Bishop evaluates initiative to reach 'disenfranchised'
While the Catholic Church and other mainstream Christian denominations in Australia continue to struggle with declining church attendances, a report released last week suggests a NSW Hunter Valley project is meeting some of the spiritual needs of people who have moved away from institutional Church structures.
Online Catholics reports that the Pearl Seekers Project was launched last year, and according to Maitland-Newcastle diocesan priest and Pearl Seekers team member Fr Geoff Mulhearn, "anyone searching for meaning and whose search includes openness to the spiritual dimension of life is invited to become a Pearl Seeker."
"Its purpose is to provide places for people to explore the connections they sense between the mystery at the heart of reality and the big issues they currently confront in life. At Pearl Seekers members meet as equals in small groups, either face to face or on the Internet."
While Fr Mulhearn cultivated the original concept over many years, Pearl Seekers has been developed by a team of people who believe that leadership involves listening to and helping people search together.
The project is supported by Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Michael Malone, who recently commissioned an independent evaluation.
The evaluation report found that some of the essential ingredients of the project are its inclusive, collaborative and non-hierarchical approach. Pearl Seekers combines "an appropriate balance of structure and flexibility, with care not to deter those who feel disenfranchised by the Church hierarchy."
Overwhelming feedback from participants indicates that the major strengths of Pearl Seekers are its "comfort level", "spiritual approach", "anonymity of the website" and "quality of interaction".
The report says that participants feel able to discuss spiritual issues in an open, respectful and flexible atmosphere. "People are not told what to believe, rather to explore their relationship with God." Participants appreciate "the opportunity to rethink various aspects of spiritual life and faith and express their own spiritual development, and in particular, to raise 'unmentionables', without fear of repercussions."
The report acknowledges that Pearl Seekers is providing an outreach to people on the fringes, and a diversity of forums appealing to a broad range of people. People are sharing and going beyond the superficial. For some, it provides an alternative to Church participation; for others, it is a good supplement to Church life.
The report suggests that many Pearl Seekers participants "have not experienced other opportunities to express spiritual issues." It was recommended that further clarity was required regarding the target audience.
The benefits of discussing issues via the Internet were also noted. This medium provides "protection", a sense of "equality" and "easy availability".
Fr Mulhearn told Online Catholics that the Pearl Seekers model differs from other forms of faith outreach because it "aims to start where people are at; it allows people to raise questions and share thoughts that may appear to be bordering on the heretical. It believes that something is lost if this type of questioning and sharing is discouraged.
"People often walk away when their questions and input are not valued. …In a society where political and Church leaders seem to be increasingly inclined not to consult adequately with ordinary people, the Pearl Seekers project aims to give people a voice, a place where their thoughts will be respected," Fr Mulhearn said.
A Search for Meaning (Online Catholics 22/9/05)
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Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
22 Sep 2005