If your parish isn’t planning a weekend away, chances are you’ve just had one, you’re thinking about it or members are letting your leaders know how much they long for the fellowship that comes with quality time spent together. Because we have missed it. The pandemic put many holes in our communal time as a family of faith, so we’re keen to regain it – and the sooner the better.
At Northmead and Winston Hills, senior pastor the Rev Adrian Russell says the congregations have had three weekends away over the past few months and the most recent one, in May, “was the best weekend away we’ve had for a decade”.
The vibe was excellent,” he says. “People loved it, the Bible teaching was encouraging, the kids had fun – it had an awesome feel of time together.”
It may have initially taken more effort to recruit and persuade people, but the benefits have been well worth it. “People have been very happy to be back together,” he says. “It was a really encouraging time with people focused on God’s word, enjoying each other’s company and investing in each other.”
“People loved it, the Bible teaching was encouraging, the kids had fun"
He adds that this was particularly true for people new to church, who had the first opportunity in the past two years to go deeper with the congregation. The team made sure to capitalise on this, interviewing new people during each session and celebrating that they had the opportunity to join the church.
“People can sit down and talk for an hour or two, which is very different to standing and chatting for 15 minutes at church,” Russell says. “It’s the level of engagement with each other as well as the amount of engagement. You then get to go deeper because you are talking more, and longer, in a different context – you connect with each other in a way that would otherwise take six months.”
At Cabramatta, the English congregation's March houseparty was a powerful way to unite as a church community and hear their new senior minister, the Rev Joseph Thiem, preach for the first time. Assistant minister the Rev William Quach says this was “invaluable for the transition process”.
“It was an opportunity to meet their new pastor in a more relaxed environment, with time for the congregation to get to know each other,” he says – adding that while there had been some hesitation and nervousness about coming back to church post-lockdown, by the time the weekend away arrived people were ready to go away together.
“There was a sense of how good it was to be together, and the importance of making the most of it, especially among the kids,” he says. “They missed out on seeing each other for months and got to play together again.”
It wasn’t just the kids who had a great time. The young adults also flourished in the community, with one group taking the opportunity to stay up until 2am, playing games and just enjoying each other’s company. There was also a woman who was new to the church, and the weekend was instrumental in her decision to stay and become part of the community.
While not all houseparties can – or should! – involve fellowship until 2am, other churches have reported similar benefits of going away together.
Clovelly Anglican is one of a small number of churches that managed to squeeze in a weekend away last year, enjoying its biggest-ever houseparty with an almost 30 per cent spike in attendance.
“In God's providence, if our dates had been a week earlier we wouldn’t have been able to sing together, and if they were a month later, we would have been locked down,” says rector the Rev Dave Rogers. “We found a sweet spot and God was very kind.”
The parish had this year’s weekend away in May and members found it an excellent opportunity to build community. “While we did have some people who preferred to stay away this year, we also had several families and individuals new to church – it was their first weekend away, and that is always really special and powerful in terms of getting to know people and feeling like you belong,” he says.
The Rev Rod Cocking from Wild Street says parish members have “always been convinced of the incredible value of gathering together, as a church, for an extended period of time, because of the value it provides that a normal Sunday can’t. A weekend away is worth a month of Sundays because of the relational value!”
In mid-2021, Wild Street’s evening congregation managed a houseparty before lockdowns returned. Registrations are still coming in for a full church getaway in September, but Cocking says “no one seems concerned. We’ve been very thankful for it, and people have been glad that we’ve been able to be back together”.
The parish of Yagoona and Condell Park experienced the benefits of a weekend away in May, even though several attendees tested positive to COVID afterwards.
Says rector the Rev Ray Vassallo: “If I knew what was going to happen – I’d still have the weekend away. We had several new people join us for the weekend who were finding their way into the community, and it was a great opportunity for strengthening relationships. The weekend away helped accelerate relationships for people who are trying to find their way into the church family.”
“If I knew what was going to happen – I’d still have the weekend away.
One man, who was relatively new to the church after moving from Nigeria to study a PhD, felt so welcomed that he wrote a song, which he performed on the weekend, celebrating how he felt he had found a family who welcomed him.
A couple of families that had been very careful throughout the pandemic began to get sick while away on the weekend and had to go home early, with one group later testing positive to COVID. Vassallo himself was not exempt, testing positive by the end of the following week. While he and other congregation members were only mildly affected, he considers the cost of catching COVID was worth it.
“Under present circumstances, there is always a risk,” he says. "Our Lord does not call us to follow him into a risk-free life, but to build his church. In my opinion, it’s worth it.”
The value of “weekend away” moments
The CEO of Youthworks, the Rev Canon Craig Roberts, says feedback they have received mirrors these parish experiences. “We’ve heard the saying that a weekend away is worth six to 12 months of Sunday attendance in terms of community building and relationship enrichment,” he says. “This is even more relevant as we come out of two years of lockdown.
“We’ve seen churches return to weekends away who have benefited from relationships being deepened between people – but especially between people and God their Saviour as they come around God’s word together.
“Coming away is a valuable missional proposition that gives churches the opportunity to rebuild social and spiritual capital… after two years of online church.”
He agrees there has been some hesitancy around group getaways, but says extensive COVID safety measures are taken at all Youthworks sites. “While the risk of catching COVID is sadly a part of post-pandemic life, at our exclusive sites, if a group has good COVID hygiene and isolation practices, the risk of transmission is greatly reduced.”
For some parishes, the most difficult element of getting people to come to a houseparty actually hasn’t been COVID, but wider issues such as increased accommodation costs, combined with the cost of living and stretched budgets – particularly in larger families.
Clovelly had four families that had to pull out of its May houseparty because someone got COVID in the week beforehand. Mindful of the expense, the church refunded half of the cost to these families. At Northmead and Winston Hills, members created a range of fundraising initiatives so as many people as possible could join them when they went away.
Adrian Russell says that, like Clovelly, while some people weren’t able to attend at the last minute there was still great joy for those who came. “We’re expressing our identity as church – we love to be together,” he says. “It’s who we are. We are the gathering….The highlight was that level of engagement in a way that people were relaxed, open and inclusive.”
Dave Rogers agrees. “There is a craving for those ‘weekend away’ moments. We love having the time to slow down, have conversations and enjoy life together. The mood [at church] now compared to the mood in February is worlds apart!”