Episode 4: “We confirmed them…and they stayed!!” – Teen mentorship @ St Veronica’s parish
Throughout my visits to English-language parishes in Montreal, one of the most common challenges identified is the poor retention rate of young people who receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Across the diocese, it’s not uncommon to hear that 90% or more of confirmed young people and their families stop attending church altogether after the teen receives this last of the Sacraments of Initiation. There is even a popular joke among parish workers that the easiest and fastest way to get people to leave the church is to confirm them. Unfortunately, this joke often seems more accurate than it is amusing.
However, at St Veronica’s, at least one parish is defying this trend.
St. Veronica’s, situated in Dorval near the airport, is a typical busy, mid-sized West Island parish. Her pastor, Fr. Fred Kirouac, has been at the helm for 14 years now, and will typically see about 300-400 people attending their three Masses each weekend. On any given evening, there might be a meeting of the Catholic Women’s League, the Knights of Columbus, or any of several other groups that use the parish building. And on the weekend, their Parish Catechetical Leader (PCL), Beverly Wiltsie, runs a truly comprehensive family ministry that includes both the Faith First (FF) program and a very successful teen mentorship program.
Beverly is currently in her 11th year as PCL, and in her fourth year running the teen mentorship program she pioneered. Like many other success stories in parish ministry, this program was initially conceived in response to a need. Attempting to improve retention of young people and their families after confirmation, Beverly invited the level 6 students in Faith First to help teach the level twos on a few occasions. Both the level two children and the level six teens loved the experience. After that initial cohort of level six students were confirmed in the Spring of 2013, Beverly decided to invite them back to help tutor younger students in Faith First. Fifteen teens returned from that “experimental” group to become mentors and tutors of the younger children. Four years later, she has maintained a group of about 15 teens ranging in age from 12 to 16 years old, who now help teach the younger children on a weekly basis. The program has attracted an equal number of young men and young women.
When I asked Beverly what makes the teens want to stay involved, she said she suspects it has a lot to do with giving them a genuine way to serve and a true sense of belonging to the community. Over the four years of the program, Beverly has made small adjustments to increase the visibility, responsibility, and recognition of the young teens. Early on, for example, she gave them personalized name tags to identify them as official leaders in their ministry. In the second year, she started inviting the teens to participate every Sunday in the offertory procession with the younger children. At the end of each year, she also hosts a presentation after Mass where the teens are given awards to recognize them for their contributions to the ministry.
Every year, Beverly trains a new generation of potential teen mentors by inviting the level 6 teens to tutor the level twos. She typically has no difficulty in recruiting older students to try the program, because they have grown up watching their older siblings and friends return as teen mentors, making it an integral part of the parish culture. Another positive side effect of the young people’s continued involvement is that they often bring their parents back to the Church. After all, someone has to drive them to Mass!
In his book Growing an Engaged Church, Albert Winseman, a Gallup poll researcher specialized in religious congregations, notes that the principal factor that driving parish vitality is the concept of Congregational Engagement. Engagement measures the emotional bond individuals have with each other and their parish. Engaged members use language of the family to describe their parish, and ask two key questions: (1) Am I valued? And (2) Do I make a meaningful contribution? Research shows that the engaged are more loyal and more likely to invite, serve, give and be satisfied with life. They develop meaningful relationships within their parish, report strong personal and spiritual growth, and are proud of their parish.
While not the only such program in Montreal, St. Veronica’s mentorship program stands out as one of the most successful efforts at retaining teens and their families after confirmation. By this standard, Beverly is obviously succeeding at engaging her teens by making them feel valued and helping them make a meaningful contribution to the parish. These small things can go a long way towards improving vitality in a parish.
In my role as parish vitality consultant, I’m excited to continue studying the teen mentorship program at St. Veronica’s, to learn how this program is bearing so much fruit. I hope that the principles I learn at St. Veronica’s can help other parishes keep teens and their parents engaged in their congregations, in the years immediately after their confirmation and beyond.
Please pray for Fr. Fred, Beverly and all the leaders at St. Veronica’s, that the Holy Spirit will continue to bless their efforts at engaging the younger generation.
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