How can we get support?: Discovery Days

This story illustrates the principles of How can we get support? in the Guide.

Discovery Days is a community-building venture on a new estate in Witney, Oxfordshire. It aims to help people discover their neighbours, discover what real community is and later discover God.

Getting together

Getting together with people in the local community was the first task of pioneer minister, Penny Joyce. Initially she met regularly with Christians living on the new estate to pray for the area and her work. They became a core team.

She discovered these new core team members through the parish church (situated outside the estate), by word of mouth and by 'God incidences'.

The ten team members met twice a month in Penny's home to eat together, pray and study the Bible. Penny describes them as 'wonderfully supportive'.

We used a big map of the estate and prayed for roads, for local Christians and for developing good relationships,

Penny says.

Penny's first year was spent focusing purely on the new community in the gradually growing estate, which was still under development. It grew from 260 houses to 1,160 houses in four years, meaning that a foundation of prayer was being built at the same time as the new homes.

We felt we were covering the ground with prayer, then relationship growth happened through networking,

says Penny.

Exploring the possibilities

Exploring the possibilities took place by offering service to the community. She set up activities for toddlers, single people, people who wanted to discuss a book and the elderly, and gradually became known as someone who 'facilitates activities in the community'. Penny became known as someone who was accessible. As residents grew familiar with Penny's presence, they got to know that she was a priest and that Discovery Days  – the umbrella term for these different activities – was funded by the church.

This began to happen after about 18 months by osmosis,

says Penny. She wore a clerical collar to any overtly Christian event such as a baptism, funeral, when preaching or when visiting the sick. Otherwise, she 'visited and then listened and responded to what I was asked,' she explains.

Through the activities, visiting and just being on the estate, Penny got to know the residents and discovered opportunities to serve them. The parish church supported many of Penny's events, in particular a Sunday afternoon seeker event, JIGSAW.

Thinking ahead

Thinking ahead was reflected in Penny's vision for her work. In her bid for funding from Cutting Edge (see below), Penny prepared a paper looking at how people could be brought to discover God by establishing a Christian presence within their community – in other words, by going to the people rather than expecting people to come to church.

She outlined a process whereby people first discovered community, then developed relationships with their neighbours, and through them got to know God. Penny was inspired by the idea that she would be building a 'Christian community' which existed through the life of groups rather than in a church building.

With fresh expressions you're not absolutely sure at the beginning what the end form might take,

Penny believes.

You know in which direction you are going and where God is in it all, though in a sense you're working it out as you go along.

For Penny that meant keeping in mind the value of 'making Christian things accessible' and that the journey of faith proceeds in stages. People don't leap to be a follower of Christ in one step. They need stepping stones. Building small steps for individuals, whose faith would be nurtured in small groups, was how Penny imagined a fresh expression of church might emerge on the estate.

Organising support

Organising support involved building links within the community, which was also part of the 'exploring' process. By helping informally at the local school, she built relationships with the staff and this led to a community room being made available to Penny.

She also introduced herself to all the local churches which, Penny says, 'were very supportive' and took services at the parish church. As clerk of the deanery chapter she was able to forge links outside the community, leading to another church acting as sponsor. Penny also attended interdenominational clergy lunches and joined in with local clergy networks.

Penny's post was an archdeaconry appointment funded by the Oxford Diocese's Cutting Edge initiative. The initiative provides an accompanier to Penny's work. Penny also has her own spiritual director.

For personal prayer support she has a group of supporters she calls her 'warriors', to whom she sends a round robin email. These are personal acquaintances whom she has asked to help in this particular way, because of their interest in this type of work. The parish vicar is involved in prayer for the project, and she says, 'has been very supportive and generous'.

As well as getting involved with the local school, the wider community in Witney and the churches, Penny started a monthly newsletter. The first one introduced her to the residents of the estate. The newsletter let people know that she was a community worker and invited them to an open meeting, out of which was formed a Residents' Association.

For personal prayer support she has a group of supporters she calls her 'warriors'

It also also gave her access to other groups and organizations in the area and on the estate. When some of these asked to advertise their events in the newsletter, Penny created space for adverts from voluntary and charitable groups.

Penny visited the estate agents at the sales houses on the estate, establishing good relationships with them and ensuring that the starter pack provided with each property included notices on Discovery Days projects. She became a police chaplain and joined the Neighbourhood Action Group. She made links with Social Services.

At the end of the first year, Penny set up a Discovery Days website. She has devised a 'corporate logo' which is used on all Discovery Days material, to give a unity to the network of groups and events. When an event is specifically Christian, such as a crib service, it is always made clear in advance. A strapline, 'Discover your neighbour, discover your community and discover God,' makes clear what Discovery Days is about.

