Spotlight: St. Michael & St. Albert, Minnesota

Breaking Away from Confirmation Class

 

Imagine you have a child that is approaching confirmation age. Baptismal certificate in hand, you dial up your local parish…

Parish Secretary: Hello, St. Albert’s. How many I help you?
You: Yes, I am calling to get my 8th grade son enrolled in your Confirmation program.
Parish Secretary: Thanks for calling. As a matter of fact, we don’t have a Confirmation program.
You: [stunned silence]. I’m sorry, did I call the wrong number? I thought I called the Catholic Church.
Parish Secretary: Oh, you did. We just don’t have a Confirmation program.
You: You mean I can’t get my son confirmed?
Parish Secretary: Of course he can get confirmed!
You: I’m confused. Then, what are the Confirmation requirements?
Parish Secretary: I’m glad you asked. Our requirements are simply that your son is living his faith and involved in a Discipleship group.
You: What? How old does he have to be?
Parish Secretary: We don’t have a “confirmation age” either. He can start the discernment process as early as 8th grade, but the sacrament is available to him any time after then.
You: Wait. Can we start over?

This isn’t a fictional scenario. If you lived in the rural communities of St. Michael and Albertville, Minnesota this is the conversation you would have.

No service hours. A person living his or her faith serves. No homily reports. A person living his or her faith is an active participant in weekly Mass. Just live your faith and be in a Discipleship group.

The way in which parishes manage preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. It was the research of Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic Institute that brought to light what many of us had long suspected: Confirmation prep isn’t working. According to Dynamic Catholic, 85 percent of young people who get confirmed will leave the Church within seven years of their confirmation. 

This reality prompted the youth ministry and faith formation leadership of St. Albert’s and St. Michael’s to rethink the traditional confirmation program model starting with the age a student receives Confirmation.  “Assigning the sacrament to a specific grade level produced a negative effect,” says John O’Sullivan, Youth Minister at St. Michael’s. “Expecting all students to be at the same place at the same time regardless of their background and knowledge, then pushing them through the process of Confirmation despite many not actively living out their faith was doing a disservice to many. Being locked into a specific grade level, many teens were being confirmed who did not want to be.”

The leadership team at St. Michael & St. Albert. From left to right, John O’Sullivan, Bob Swift, Jean Wold, Ruth Gladitsch (not pictured, Gabby Swift)

Using YDisciple to train their leaders and give them content for discussion, these small towns now have nearly 400 teenagers actively engaged in discipleship groups from 8th and 12th grade.

So how does it work?

Typically, teens will join a small discipleship group as 8th graders and they will journey with one another throughout high school supporting one another in faith before and after Confirmation. Discipleship groups, or D-Groups, are led by an adult mentor who will come alongside the students and encourage them to actively live out their faith for life.

A  retreat is held in the Fall for all teens beginning the process to help build connections among the D-Groups and foster individual growth in faith. First-year groups meet on campus 2-3 times per month. They call this first year, “Breakaway.” After a couple of months of participating in a Discipleship group along with actively living out their Catholic Faith, students are invited to discern if they would like to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in the spring. Students may freely choose to receive the Sacrament in 8th grade or wait until the following year, provided they are continuing to live out their faith and are participating in a D-Group.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is offered annually in the spring of each year. Teens who freely desire to be confirmed and are actively living out their faith are asked to attend one mandatory session with their parents and sponsor to learn more about the Sacrament of Confirmation. If a teen chooses not to be confirmed, they are still invited and encouraged to remain involved in their discipleship group.

And once a teen is confirmed, they stay with their discipleship group. In fact, after their first year running Confirmation in this way, only two discipleship groups reported teens who did not return.

Bob Swift, Faith Formation Director at St. Michael’s admitted, “Running a traditional confirmation program would be a lot easier. But the truth is we would continue to see the same results – the majority of teens leaving the Faith. This model is messy. This is hard, but the fruit we are seeing already makes it worth it.”

Read the full interview below.


St. Michael & St. Albert Confirmation Full Interview

YDisciple (YD):  Rumor has it that you don’t have a Confirmation program.  What does that mean?

