When the Building Faith team heard about how one parish was reimagining Confirmation during this time of being church in physically distanced ways, we could not wait to share their learnings with you! The learnings below come from St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia which is a large, multi-staff parish that confirms 30-45 youth yearly. We know that many of our readers come from smaller contexts, but after multiple conversations with the Director of Youth Ministries, Mary Beth Abplanalp, we believe that much of what the leaders at St. James’s have learned is transferable.
Reimagining Confirmation Preparation: Five Topics, Six Goals
Before the pandemic, St. James’s offered 19 Sunday morning Confirmation preparation sessions during the course of a program year. During the summer of 2020, Mary Beth and veteran Confirmation leaders came together to consider what physically distanced Confirmation preparation might look like for their congregation. They began to envision a nine-month process that would consist of five two-hour sessions. Sessions would take place live on Zoom, but also be recorded for anyone who might miss a session. The leadership team settled on five topics:
- Baptism and Confirmation
- Book of Common Prayer & Eucharist
- Love God & Love Neighbor
- Church & Prayer
- Life of Jesus & Holy Week
The new vision for Confirmation preparation required the team to reassess their priorities. They knew that ten hours of session time was not enough to share everything they’d previously covered during Confirmation class. Instead of a comprehensive program, they began using the metaphor of “base camp” inspired by Lisa Kimball of VTS. They assumed that Confirmation class participants were already on a journey of spiritual growth, that they already had a relationship with God. They envisioned the Confirmation class as a resting place along that journey that would restock, replenish, and care for the journeyers before they set out again. Rather than a summit of the Christian journey, they saw Confirmation as an important milestone along the path.
In full knowledge that the journey would continue after stopping at “base camp” and there would be more opportunities for these participants to learn along the way, the leadership team settled on these six goals:
- To offer highly engaging, interactive, and purposeful sessions
- To offer an experience that is not boring, not academic
- To focus on inspiring the heart, not just the head
- To be relevant to the world today
- To equip parents of youth to nurture their child’s faith at home
- To encourage deeper relationships with the ministry and people of St. James’s
The group that came together included 9th grade students, older high schoolers, and adult participants. Youth were required to attend with at least one parent. Each session included physical materials which were bagged and available for pick up at the church. Bags included items such as a Book of Common Prayer, a candle, grass seed, communion wafer (not consecrated), rock and paint pens. Each participant also picked a non-parent Confirmation mentor who they met with at least three times.
About monthly, for a total of five sessions, the Confirmation class gathered together live on Zoom. During each two-hour session the Confirmation leaders used a combination of short video clips (4-5 minutes each), discussion questions, and short activities to engage the participants around one of the topics.
Meaningful Family Conversations
During each session, participants were given time to discuss a question together as a family. Everyone was encouraged to mute themselves, turn off their video, and set a timer so that they could be fully present. Families with parents who lived separately were moved to a breakout room together and adult participants were provided with the phone number of a mentor to call for conversation. Mary Beth reports that their team got great feedback on how this process created room for families to talk more openly and comfortably about faith at home. Families appreciated the opportunity to have intentional conversation around topics that don’t come up in everyday life.
Example: Talk together about Baptism. What was memorable about your Baptism? Who was there? Did the baby cry? If you have photos, pull them out!
Less Negative Peer Pressure
If you have facilitated a youth Confirmation preparation class before, you may have experienced the challenge of working with a group of teenagers who are participating for very different reasons. Mary Beth describes her previous classes as half deeply engaged and involved in the faith community and half barely involved but required to attend by well-intended parents. Too often, the teens who do not really want to be in the class at all set the tone and discourage the participants who are excited and engaged. In the digital Confirmation class setting, Mary Beth reports, this dynamic was basically non-existent. The young people who were less invested could do the minimum. Those who wanted to go deeper were offered a variety of optional activities. Not only was minimizing negative peer pressure great for participants, it was better for the leaders. It can be terribly discouraging to put a lot of effort into planning something and then have your participants be less than enthusiastic. Mary Beth says this was a lot of work on the front end, in terms of preparing for each session, but it ended up being far more rewarding for leaders overall.
Example: Families were given a recipe for making communion bread. Many families made the bread together and found it to be really meaningful. Some shared it at Thanksgiving and others gave it as a Christmas gift.
This family-based model of Confirmation preparation has worked so well that the leaders are seriously considering maintaining this hybrid model next year. Most of the sessions will take place on Zoom, but the Eucharist or Holy Week session might take place in person. In addition, they will offer a Confirmation retreat in-person as they have done in the past. The retreat provides a “mountain top” experience for deeper community building, worship, and lasting memories to carry with them on the next leg of their spiritual journey.