The confirmation teacher as co-doubter: an interview with Andrew Root

I'm very pleased to be able to share this interview with Andrew Root, whose work on creating genuine relationships in youth ministry I greatly admire. Dr. Root, who received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is the author of The Relational Pastor (IVP, 2013) as well as a four book series with Zondervan called A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry. You can find out more about Andrew at his website.

First of all, let's talk about what you mean about being a relational pastor or in a relational ministry with young people. The basic argument I hear you making about relational ministry is that having a genuine relationship with someone is the reason and the goal of our ministry; it’s not about having the relationship in order to reach some other end (like getting them to be confirmed). Have I understood that correctly?

You have read me correctly.

Within youth ministry we’ve tended to think of the relationship as a tool with some other objective as the goal. But I’m trying to push us to see that the relationship is the end. I make that argument for ministerial reasons (I think it leads to richer, deeper ministry), but also for theological ones. I think that God primarily interacts with us in relationship. God even relates to Godself as the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not in order to get to somewhere else, but as an end (as the reality of life together). The Incarnation points to that in a deep way: that God desires to be so with and for us as an end that God enters our world and suffers all estrangement so that we might never again be outside of God’s relational reach. The church fathers often said that the goal is for us to be in God, so the relationship becomes the end there as well. So that definitely is the way to read me.

With that in mind, what encouragement do you have for someone who feels like a relationship is not enough without some measurable end to show for it?

I would ask: how do you measure good parenting? Or how do you measure a good marriage or any good relationship? I mean, there’s more to parenting than being able to say, “Well, I’m a good parent because my kid is a Varsity athlete and has a 4.0.” There’s something mystical and spiritual about a relationship that can’t be measured quantifiably. It’s something that we experience. It’s an experience of the spirit in some sense.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what you do in ministry or you shouldn’t plan ahead or you shouldn’t have some direction that you’re leading to. But I think what becomes measureable is the quality of our life together. The measureable end are the stories, the testimony of people speaking of God’s action in their life. For instance, adults participating in kids’ lives. That becomes the measurable end.

One thing I often say to youth workers is that so often we tend to measure in what I would call a technically rational way, to steal a sociological term, which means we tend to make decisions on our ministries by the numbers. But that obviously leads into certain problems. It could be that your youth group or your confirmation class has gone from having 15 kids to having 11 kids. Well, does that mean you’re a failure? Compared to last year’s numbers, maybe. But there’s probably also some deep stories that witness to incredibly significant ministry that’s going on in the midst of that.

The way to fix it or go beyond it is not to say, “Don’t measure me. I’m beyond that.” But it’s to think of what instrument we can use to measure how our ministry is doing, not in technical-rational frameworks, but to think of it in narratives, to think of it in stories.

I think maybe the measurable, especially against the backdrop of confirmation, is the questions that we’re willing to ask, the stories that we’re willing to tell.

Another pressure on those who work with youth, of course, is that parents also want a discernable result. How can those who work with youth communicate with parents about the value of being in relationship even when things go “wrong” with youth?

This is a really good question. I think that’s true that we often feel pressured, sometimes from our pastor or our supervising pastor. But often he (or she) is being pushed by what parents say they want. I think we do have to confront this fact.

It’s a little bit of a cynical assertion, but I don’t think it’s far off being true, that in the American context, the youth ministry is a billboard in a competitive religious marketplace. In a mobile society, people will drive 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes to go to the church of their choice. A youth ministry becomes a billboard that moves people into pulling into the parking lot in your church instead of driving another five minutes to another church. It isn’t necessarily about the depth of theological or ministerial connection one to another. Often what the pastor or the leadership wants is for the numbers to stay strong or going up, for the energy to stay up, and for parents to be happy.

Again, this is the cynical read. Parents play into a consumer mentality, saying, “Listen, we put money in the offering plate for this youth ministry. We’re going to this church because of this youth ministry. It’s not working for my kid. It should work.” This is a kind of commodification of the youth ministry.

I think parents are often moved by anxiety. They’re really worried about their kid. They’re hoping involvement in youth group and the confirmation class will help their kid make good decisions and help parents as they have to confront difficult questions and issues with their child. And I think they feel like if you’re not giving their kid information, if you’re not moving them along some scale or ladder, if you’re not getting something to take, then you’re exposing their kid to risk. And it’s not a rational thing.