St. Albert/Michael Team (SA/SM):  We call our Confirmation process “Breakaway”. Rather than a program focusing on requirements, we have a process is focused on discerning the Sacrament of Confirmation by helping teens grow in discipleship while striving for an authentic, vibrant and personal faith.

YD: So, what does that process look like?

SA/SM: Typically, teens will join a small discipleship group as 8th graders and they will journey with one another throughout high school supporting one another in faith before and after Confirmation. D-Groups will be led by an adult mentor who will come alongside the students and encourage them to actively live out their faith for life.

A retreat is held in the fall for all teens beginning the process to help build connections among the D-Groups and foster individual growth in faith. First-year groups meet on campus 2-3 times per month. After a couple of months of participating in a discipleship group along with actively living out their Catholic Faith, students will be invited to discern if they would like to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation in the spring. Students may freely choose to receive the Sacrament in 8th grade or wait until the following year, provided they are continuing to live out their faith and are participating in a D-Group.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is offered annually in the spring of each year. Teens who freely desire to be confirmed and are actively living out their faith are asked to attend one mandatory session with their parents and sponsor to learn more about the Sacrament of Confirmation. If a teen chooses not to be confirmed, they are still invited and encouraged to remain involved in their discipleship group.

YD: How do you define “living the faith”?

 SA/SM: We define it the same way the Church does: the Precepts of the Church. We also include being in a discipleship group, because being a disciple does not live in isolation.

YD: How many discipleship groups do you have currently running?

 SA/SM: D-Groups start in 8th grade, but can continue to meet through their high school years. In total we have 45 groups serving 379 young people.

 YD:  I imagine having that many groups makes for a “good problem”: where they all meet. How do you navigate that?

SA/SM: Our 8th Grade groups meet on the parish campuses 2-3 Wednesdays a month. Our high school groups meet in a variety of locations: homes, at the parish, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. All groups are asked to meet at least 2 times a month during the school year and when they can in the summers.

YD: A move like this requires more than just your staff being behind it. You have to have a veritable army of volunteer adult mentors. How do you recruit and train them all?

SA/SM: There’s no recruiting like personal invitation. We ask current D-Group leaders to identify and invite other faithful adults that they see would be a good fit. We invite parents of teens to consider leading as well as who they think might be good. We also generally reach out to the wider parish community from the pulpit.

We offer two open “Come & See” meetings in the spring to share what D-Groups are all about along with the responsibilities and expectations of a D-Group leader. Follow-up is also essential. We keep a list of all “leads” and continue to reach out to them over the summer answering any questions and hopefully waylaying any fears.

Then, as a new school year approaches we host  one training session near the end of summer to go over all the information to lead a D-Group. We introduce them to YDisciple and they are expected to go through all the training videos on their own time. We think it is very important to walk very closely with all new D-Group leaders throughout their first year. This includes meetings held on-campus, checking in with them and their groups, and assisting in leading their sessions as needed.

We begin the 8th grade year with a retreat based on the YDisciple series, “Follow Me,” this helps the leaders gain experiential knowledge of what discipleship looks like in an environment where they can easily ask for input or assistance from our team.

Once a month, on a Breakaway D-Group night, our High School Core Team leads a large group session for the teens in D-Groups, but even these nights include time for their D-Group.

We also offer on-going trainings in the form of Saturday morning breakfast and formation every 2-3 months for all D-Group leaders, as well as at least one large training day during the school year.

YD: What does parent engagement look like in this model?

SA/SM: As the primary educators and evangelizers of their children, parents are the most influential people in the lives of their children. It is essential that the whole family grows in discipleship. To support parents, we provide spiritually inspiring programming to help families grow together in faith. Both St. Albert’s and St. Michael’s offer family faith formation programs and a program for parents of Catholic school students. We also offer family faith-sharing evening specifically designed for families with students in D-Groups.

At the beginning of the year we host a meeting for parents to help them grow in understanding of this Discipleship model and to get to know their students’ leaders. We also strongly encourage our D-Group leaders to reach out to the parents and communicate with them regularly. YDisciple’s Parent Sheet and all videos available streaming makes sharing easy.

YD:  It’s clear you’re goal is to keep teens and families engaged beyond Confirmation. What your retention rate after a student in confirmed?

