For Angela Harper, going from a part-time to a full-time role as a Family Worker at St Michael’s, Sandhurst, is already bearing fruit.

Angela’s hours were increased from 20 to 40 per week for four years, thanks to funding from the Diocesan Development Fund. Angela has been in the role since 2016 and is delighted that she can now devote more time to outreach beyond the church and into the Sandhurst community.

“It’s allowed me to be involved in different areas, not just confined to the church,” says Angela. “I’m doing a lot with St Michael’s Church of England School, but I’m hoping to branch into the other two primary schools.

“I was trying to connect with families in the schools, and offered drop-in sessions here, but they weren’t popular. I was praying about it and thinking about it and heard from God that I needed to go into school, nurture relationships with parents in the playground.”

Angela runs Bible Bites sessions for years Five and Six and has seen the children’s group in church grow from four to 20.

The sessions have helped her get to know the youngsters better, making it easier for her to connect with them. She has also built connections with mums and dads. “Parents are coming to me directly for support for their children for anxiety, bereavement, depression and other mental health issues,” says Angela. She recently started training to become an Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA). ELSAs help children through issues including self-esteem, social skills, friendships, anger management, loss and bereavement.

“What I love about it and what excites me is the fact that I’m able to support the families.

“I walk and talk with the parents. If they are struggling, the children will pick up on their stress. I love that I can bring spirituality into this too.”

Angela’s one-to-one sessions with children always end with prayer – helping them to find strength in God. The school’s values are Courage, Compassion, Creativity and Community.

“I’m trying to support them to explore their spirituality using scripture,” says Angela, who works with the RE teacher to produce creative prayer stations to allow the children to be exposed to and find comfort in that. It can help them with emotional issues as well. It’s all interconnected.”

With 18 independent counsellors from Sandhurst Counselling Service hiring rooms in the church pastoral centre Angela has a pool of professionals she can signpost individuals to if they feel they would benefit from therapy.

Angela is well aware of the frantic pace of modern life. “The busyness takes over, causes anxiety and means it can be difficult for families to make time for God. We want to alternative ways to reach families and make church accessible to them. I’m hoping to set up some after school clubs so children can discover fun ways to learn more about the Bible,” she says.

“People are signing up for Prayer and meditation sessions that I plan to run in our local Children’s centre.  There is obviously a need and people are searching for something more!

“There’s a new housing estate with a community centre close to our church where I hope to start up a new all-age group that meets the needs of families who are new to the area.  The development fund grant enables me to be much more creative with outreach.”

The Diocese’s brand new Contemplative Toolkit is proving useful. The toolkit encourages contemplation by drawing on Ignatian prayer practices. “I find it useful for families and no doubt our local schools will find it helpful.”

“It’s God I’m working for at the end of the day…”

Angela particularly likes the ‘stilling’ exercise, which encourages people to calm down, reflect and let go of negativity. “I also teach the examen using fingers. One girl does it every day now, and it helps her to feel much better. I was talking to her mum who said it’s great she can do it any time as her hand is always present.”

Nurturing relationships with baptism families is important to Angela. “I spend a lot of time and effort with these families, so they don’t just come for baptism, and then we never see them again,” she says. “We welcome parents and carers to our baby and toddler group at our pastoral centre, where we encourage them to make friends and learn more about church life.

A regular Messy Church takes place, where Angela works closely with volunteers providing themed activities relating to scripture for families to explore together.

With so many projects and ideas, how will Angela prioritise to fit everything into 40 hours per week? “I’m trying not to focus on what people are telling me to do, but I’m trying to be God led. I feel very strongly about that. I need to be working where the families are, but I do try to be intergenerational and support people of all ages.

“I absolutely love my job. I couldn’t work for a better person. It’s God I’m working for at the end of the day. I’m trying to do more of what he wants me to do, prompted by the Holy Spirit.”

Words and pictures: Jo Duckles

This feature was researched and written before lockdown.

We recently launched our Disciples Together initiative, to support people like Angela across the Diocese, as they work at a grassroots level to help the Church re-engage with children, young people and families.