out answers to the questions, but this is optional. Our study directories include links to online lesson study pages where you can find related videos and other supplemental resources. Most of our Turning to God’s Word lesson videos are between 8 to 12 minutes in length, and they’re intended to help group members to prepare for discussion. Watching a video ahead of time doesn’t take very long, but this, too, is optional. Some people like to start preparing for their next lesson almost immediately after leaving their discussion groups. Others prefer to wait until the day or evening before their group meets. A few people prepare the hour before meeting with their groups. Each participant is responsible for determining how much and what type of homework he or she is going to do, and when it’s going to get done.
preparation for leaders—While participants have the option of no homework, discussion leaders and study leaders need to come to Bible study prepared. Everyone who’s responsible for facilitating discussion should be familiar with the lesson. The best way to accomplish this in a large study is to ask all of the discussion leaders to meet in advance each week to go through the questions together. The study director serves as discussion leader for this group, and through experience in their own group, discussion leaders become knowledgeable enough to handle most questions and comments when facilitating their own groups.
learn from successful groups—If you’re interested in organizing a new Catholic Bible study, you might be especially interested in seeing how other successful groups operate. We’ve posted video highlights from Tami Palladino’s Bible study group at St. Mark Catholic Church in Belmont, California. This 13-year-old group of 65 women is studying Sing a New Psalm: Communicating with God Through the Prayers of the Church during the 2015-2016 school year. You can access those videos from the Sing a New Psalm study directory. You may find the orientation video from St. Mark Catholic Church useful when deciding how to organize your own new group.
don’t neglect review—You can review what you’ve learned at the end of your group discussion, or you can begin your next discussion with a brief review—or you can do both. Reviewing the material gives everyone an opportunity to share their insights and to ask any lingering questions. Opening with a quick summary of what you’ve discussed in previous classes serves to remind everyone of key concepts before beginning discussion of new material, and a brief summary at the end of each class helps to solidify important points.
beginning and ending—The introductions to the lessons are intended to encourage participants to apply what they learn from the biblical text to situations in contemporary life. Reading this material at the start of your discussion can help to point your group in the direction of personal reflection about the Scripture. At the end of discussion, revisiting the ideas brought up in the introduction gives participants something to think about as they return to their everyday lives.
visualization—If illustrations or photographs of scriptural scenes are included in the Turning to God’s Word book that your group is using, mention of them in your discussions. Scripture and the Rosary: New Testament Mysteries, Old Testament Parallels was inspired by stained glass windows depicting the Rosary mysteries, and pictures of those windows accompany that study. The Revelation of Jesus Christ: The Faithful Witness includes illustrations of the key images described in the book of Revelation. Sing a New Psalm: Communicating with God Through the Prayers of the Church features illustrations of the Psalms in each lesson. In all of these studies, religious art can help people to visualize things in the biblical text. The illustrations and photographs are especially helpful in reviewing previous lessons. If your group is studying The Letter to the Hebrews: An Explanation of the Mechanism of Our Salvation, check out Right-Brain Reflections, Tami Palladino’s online visual meditation journal related to that Bible study.
lesson videos—Turning to God’s Word lessons and lesson videos focus closely on the Scripture. The videos are designed to be watched prior to engaging in discussion. The video presenter (always one of the Turning to God’s Word authors) walks through the lesson verse by verse, shedding light on a few key concepts that are developed more fully in the written studies. You can watch Turning to God’s Word videos at home at your own convenience. It doesn’t matter whether you watch before starting your preparation or you do all of your preparation first. Some people watch a portion of a video, pause to answer the study questions related to that passage of Scripture, then go back to the video to continue. Links to the lesson videos are found on the individual lesson study pages.
online lesson study pages—Visit TtGW studies to locate supplemental commentary relevant to individual lessons in Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies. If you have unanswered questions or comments, links are provided to contact the authors by email.
facilitating is more than talking—A successful group discussion leader needs to be prepared to lead, and this means having a plan in mind to deal with such hurdles and speed bumps as the following:
- Time constraints usually are a factor in group Bible studies. It’s important that discussions begin and end on time to be respectful of everyone in the group. Even in a small group it can be helpful to appoint a timekeeper to watch the clock and to announce when the discussion is one-quarter, halfway, and three-quarters finished.
- Group etiquette rules should be made clear at the first meeting to help avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Developing a closer relationship with God is a highly personal endeavor. In-depth discussions about Scripture often touch on intimate spiritual issues. In these instances, sharing is optional. The discussion leader can suggest that everyone briefly reflect in silence before moving on. No group member ever should feel pressured to disclose anything personal, and all members should respect the privacy of others in the group.
- Encourage shy participants to speak up. Factual questions (who? what? when? where?) lay the groundwork for ensuring that everyone understands important details before moving on to more difficult concepts. These relatively easy questions give people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing an opportunity to talk. Similarly, everyone is entitled to have an opinion in response to a question that asks “what do you think?” No one person’s viewpoint is better than that of anyone else. If you have a shy member in your group who usually doesn’t respond, gently encourage him or her to answer one of the questions that has a fairly obvious answer, or ask his or her opinion in response to one of the “what do you think?” questions. Try to arrange to sit across from shy members in your group. Making eye contact and smiling directly at a shy person can help to encourage him or her to respond.
