Small Parish Communities: St. Gregory’s Parish, Northampton
Maria Heath, St Gregory’s Parish, Northampton, January 2020
Small communities are small groups of people who meet in each other’s homes to share their faith. There are many different models and we have chosen to follow the parish cell group system which has been fruitful all over the world. The idea is that when a parish small group reaches about 14 people, the group divides (hence the ‘cell’ model!’) to form two groups, and so on.
In our parish, we began with one ‘cell’ which we call a ‘small community’. I chose four people who I thought would be good leaders and my husband and I met together with them for about two years to establish the group and ensure we all understood the vision and format. After this initial time we began to invite others through personal invitation into the group. After another 18 months we had enough people to make two groups, so we split the group into two, with two of the original people taking on the leadership of the second group. Using this method means that it is easy for a parish to begin because it is not a big structural initiative. It starts small and grows organically. Our parish now has three small communities.
We follow a simple model. Each group meets twice a month ( for example, my group meets on the first and third Thursdays of the month 7.45-9.15pm, another group meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of a month, 2.30-4pm). The meeting is strictly an hour and a half, we emphasise with leaders the importance of finishing on time – evidence suggests that people stop going to groups that regularly run overtime.
The structure is the same in every group. Our Thursday evening our timings look like this:
7.45 – Welcome, offer drinks etc.
7.50 – How have we shared our faith since we last met?
8pm – Song (s) of praise and opening prayer
8.10 – Read Scripture aloud
8.15 – After a few moments of silence to re-read Scripture, each person can feel free to share what struck them about the passage. This is not an academic exercise, but an encounter with the Word of God which speaks to each person in a different way.
8.45: The leader shares a Christ-centred reflection on the Word (all the groups reflect on the same Scripture and have the same input, prepared in advance either by the priest or a person he appoints with the appropriate skills)
8.55: Opportunity for further discussion in the light of the reflection
9.05: Intercession: for the needs of those we know, the parish, wider Church and the world
9.15: End with a communal prayer such as the Hail Mary or Our Father.
The initial question, ‘how have I shared my faith with others in word or deed?’, while an uncomfortable question for many Catholics, is an important key to the success of this model. First of all, any small group is in danger of introspecrion and becoming cliquey. This question, right at the beginning, reminds everyone that we are here to draw others to Christ. One of the key ways we encourage people to share their faith is to invite people to the group, so it is a reminder that the group needs to always be open and welcoming to new people. Everyone in the group knows that the aim is to grow so the group can eventually become two groups. While this is a challenge when the time comes because friendships often grow strong within the group and people naturally want to remain in the group as it is, the very act of creating two smaller groups reminds people we are not here to be an introspective group, but to grow in our faith and enable others to do the same by inviting them to be part of the group.
Each group is looked after by two people: a leader, who guides the meeting, and a host, who looks after the practical side of things, for example, welcoming people, making drinks, creating a welcoming environment. The meeting usually takes place at the host’s house.
Everyone who comes to the small community values it. They all testify to a growth in faith as they reflect on the Word and share that with one another. I have noticed people become enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others, because once someone becomes used to talking about their faith with others it becomes normal and they find themselves naturally sharing their faith in other situations with all kinds of people.
Small groups are also places where people feel loved and cared for, so people who are part of a small group often become better engaged in the parish because they feel valued and loved.
They are useful after people have gone through RCIA where they become used to being part of a small faith sharing group that meets regularly. By joining a small community new Catholics can continue to experience being part of a group, they can continue to grow in their faith and crucially they can get to know people so when they go to Sunday Mass they can sit with someone from the small community, which makes it easier to navigate Sunday Mass. We run Alpha in our parish and we ensure that participants are invited to join a small community so they have a place to continue to develop their faith. Finally, sometimes there are people who are not quite ready to become a Catholic for whatever reason or are so new to faith that Sunday Mass is a step too far for them. Again a small community can be a gateway for people, a place where they can feel loved, where they can grow in their faith, get to know others in the parish and when they are ready they can then become more involved.
There is a lot of evidence that suggests that Churches which have smaller group gatherings as well as the large Sunday gathering are the Churches that are growing. Today we need to provide places for people to encounter Jesus and to grow as disciples. Through small communities, people can encounter Jesus in the Word and through the sharing, and they are places of discipleship, where people can receive teaching, but also develop healthy relationships with others who can disciple them, walking with them on their journey. It is not unusual for me to meet with people from the small community at other times to help them with their questions, to pray for them and to encourage them. This is only possible because of the relationship that has developed through the small community.
