June 24, 2016
“ALPHA, stands for a beginning,” says Ron Huntley, Director of Pastoral Ministries at St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both Ron and Father James Mallon, pastor of St. Benedict’s, ran Alpha for over ten years before arriving together at St. Benedict’s parish in 2010. They immediately launched Alpha, which was enthusiastically received by many parishioners, as well as effective drawing other local non-Catholics and non-churchgoers.
The evangelizing program Alpha was pioneered in England by Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). Subsequently, a Catholic ALPHA was approved and put into practice at parishes throughout the world, which garnered praise by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.
A typical Alpha course lasts between 8 to 10 weeks. Each week begins with a meal, followed by a ten-minute video or live talk, and then a table discussion led by a facilitator. Each table aims for twelve participants.
Energizing the Parish
The goal of Alpha, Ron says, is parish renewal. But simply running the program isn’t enough to provide a fruitful experience. As Ron puts it, the difference between a bad and a good experience of Alpha at the parish is “100% leadership.” Ron describes the ideal Alpha leader as someone who is “ridiculously friendly, hospitable, and nonjudgmental.” In Alpha, Ron and his team don’t look for “the ideal Catholic resumé,” but simply someone who is teachable, relatable, and with a contagious personality with the capacity to positively influence others.
Energy and enthusiasm is key. From beginning to end, Alpha takes a lot of energy. Leaders need to keep the team’s energy up. Leaders and team members will only have energy if you remain “rock solid on your why.”
“When your parish is just starting out, I recommend you don’t promote it at all.” Some want to launch the program parish-wide out of the gate, Ron says, but that’s not the most effective strategy.
When starting out, Ron suggests having your primary leaders simply identify the twelve most fun and influential people in your parish to build a team. Approach them, share your vision, and if they are enthusiastic about it, invite them aboard. With your twelve members, form one table and then run the program together in a leader’s home to build trust and learn the process.
When it comes time to open Alpha up to the parish, start small. The ideal is to have four team members at each table, including one facilitator. With twelve team members, that means you have enough to host three tables to begin. It may seem small, but as Ron stresses, the size of the program shouldn’t grow at a rate faster than the capacity and readiness of your leaders. Parish renewal is a long-term effort, and Alpha can be one piece, but that may take a while. Today, St. Benedict’s runs Alpha in the daytime and evening, twice a year. The daytime is video-based while the evening sessions use live speakers.
When it comes to team member roles in the program, not all will lead in the same way, nor should they. For speaking, they look for team members who have the gift of being “amazing” speakers. Ron also relates the initial hesitancy he encountered when inviting certain participants to come back as part of a table team.
“Instead, I told them we weren’t asking them to facilitate, but just be at a table and make people feel comfortable. When they heard this, many said, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’”
Ron describes running Alpha without a follow up plan of action as “getting into a new car, but affording only one tank of gas- it only goes so far.” St. Benedict’s Parish aims to move participants into ongoing Connect Groups (small group program) or a more short-term Discipleship Group (content based faith formation group).
Additionally, their Alpha experience always ends with a call back to Mass, and for non-Catholics or non-parishioners, an encouragement to reconnect with their own church. If the participant does not have a church or faith, the team is there to explain the next steps for involvement at St. Benedict’s or becoming Catholic.
St. Benedict’s next steps for Alpha include finding new contexts to begin groups, including a CrossFit Alpha group. Ultimately, Ron states, “it’s not about where you host Alpha, but how you lead it.”
By: Evan Ponton, Assistant to the Pastor, Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD