I'm so pleased to present this interview with Jen Bradbury, whose blog, YMJen.com, I have been following for some time. Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus and The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. When not doing ministry, she and her husband Doug can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.
How did you get started in youth ministry? And why are you still in youth ministry?
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I worked for an organization that facilitates high school mission trips. I felt so utterly alive that summer. Upon returning to school, I began serving in the youth ministry at my church. The youth pastor there mentored me. After observing me in action, he suggested I might want to think about going into youth ministry.
Immediately after graduating from college, I accepted my first call in youth ministry. To be honest, it was horrible. I did SO MANY things wrong. Yet, time and time again during that first year, God affirmed my calling. I began to see that in youth ministry, I was using every single one of my gifts. I sensed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that youth ministry is where God was calling me. I’m committed to that calling until God tells me otherwise!
One of the things that gets under my skin is this often unexamined notion that youth ministry is a lesser ministry from adult ministry, or that adult ministry is the norm against which all other ministries are measured. Have you encountered that prejudice? How have you navigated through that?
I spent five years serving as the youth pastor in a multi-ethnic congregation. There, I lost track of how many times someone asked me when I was going to become a real pastor there, as though being a youth pastor is somehow a lesser calling. My standard response became, “I believe I already am one.”
For me, the thing that’s been most helpful in navigating this mentality has been confidence in my own calling and in my identity in Christ. When I’m secure in that, it matters a lot less what other people think.
Aside from that, another thing that’s been helpful in navigating this has been storytelling. Whenever possible, I tell stories of how God is moving amongst our youth (and the adults who serve as leaders). Those stories help people in my congregation understand the value of this ministry and begin to see it as vital and connected to the ministry of our entire congregation.
I particularly wanted to interview you because you offer a workshop entitled “Beyond Confirmation: Transitioning Teens from Confirmation into the Church.” First of all, what inspired you to create this workshop?
Several years ago, as part of a graduate school class I was taking, I had to assess one aspect of my congregation’s youth ministry. I chose to assess the transition from the end of eighth of grade (when students are confirmed) to the beginning of ninth grade (when they enter our high school youth ministry) because of the frustration I felt each year when we confirmed a class of 14 or 20 students, out of which only four or five continued into our high school youth ministry.
As a result of this assessment, we made several key changes to help bridge the gap from confirmation to our high school ministry. Those transitions made a huge impact on our retention from confirmation to high school youth ministry. After seeing this happen for several years in a row, I began to realize we were onto something important.
At the same time, I’d recently come back from a conference. At one seminar, the speaker (who was not from a tradition with confirmation) was asked about confirmation. Unable to answer the question himself, he turned it back to the room. The room lit up – not with answers to the questions but with people sharing additional concerns regarding confirmation. As I heard their concerns, I sat there thinking, “I know how to address those!” So, I created this workshop.
What are some of the reasons that lead to the confirmation as graduation phenomenon? In your tenure in ministry, has this changed in any way?
My assessment revealed several factors that contribute to the confirmation as graduation phenomenon. First, it’s part of our mainline ethos. Here’s what I mean by that. Confirmation is traditional. It’s been practiced in many churches for generations. In many of our families today, people get confirmed because that’s what generations of people in their family have always done. Often, the impetus to participate in confirmation really comes from Grandma and Grandpa, not Mom and Dad. As a result, confirmation tends to draw people back into the church who are not currently involved in it. Once their commitment to confirmation ends, so, too, does their commitment to church.
Another thing that leads to confirmation as graduation is the perception that confirmation is like school and is, therefore, not fun. Since in many cases, confirmation isn’t fun, parents often feel like it’s a battle to engage their teen in it. Twice a week, parents fight to get their kids to confirmation and / or church. That’s exhausting. So, once they complete confirmation, they breathe a deep sigh of relief over the fact that they made it. Once that milestone is over, many parents choose NOT to continue battling their child over attending church.
Additionally, the ministries of many churches are often isolated from one another. This leads some people to conclude, however wrongly, that there’s nothing after confirmation for their child to participate in other than worship. Unclear about what comes next, many people simply stop participating after confirmation.
In your opinion, what sets confirmation apart as a formation practice? What value does it have?
Many churches that practice confirmation do so in junior high or early high school. This is such a unique developmental age. Students are questioning everything, including their faith. At the same time, they’re trying to differentiate themselves from their parents. Because of that, this is a prime opportunity for students to take ownership of their faith.
