Walking with purpose

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Catholic women have a unique opportunity for spiritual growth and fellowship thanks to "Walking with Purpose," a women's Bible study that has become popular in several Arlington diocesan parishes.

Walking with Purpose was created by Catholic convert Lisa Brenninkmeyer, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Fields Church in Millersville, Md. In 2002, she started a mothers' Bible study with eight Catholic women. Within a few years, the group was so popular in the community that Brenninkmeyer applied for nonprofit status, with the hope of growing to five parishes within five years. Since then, Walking with Purpose has expanded to more than 35 parishes across the United States and internationally to Europe. Chapters in the Arlington Diocese include St. Mary Church in Alexandria, St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg, St. Timothy Church in Chantilly and St. Theresa Church in Ashburn.

Brenninkmeyer hopes Walking with Purpose will show women how valuable Scripture is, why it is important and how it applies to modern life. She also hopes the experience will encourage women to dig deeper into their own relationships with Christ.

"The end goal is not intellectual development but a conversion of hearts," Brenninkmeyer said. "We're leading women to look at what they're studying and ask the question, 'So what? What does this mean for my own life?'"

Within the chapters, women are separated into small groups that meet weekly for Bible studies. The curriculum, which was written by Brenninkmeyer, blends scriptural passages with lessons from the catechism and the lives of the saints to give in-depth, relevant lessons about the Catholic faith. Through daily readings, individual studies and group discussions, women are encouraged to learn and grow closer to God. Once a month, the small groups come together for a "Connect Coffee," a larger gathering with time for fellowship and a guest speaker.

At St. Theresa, 60 women are involved in what Chapter Coordinator Christina Harrington calls "a safe place" for women to meet and discuss the faith.

"A lot of women haven't really read Scripture outside of going to Mass, so this is something new," Harrington said. "Catholic Bible studies, you don't really hear much about. It's very fresh and very relevant to our everyday lives."

Part of the blessing comes from the connections formed between the women in the group. Walking with Purpose is open to women of all ages and free babysitting is offered. The result is a mix of generations coming together to talk candidly about their faith journeys.

"In today's society, it's getting harder and harder to be Catholic," Harrington said. "I think this helps women appreciate their faith and know there's others out there who love the faith and want to grow in it."

Michelle Jacobeen has been involved with the Walking with Purpose chapter at St. Mary for five years. She now serves as the regional manager.

"This program has made such a difference in so many lives, especially mine," she said. "There's something to be said for getting together and discussing the faith and it's even better when you can get together with a group of women and you can bond with them and trust them. … It's amazing the bonds we have made."

For Jacobeen, the best part has been learning about the Scriptures and how to live the faith more completely.

"Something the founder said in the beginning was that so many people know these things intellectually in their head," she said. "They know the facts and they've been told the stories, but the greatest distance on earth is the one foot between your head and your heart. There's a difference between knowing something and living it and having it be a part of your soul."

Kristy Malik is chapter coordinator at St. John the Apostle, which started last year with 75 women. Prior to that, 35 women had been attending meetings at St. Theresa.

She believes the format of the ministry is "foolproof," because it is relevant to all levels of practicing Catholics - from women who know Scripture by heart to those who have never opened a Bible.

"It's been a really amazing experience to be a part of this just to see God work through this ministry," she said. "The study has done wonders for my prayer life and (it's been great) to share that and meet more Catholic women trying to do the same thing as me, trying to be better wives and better mothers."

Brenninkmeyer hopes women will realize they are loved unconditionally by God and that they are not alone in their spiritual journeys. She also hopes they learn to love the Scriptures.

"So often people think that (the Bible) is a good book, but that it was written thousands of years ago," Brenninkmeyer said. "I want them to see that it is so relevant, that it is a lifeline for them not just in handing out principles that will make life work, but that it will comfort them in a way that nothing else does and that it can do things in our hearts and lives that no other book can."

In terms of the future, Brenninkmeyer is no longer thinking small. In the years to come, she hopes Walking with Purpose will continue to grow to parishes around the world. She also has written a book, Walking with Purpose, due out this month.

"My goal is really without limits, I just want to see this grow more and more," she said. "With the rate at which people are leaving the church and are in search of something relevant to their lives, we're not going to limit God. … He has really been the one that has set the pace and we work faithfully to keep up with Him."

Though her work can be tiring, Brenninkmeyer is inspired by the stories of women whose lives have changed because of the ministry. She's met women who have overcome depression, whose marriages have been saved, and who have experienced miracles. Brenninkmeyer also is inspired by the many talented women who work to help the ministry grow.

"I look at these women and think, 'What's going to stop this raising up of powerful groups of women who simply want to take what's been given to them and give it to other women?'"

Bahr can be reached on Twitter @KBahrACH.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013