Parish's confirmation program goes national

'Confirm not Conform' encourages youth to question faith, test commitment
July 20, 2008

Youth believe something and the church needs to hear it. That's the radical basis for "Confirm not Conform" (CnC), a 16-session confirmation program developed by St. John's Church in Oakland, California, that is now being used in congregations nationwide.

Laurie Brock, associate rector of St. James' Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, heard about CnC at a conference for youth workers at Kanuga, the Episcopal conference center in North Carolina. "I went expecting yet another 'groundbreaking new approach' to Confirmation, like so many others I've seen during my ministry," she said. "What a surprise to discover this one truly was a new approach that respected teenagers as thinking and reflective members of our faith community, complete with questions and opinions."

St. John's, Oakland, has offered CnC in its parish for the past decade. Thanks to the encouragement of the Rev. Rosa Lee Harden and Every Voice Network, the program went national in 2006. A group of 20 pilot parishes from across the U.S. tested CnC to see if it would work outside of its San Francisco Bay Area birthplace. The response was enthusiastic, even in congregations that were dubious at first.

Mary Anne Nunn, a full-time professor of English, agreed to lead the program at St. Mark's, New Britain, Connecticut. "We as a parish said yes to the pilot sight unseen. When the first mailing came to me, I just about had heart failure," she says. "Suddenly I was to run a retreat, plan field trips, assemble all sorts of stuff, and swot up on lesson plans that, when they were all finally assembled in a notebook, measured over 4 inches thick." With the help of a seminarian intern, Nunn completed the program this spring, with all four teens involved choosing to be confirmed.

"It was very satisfying, and looking back on it I can say that it was a rich and fulfilling experience," she says. "I don't by any means want to say anything against the program itself, which I think is great. But for a volunteer lay leader who is fully employed outside the church, it is not something to be taken up without full disclosure ahead of time."

Chris Craun, associate rector at St. James, West Hartford, Connecticut says, "What's interesting, with the vestry, is we had a day of thinking about the past year, and for people on the vestry who weren't even mentors for the program, the high point of the year was CnC. That's very telling about how it involved the whole congregation. People want to do it again."

Youth want to do it again, too. Annie Pierpoint, now in her 20's, went through the CnC program three times before deciding she was ready to be confirmed. "The first time I went into a confirmation class was when I was in 7th grade. I just remember being a little p.o.'d because they all started the class and it seemed like the tone was 'all right, welcome to confirmation class. You're all going to get confirmed.' I had a lot of questions."

The Rev. Scott Denman, rector of St. John's, says, "A really important concept for CnC was, how could you really take confirmation seriously if the assumption was 'you're going to be confirmed'?" Rather than conforming to parental expectations that they would be confirmed and be done with it, youth must make the decision for themselves whether they are ready to take that step in faith.

After Pierpoint went through the program the first time and decided at the end that she didn't want to be confirmed, "I was kind of shocked and pleasantly shocked that my choice not to get confirmed was not that big of a deal, I was still accepted by my community. In typical teenager fashion, I was kind of hoping people would be shocked, and it really got me thinking. Wow, this is a community that really cares about me."

The second time through the program, she assisted with the class but still decided at the end that she wasn't ready. The third time, she decided she wanted to be confirmed. The entire class served as her sponsor, presenting her to the bishop for her confirmation.

Kellor Smith, director of Family Ministries at St. John's, has been part of CnC from its beginning. "It's not about being confirmed but about them sorting out what's right for them," she said. "To have a situation where there are options and kids are taught to think and to think out of the box is huge for me. I think it's really important to put kids out of their comfort zone and do it in a safe place. I want church to be that safe place."

Preparing the curriculum for national distribution took a major investment of time and resources. Molly Darling, associate rector at St. John's, who had created and taught an adult version of CnC, took on the task of transforming the church's brief class notes into a detailed curriculum that can be used by any congregation. "St. John's knows how powerful CnC is – not just for the students, but for the whole community. They feel it's part of their call as a Christian community to make it available to the whole church," said Darling.

Some are skeptical about CnC, thinking it promotes a liberal agenda. Kristin Galella, a vestry member at St. Paul's, Oakston, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, was unable to convince her rector that their parish should purchase it. She showed him a DVD that featured William Swing, the retired bishop of California, speaking about the program. Upon seeing Bishop Swing speaking in favor of CnC, "My rector said, 'I know what this is about' and he just shut down," Galella said. "I think it would be really hard for him to get past that. When I was speaking with him, I told him about other things packaged in this program: mentors, service programs, and he's definitely for that. It's guilt by association, I guess. But I think an extremely conservative church could embrace it, if they looked into it deeply enough."

Smith said. "The more kids that are touched by this program in my opinion, the better the world's going to be because they are going to have self confidence and they're going to have a relationship with God and Jesus."

Denman added, "I hope that it creates a whole new generation of honest, faithful, engaged, empowered people that are going to change the world, [and] that they associate relevance with the church. They experience that, and they see their honest place in that, a necessary place in that. And that they engage the adults and the broader church, so the youth model advocacy: they had an impact on us; who have we had an impact on?"

Pierpoint, for one. "What has stuck with me the most is a commitment to a spiritual journey. It's not a commitment to an Episcopal journey, but to a journey and to think about it. It just so happens that to me I have returned to Christianity and to the Episcopal Church and I have fallen in love with it all over again. I don't think my journey is successful because I returned to the church, but because I was honest and committed to it."

Why should other congregations use Confirm not Conform? Pierpoint answers, "Yes, it's a confirmation program, but imagine being able to stand there and give your child this gift of their own voice in the world and in the community. It starts with an opportunity to find a voice in the church. It starts small, but it leaks over. You are giving your child a voice, not just in your community and the church, but the tools to develop a voice in the world and that is so important. They can't learn this in school. I can't think of any other places that can teach a kid to think about faith and to consider the world. Why not? It's awesome."

For more information about Confirm not Conform, visit: or call 510-339-2200 extension 318.


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