At its best, confirmation offers tremendous value to help teens decide for themselves what they believe and why; To connect confirmands with others in the church; To help students discern their gifts and figure out how to use them for God’s kingdom work (both inside and outside the church walls); And to cultivate a sense of belonging. If, in confirmation, we can help teens create affinity with each other and the larger church body, we will greatly enhance our chances at engaging them in congregational church life post-confirmation.
Are there any youth for whom confirmation is generally a better experience than for others? Outgoing versus introverts, for example, or readers/verbal types versus active types? How do you make it a positive experience for as wide a range of people as possible?
Well-designed confirmation ministries can be a good experience for a wide range of people. However, many confirmation ministries are structured like school: Students are expected to sit still while someone in authority, typically a pastor or youth director, lectures them about some theological topic they’re not typically interested in. That style tends to favor introverted kids who happen to like school.
To make confirmation a positive experience for a wider range of people you have to engage multiple learning styles. Although I’m not opposed to ice-breakers, this means doing more than just beginning confirmation with a game. It means making your actual teaching interactive. Show movie clips. Utilize discussion groups. Play games with a point as PART of your lesson. Use movement to invite teens to share their opinion on controversial ideas. Allow time for silent reflection through journaling or written responses to questions. The best confirmation ministries don’t relegate “fun” to a separate event or time of the night; they incorporate fun engagement throughout the entire lesson.
There’s the preparation; there’s the confirmation itself; and there’s the afterwards. How do you encourage continued engagement after confirmation is over?
If you wait until after confirmation ends to encourage ongoing church engagement, you’ve waited too long. You’ve missed your opportunity. For this reason, in my setting, we’re intentional about connecting confirmands with those in our high school ministry (as well as exposing them to our high school ministry) throughout the time they’re in confirmation. To do this, we do several combined social and service events each year where we’re intentional about mixing confirmands and high school students to help establish relationships between them. We also do a combined confirmation and high school summer mission trip as well as a winter retreat to allow for cross-pollination. The more familiar confirmands are with our high school ministry as well as the more friends they have who already attend it, the more likely they are to continue attending it after confirmation. In the same way, we don’t wait until after confirmation to invite students to start serving in our congregational life.
Within our high school ministry, we’re strategic about reaching out and inviting new confirmands to attend immediately following confirmation. We deliver a buddy bag to each confirmand containing gifts, each related to some facet of our ministry and inviting them to attend it. We match high school students with confirmands and intentionally give them opportunities to connect. We track attendance and follow-up with people who have been absent to let them know they were missed.
How has your confirmation methodology changed over the years? What have you learned?
It’s become more interactive and more intentional.
Like so many in youth ministry, I used to give talks. Now my lessons are discussion-based and interactive, something that definitely engages teens better than lectures. As I mentioned before, it’s also key to engaging a wide-range of teenagers.
In my congregation, the senior pastor and I share responsibility for confirmation. He’s responsible for Wednesday nights; I’m responsible for Sunday mornings. When I first took the responsibility for Sunday mornings, my approach was a little helter-skelter, which is to say, I planned it a week at a time, with no long-range intentionality. God, in his mercy, still bore fruit through that approach.
However, after doing this for several years, I began to feel as though Sundays weren’t having the impact I hoped they would. So I created two year-long series (both of which are hugely interactive.) The first takes students through the Bible, Genesis – Revelation and is designed to show them that all of Scripture is one story. The second deals with each of the five promises that confirmands make when they are confirmed in my tradition (the ELCA). Both series address topics and stories not covered on Wednesday nights in confirmation.
What have youth taught you about confirmation, and about youth ministry broadly?
To ask questions! One of the things I love about junior highers is they don’t let you get away with anything. If something doesn’t make sense, they say so. I love their curiosity and hunger for the truth. That’s something I want more of in my faith.
What advice do you have for someone offering a confirmation program for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things.
Be interactive and intentional.
Don’t get so consumed with transmitting information that you lose sight of the importance of relational ministry. The #1 goal, I think, in successful confirmation ministries is to help students develop relationships – with Jesus, others in your congregation, and their peers. All three of those kinds of relationships will serve students well in a journey of faith that extends throughout their entire life, not just through the duration of confirmation.
Thank you so much!