In the first 18 months Penny found that the pastoral care side of her work was 'quite a heavy load', since most of her core team were working in the daytime. Now the team has grown and includes people who are free to get involved in this way. 'Having people on the team with time is vital,' she says.

Nurturing the team

Nurturing the team has involved being flexible as the original core team grew. Five Christian groups now meet on the estate, as well as the JIGSAW seeker event and a service Penny leads in the new care home. The five groups are made up of around 55 people. Finding new leaders for this growing community has been 'a challenge,' says Penny.

When the original core team of Christians who met to pray for the estate grew from 10 to 18, the size of the team was capped and a new group was set up. The original group became Discovery 1, the group which was the bedrock of initial prayer and planning in the early days. The new group, Discovery 2, was a group for seekers. Christians who moved on to the estate formed a new group, Discovery 3. Still more new seekers, discovered through relationship building and general conversations, made up a Discovery 4 group. Discovery 5 is a daytime group for seekers, begun as people showed an interest in things 'of faith'.

Baptisms contacts have also acted as a catalyst for interest in joining small groups. Discovery Days has seen four confirmations in the last year,

a real indication of personal journeying and growth,

says Penny.

All Discovery groups have the opportunity to meet socially for a pastorate meal and to discuss topical issues on a monthly basis. Penny meets quarterly with leaders to pray together and choose materials for study. She also tries to visit each group monthly and keeps in touch in between visits.

I'm very reliant on the group leaders for pastoral care of their groups and also to keep me in touch with community needs,

she says. Groups are led by at least two leaders.

Each new leader co-leads a new group with Penny initially, as a way of training new leaders. Being part of a group from its start helps her to identify potential leaders for any future group. She looks for people who are growing in Christian maturity and relate well to other people.

'I'm very reliant on the group leaders for pastoral care of their groups and also to keep me in touch with community needs'

God has led in the right people, with different skills and wisdom, who are feeling that God has brought them to this estate for a purpose,

Penny believes.

Now after four years we are on the cusp of talking about 'What next?'

she adds, suggesting that it may soon be time to look at a central celebration of some form. The end of November 2007 saw all the Discovery Days groups meeting together for a day of prayer and consultation.

Discovery Days

In 2003, Church of England minister Penny Joyce moved to a growing new housing estate in Witney, Oxfordshire, to start a community project funded by the Diocese of Oxford. She spent the first three months of her new role, which followed a curacy, 'getting to know people', in particular local churches and the school.

At the end of those three months, she sent a newsletter to every house identifying herself as a community worker and inviting residents to a meeting with the local planner. Around 50 people from the 250 houses then established on the estate turned up. This residents' meeting continues to take place once every three months, attracting 50 to 80 people at a time to its community discussions around wine and cheese. It is particularly valued by newcomers to the estate, which has now grown to 960 houses.

The estate is home, Penny says, to 'a huge cross section of people'. Social housing, young families, home-based workers and early retirees all live together on what, in its early years, has been a building site as well as a place in which to build community. Through the community project, Discovery Days, headed by Penny, these different types of people are able to come together in their own groups at different social and Christian-themed events. Events are advertised on a monthly community newsletter written by Penny and delivered by volunteers.

She spent the first three months getting to know people

The need for various activities is exemplified by an encounter Penny had early on in her ministry to the estate. While out and about she bumped into a young mother walking, looking for someone to talk to. Following this, a mother and toddler group was set up which attracts around 40 women each week.

Other regular events run by Discovery Days are a mixture of social activities and those with a Christian flavour. Families meet for Sunday tea and Christian-based activities. Men meet for football. Readers meet in a book group. Home-based workers meet for lunch. Christians on the estate meet in one of two weekly small groups, Discovery 1 and 2, while a second kind of Discovery group happens for seekers. More generally interested residents of the estate may attend Breathe, a social evening with wine, chat, and the possibility of moving through a series of stations provoking reflection on a life issue.

Christians are present at all the different events and activities whether social or Christian-focused. Penny sees evangelism in terms of a line of 10 to 1 (the Engel scale), on which individuals may be at the Christian end or the disinterested end.

I place events along that line so that people can choose,

she says.

If you're journeying at 8 or 9 you won't want to come to straight into a church situation, but you might want to come to something which looks at the basics of Christianity. We journey spiritually with someone and don't expect them to travel from a nine to a one in one leap.

By listening to the needs of the different groups of people within the community, Discovery Days offers a chance for everyone to discover faith and friendship.