This past Sunday we welcomed our bishop for his annual visitation and for confirmations, which is always a joyous day for our youth confirmands, their families, and their sponsors. I’ve been teaching youth confirmation at St. George’s, Nashville, for six years, which has given me plenty of time to develop and experiment with our curriculum, and I helped with or led youth confirmation classes in other parishes for several years before that.
I was not confirmed as a teenager, having grown up in the Baptist church. Instead, I was confirmed as a divinity school student when I was 24, as part of my entrance into the Episcopal Church. Over the years, I’ve found a couple common pitfalls for confirmation preparation efforts.
This is the sort of class that is probably now “old school,” more like the experience that the parents of current confirmands had when they were teenagers. This approach is heavy on lectures, worksheets, and required memorization of catechism and creeds without much meaningful explanation. As a former Baptist, I am all for memorization and its power; every time a passage pops into my head, I am thankful that memorizing Scripture was such an emphasis during my childhood. However, requiring rote memorization without unpacking the meaning of the words does not cultivate faith or understanding, but rather disinterest and even resentment.
This approach usually involves a priest saying something like, “Ah, the bishop’s coming in three weeks! Let’s find out who wants to get confirmed and meet with them once or twice between now and then.”
In the past few years I have reflected on the 1979 BCP catechism’s very clear instructions that confirmands must be “sufficiently instructed in the Christian faith” before they can be ready for confirmation (p. 860). As clergy we have a responsibility to prepare them adequately. This requires time, energy, and planning in advance. There are no shortcuts.
Parishes will develop their own practices and schedule for confirmation, based on local realities. For us, those realities are that the youth confirmation course typically runs from the beginning of January through early May, when the bishop visits. Our average group of youth confirmands each year numbers 35-45, and most of our confirmands are 11 or 12. This timing, and a group of this size and age, requires something different than an older or smaller crowd, or one that meets over the summer.
While there is always room to grow in developing confirmation preparation, I have found the following three practices essential in preparing youth for confirmation.
- Relationship building: mentors
Because of the size of our class, we begin with a large group meeting, with a priest giving a talk on the subject of the day, followed by time in small groups led by a layperson. It’s important for the confirmands to have an older Christian who asks them good questions, offers personal examples, and helps them connect the dots of what they are learning.
We have also emphasized the relational role of the sponsor, changing the language for the role from sponsor to mentor. The sponsor isn’t just there to show up on the big day to place a hand on the confirmand’s shoulder. We ask mentors to meet with their confirmands twice during the four-month process: the first time for mentors to share their faith story with confirmands, and the second time for confirmands to share with their mentors a final reflection piece they’ve written on what it means to them to be confirmed. They also attend Holy Week services together, along with a rehearsal and dinner with our bishop. While this relationship needs room to grow organically, we seek to provide enough structure for that relationship to go deeper spiritually than it might otherwise.
- Role-playing doctrine, debates, and saints
Teaching teenagers about church history in an engaging way is a challenge, to say the least. For some of our major topics, I have begun directing an “on the spot” play, in which some members of our class take on roles and act out a story from church history. For baptism, we act out the story of a baptism in the early church, following two baptismal candidates as they prepare for the sacrament, pass through the waters, and join their church family for the Eucharist for the first time.
When we discuss the development of the creeds, the confirmands reenact the Council of Nicaea, with Athanasius and Arius arguing for their theological positions and Bishop Nicholas providing a dramatic climax when he punches Arius. The confirmands get a glimpse into how the church creeds, which often seem dry and dusty to teenagers (and adults), developed out of the passionate arguments and theological commitments of the early Church.
I also give the youth a chance to come up with their own dramatic reenactments. During a session on church history, each small group studies a particular saint from our calendar and develops a skit or song to teach classmates about a saint. We’ve seen some wonderful depictions of the life of St. Clare, St. Patrick, and more modern saints like C.S. Lewis.
When we ask the confirmands at their final class to name their favorite part of the process, most of them invariably say: “The retreat!” We take a weekend retreat from Friday late afternoon through midday Sunday at a conference center up in Monteagle, Tennessee. Being out of the classroom lets us approach confirmation topics in a creative way: writing their confession of sin on paper and then burning the scraps at a bonfire gives confirmands a fresh understanding of what it means for God to “remove our sins as far as the East is from the West” (Ps. 103:12).
Reading the Road to Emmaus story during a hike helps them imagine what it would be like for Jesus to join them as their companion on the road. Visiting Sewanee’s All Saints Chapel and seeing the stories told there in stained glass demonstrates how our Anglican tradition embraces the beauty of art. Spending time together away from our daily lives and contexts — and from our smartphones! — provides ample opportunity for us to practice the life of faith as a community in ways that aren’t possible in the classroom.
As with all youth ministry, my hope is be engaging without succumbing to being “entertaining,” to appeal to different learning styles instead of merely addressing the mind, and to approach confirmation topics from a fresh angle while keeping the confirmands’ commitment to Jesus Christ the primary focus. Our class is just one brief chapter in their spiritual lives; it follows on, and is best supported by, the good work of parents, godparents, and Sunday school teachers, who have taught them about the Christian life and faith over the years leading up to this sacrament.
In the end, every effort to instruct a confirmand sufficiently in the faith must be offered to God in prayer, asking him to “make the hearts and minds of [his] servants ready to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, that they may be filled with the strength of his presence” (1979 BCP, p. 819).
I’ve compiled a list of the resources that I have found helpful in developing a confirmation curriculum:
- Jenifer Gamber, My Faith, My Life: A Teen’s Guide to the Episcopal Church (Morehouse, 2006)
We give a copy of this book to all confirmands, and they are assigned a chapter to read in preparation for most class sessions. I find it well-written, comprehensive, and a good introduction to our class time. The companion Leader Guide gives creative ideas for group sessions on the topics covered by the book.
- Fred P. Edie, Book, Bath, Table, & Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry (Pilgrim Press, 2007)
In all of my youth ministry work, I am indebted to Dr. Edie, with whom I took several courses during my time at Duke Duke Divinity School. My talks on baptism and the Eucharist reflect his invitation to begin by considering the human significance of water and of meals, and then looking at how the sacraments take up the ordinary stuff of human existence and sanctify it.
Confirmation materials like this, developed and shared at the diocesan level, are rare and precious. This curriculum has helped me to find ways to include a focus on the gospel — repenting of our sins and turning to Christ as Savior and Lord. This focus is central to our liturgy for baptism and confirmation, but is rarely a sustained focus in standard confirmation curricula. In response to this, I have developed a session in which I share James Choung’s Four Circles presentation of the gospel and then invite the youth to take time looking for those Four Circles in our BCP Eucharistic prayers.
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville. Her other posts are here.
The featured image is a stained glass in St. Virgil Catholic Church, Morris Plains, New Jersey. The photo was taken by Loci B. Lenar, and was uploaded to Flickriver.
 In developing this skit, I relied on Will Willimon’s account of baptism in the early church in Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life (Upper Room, 1980).