Cooperative Confirmation in Cabarrus County
by Norbert F. Hahn (January / February 2004 — Volume 20, Number 1)
Teamwork and a cooperative spirit have helped these North Carolina Lutheran pastors and congregations to put together an imaginative way to teach the Small Catechism to young minds and hearts.
Some time during the 2000 and 2001 program years, the Holy Spirit did something new with the 14 ELCA congregations in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Slowly but steadily, the Spirit began to answer the prayers of congregations and reward the efforts of search committees by providing new pastors.
The influx of new pastors was used by the Spirit to effect, among other things, a reconstitution of the largely defunct Lutheran Pastors' Association. The Association represents two family-size congregations (Mt. Gilead, Family of Faith), five small pastoral-size congregations (Holy Trinity, Trinity, Center Grove, Mt. Olive, and St. Martin) and seven large pastoral-size congregations (St. John's, St. James, Calvary, Kimball Memorial, Mt. Hermon, Cross of Christ, and New Hope). As is typical for this part of the country, most of these congregations have their roots in one or several extended families. Several are "out in the country," others in town, some in-between.
In the past, differences of location, family trees, economic status, congregations' personalities and pastors' styles had made significant cooperation between the congregations largely impossible. Some joint ventures had been undertaken in the past by some of the pastors and churches (e.g. joint youth activity once-a-month; joint confirmation ministry between a couple of congregations). However, none of the earlier efforts reached the depth and breadth of what the Spirit began doing in 2001 and beyond.
Among a variety of joint ventures begun, the ministry among confirmands benefited from a renewed spirit of cooperation among the congregations. This is their story.
A Confirmation Experience
As the pastors were contemplating possible joint ventures, they eventually touched on the issue of confirmation. They voiced typical frustrations concerning boring materials and bored kids, uncooperative parents, insufficient resources, lack of creative input and collegial support, fluctuating numbers, and other concerns.
But then they began to ask: What would a confirmation ministry look like if several pastors and congregations were to cooperate, and each pastor could teach in the medium and style most suitable and enjoyable to him or her? Quickly, different strengths, gifts, and interests were translated into an approach using various centers of learning (e.g., computer lab, cinema, crafts, games, worship, classroom, missions, and a "real-life center") that would engage the different learning styles of young people.
The Confirmation Experience (the program's official name) that began to take shape is akin to a "rotation model" of education used in Sunday schools throughout the nation (for more information, see www.rotation.org). This is how it works: One Saturday a month, between 60 and 70 confirmands from the 10 participating congregations gather from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the Mt. Hermon location. Here the confirmands tackle Martin Luther's Small Catechism through a program that will take two years to cover.
The ultimate goal will be to move the Confirmation Experience from congregation to congregation. But until more congregations acquire enough laptop computers, portable projectors, and other equipment, Mt. Hermon serves as the host site because it already has a computer lab, movie cinema, and various multi-purpose rooms.
After an initial 15 minutes for snacks and socializing, Pastor Chad Huebner engages the youth in a brief opening exercise to get their blood circulating and introduce them to the theme for the day. A prayer follows, but worship is kept brief due to the confirmands' low level of energy. The pastors are still experimenting with improving the worship and prayer element of the Confirmation Experience.
At 9 a.m., the confirmands, divided into groups of six to nine, are led by adult "faith journey guides" to their first of five learning centers for the first 30-minute module. (More learning centers are set up to accommodate all the groups but due to time constraints each group does not visit all learning centers.) At times, sub-themes of the theme of the day are divided between the different centers to prevent redundancy. At others times, the main theme is approached from a particular perspective in each center. The curriculum also includes two off-site learning experiences called "Real-Life Centers" which I will explain in more detail later.
One group of confirmands begins the day at the "On-Line with God" computer lab. Pastor Norbert Hahn has loaded the computers with various learning games and interactive programs pertaining to the theme of the day. (A helpful resource is www.sundaysoftware.com) A big hit with the kids is the program, "Cal and Marty," a scramble/unscramble memorization game that features Martin Luther and John Calvin as on-screen coaches. Every ten minutes, the youth switch to a different computer station. Pastor Linda Voelker assists with this center.