So what do you do in the midst of this? I think the only way to break that mentality with parents is to enter into a relational dynamic with parents, to come alongside parents and to talk to them about their own faith journeys. My guess is that for most people, their experience of what led them deep into the faith was not great lessons, was not somebody who like a Pilates coach pushed them to grow and move, but someone who came alongside them in their deepest questions, someone came alongside them in moments of confusion and pain and was there for them and stood by them.

A lot of research shows that what young people need most is to have deep connections with other adults. It’s important for youth workers to communicate that with adults. We need to tell parents that our major point, here, is that we believe that Jesus encounters your young person in the relationship itself. The relationship itself is transformational.

So framing it theologically, framing it at more the existential level of our experience breaks that kind of commodifying, consumer, “Listen, I’m paying for this; I should get what I want out of it” mentality.

In your wonderful essay on Doubt and Confirmation: The Mentor as Co-Doubter (found in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry), you talk about the confirmation teacher as a partner and companion in doubt, which is what we at CnC are all about. But I think one thing we assume is that it is easy for us as leaders to get in touch with our own doubt, which may have been trained out of us by our own faith formation. Do you have thoughts on how we can connect with our own doubt?

I’m inspired by this idea of the mentor as a co-doubter, and we’ll talk a little bit later about how I’ve tried to do this in my own confirmation teaching. One of the reasons I was inspired to think this way is because, at least in my experience, a lot of confirmation teachers often feel overwhelmed. I mean, your job is to pass on the tradition which is a very complicated thing. The Christian tradition and the history of the church is very complicated with all the theological debates and all the different people. What the heck is the Trinity? And how do the Sacraments work? And what’s this and what’s that? It gets really confusing.

I think we know pretty well that young people have a hard time grasping the concepts of the faith. The research shows that we’re not doing a very good job of helping them understand it. Their parents and other adults in the congregation are kind of in the same boat. So we look to the confirmation teacher as the one who passes on the Christian tradition to young people.

But then that puts a lot of pedagogical pressure on the teacher. Not only do you need to master the material, but then you also need to have the pedagogical skills to get this fairly abstract material inside these young people’s heads.

What I’ve discovered, and this is based in more deeply pedagogical reflective pieces in how teaching and learning works, is that we tend to learn through story and experience.

So that led me into thinking of the confirmation teacher as a co-doubter because I don’t think doubt is antithetical to faith, but doubt is the very soil in which faith grows. I tend to see the great example of faith to be the father in Mark 9 who says, “I believe! Help my unbelief.”

I think so often in youth ministry and in confirmation, what we teach without saying it to young people is that “When you’re done with confirmation, you should have this all figured out. You should be able to exorcise any demons of doubt within you.” And I just don’t think that’s how faith formation works. Faith formation is this process of every day trusting in God next to your doubt. Often we tend to think that confirmation is about banked faith, that the whole point is that you teach it well enough so that when young people go to college or get out in the real world, they’ve banked enough faith that they can kind of live off the interest of it.

I don’t think it works that way. I think faith is much like manna that comes from heaven; faith is a gift from God.  And it can only be for the day. I think confirmation becomes this way of leaning into the tradition and leaning into the life of this community to learn what it means to trust daily in the act of God, to take faith daily.   Confirmation is an opportunity to watch intently as the adults take up daily, next to doubt, their faith.

And the truth of young people having faith is that they can only find their faith, they can only live into their faith in the world, up against questions and doubt. Confirmation cannot solidify or screw down all of their issues and give them all the information so that they never have to confront deep questions.

I think we have to move away from thinking of confirmation as a process of banking faith, and instead think of it as an invitation, and a time to hear the narratives of people who take faith as if it is manna from heaven, as if it is a gift from God to get us through this day, to get us through this struggle. One of the reasons why I say that the mentor is a co-doubter is that they reveal their stories of doubt and in those stories of doubt we wrestle with the Christian tradition through experience. And that’s becomes the central piece for me.

