Introducing the Confirmation Collaborative

Where does the preparation for the Rite of Confirmation fit within this matrix? All over! Courtesy of Bronwyn Skov and the Office of Formation Ministries.

If there is anything that creates more conversation and passion in church circles with parents, clergy, Christian educators, youth ministers, and even bishops it’s the topic of confirmation. A multitude of curricula has been written across the denominational spectrum, resolutions put forth at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention over the decades, and dioceses attempting to develop standards and guidelines. For some it is muddy, for others it is something not to be messed with. But where are we (the Episcopal Church) in our understanding, preparation of youth, practice, and forming of disciples in this (what some still say is) “rite in search of a meaning”?

What impact does a healthy confirmation process have on a congregation? What does the adolescent practice of reaffirmation of baptism really look like? How does the Episcopal Church need to fully live into confirmation in our congregations in today’s world and reality? Such provocative questions brought a diverse group of Christian formation leaders representing all orders of ministry together at Virginia Theological Seminary in early March 2019. One purpose of the gathering was to review the research and findings of “The Confirmation Project” (a “Christian Youth: Learning and Living the Faith” grant provided by Lilly Endowment Inc), and develop a meaningful response of that study to the Episcopal Church. Lisa Kimball, associate dean of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary, was the Episcopal Church’s representative in this five-year research project along with research assistant Kate Harmon Siberine (now curate at Church of the Good Shepherd in Nashua, New Hampshire) which sought to learn the extent to which confirmation and equivalent practices are effective for strengthening discipleship in youth in five Protestant denominations.

The results were eye-opening, offering much for the Episcopal Church to build upon in strengthening how local communities support adolescents in their faith journeys. A few particular parts of the study examined the age and duration of confirmation preparation, of which the Episcopal Church stood apart from the other denominations (PCUSA, UMC, ELCA, and AME). Who “taught” and what the content was varied in scope and application, with no unified focus in the Episcopal Church. What the research did find was that confirmation can be a unique opportunity for young people to strengthen their understanding of the Christian faith, deepen their experience of Christian community, and discern their call to join God’s mission in the world.

Having studied the research and its outcomes, the newly formed Confirmation Collaborative of the Episcopal Church states,

“We believe, and the research confirms, that confirmation is the claiming of baptism and an invitation to a life of deeper discipleship lived in community. When confirmation preparation is done intentionally and done well on the local and diocesan level as baptismal affirmation, it has an impact on the spiritual lives of youth as part of a lifelong call to discipleship. It can transform ourselves, each other, and the entire Church.” 

The important components identified for confirmation preparation include:

  • The importance of intergenerational and community involvement in confirmation preparation, including (but not limited to) having mentors for confirmands
  • The careful selection (with choice) of sponsors/mentors that involves accountability and expectations of them given with support and training
  • Practices and strategies for helping young Christians grow as disciples of Jesus Christ
  • Adult and youth candidates preparing together (the segregation of ages inhibits/under-utilizes discernment)
  • All adults in the congregation being invited to participate in formation – helping all to name, tell, and claim their own faith story
  • The diocese as a symbol of the wider Church and the interconnectedness of the local church within the wider community
  • Opportunities for mission and hands-on-service with reflection

Lisa Kimball shared,

“The Collaborative will be sharing resources, best practices, rites of passage liturgies, and models for baptismal affirmation in partnership with Virginia Seminary’s Baptized for Life initiative, funded through a grant provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.”

Confirmation preparation for adolescents in our Church today needs to be part of a lifelong ecology of formation including all generations in a worshiping community. We need to unpack the language we use in confirmation, such as dropping “becoming an adult member” and emphasizing becoming a faithful disciple of Christ. Confirmation should be a time of ministry discernment and learning how to practice baptismal living.

Members of the Confirmation Collaborative at its first in-person gathering. Front row: Myra Garnes, Canon for Youth & Young Adult Ministries in the Diocese of Long Island; Lisa Kimball; Jennifer Holt Enriquez, Director of Children and Youth Formation at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Oak Park, Illinois; Middle row: Kate Harmon Siberine; Sharon Ely Pearson; Fredrica Harris Thompsett, theologian and educator; Back row: Ted Gullick, asssiting bishop in the Diocese of Virginia; Eduardo Rivera, Forma board member and Latino/Hispanic Ministry & Multimedia Consultant.

The time is right to discuss the “confirmation ecology” at all levels of our church now. Where does the rite of confirmation belong in prayer book revision? (We were privileged to have James Farwell, professor of theology and liturgy as well as a member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music; Christopher Decatur, a seminarian at VTS and member of the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision as well as catechist for Baptized for Life;  and Melissa Hartley, associate chaplain for the University of the South, Sewanee join during part of our conversation.) How are our many newly consecrated bishops engaged in conversation about what their role is in confirmation besides laying-on-of-hands? How can our diocesan camps be holy spaces for confirmands to meet each other across parish lines? How are we helping those who seek a relationship with Christ take up the Way of Love and adopt a rule of life? How do our churches embrace those who are newly confirmed to continue going deeper into the mystery of our faith? Confirmation can be a catalyst for all this and much more if we claim all the resources that we already have, including our bishops. This opportune time in the life of our young people can also lead to renewal for the rest of us.

Co-sponsored by Virginia Theological Seminary and Church Publishing Incorporated, the Confirmation Collaborative will convene critical conversations on the practice of confirmation, commend best practices of confirmation and reaffirmation practices, and build upon the strengths of the Episcopal Church’s history and lived experiences in order to support formation and discipleship leaders in our Church. We invite the larger church to participate in these virtual meetings to take place seasonally over the next twelve months with a special invitation to other formation leaders (lay and clergy), diocesan camp directors, theologians, liturgists, and youth ministers. Information and the ongoing work of this Collaborative will be housed at VTS’s Baptized for Life: An Episcopal Discipleship Initiative.

To join the conversation with the Confirmation Collaborative please contact Lisa Kimball lkimball@vts.edu or Sharon Ely Pearson spearson@cpg.org.

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