In 2002, Lisa Brenninkmeyer was struggling. She and her family had recently returned from a decade living abroad, first in Europe and then in Mexico.
During those 10 years, Lisa, a Catholic convert, struggled with a lack of community in the parishes she attended. Most provided little to no formation opportunities and even fewer opportunities for fellowship. She missed the Bible studies and the sense of belonging she had had in the evangelical world.
So, once she was back in the states, she decided to do something about it.
That year, Brenninkmeyer began working on her own Bible study material that focused on fostering an intimate relationship with Christ and helping women live their faith in practical ways. She then invited other young mothers from her parish to join her and work their way through the study. Eight women said Yes. As word about the study spread, the number ballooned to 50.
Brenninkmeyer was in her element. “I was writing material, both for the women’s study and a children’s study we were doing,” she told the Register.
“It was going so well, and I would have been happy just continuing doing what we were doing.”
Eventually, however, the word got out about the program’s success, and Brenninkmeyer received an invitation to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, and train women there in how to lead the program. Finally, in 2008, Brenninkmeyer decided she needed to incorporate — and “Walking With Purpose” was officially launched.
Over the past nine years, the Catholic women’s Bible study program has grown at a rate of 70% to 100% each year. According to Brenninkmeyer, more than 12,000 women are currently enrolled in 200 different Walking With Purpose study groups.
Most of those groups are based in the U.S., but a few can also be found in Canada and Switzerland.
“We’ve done no proactive marketing,” Brenninkmeyer said of the program’s growth.
“It has spread by sisters and friends telling each other about the program and college roommates sharing it with one another.”
The program itself has two components. First, there are the 22-week Scripture studies. Topics range from cultivating a relationship with Christ to prayer, God the Father, the dignity of women, and more. Women read the material and answer the questions on their own time, then come together once a week to discuss what they’ve learned, pray together and work through their questions.
Additionally, women meet monthly for “Connect Coffee” — a videotaped teaching by Brenninkmeyer on issues that affect all women, such as setting priorities and finding balance. Not only do the coffees allow her the chance to teach women across the country herself, but they also appeal to women who approach life from a more secular perspective.
“They’re meant to be great opportunities for outreach,” Brenninkmeyer said. “Women are encouraged to invite friends to these.”
From the beginning, evangelization (of Catholics and non-Catholics alike) has been one of Brenninkmeyer’s primary goals.
“For a long time, when we’ve seen how many people we’re losing, Catholics have looked to the Church hierarchy and said, ‘Go get them,’” Brenninkmeyer explained. “But we also need to do that ourselves. It’s our responsibility, too. So I talked to women who had left the Church and asked them about their reasons for going. Then, I set out to develop a program that addressed those issues. I wanted Walking With Purpose to break down the barriers keeping people away or preventing them from engaging in parish life.”
More specifically, Brenninkmeyer heard from women who left because they didn’t feel like they belonged to the Church; they didn’t have friends at the parish or didn’t feel like they mattered to their parish community. Others continued going to Sunday Mass, but couldn’t connect the dots between their faith and everyday life. Many struggled in profound ways, but didn’t feel like the Church had any real answers for them or tangible help to give. “There are so many influences at work in our world that are not emotionally healthy,” Brenninkmeyer said.
“Women struggle with shame and perfectionism, and so they’re hiding that and self-numbing because they don’t know how to deal with life.”
“Even women who know what the Church teaches can experience a disconnect between what they know and how they feel,” she continued. “Their heart has not been engaged. Their heart has not been tended to in a way that can bring real healing.”
Walking With Purpose works to address those issues in a number of ways. First, not just anyone can launch a study. Brenninkmeyer and her staff have an approval process to ensure that all study leaders bring a genuine love for women and Christ to the program and are a good fit for the organization’s mission. “I will 10 times over take a woman who knows nothing about theology, but loves Jesus and loves Scripture, than someone who is super strong theologically but isn’t motivated by love for women and approaches the world with an underlying tone of judgment,” she explained.
Once approved, the leaders receive a mentor, who helps them as they move forward.
They also go through a series of online training modules that teach them how to facilitate the group, engage the culture from a positive perspective, and cultivate a spirit of genuine hospitality at the weekly and monthly meetings.
Hospitality is a priority with Walking With Purpose. Not only because Brenninkmeyer wants the program to help meet women’s “deep need to be known and accepted,” but because she believes that “one of the barriers [to engagement in parish life] is someone peeking into a parish hall and thinking, ‘This is ugly. I’d rather go to Starbucks or yoga.’”
To overcome that barrier, Walking With Purpose helps women find creative ways to recreate whatever spaces they’re using, making them more attractive and welcoming.
They also make sure to offer food, drinks and other concrete signs of hospitality.
“Women will say, ‘This is the one time in the week someone took the time to bless me or made me feel like I was worth creating beauty’” for, Brenninkmeyer said.
The combination of solid, relevant Scripture study and loving Christian hospitality has proven to be a winning one.
Christina Weber, who helps coordinate the program at her parish in Sunbury, Ohio, said, “I have been leading women’s ministries for over 20 years, and I have never seen a program that has really caught on with so many women.
“Our parish, St. John Neumann, went from having 140 women participating last year to over 280 women participating this year, all with marked growth in their spiritual life.”
Anne Zahner, who attends Walking With Purpose at St. Joseph Catholic Church, in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, agreed.
“Walking With Purpose has deepened my faith on so many levels,” she told the Register. “When I’m doing a lesson, I’m reminded again and again that I’m not alone in my worries and struggles. Every week, I think, ‘It can’t go any deeper,’ and each week the questions and reflections tear right through to the center of my heart. It has shown me that all the answers to my fears and questions can be found right in the Bible.”
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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