Imagine a youth confirmation program so engaging that the participants choose to spend a whole day every month being part of it. Imagine young people from small congregations meeting with 25 friends their own age. Are we dreaming? Can this be the Episcopal Church?
Not only is it the Episcopal Church, but it is the Fellowship of the Lord, a collaborative formation program carried out by five suburban congregations in the Diocese of California: Church of the Resurrection, Pleasant Hill; St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Walnut Creek; St. Michael and All Angels, Concord; St. Alban's, Brentwood; and St. George's Episcopal Church, Antioch.
The Rev. Marsha Heron of St. Anselm's, Lafayette, was part of the group that developed the idea more than a year ago.
"As a deacon, I want to inspire people to enact their faith through serving others," says Heron. "I've been concerned about the way confirmation is often handled, because many programs seem to turn youth off rather than bring them in. I was inspired by an idea to involve youth more deeply, focusing on the Baptismal Covenant and the experience of servant ministry."
All five congregations have youth groups, but for confirmation they wanted a discipleship program with a high level of commitment. The year's schedule was published in advance, and the participants made a covenant to be present at every month's day-long session.
The activities include feeding the homeless, working with seniors in an Alzheimer's facility, cleaning up a beach and visiting a marine mammal center. Participants also spent time having fun, getting to know each other, doing Bible study and praying together.
Diana Tucker, a parent of one of the participants from St. George's, says she "liked the program because it was more experience than book-learning."
Adult leader Rich Gianello, of Resurrection, agrees. "All the different things we've done show us what's involved in being a Christian, and you don't always get that opportunity as you're growing up," he says.
Samantha Haycock said she found great meaning in the opportunity she was given.
"Every time our confirmation group met we did something that was very moving to me," she says. "The one that I remember the best was when we visited a homebound woman. She was a retired schoolteacher and didn't see many young people anymore. She told us about her life, and she kept repeating, 'Thank you for coming, thank you.'"
The 27 participants were divided into four small groups for reflection and discussion, each led by a teen. Program Coordinator Laura Gianello, of Resurrection, met each month with the youth leaders. They "did everything, and we had mentors who were advisers to them," she explains. "When we started out, the mentors would be with the groups to help facilitate. There were times when the teen leaders had the option to say, 'Please step out, so we can have a private conversation just with our peers.'"
Kristina Marshall, a youth leader from Resurrection, reported that "the first couple of times it was just getting in groups and doing crafts, decorating our journals and having our own journal time, not really a lot of talking. But more and more we talked about what it all means to us."
As one teen put it, "Everybody was different from each other, but it didn't matter -- we were all friends anyway, and it's not like that at school. Some of them I know even better than my friends I've known for years."
Commissioned by congregations
Participants were commissioned in their home congregations and kept people informed about their progress. Josh Sodowsky, another youth leader, comes from St. Alban's, which is "small and really supportive, so most of our congregation know about the program, and a lot of them know the people in it," he says. "We came back every month and talked in the announcements about what we'd been doing, and we published articles in the newsletter."
In two of the churches, fellowship members had the opportunity to preach, receiving high praise from everyone.
When Tucker's daughter was confirmed, "it began a real quest, and the point is not to complete it but to begin," she says. After confirmation came the climax of the program, in a 12-day mission trip to the Diocese of Navajoland in New Mexico. The members led a Vacation Bible School at St. Luke's in the Desert, Carson's Post, and restored the San Juan Mission Cemetery.
Worshiping at St. Luke's made quite an impression on Haycock.
"Sunday morning we attended their church service. It was the most interesting thing I've ever done," she says. "We sang along to well-known songs in the Navajo language. In the end, it was hard to leave the children behind."
The affirmation of faith made when young people are confirmed marks a shift in family relationships. To help to prepare for this, one of the clergy members led periodic meetings of the fellowship parents. Through their discussions they found others who shared concerns and challenges, opening up new possibilities for mutual support.
Parent Kathleen Crisp of St. George's says she "always knew that [the] fellowship sounded like a good idea, but I didn't really know how much my son would grow spiritually and emotionally."
"He's just not the same person he was when he started," she says, recalling how her son Alan told their congregation: "I saw God that day, in all the homeless that came ... I was seeing him in all the good deeds that all the people around me were doing, and when I had silent time to myself, I could feel him all around me."