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Making it real: a parish for the poor

How to create a social action group in your parish, make a real difference, and keep your volunteers.

Inspired by Prof Francis Davis’ webinar on 5th October 2020.

Step 1 – Right need?

St Francis: “We are all brothers and sisters.” Our faith is based on radical love:

What does it mean to love in the place that we live?

Don’t just assume you know what the needs are. Do your research: there could be some hidden needs locally that you don’t know about. Francis Davis says that three needs in his area include: the elderly; the severely disabled; and parents of children and teenagers accessing mental health services. What are the pastoral needs in your local area?

How to find out what the needs are? Get in touch with your local community organisation. All county councils or equivalent will have some form of Community Support Service, and many towns will have a local organisation with similar aims. Some of the ones across our diocese include:

Or talk to your local councillor about what the real needs are in your ward. Find contact details for your local councillor here:

Step 2: Right Vehicle?

How can we love effectively: making a plan

Who do we want to do this with?

  1. With other people in our church?
  2. With other Christians locally?
  3. With partners of other faiths?
  4. By using my skills in a secular organisation?

Start by gathering a small group with essential skills: people, operations (getting organised), finance, and IT. Work up a draft plan before going to see the clergy. (But make sure the plan doesn’t rely on the local clergy or parish staff).

Look for people around you – who has the skills you need, who is going to get on board? Make sure that the skills they have match the needs you have – so that people are in their comfort zone. Some people love to meet others, some people prefer to be in the back room, making things happen

Honour the time to the availability of the people coming to help – could someone covenant their time in the same way that people covenant their money?

Could they be part of a larger group, and covenant once a month?


We don’t let people read or be Eucharistic Ministers without some preparation – pastoral ministry should be equally well supported. Here are some sources of training and support:

  1. Councils for Voluntary Services (see list above) offer lots of training in secular skills needed for social action projects.
  2. Cinnamon Network: an ecumenical organisation offering training and support across the Churches. Unfortunately their small grants do not apply to our area.
  3. Pastoral Ministry Office can offer support and training – get in touch and we will signpost you, or if enough requests, put on bespoke training.


Think creatively about money: Francis mentions some examples in his talk:

  1. Red box day: once a month a big red box is placed by the front door of the church and everyone gives what they can.
  2. Personal contacts – eg the priest going golfing with some parishioners and seeing if they would get involved financially.
  3. Even big scale ideas like renting a shop, and giving the proceeds to the project.
  4. Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office – often have money and training as building community reduces crime:
    Thames Valley Police Property Act Fund
    Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Grant Fund
    Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Community Fund

For larger projects which may involve outside funding, here is an excellent toolkit to work through which will help resolve many issues and give you all the information you need to talk to funders.

Step 3: Right action?

What does love look like round here?

Make sure what you’re doing really meets the need – and doesn’t overlap with other provision locally. Eg too many groups doing soup runs in Westminster.

Are you a campaigning group – are you hoping to make permanent change and put yourself out of business? Eg the food delivery service provided to the most vulnerable elderly in Southampton that eventually got taken over by the Council.

Be creative: how can our parish buildings be used? In Portsmouth they used the unused buildings at the Cathedral to be a Cathedral Innovation Centre, recruited business mentors from the congregation, and opened the space to disabled people wanting to start their own business, those recovering from addiction, those who have had a disastrous life event. This has now mentored 40-50 people through creating their own business and going on to employ others.

Innovative projects don’t only help those on the receiving end. Volunteers can learn new skills, make friends, and find a passion, and even a new job.

Why things fail?

Sometimes even with a lot of hard work, social projects don’t succeed. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The project meets a perceived rather than actual need and doesn’t get the response it should. Prevention: do your research and make sure the need is there.
  2. Overburdening the clergy or parish structures. Will your project require 10 DBS checks, different insurance cover or the priest locking up the parish hall late at night? Prevention: make sure the parish priest is on board from the beginning and that everyone understands the implications of what you’re planning.
  3. Asking the ‘usual’ people, who may not have the right skills, and who aren’t able to make the project work. Prevention: take time to make volunteering attractive by finding the people who have the right skills, providing support and training, and making roles time limited and bite sized.
  4. Running out of money. Prevention: be realistic about what money will be needed and be creative in asking people.


Some of the fantastic social projects already running across our diocese. Please get in touch if you would like your group featured here.

St Vincent de Paul Society – parish groups up and down the Diocese providing practical help and support both locally and overseas.

CAFOD – official overseas aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales

NOAH enterprise – supporting people in Bedfordshire who are homeless and/or in extreme poverty

PACT – Prison Advice and Care Trust (for more information about prison chaplaincy in the diocese, see our dedicated page here.)

Pax Christi – international Catholic movement for peace.

Rainbows – supporting children and young people through bereavement.

Pocket crosses handmade for the prisoners in Aylesbury Young Offenders by the local Union of Catholic Mothers.