Another group starts out in the "All Saints Cinema" where Pastor Zach Harris has cued up DVDs and videotapes with scenes from contemporary movies that he uses to bring to life the Catechism's theme of the day (the Mt. Hermon congregation purchased a CVLI license that gives permission to show videos). He alternates between introducing a clip, showing it, and interacting with the youth after they have seen it.
Perceiving biblical and theological themes in contemporary movies has been a powerful learning experience for the youth. Many of them are quite unhappy when one month's rotation does not include the All Saints Cinema. For further help with cinema, check out Reel to Real (Cokesbury), and Blockbuster Movie Illustrations, vols. 1 & 2 (Group Publishing), both useful print resources, and the ELCA Web site's youth ministry section (www.elca.org/dcm/youth). Pastor Marcus Hovis assists with this center.
A third group starts out in a more low-tech fashion with "Goliath's Giant Games" presented by Pastor Mark Ericson. Using games that involve mind, body, and soul — some developed by him, others borrowed from resources — Pastor Ericson takes the youth into one of the key themes of the day. Usually, they are glad to get a little exercise because they have just completed a more traditional classroom session.
The fourth learning center, "St. John's Word," relies on Pastor John Boyd's gift for teaching in a traditional classroom environment. He and his alternate, Pastor Bill Milholland, use lecture and question-and-answer to convey the substance of the theme of the day. There are always some youth who prefer this method of teaching and learning over more creative approaches.
A fifth group starts out in the "Arts and Craft Studio" which is now headed up by Pastor Glynn Bell. She uses a variety of arts and crafts supplies as well as the church's kitchen in order to engage the confirmands' imaginations through creating, constructing, cooking, or baking their way into the theme of the day. Before leaving the area, Pastor Lisa Anderson led this center.
A sixth module takes place in the "Worship and Music Center." Before he left the area, Pastor Loyd Ginn would combine audio-visual resources and class discussion to help the youth make the connection between the theme of the day from the Catechism, the church's worship life, and the music they listen to. Kristine Cutler, Mt. Hermon's worship band leader, has taken over for Pastor Ginn and has added a "live" component to the learning center.
An occasional seventh learning center is the "Missions Center" where Pastor Joe Miller introduces the youth to the many Global Mission activities of the ELCA.
An off-site experience is called the "Real-Life Center." It was first used during the exploration of the Third Article of the Apostles Creed. In order to connect with the concept of the mission of the church in the world, each small group of confirmands was given $20 by a pastor. Then they were assigned two chaperones/drivers, given 90 minutes to come to a unanimous decision on how to spend the money, and go off site to do so.
The youth were completely free to spend the money any way they wanted to — even ice cream or pizza. The only stipulation was that they had to explain or justify their decision with a biblical reference. When the groups returned and shared their decisions and actions, there were lots of smiles and tears of joy in the room. All the groups ended up making ministry and mission-related decisions including buying flowers and taking them to residents at a nursing home, taking a homeless family to dinner downtown, or buying toys for children in a shelter or food for the local soup kitchen. Another "Real-Life Center" was participation in the local CROP WALK against hunger in October of 2003.
Martin Luther believed that parents should be involved with teaching the faith to their children. Accordingly, the Confirmation Experience was designed to include a learning center for parents so that they could interact with their children based on the theme of the month. During the first year of operations, Pastor Howard Baker taught two identical 90-minute sessions back to back for the parents. Participation and commitment varied.
With the beginning of the second year a different approach was implemented. Now the final learning center of the day for the youth is the "Pastor and Parent Center" where the confirmands spend the last 45 minutes of the morning (11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.) with their pastor and parents in reviewing what was experienced and learned that day. Families also receive "faith work" to be completed at home before the next Confirmation Experience. This faith work is prepared by Pastor Bill Milholland and includes devotions, Bible study, and small projects.
