I recently had the opportunity to interview Bishop Barry Beisner of the Diocese of Northern California about confirmation. Part 1 of our transcribed conversation talks primarily about his experience of confirmation before becoming a bishop. In Part 2, he talked about how his role and perspective has changed as the bishop doing the confirming rather than being the priest doing the preparation. For our final installment, Bishop Beisner shares some memorable confirmation moments and his recommendations for the church.
So can you tell about any particularly meaningful confirmation experiences you’ve had?
Just last Sunday. This is a church, it’s been two years since they’ve had a bishop’s visit and since they’ve had anyone for confirmation. I do offer regional confirmations now, by the way, that’s new, without taking away from doing it in the congregations if they want it. But for whatever reason they hadn’t done that and they just hadn’t had anyone confirmed or anything like that.
And a lot had happened in the life of that church, too. We just broke ground on a new building. They just went from mission to parish status. They got a fairly recently installed rector. I’d been there several times recently, but not for confirmation, and this last Sunday was the visitation. With 69 congregations, I usually get to a church (except for the larger churches that I might get to more often) every other year.
There were 20 people. You know, this is a church that normally has an ASA [average Sunday attendance] of 80 at the main service. And there were 20 people to be received or confirmed or reaffirmed. And they ranged in age from 14 to 75 or 80. The youth had had a retreat apart from the others, but they had done some common preparation. They really had a sense of themselves as a group. They came up one at a time, so it took forever, but they were presented by name, one at a time, with friends and family. I invite that too; friends and family come and put a hand on their shoulders. They do it for each other. And then those support folks go back to their places and they [those being presented] go step to the side and they gather there, they wait there until everyone is done and then I say that final prayer over all of them, they’re still up in front. And as I was doing that, they’re crying. They were crying. They were so moved by this occasion. A lot of us were. It was very powerful.
There have been other times when a couple of places in the diocese where the rector ask me if I please won’t just have an open invitation for reaffirmation, Episcopal altar call. And I’m happy to oblige. There was one church where I did that and I had 40 people come up in the moment, you know, no planning or preparation for reaffirmation, including couples. And so you’re praying that the “Holy Spirit which has begun a good work” in you, and in you, and in both of you together. So there’s another attachment, accretion, and also an application, I guess. Wonderful, wonderful moment.
There’ve been a few like that along the way.
It sounds like the one last Sunday…first of all, that’s a group where they’ve been through so much together, but also that everyone was taking this moment seriously for all of them.
Clearly. I was a little taken aback, frankly, by the depth of the emotions. Moving, too, because of that, that clearly they were so clearly engaged. What a privilege.
Would you be willing to share any bad experiences?
I haven’t had too many bad experiences. There’ve been a few times. Like I said, I give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether this person is really ready to be presented. There have been some times I’ve wondered.
There was one time fairly recently where there was a brother and sister. The sister was quite young and she came to my meeting before the service. Sometimes I’ll meet the night before and we’ll have a more extensive time together with the candidates. Often it’s just what you can do that morning. But there were half a dozen candidates. We had about an hour together. The girl was young, but you could tell she was in earnest. She wasn’t very articulate about it, but she had a relationship with God and she wanted to tend that relationship and this was part of it for her.
Her older brother was also supposed to be presented. He didn’t make it. He was 21, and he hadn’t been confirmed yet because for some reason there had been a conflict the last time the bishop came to town. And so he didn’t make it to the meeting, and so the service is under way, and he shows up right as the service is beginning and looks like he’s been out partying all night. I mean, really looks disheveled and all that. And I found myself…[shaking head]. So when he came and stood before me, I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him in and looked him in the eye and said, “Do you want this?” And he returned my gaze and he said, “Yes.”
So, you know, it wasn’t a moment to further interrogate. I wasn’t going to make it difficult for anyone. I wonder. I did ask the clergy about him afterwards and they said, “No, he’s for real.” OK. But I didn’t feel great about that one. I don’t know if that’s a bad experience, but that didn’t feel great. And then afterwards, the rest of the service he was on his phone texting. Oh well. OK.
What is it you hope to observe or experience when you confirm people or visit churches? And what do you hope people get from the sacrament of baptism?
From the sacrament of baptism?
Sacrament of confirmation…sorry.
Well, of course it is about baptism, that’s the thing. It’s about the covenant. And what we want, we want a church comprised of people who are living these promises, living this life. We’re an institution in the service of a movement, and the movement is a people who are transformed in Christ. And this way of life that the covenant describes, that’s the way of transformation. So I want people who are helped into that relationship, that way of life, that continually growing, unfolding, living relationship with God in context with the Church, with the mission focus and orientation that that covenant brings clearly in evidence. So that’s my hope, that’s what I want to see. And an understanding that every baptized one of us is a minister and has gifts for ministry in the service of the mission. That’s what I want. That’s my bottom line. That’s what I’m looking for. And I’m willing for there to be lots of variation and degrees of comprehension and so forth. Meet people where they are, but that the commitment’s real. It’s a real commitment in faith, responding to the call of God wherever we are in that journey.
In your opinion, how can churches best prepare people for this commitment?
Well, it’s not an isolated moment. I mean, it’s part of a whole comprehensive church life, you know. Education and sacraments and service and training and formation. Discernment of gifts and use of gifts. Every baptized person is a minister -- and we’re talking about all ages, so there should be significant opportunities for ministry as ministry for children and youth also. And not just intramural ministries, I’m not just talking about Youth Sunday lectors, you know.
I guess that unpacking of promises that helps people see this is a distinctive way of life, which if lived can make a big difference in the world.
An ongoing process of formation.
Yes. And part of it, too, is helping people understand they’re part of something larger, not only than themselves, but than their local congregation too. That’s always important.
One last question: what do you think churches should do for people after they are confirmed?
Well, again, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were helping people to…I ask people when I meet with them to make reflection on the promises [of the baptismal covenant] a regular part of their spiritual discipline, whether they do it daily or weekly or whatever, to look at those promises and to apply them in context, make them concrete and specific, and reflect on that, how they’re doing in the living of that.
I also invite people to take the…you know there’s that promise right before the covenant where the bishop asks the congregation or (if it’s baptism) whoever’s presiding asks the congregation, Will you who witness these promises do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ? And we need people to take that seriously too. That goes both ways. I tell candidates that they have an obligation to hold the congregation to that promise. And if they’re in a place in their life where they need prayer for something or have questions to discuss or study with someone, that they are entitled to call upon members of that congregation. So I would want congregations to take that kind of commitment, that responsibility we have for each other, very seriously.
Anything else you want to share about confirmation?
Well, I’d sure love it if the church figured it out and had clear and consistent teaching and practice throughout the church. My hunch is it’s going to be a while, partly because of some of the things that bishops don’t want to let go of, that have attached to it. Not just bishops. But I’m sure we’re part of the barrier.
I was very disappointed that we didn’t get a better discussion and exploration of it last summer. I was really hoping for that because I think we really need that.
I agree. And I thank you because I think this will be a wonderful part of this discussion. One of the things for me is I feel like there are not a lot of people who think full time about confirmation. And my prayer book just kind of flops open to the confirmation service. And it is something that I continually mull over. This is a wonderful part of this discussion. I think this will be a wonderful contribution to this dialogue.
And I appreciate the work you’ve been doing. Confirm not Conform is a wonderful tool.