The diocesan strategy, from which the learning communities project stems, looks at 12 different areas of church life, with a focus on parish growth. This growth may be reflected in terms of numbers, but equally important is growth with regard to the depth of our faith, and the confidence with which we share it, and also the level of loving service that we offer in our local communities.

In order to support and encourage one another in this, we encouraged all of our churches to be part of a learning community. These are groups from different parishes, or benefices, who come together several times a year to take part in a reflective forum, to exchange ideas, receive input and develop talent.

“Everyone I have spoken to has been very positive about them,” Richard Steel (Mission Team Leader) has said. “There is an openness and an honesty about what has worked well and what has worked less well, but the attitude of all those I have spoken to can be summed up by one comment – “we’re very pleased to be a part of this”.

All three groups going at the moment (Market Towns, Housing Developments and Rural) have opted for a Saturday morning meeting, three times a year. Two meet for breakfast, the other has met a little later and finished with lunch. Food, as in many situations, is clearly a key element.

The first meeting is always about the people getting to know one another and introducing their parishes/benefices. This helps to build trust. All the groups move around the different members of the community, each getting an opportunity to host and thus offer hospitality. This also means that no group has to do all the driving or incur all the hosting costs.

The communities have found it helpful to build-in pauses for quiet reflection, certainly at the end of the morning, but perhaps elsewhere too. Not times of formal worship as such, although sometimes there is a short form of Morning Prayer, and perhaps simply silence. One group is encouraging every member to write down such things to take away and reflect on further: something they’ve learnt; something they’re going to do as an individual and something they’re going to explore further as a church.

That people know what they are committed to is important. So are things like being strict on starting (and ending) on time and keeping to time in each session, so someone is appointed who keeps people ‘on track’, on topic, and makes sure that people are asking the most helpful questions.

People have found it helps to try and go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ as members, to increase the range of voices and topics. These have included: Messy Church; using the language of the monastery to identify different roles a church might take; celebration church; and making the most of church festivals organised by the local tourist group.

Practical things learnt include ‘fixing dates well ahead’ and the benefit of a wider geographical spread, across different deaneries. Other practical things include how important it is to have a good proportion of laity, so usually three, four or, in at least one case, even five lay people, going along with their clergy. People have appreciated sharing stories of good news, good practice and learning with and from each other. One very interesting comment was “are we sharing ideas, or sharing learning?”

What about the level of commitment? “Yes, to do it properly takes time,” said one participant, “but that is okay, we believe it will pay dividends in the long term”.

“Overall, what we’ve done has been very positive,” they continued, “and we realise that we need to know more about each other and our communities, and the perceptions they have of us. In order to grow we need to look at some barriers that prevent this, even if we don’t see them.”

More churches are exploring joining this growing movement, with two more communities hopefully starting before too long. Might you like to join them?