SA/SM: This is our second year, so our numbers are only based on one year. That being said, it this time only two of our groups have reached out to me about members who are not returning. We had 125 signed last year and 87 officially signed up this year. However, we ask our D-Group leaders to continue to invite and reach out to all those who started with them.

But honestly retention is not something we are overly concerned with but rather that our leaders are continually reaching out to the teens in their D-Group. Our goal is to be sure every teen has an adult in their lives who will continue to witness to them the love of Christ whether or not they attend d-group.

YD: This is a massive paradigm shift. When did the shift begin and what started it?

SA/SM: In order to understand our ministry, it is important that you know that we are two separate parishes that have been collaborating in our Youth Ministry outreach since 2003. Both parishes hired full time youth ministers in 2005 and we have been doing our youth ministry together ever since.

We started to make this shift in 2010, and began starting small discipleship groups in 2012 with our High School leadership team we call the ‘Core Team’. The Core Team had grown to such a large number that we were unable to form solid relationships with so many and only two youth ministers. We needed to be sure that every teen in our High School Leadership team had an adult in their lives. Small Discipleship groups allowed us to multiply the youth ministers’ efforts by training more adults to focus on the needs of just a few teens. Also unique to our parish we began offering the Sacrament of Confirmation to 8th graders in our parish school while maintaining Confirmation for our 10th graders for all of our other families not in the parish school.

We also were struck with the difficulties we were having in growing our ongoing outreach to our high school youth through youth group events, monthly outreach, and large group ministry events focused on high school youth. We worked very hard to plant the seeds and bring other staff on board to moving our Confirmation program to 8th grade and have them begin in small discipleship groups.

We began working with our Faith Formation Coordinators to work together to make this shift. Over a year of praying and working together we decided on creating a three-year transition from moving 10 grade Confirmation to 8th grade Confirmation similar to our parish school and in this process have all of our youth in 8th grade begin in a D-group. After our first year of confirming all of our 9th and 10th graders, prior to moving to 8th grade Confirmation, we made the decision to move Confirmation out of a grade level altogether and open to all those in 8th through 12th Grade. We chose not to move Confirmation to just 8th grade for many reasons. The major reasons were we did not want D-Groups to be obligatory and another Confirmation program; we wanted every teen preparing for Confirmation to be actively living out their faith, and made that the prerequisite for discerning the Sacrament; and we wanted every teen to know that they are accepted and part of a small group family whether or not they discern the Sacrament of Confirmation or not. We are currently in our third year of this process and are no longer offering the sacrament of Confirmation in a grade level. All of our youth, including our parish school 8th graders are invited to join a D-group in 8th grade. During their 8th grade year they are encouraged to discern the Sacrament of Confirmation, as described in our attached document.

YD: What was a mistake you made in making the transition and what did you learn from it?

SA/SM: One mistake was recognizing the needs all of our D-group leaders would have. We lost some potential D-group leaders by not continuing reaching out to them after they had committed to being a D-group leader. We lost some potentially great leaders, because they were not reached out to regularly or touched base with in a timely manner. In having to maintain our faith formation program and youth ministry, as well as start this entirely new outreach, we underestimated needs of leadership recruitment, formation, and retention. To get ahead of this in the future, we are now hiring a full time position overseeing our D-Group ministry.

YD: What is your pastor’s role in this ministry?

SA/SM: Our pastor has supported this ministry as we have continued to grow. He attends all parent meetings and helps at retreats. Most importantly he sees the good this ministry is doing and is supporting us growing our staff to have a leader to oversee our D-Group ministry. He sees this as one of the best things we are doing for our youth.

YD: What advice would you give a parish leader interested in doing something similar?

What we have accomplished was not possible without our pastor’s support and all of our leaders working together with a shared vision. It is also important to know that one cannot let go of your other outreach ministries. In our case this includes family faith formation, youth ministry, and other opportunities for encountering our Lord.  It is imperative to maintain a both/and philosophy when it comes to establishing small discipleship groups. We see our family faith formation, youth ministry and small discipleship groups working together to lead our teens closer to Christ. All of which will help the other grow and strengthen one another.

YD: What books would you recommend for parish leaders?

  • “Purpose Driven Youth Ministry” by Doug Fields
  • “Divine Renovation” by Fr. James Mallon
  • “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell
Scroll to Top