"Often 'the way we’ve always done things' is the way we continue simply because we know it works...Our flexibility allowed us to create a new way of forming faithful adults which was both enjoyable and successful."
Two basic tenets of adult education are that adults learn best when they are involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction, and that adults are most motivated to learn when the subject has immediate relevance and impact in their lives.* We took these two truths to heart in planning and executing new adult formation offerings.
Ask Adult Learners to Engage in Planning
Adult confirmation class is one component of yearly adult formation programming. This year, I gave the group the option to choose the format in which they learn: a standard once-a-week course, a beach retreat, or a workers' retreat (Thursday & Friday evenings and all day Saturday). This group chose the workers' retreat. To prepare for this intensive class, students were asked to complete two items before we began. First, they filled out a 10-topic survey to assess what they already knew about general confirmation topics and how interested they were in the various topics.
Every year I use this information to craft confirmation classes that focus on filling in the gaps and energizing students around what interests them. Second, I asked each participant to read a book from a wide-ranging, curated list that includes basic Episcopal overviews, as well as books on particular topics such as the sacraments, Scripture, and Christian living. Students were expected to read their book before the retreat and be prepared to talk about it to the group.
Adult Learners Can Be Flexible
The week before our confirmation retreat, weather reports indicated Hurricane Florence was headed our way and expected to hit full-force on Saturday. High winds and heavy rains would make it dangerous to travel to church for our class, but no one wanted to miss the first night of our retreat. Rather than canceling, the group decided to meet via video conference. Assuming we would lose power on Saturday, we decided to meet using the Zoom platform on Thursday and Friday evenings. I re-worked the curriculum from 12 hours of class time to seven, cutting out Saturday altogether. Instead, we added an in-person gathering the following week to tour the nave, sanctuary and sacristy, to learn about holy places and objects, their names and uses.
Adult Learners Self-Evaluate...and Celebrate!
I am pleased to say our Hurricane Florence Revised Intensive Adult Confirmation Course was a great success! In revamping the schedule, I gave the group 20 minutes at the start of our first online gathering in order to work out technical glitches...and we took all of that time to get everyone’s microphone and camera working. Each member then gave a very brief report on the book they read. Students greatly appreciated the ability to choose which book to read for the class. Someone new to the Episcopal Church read Welcome to The Episcopal Church and was thankful to have that solid grounding. Another participant, who is not much of a reader, chose The Ultimate Quest: The Geek’s Guide to The Episcopal Church, drawn in by the humor and quirkiness. A third chose Beyond a Binary God: A Theology for Trans* Allies in order to dig more deeply into specific theology. Several people chose more than one book, and almost everyone has ordered more books to read in the future.
In addition to reading their chosen books, class participants had filled out the participant surveys, allowing me to focus the content each night on topics where my students needed and wanted to gain knowledge. We had lively discussions both nights and worshipped together with gracefulness, even though the video conferencing makes unison singing and speaking a challenge. Most importantly, we were able to bond as a group from miles apart.
Adult Learning is Problem-Centered...and Spirit Led
Often “the way we’ve always done things” is the way we continue simply because we know it works. For this confirmation class, first we were forced to flex because of changes in our parish budget. Next, we were forced to flex because of weather conditions. Our flexibility allowed us to create a new way of forming faithful adults which was both enjoyable and successful. I give thanks for the impediments that brought us to this place.
Helen Svoboda-Barber is the rector of St Luke's, Durham, NC. In her free time, she is the director of Women Embodying Executive Leadership (WEEL), a cohort discernment program for Episcopal clergywomen, and is active in her co-housing community, Eno Commons. Helen and her husband have two children and a ridiculous Clumber Spaniel named Izzie.
*Malcolm Knowles developed theories of adult learning in the mid-20th century that we still practice today. More information about Knowles can be found here.