- Encourage know-it-alls to pipe down. Answers to factual questions are to be found in the biblical text to which everyone has equal access, and answers to “what do you think?” questions are personal opinion. No matter how educated a person might be, his or her opinion is no better than that of any other person. If you have a know-it-all in your discussion group, gently encourage him or her to give others a chance to speak. Try to arrange to sit next to a very talkative person. Not making direct eye contact can help to discourage him or her from responding too often. If a single person continues to monopolize the discussion, it may be necessary for the leader to ask to hear from someone different.
- Avoid going around the table to answer the questions. This creates stress for participants and can squelch the Spirit. Often participants are so busy thinking about what they’re going to say when it’s their turn that they fail to listen to the rest of the discussion.
- Ask for a volunteer to read the Scripture passage or passages listed in bold at the beginning of a numbered question. The discussion leader rather than a participant then follows by reading the question, stopping at the first question mark and pausing until someone in the group responds. After everyone who wants to has had a chance to weigh in, the leader continues by reading the next part of the question, stopping again at the next question mark. If a numbered question doesn’t include a bold Scripture reference at the beginning, this is an indication that it refers to the most recent Scripture passage, which doesn’t have to be read aloud again. Just move directly to the next question, stopping at the question mark to allow time for participants to answer. Reading the questions allows the discussion leader to maintain control and to keep an eye on the clock at the same time.
- A silent pause after a question makes some people so uncomfortable that they immediately rush to answer in order to avoid what they perceive as an awkward situation. You might need to speak privately with someone if you suspect he or she is answering too frequently for this reason. Gently suggest that allowing a few more seconds of silence will give others more time to formulate their thoughts.
- A “favorite pony” is what we call a pet idea that someone keeps trotting out week after week, even when that idea isn’t always related to the biblical text at hand. If this is a problem in your group and people already have spent a lot of time discussing someone’s favorite pony, remind the group (and the pony’s jockey) that a lot of material remains to be covered in the lesson.
optional background study—If you have the time and inclination, it can be helpful to read or to reread other specific books in the Bible before you begin some Turning to God’s Word studies. The Revelation of Jesus Christ: The Faithful Witness looks at many connections between the books of Revelation and Exodus, so reading through Exodus ahead of time will familiarize you with the biblical events it describes. Genesis , Exodus, and First Samuel and Second Samuel are good choices before beginning Scripture and the Rosary: New Testament Mysteries, Old Testament Parallels. A knowledge of the synoptic Gospels is helpful before beginning The Gospel According to John: An Encounter with Grace and Truth. Basic Christian catechesis about Jesus Christ and his mission on earth proves useful when delving into The Letter to the Hebrews: An Explanation of the Mechanism of Our Salvation. First Samuel and Second Samuel help establish the historical context of many of the Psalms in Sing a New Psalm: Communicating with God Through the Prayers of the Church.
outside resources—Libraries and bookstores are full of resources to help people read and connect with Scripture. One of the goals of Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies is to encourage people to read and to form educated opinions about interpretations of Scripture. Because our questions stay so closely tethered to the text, participants in Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies develop the confidence to turn to God’s Word on their own in order to determine the truth of what they read outside of the Bible.
- Lectio divina is at the heart of Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies. Our questions are designed to spark discussion about the biblical text at hand, not to solicit academic answers. Many questions include the words “what do you think?” and this makes some Catholics uneasy. Catholics are taught to believe what the Church teaches, and there indeed are matters of doctrine about which Catholics are not given the option of having an opinion. In Turning to God’s Word studies there’s literally no discussion about such things as whether Mary was a virgin. (She was.) Every Catholic is encouraged to read Scripture and to think about its meaning, however. The only requirement of the Church is that no interpretation contradict anything else in Scripture or in Catholic doctrine (which is consistent with Scripture). That means that we Catholics must know what the Bible contains and must be familiar with Church doctrine. This burden falls heavily on authors of Turning to God’s Word Bible studies, so we freely submit all of our Bible studies to the authority of the Church. The imprimaturs on our studies are your guarantee that Turning to God’s Word written materials are free from doctrinal or moral error.
- Commentaries and study Bibles offer a wealth of information. Some commentary is brilliant. Some is interesting. Some is confusing. Some is flat wrong. It’s good practice to approach all commentary—even that found in Turning to God’s Word studies—with a skeptical eye. Ask yourself the following questions: Does it match up with what you already know? If not, does it adequately explain the discrepancy? Does it carry an imprimatur or some other indication that it’s not out of line with Church teaching? Is it consistent with everything else you know about Scripture? Is it consistent with what you know about Catholic doctrine? Does it make sense?
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church is your go-to source for information about Church teaching. It relies on a treasure trove of biblical citations in its explanation of complex Catholic doctrine, and its paragraphs often provide insight into difficult Scripture passages. Keep a copy of the Catechism within arm’s reach or have available access to a searchable online version when your discussion group meets.
- A dictionary can shed light on the meanings of key words in Scripture. Often we assume we know the meaning of a common word, but when we attempt to define it we draw a blank. Developing the habit of looking up significant words when you encounter them in the biblical text can help you to better understand what the author intended. Keep a dictionary handy for your discussion group.
be flexible—The location where you meet may not always be available. Half of your group may come down with the flu at the same time. One or more of your discussion leaders may be absent to attend a funeral. Plan ahead whenever possible, but when something unexpected occurs do the best that you can and set a positive example for the members of your group.
Tell us your Bible study stories and share your own suggestions and keys for great discussions. Contact us to let us know how your group is doing with Turning to God’s Word Catholic Bible studies. We’d love to hear from you.