A thorough evaluation after the first year concluded that this new approach to confirmation was a success. Clearly, the participating pastors were energized and enjoyed teaching confirmation. Responses from parents and youth were equally encouraging. Some still struggled with making the transition from the classroom- and workbook-based presentation model, but everyone could see the value in the new approach's effort to use a variety of learning modes to engage all the senses of the learners.
It was concluded that the implementation of this approach was made easier with a start-up grant from the North Carolina Synod's Michael Peeler fund that paid for a part-time coordinator during the first year. However, now that the model is in place, different tasks are assigned to different pastors and congregations. A monthly two-hour planning and coordinating meeting with all participating pastors is essential to the functioning of this approach.
After its first year, this approach has revealed several major benefits:
The energy, joy, and satisfaction level of each pastor is significantly higher than experienced with previously used models. This has more than compensated for the fact that the workload has not decreased (as had been one initial goal), partly because the pastors are developing their own curriculum and teaching tools. Key is that each pastor works with one kind of media and in a style that is fun and enriching for him or her.
The spiritual, technological, and imaginative resources of ten pastors and congregations are pooled and thus available to everyone. In a time of scarcity in many congregations, especially small ones, this is a great advantage. Few family- or pastoral-size congregations could afford to equip a computer-lab, a big-screen movie cinema, and supply all the other learning centers.
The relationships that are forged between the Lutheran students from ten congregations carry over into the local middle and high schools. The strength in numbers increases Lutheran pride and identity. The possibilities of making friends are multiplied.
Pan-congregational cooperation and effectiveness is being modeled to a new generation of future church leaders. Walls between congregations are being broken down.
The multiple teaching methods are more likely to reach youngsters with different learning styles than the traditional classroom and workbook approach seems to have been able to do. Also, the kids are having more fun. Many use multi-media in school, and many have computers, TVs, and hi-fi sound systems in their homes. Now, stepping into the confirmation learning environment is not a step back in time and technology.
The possibility of participating in a first-rate multi-media Confirmation Experience with many youth has also lessened the temptation for parents and their teens in smaller congregations to play with the idea of transferring to a larger congregation that has "more to offer" for the teens.
Other clusters of congregations do not have to go through the labor-intensive start-up process to implement this approach. Instead, they can borrow from or adopt this approach. A cluster of congregations in neighboring Rowan County, North Carolina, is doing precisely that. At least one other cluster of congregations has adapted this model for their summer Confirmation Camp experience.
In addition to the confirmation programming, rostered leaders and their congregations also formed a variety of other cooperative programs among themselves. These included:
- a monthly meeting of rostered leaders to share personal and congregational concerns and build trust among themselves.
- a joint advertising campaign.
- an annual "Lutheran Friendship Sunday" to invite new people from the community to the congregations.
- financing and construction of a home associated with Habitat for Humanity.
- a joint service of corporate confession on Wednesday of Holy Week, a weekly prayer service, an additional worship service for those who can't attend on Sundays, and Lenten pulpit exchanges.
- pastoral care to those who were laid off from work after the closing of a major county industry (this also included a collection of school supplies for children in need and assistance with health insurance premiums and other household needs).
- a "ShareHouse/Network" to share resources in the areas of youth, spiritual development and small group, information, and social ministries.
Go to Mt Hermon Lutheran Church's website to find "Multiplying the Faith: A Multi-Media and Multi-Congregation Confirmation Experience " that includes information on confirmation ministry as well as further details about the above joint ministries. The web address is: www.mthermonelca.org.
Norbert F. Hahn is pastor of Mt. Hermon Lutheran Church, Concord, North Carolina.
The following pastors and congregations are currently involved in various joint ventures among Lutherans in Cabarrus County:
- Linda Voelker (Mt. Gilead)
- Glynn Bell (Holy Trinity)
- Mark Ericson (St. John's)
- John Boyd (Calvary)
- Bill Milholland (Calvary)
- Chad Huebner (St. James)
- Howard Baker (Mt. Olive)
- Marcus Hovis (New Hope)
- Joe Miller (Cross of Christ)
- Zach Harris (formerly: Center Grove; now part-time at Mt. Hermon)
- Norbert Hahn (Mt. Hermon; also convenor of the Lutheran Pastors' Association).