When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in East Tennessee and caused closures across Knoxville, it was unclear how long a shutdown would last.
In a typical year, 6th grade students who choose to participate in Confirmation meet weekly with Rev. Rick Isbell to learn more about their faith, the traditions in the United Methodist Church, and how to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But this has not been a typical year. What was unclear at the start of the 2020-21 school year was if and how a confirmation class would continue at Church Street.
Isbell has taught the confirmation class since he first began ministering at Church Street. Isbell retired in 2019. Each August, he would welcome a new class of students, and spend the next 8 months getting to know them and leading them, along with supportive adult volunteers, in this new era of their faith stories.
“I’d never envisioned that I would do confirmation over Zoom,” Isbell says. “I’d never imagined I’d do a lot of stuff this year through Zoom, but we’ve been able to do it.”
This year, 6th and 7th graders have joined together weekly on Zoom for the 15-person confirmation class.
Getting started included church staff, members
Isbell says that while he has led the conversation each week, one powerful lesson has come from teaching the confirmation class during a pandemic.
“What I learned is it takes a church to teach a confirmation class,” Isbell says. “It’s not just me, it’s a ton of people that have really helped this come about.”
The first step in moving the confirmation class online was deciding how to take the physical worksheets and interactive activities and replicate them online. Youth Director Jenny Cross developed the online presence for the class, creating an online folder for students to access with worksheets and lessons before arriving to Zoom class on Sunday mornings.
Before Cross could add digital files to the online folder, Rick and Paula Buckner worked to organize and keep track of worksheets and lessons. Once a worksheet was needed, a church staff member like Children’s Director Katryn Bancroft or Associate Pastor Palmer Cantler would find the worksheet in the physical file at the church, share with Doris Lively in the front office who would then scan and send to Cross and Isbell.
Once on Zoom, Melanie and Russell McNutt would ensure that the logistics of on-screen learning were ironed out. Russell is the host most weeks, and both make sure that screens are shared and students are muted at appropriate times. Jeri Strong also joins each Zoom meeting to take attendance.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s also been rewarding to continue to see their faces every Sunday morning,” Isbell says.
Class continues as planned, with only minor changes
In previous years, the confirmation class has been very interactive, with games and other ways to keep the students engaged in their learning. As the class moved to Zoom, Isbell worried about the engagement of the students.
As the class began in the fall, Isbell struggled to get responses on the Zoom format. But, through trial and error, teachers realized the best way to communicate with the students was by using Zoom’s chat feature. In one 45-minute session, more than 100 chats were sent by the students.
“One of my favorite things about the Confirmation process is observing these middle schoolers connect the dots between what we say we believe and putting our faith into action,” Cross says. “They are thoughtful, dedicated, and eager to learn. It is truly a joy!
In addition to Zoom classes each week, students have participated in mission activities to teach the importance of service and compassion in the Christian faith, just like they would any other year. The students collected items for Beacon of Hope Food Co-Op, and the first drop off for those items was at the end of February. The second drop off was on Saturday, and 330 total individual items were collected for Beacon of Hope by this year’s class.
The students have also collected money for their compassion banks for Heifer Project International. This money was also dropped off on Saturday, and the total raised was $540.
The major change for the class this year was the absence of the annual retreat. In years past students and parents would travel to an off-campus session with confirmation leaders for a spiritual retreat prior to Confirmation Sunday. In its place, parents have been required to participate on-screen the first Sunday of each month, and on April 11 a special session was held in the Church Street gym to cover some information typically disseminated at the retreat.
Each confirmand has a mentor that is required to attend at least five sessions so they can understand what is being discussed and how to best be a guide and support for their mentee. In addition, clergy members Rev. Catherine Nance and Rev. Tim Best have joined a session from time to time.
“We often say that our children and youth are the church of the future, but I would argue that they are the church of today,” Cross says. “They are already part of the body of Christ, uncovering their gifts and becoming more of who they were designed to be.”
“I believe that this ‘act of becoming’ ultimately makes us more like Jesus. And I’m grateful that Confirmation encourages our students to do just that.”
Complete list of confirmands:
Stephanie Oluwakorede Dahunsi
Claire Beth Elliott
George Miles Anderson
Riley Catherine Cada
Elizabeth Mason Cada
William Young Caroll III
Sarah Elisabeth Cheatam
Samantha Jeanne Ford
Margaret Suzanne Galbreath
Kira Morgan Hertwig
Cole Houston Jackson
Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson
Lila Fay Jumper
Grayson Michael Parker
Mary Reagan Weaver
View a gallery of imagery from the 2021 Confirmation Sunday on the Church Street Facebook here.