Today we're pleased to get inside information on The Confirmation Project from its co-director, Katie Douglass. With a research grant from the Lilly Foundation, "The Christian Youth: Learning and Living the Faith Project (CY: LLF) seeks to learn the extent to which confirmation and equivalent practices (CEP) in five Protestant denominations in North America are effective for strengthening discipleship in youth." We can't wait to hear more about the results. You can be part of the research by signing up on the website to receive their survey, which is coming out any moment now. And we're so pleased to have Katie's personal take on the project.
First of all, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I am an ordained minister (now “teaching elder”) in the PC(USA) and a mother of two little boys, George and Paul. My husband John is a biochemist and we live in Seattle. In 2013 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with my PhD in Practical Theology and my dissertation focuses on the role that the arts play in the faith lives of young adults.
We’re going to have to interview you about your dissertation as well! For right now, would you tell us about the Confirmation Project?
The Confirmation Project is a research project aimed at understanding the current practices around confirmation and equivalent practices. We decided to take a mixed methods approach to doing this research. That means we are doing both a national survey and site visits. We believe that you can learn about a practice both by looking broadly at what people are doing as well as deeply into the actual practices happening in congregations. The “equivalent practices” language is important because some congregations have moved away from a traditional understanding of confirmation toward other practices they have found more meaningful.
Who is involved? Who are you surveying? And who’s doing the research?
For this project we are only studying five mainline Protestant congregations that practice infant baptism: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church. Through the survey and site visits we hope to hear from youth, parents, volunteers, mentors, and ministry leaders.
Our research team includes professors, ministers, students, parents, and lay leaders. You can read more about them at our website.
And that’s where people can sign up to receive the survey?
Yes. To ensure we have the correct email address for your congregation, you can send us your contact information through our website at www.theconfirmationproject.com
Can you tell us a little about the survey itself?
The survey takes 15-20 minutes to complete and asks questions about what people believe, their involvement in the church, their interest in various topics, and what they think the point of confirmation is. The parent and leader survey ask many similar questions and, in a more detailed way, about how confirmation is conducted.
What’s the timeline for collecting information? And when will we be able to learn the results?
This is a two-wave study, so we will be distributing surveys in October 2014 and again in May 2015. Our hope is to publish reports rather quickly on our website. Throughout the year you will also be able to begin to read portraits of congregations and their current practice of congregation.
I saw in the background that a similar project happened in Europe in 2007. What did people learn about confirmation from that project?
The European study on confirmation found that the practice functioned very differently according to country. In some countries, like Finland, confirmation was something almost everyone participated in (over 80% of youth!), however, it did not result in high levels of congregational participation (only 2-3% of Finns attend church weekly.) In other countries, like Austria, only 10% of youth participate in confirmation, however, those who do are much more likely to be regular members of congregations. This study also showed that confirmation gives youth the opportunity to volunteers in ways that are otherwise inaccessible to them. Their study was very well received and as a result they have been awarded further funding to conduct two more waves of the study.
Do you have any hypotheses about what you’ll hear?
From talking with ministers and pastors early in our research we are interested in knowing if there is agreement between parents, youth, and ministers as to what “confirmation” actually is. If what we heard from the ministers is correct, there is quite a big disparity between what people think this practice is.
We also believe that we will see a higher correlation between participating in confirmation and being an active church-goer. In the US, congregations seem to have higher levels of retention than in Europe anyway, however, we have a hunch that “believing” and “belonging” will go together (i.e. when youth are convicted about their beliefs, they will be more likely to see these beliefs as part of their identity as a Christian, to belong to a church).
Finally, if you could change one thing about how churches do confirmation today, what would it be?
Great question! The one thing I am trying to do is to help ministers grow in their awareness of what this practice can or could look like. Many ministers we have talked with feel like they are at a loss as to what they are supposed to be doing. Many, although not all, feel frustrated that despite their efforts to help youth “confirm” their faith, they are seeing this function as the final graduation for youth out of the church. I am hopeful that through our research, we will be able to help those frustrated ministry leaders have the resources they need to change confirmation into a practice that integrates youth into the body of Christ and intensifies their faith.
We’re hopeful too. Thank you so much for this information on the project, and we look forward to seeing the results!