Students and Sponsors – Let’s Talk About Faith!
Any successes that we have in ministry are certainly only by the grace of God, but often that grace is a fruit of previous failures and frustrations that have become learning experiences.
Over the last couple of years, we have experienced remarkable success in facilitating authentic heartfelt conversations about faith on our retreats, particularly on Confirmation retreats that include both students and sponsors – though this success was definitely borne out of many years of failure and frustration.
Failures and Frustrations
Whenever possible, we prefer to have sponsors attend Confirmation retreats with their students; here’s why.
And while we believe that a Confirmation sponsor has the potential to be a powerful influence in the life of a Confirmation candidate, often this potential is not actualized. Sometimes, it’s because the sponsor is not a role model of faith; he or she was chosen for some other reason. But, more often than not, it’s because Confirmation sponsors (and many others in the church, to be honest) simply haven’t learned how to share their faith; they have not been taught how to do so in a way that is normal, natural, and non-threatening.
In the early days of our retreat ministry, our attempts to facilitate student/sponsor faith discussions were often ineffective. After a series of inspirational talks, we would give students and sponsors a piece of paper full of excellent discussion questions, and then send them off for a decent chunk of time to talk among themselves. Almost every time we did this, it was apparent to us – and to the parish leaders we worked with – that only a small percentage of these discussion times were fruitful. It was discouraging, and we would readily lament how Confirmation sponsors weren’t stepping up and fulfilling their role. Looking back, however, we are now convinced that what was flawed was our process; not the sponsors’ intentions! Thanks be to God, we stumbled on a new and more effective process quite by accident.
One day, as we were getting ready to present a retreat to a large group of high school seniors, we found out at the very last minute that several of our team members were unable to make it due to illnesses and family emergencies. Those of us remaining on the team began to panic, since we had planned for small group discussion to be an integral part of the retreat day – and since 25 students per group is definitely not a small group! As we thought and prayed and discussed our options, we decided to have one of our staff members lead a roomful of small groups…all from the front of the room…and here’s how it played out…
We broke the students down into groups of five or six, and then one of our staff members followed our basic methodology for leading small groups, which you can review here. She talked about the purpose of small group, explained confidentiality, challenged them to enter in, and then asked each discussion question. However, she answered each question herself before turning it over to the small group. She then instructed the students to give her a “thumbs up” when everyone had answered and their group was done, so that she would know when to ask the next question. It was more successful than we could have imagined! So, on our way home from that senior retreat (and many times since then) we have reflected on the effectiveness of leading discussions from the front of the room, and have fine-tuned our process.
On Confirmation retreats with students and sponsors, we now often follow a series of inspirational talks with student/sponsor discussion time, and here is how we do it ~
- We explain that we are going to give students and sponsors an important opportunity to talk among themselves
- We ask them to spread out in the room, to move into some space where they can have a private conversation which will not distract others – and which will not be distracted by others
- We open up the discussion time with a prayer
- We ask everyone to agree to confidentiality by raising their hand, since what is said in small group stays in small group (much like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas)
- We encourage sponsors to step up and answer honestly and with vulnerability, since if they do, the students usually follow their lead
- We tell them that when they are done discussing each question, they should give a “thumbs up” to the leader to let the leader know that they are ready to move on
- The leader asks a question, answers that question, and then asks them to talk among themselves until most of the groups have indicated that they are done with a “thumbs up” (we highly recommend starting off with icebreaker/fun questions and then gradually going deeper)
- The leader continues to ask questions until it’s time to move on to the next session of the retreat
- When time is up, the leader closes with a prayer
Why it Works
As church leaders, we have the privilege and the responsibility to help God’s people learn how to share faith, and most of the time the best way that we can teach is through role modeling. The genius behind this methodology is that the leader shows how simple it is to talk about your faith in non-threatening ways. Therefore, it is imperative that the leader be prepared with well-thought out questions that are easy to answer AND is prepared to give concise yet thorough answers to each question.
An added bonus of this method is that it becomes a chance for the leader to fill in any gaps in the preceding talks and testimonies. The leader will often end up giving five or six mini personal testimonies during a discussion time like this, and this will help to flesh out even more the messages that were given before discussion time.
Have Fun Trying!
We have found this method to be very effective, not only on Confirmation retreats and at meetings with students and sponsors, but also in facilitating discussion on the First Reconciliation and First Eucharist retreats we give to 2nd graders and their parents.
We hope you enjoy using this simple yet powerful tool in your ministry work with young people – and adults – of all ages!