Doubt is the very soil in which faith growsI’ve made a pretty strong push in my own work to think about youth ministry as theological. One of the things that I’ve become more clear about lately is that I want to draw a distinction, especially when it comes to confirmation, between theology and the theological. This is something that has totally tripped up confirmation. Confirmation is assumed to be a time where we give kids theology. I don’t think that’s all bad. I think we need some theology. But I’m not so sure that theology can be transformational. I think what’s transformational for young people is the theological. What I mean by that is that the theological is borne from experience; it’s borne from the concrete and lived experience of young people. I think that’s when the content of confirmation does something because it’s embedded within the context of their lived experience. Doubt is simply, but profoundly, the confession of young people’s experience of the absence or presence of God. I think it is in inviting and bearing the confession of these experiences that young people are taken into the transformational presence of God as they minister through their experience.

I don’t think we can give them the content of the faith unless we deeply dwell and share in the context. And part of the confirmation teacher as a co-doubter is that the confirmation teacher provides the context in which they trust in the content of the faith, which is Christ and him crucified. So we, as leaders, invite young people to share their experiences, but we also share our own, saying things like “You know, I’ve been a Christian for a long time, since I was your age, but I’ve got to be honest, you know, that when my daughter was diagnosed with this genetic condition and now she struggles, every day we have to give her medication. I mean, it’s just led me to doubt; is God in control, here? This verse from Romans that says, ‘God works all things out for the good of those who love God,’ I mean, I’ve got to tell you, I question that at 3:30 in the morning when I’m giving her an injection.” That is the movement into the theological, and young people now have to question with us, next to our story and connected to their own, “What is the providence of God? What does it mean to trust in God in the midst of this kind of world?”

The interesting thing that’s happening even in neuroscience in studies they’ve done is that our brains don’t remember things like as if they were on a tape, or if they were recorded. Experiences get stored in our emotions and what happens is something occurs – a smell, often the hearing of another story – and we literally re-remember it. Our brain reproduces it from our experience and the feelings that are stored within our being. We re-remember it together.

That’s essentially what the confirmation teacher as co-doubter is doing, she is re-remembering times of suffering and doubt, re-remembering the times God acted for her with young people. Neuroscience is saying that when we hear stories, our brains light up and, almost like a reflex, we start to remember our own stories and our own experiences. So to get young people to share their experiences of suffering and doubt means inviting them to hear people tell stories of doubt, to hear the faith community confess it faith through the experience of doubt.

And so how do we do that as adults? I think the first thing that we have to do is to break open this illusion that we’re supposed to have it all together, this illusion that we have this perfectly formed, shiny, full conception of the Christian tradition. I think most people in our churches have deep, deep questions that they tend not to voice at church, and maybe part of the job as the paid youth worker is to bring the confirmation teachers together and say “You know, I could teach you all the lessons and how to teach them, but one of the things we’re going to do together and before young people is narrate our lives to each other and tell our stories of times where God was present in our life, or a time when God was  absent.” So I think that starts it.

The relational dynamic opens up this place of doubt. Think of Mark 9, what leads the father to say, “I believe! Help my unbelief”?  It wasn’t Jesus saying, “Do you believe these things? Do you believe this? Do you believe that? Do you believe I’m the son of God?” It’s that his boy is sick. His boy cannot get better. No one can heal him. It’s the kind of despair and suffering and doubt that he wishes so much for this boy to get better, but he’s not. It’s in the lived, concrete experience that the theological breaks out for the father in Mark 9, where he says, “I believe! Help my unbelief.”

That leads very well into my next question. You write, “a good confirmation teacher is not necessarily someone who knows every answer. It is, rather, someone who can create an environment where people feel safe enough to speak their deepest doubts into the life of the group – to speak these doubts and then seek God in them.” What suggestions do you have for creating that kind of environment?

My answer to that is that it’s about helping confirmation teachers become good story tellers. This is something we can do in youth ministry much better. I think that helps us with how we measure what we’re doing. Parents who come and are mad, saying, “Why is the youth group down?” or “Why aren’t you meeting as many nights? Why aren’t there as many big events?” is to tell them a story of the way God is moving.

Maybe the way we need to help and even recruit for confirmation teachers is people who can tell good stories. Now, I don’t mean they need to be Garrison Keillor or something (maybe that just locates me in the upper Midwest; I should have said Christopher Nolan—that’s much cooler). But we learn to tell stories by hearing stories, so we need to help our confirmation teachers understand what makes a good story.

A good story reveals who we are, but it doesn’t over-reveal in a gross way. It speaks from a certain level of honesty that invites others to reflect upon it. The stories aren’t too long or too short. Things like that.