Women of Grace – Holy Redeemer Parish, Slough
Catherine Waweru, Holy Redeemer Parish, Nov 2019
Over two years ago, one of the parishioners at the church was going through a difficult time in her life.
In order to help her go through this difficult time, ten women in the parish got together one Sunday afternoon and visited her at home. When we arrived she was welcoming and received us very well. We had a wonderful time singing, worshiping the name of the Lord, followed by scripture reading and opportunity to encourage our dear parishioner. We then wrapped up with prayer and refreshments.
It was from this visit, majority of the ladies felt this is something we should carry on.
We again met up one Sunday after mass talked about starting a women’s group in the parish. We discussed the purpose of the group and agreed on three key areas:
1. Spiritual Development
Where we get together once a month to reflect on scripture, pray together and talk about challenges with a focus to find a solution.
2. BUILDING Relationships BY NETWORKING with other women in the parish.
· Reach out to others in time of need.
· Get involved with other ministries in the church
· Plan a family get together
· Partner with the Parish clergy to offer support
3. Be of service to Holy Redeemer Church
At that point we agreed it will be important for us to give a name to our group and came up with Holy Redeemer Catholic Women of Grace.
We thought in order to fulfil our plan for our lives and Holy Redeemer Family, we can only do that by God’s grace and Christ centred. It’s not we who build, Christ builds the church.
This group currently has 20 ladies on board, comprised with women of varied ages and diverse backgrounds. As a community of women rooted in our Catholic faith, we offer opportunities to deepen our relationship with God, develop relationships with other women in order to support our spiritual growth, and manifest our love for God by serving His people; currently studying the various women in the bible.
From the time of formation to date we have been able to reach out to some of the families who have lost a loved one to the extent of planning a wake, supported the sick through prayer/visiting them at home or hospital and in 2018 we organised a Christmas party for over 50 Children which was a huge success.
I Can Do Things You Cannot, You Can Do Things I Cannot; Together We Can Do Great Things
New members are always welcome!
Divine Renovation and Alpha at St Augustine’s, High Wycombe
Deacon Brin Dunsire – September 2019
Our single-church Parish is relatively large, 5-600, and fairly diverse ethnically. It has always been a reasonably active place, with plenty going on, although even the traditionally strong activities such as the four-part choir and the annual May Fayre have been struggling of late to recruit volunteers.
Last year a group of parishioners became enthused by the “Divine Renovation” book by Fr. James Mallon, and with the approval and participation of parish priest Fr.Jonathan Hill, a reading group was formed to study the book collectively and identify Good Ideas and recommendations from it which would be applicable to a conventional English parish like ours- as opposed to a North American one with numbers of paid staff.
Various ideas have already been implemented. Fr. Hill redecorated the main entrance porch and repainted and tidied up the noticeboards, acquiring a corner desk to form the basis of a hospitality location to provide information to visitors and new parishioners. We recognise the strength in Fr. Mallon’s arguments that in a big parish, people need to be encouraged to get to know each other, so we are intending to experiment with the idea of a “Name Badge Sunday”.
Most of the reading group had had prior experience of Alpha courses, so we were very keen on the recommendation that these should be regularly run in a parish. We ran our first one between January and Easter 2019, and were amazed when about 60 people signed up for it, although only 40 to 45 showed up for the first evening, and the numbers eventually settled down to 30 to 35, which was pretty good for a long course requiring 11 midweek evenings. Virtually all the attenders were existing parishioners, with only one or two guests from other churches in the town, and no non-Christians at all, but this is the way that Alpha usually works in its first outing so we were just pleased to have the numbers.
We had read that among the surefire way ways of ruining an Alpha course were skimping on the meal, and on the residential weekend away which forms a key ingredient in building community and leading people into an experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit. Accordingly we served a good quality hot meal and a dessert each evening with decorated tables and a welcoming ambience partly achieved through use of lighting and background music.
The whole catering question is one of the more challenging aspects of Alpha, since cooking for three dozen can stretch the capacity of a parish kitchen, and portion control is difficult when the numbers are unpredictable. But the quality of the cooked meals was a major factor in retaining the participants, and we would encourage other parishes to resist the temptation to substitute tea, cakes and biscuits ! There would be nothing wrong with a good cold buffet, especially in the summer months.
