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Discipleship program for lay leaders making inroads

By Stuart Mann

A discipleship program for lay leaders that was pioneered at Trinity Church, Aurora, is starting to be used by other parishes in southern Ontario and the United States, with positive results.

Thirteen parishes in the Diocese of Niagara and one in the Diocese of Toronto are running Revive, a program that helps churchwardens, committee members, Sunday School teachers, property managers, volunteers and others draw closer to God – something they don’t always have time for in their busy lives.

Clergy who are running the program say it is giving participants more confidence and enthusiasm to talk about and share their faith. They say it is also deepening relationships in their parishes.  

Revive invites lay leaders to journey with their clergy for a year. The program starts with an opening retreat followed by three modules, each lasting about six weeks. In the first module, participants learn several different types of prayer. They develop a prayer practice for themselves and feel confident about praying in public. In the second module, they learn about scripture and how to lead a small Bible meditation group. The third module is about orienting their ministry toward call and vocation, rather than just doing a job.

Up to 12 people and their priest journey together from October to early June, taking a break during the Christmas and Easter seasons. They usually meet one night a week for about two hours. At the end of the program, they attend another retreat and adopt a Rule of Life, a way for them to carry on their life and ministry in a new way.

The Rev. Canon Martha Tatarnic is co-leading the program for 12 lay leaders at St. George in St. Catharines and says it is having a remarkable effect on the group. “It was like people had been waiting their whole lives to be asked this stuff. The floodgates just opened. They seemed to relish the opportunity to speak about these things in a way that was safe.” 

She says the program is having an impact on the rest of her parish as well. “It’s almost like there is a permission in the parish now for others to be talking openly about their spiritual stories. Anglicans can be pretty polite about their religion and reserved in terms of how they talk about their relationship with God, and this seems like we’re moving the dial just a little bit in terms of that culture.”

As group members form a closer relationship with God and become more confident in their faith, their ministry deepens, she says. “That communicates a really important message about who the church is and what we’re called to be – that all we do is rooted in our relationship with God. I think that revitalizes a parish, and I can see, just halfway through the program, how that revitalization has already happened here.”  

She says her parishioners were reluctant at first to take part in Revive, wondering if they really needed another program. That thinking has since changed. “What I’m finding now, halfway through, is that we have a sign-up list already for next fall.”

The Rev. Sheilagh Ashworth is running Revive for eight people in the Parish of Lloydtown, which is comprised of Christ Church, Kettleby and St. Mary Magdalene, Schomberg. She says the program is giving group members the confidence and experience to lead in worship settings, something that has practical implications in her parish.

“In our multi-point church, we need lay readers to lead morning prayer on occasion, and it’s been helpful for that,” she says. She’s hoping members of the group will lead the parish’s Bible study during Lent.

She is impressed with the program’s resources, including videos that can be used to facilitate the discussions. “The workbooks are well laid out, thoughtful and easy to use. As a package, it works very well. It’s empowering.”

The Rev. Canon Cheryl Palmer, the incumbent of Christ Church, Deer Park in Toronto, found the program helped her get to know some members of the congregation when she started there last January. Christ Church was one of 10 parishes in Canada and the United States that took part in a pilot project to test the program.

“Right away, there was a little group of people with whom I suddenly had a relationship,” she recalls. “We were delving into deeply spiritual things, so we connected with each other from the start.”

She says the first module on prayer and different types of prayer had a powerful impact on the group. “It was a huge hit with people. We all have in our minds what prayer is supposed to be, but then along comes someone who says you can pray this way and that way – it all depends on who you are and what’s going on in your life. People were receptive to that and it unfolded in a beautiful way.”

She recalls a moment that illustrates how the program can instill confidence in those who take it. One morning before the start of a service, she couldn’t pray with the choir downstairs because she had to be welcoming people to the church upstairs. In the spur of the moment, she asked one of the Revive group members to lead the prayer for the choir. “She looked at me, and then smiled and said, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ It’s a small thing, but it’s indicative of the freedom that people were given as a result of engaging with the program.”

Revive, officially launched on Jan. 7, is offered by RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement, an arm of The Episcopal Church that is dedicated to reinvigorating the Church.

The program was created a few years ago by the Rev. Canon Dr. Dawn Davis when she was the incumbent at Trinity, Aurora. She is now the Faith Formation Coordinator for the Greater St. Catharines Area and the Diocese of Niagara.

She says she created the program to help lay leaders who are often so busy with their church duties that they have little time for their spiritual lives. “I felt that our lay people worked so hard for the Church but in so many ways we weren’t giving them the greatest gift – a relationship with God. I also wanted, in some small way, to thank them for the enormous effort that goes into church leadership.”

Canon Davis says spiritual formation often gets overlooked as parishes struggle with pressing demands such as property issues, finances or changing demographics. “Sometimes our spiritual lives get depleted and get run into the ground, both on a personal and corporate level, so I think Revive helps churches refocus on their core purpose,” she says. 

For more information on Revive, visit Forward Movement or contact the Rev. Canon Dr. Dawn Davis at