I believe deeply that narration and prayer are essential pieces of youth ministry. I think prayer is a huge piece of that. How do we help people pray together? How is confirmation small group in and of itself an activity of prayer where we share our lives and pray our lives one to another.

Just out of curiosity, could you share a little bit about your own confirmation experience? What has stuck with you from that?

This isn’t shocking, this is probably what all people say about their confirmation experience, but I don’t remember any of the content from my own confirmation. But I remember the retreats – not what was said in the retreats, but the times in cabins, the times with adults. I remember the drives up in vans more than I remember the teaching time. And I had this incredible experience that other adults wanted to know me and share in my life.

As a confirmation teacher, what sticks out is the difficulty and yet beauty of setting the space for us to hear each other’s stories. One of the things we’ve done in my confirmation class that I teach – and it’s a very small class; there’s only three of us – was to read the Bible together. I kind of said this off-handed comment to a group of paid youth workers during a presentation that it’s amazing how often we want kids to read the Bible but rarely do we read it with them. Sometimes a confirmation teacher will read it with them, but often we get stuck in curriculum instead of just reading the Bible with kids.

So what we did with my three confirmation students is we just decided we were going to read three chapters of a book of the Bible together. We started with the gospel of John and then read the gospel of Luke and then read Acts together. And we would just read three chapters; they would read them before they would come, and then we come together and we’d read them all together.

One of the things I did – it’s a Presbyterian church – is I would ask people from the Session to come and sit with us. So two or three other adults would come with these three confirmation students and me, and we would read the Bible together. We just had three questions: What did you find interesting in these three chapters? What did you find confusing? And where are you in the midst of it? And it was incredibly powerful to hear these adults start to share their stories as they reflected on the Biblical text. As they would say, “You know, what confused me was this because what’s going on in my life is that.” And all of a sudden young people would start to connect to it.

So that was a  powerful experience, to use confirmation as this time where we read the Biblical text, and read the Biblical text together, and not together as leader with adolescents, but together as a church community. That was a profound experience.

How do you keep the profound and meaningful experiences of confirmation going once youth are confirmed? One of the issues we face, I think, is that too often confirmation is seen as a completion of something. First of all, if it’s not a completion, then what is it? And what is your dream scenario for what happens after confirmation?

We kind of have this difficult situation where we’re living this…I don’t want to say lie, but it’s fairly close to a lie, or it’s at least it’s a kind of innocent deception, which is that we tell young people that once they’re confirmed, that they will be adult members of the church. And of course part of the problem is that they don’t often become adult members of the church. They usually go to the high school youth group and are continually treated like adolescents.

I wonder what it would be like for the church and the confirmation program to serve this kind of prophetic function. It may be very true that adolescence is extending in the larger culture, but what might it be for religious communities, for communities of faith, to treat young people as adults after they go through the rite of confirmation? Maybe for every other day of the week, they are treated this way or that way, but within their faith community, they’re treated like adults and their theological perspectives and doubts are affirmed and wrestled with. That would be my dream scenario.

Why is it so much a graduation ceremony? It’s a graduation ceremony because we’ve made it more about content than context. We’ve had kids read the Bible in small groups with one overseeing adult, rather than reading the Bible with the whole church congregation. The church as a whole has lacked the idea that we make a commitment to carry these young people.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom to those who are teaching confirmation classes this year?

My words of wisdom would be this: ultimately at the end of the day what’s most important as a confirmation teacher is that you are yourself, that you reveal yourself. Now, we have to do that recognizing power dynamics. It’s not fair to any kid to hear about our marital struggles or things like that. But at another level I think there is this call to open ourselves up to young people. I think what young people need most are persons to be in relationship with, to wrestle with their humanity with.

So I think my ultimate word of wisdom to adults this confirmation season as they go into this year is to be a person, to be a human being, to embrace young peoples’ humanity and to live out of their own humanity. That becomes an essential piece and I think it fits into this confession we make that Jesus Christ, that God in Jesus Christ, has become human.

I think there’s some freedom in that, that we can go and be ourselves in a respectful way, that respects the humanity of young people, reveal our doubts and wrestle with them, and listen to their wisdom and their weird answers, and dig into those.

Andrew, thank you so much for sharing some of your stories with us.

Thanks for including me in this. It was really fun. I hope it was helpful in some way.