No charge was made for attendance at the parish sessions, although participants were very generous with their donations and we found it easy to cover the catering costs. However, the weekend away, at a retreat centre in the Cotswolds, cost £110 per head, which virtually all attenders were perfectly happy to pay, and only one person needed to make a request for a subsidy from the parish, the option for which had been publicised in advance
This weekend away was very much the high point of the course for the 20 or so who could come; it is always going to be difficult for those with work or childcare problems. Going some distance away added to the sense of a very special weekend, and the venue was enormously attractive and had all the qualities of a weekend break about it – and the weather was fairly good on at least one of the days! The venue did of course provide all the meals, which were excellent. Several people had very obvious experiences of the Holy Spirit’s presence during the time of prayer Ministry, and even for those who did not, they could see that something powerful was going on. The result was a group of people bonded together by this shared experience, much like a pilgrimage, and their enthusiastic descriptions have caused several people to rejoin the second course for the main purpose of being able to go on the weekend
We have just begun the second course, having resolved not to attempt one per term, as the burden on organisers and caterers is quite substantial. We had to hold our nerve on the numbers point, since only four people were signed up for the 1th September start a week before the commencement date, though having persuaded all the “returners” to add their names to the list, more new people have been attracted and we were surprised and pleased to find 37 people turning up for the first session, several of whom arrived unbooked; three weeks in, a number have inevitably dropped away, but we are still getting numbers in the high 20’s, and so it is again viable as a course for the main meeting room, rather than just being handled as a house group, which we were beginning to contemplate.
What are the fruits? Everybody has experienced a deepening and enlivening of faith, having been challenged to encounter Jesus in new ways. Even those who’ve been going to renewal meetings for years have been bowled over by the joy in the group. For some in particular, the experience has been transformative of life, faith and relationships, leading to them coming into more active roles in the parish. The more people that have experienced an Alpha course and found it positive, the more ready they will be to recommend it to unchurched neighbours and relatives.
We have found it fairly easy to secure volunteer helpers for the second course, especially among those who went on the first one, in the “easy” categories of washing up, welcoming, and setting up. “Returners” are also fairly willing to act as small-group facilitators, and to deputise for the principal leaders on the odd week when they will be absent. They gain confidence by watching the role being undertaken. The overall coordinator for the course requires a certain amount of strategic vision and organising ability, plus the capacity to think into details, which means that this role is often but not always taken by the parish priest or curate, deacon or pastoral assistant/ key catechist.
Fr Mallon recommends providing opportunities for people to experience an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One of the Divine Renovation reading group was an enthusiast for the “Fire and Light” meetings organised by the Cor et Lumen Christi community at Chertsey in Surrey, which have been replicated under Fr. Andy Richardson at Our Lady of Peace in Burnham, and he was very keen that a similar event should happen at our parish. It is basically Eucharistic adoration with contemporary praise and worship music. Helped by Fr. Andy’s assurances, Fr. Hill gave the go-ahead and planning and music preparation began a couple of months in advance of a date in early September the event was well-publicised with professionally printed posters, mentions in the newsletters, and announcements, and was circulated to other local parishes. (It would have been good, if it had been possible, not to hold it on a First Friday!) A small music group who had done this kind of thing before spent many hours rehearsing a repertoire of praise and worship songs, and a small amount of new PA equipment was acquired. A 6 foot tower of tables and boxes was draped in white to form a tall plinth for the Blessed Sacrament monstrance, adorned with flowers at the base. The colour of the words-projection slides matched the livery of the posters. We were expecting 12 to 20 people, and were amazed and gratified when around 50 turned up.
All attendees professed themselves delighted with the evening, as did Fr Hill, and there was an atmosphere of profound devotion and true adoration, with powerful prayer and healing ministry being exercised by a small team of people experienced in this field. Many people testified to sensing the presence of God’s spirit, and there was great demand for the event to be repeated. Its success illustrates a phenomenon seen annually at the big Catholic camping conferences, New Dawn and Youth 2000, and the “Celebrate” weekends – there is a widespread appetite for the traditional devotions when mixed with contemporary styles of worship. Fr Hill has taken the opportunity of promoting more “conventional “ evenings of Eucharistic adoration to provide a mix of styles for the parish..
For more information see the Divine Renovation website.
All the resources for Alpha can be found here.