By Jessica Brodie
For years, many South Carolina youth ministers longed for a United Methodist confirmation experience that would not only embrace Wesleyan theology, but also include smaller congregations as well as those of all races.
Now, thanks to hard work by a jurisdictional design team, plans are coming together for a new confirmation experience for United Methodist conferences across the Southeast.
Called Hinton Theotokos Confirmation Retreats, the experience intentionally targets small churches and churches of color, specifically in South Carolina and Western North Carolina, which are said to be the only two annual conferences without a specific conference-sponsored confirmation experience.
The Rev. Elizabeth Murray, youth pastor at Lexington United Methodist Church, Lexington, has chaired the design team for the last year in developing the plan, drawing heavily from her own experience with youth and confirmation. While her church is larger and has an active confirmation program, many churches in the South Carolina Conference do not. Some have only a handful of students and haven’t held confirmation in a decade, even longer. Others do a tiny confirmation based on old materials or other, non-United Methodist programs.
“Confirmation can be very difficult for churches,” Murray said, especially churches with just a pastor, a parent and two kids participating.
In the past, Dr. Chris Hughes and Rev. Gloria Hughes, in partnership with Ed and Kathleen Kilbourne, led a confirmation experience at Lake Junaluska, the Foundation for Christian Formation, but that program has now ended, and a vacuum remains.
Enter Hinton Theotokos.
The design team—comprising seven men and women, four from South Carolina (Murray along with Dr. Sheila Elliott Hodge, the Rev. Megan Boatwright and the Rev. Jad Taylor)—developed an experience that would take place at Hinton Rural Life Center, a United Methodist agency located in Hayesville, North Carolina. Others on the team are Sallie Anna Broome and the Rev. Monica Childers of the Western North Carolina Conference and the Rev. Karen Kluever, formerly from South Carolina and now a deacon with the Kentucky Conference and the director of church relations at Hinton.
Slated for four weekends in March 2022, the experience will include lodging, meals, a mission opportunity and an emphasis on the five United Methodist membership vows: prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
They are also in the midst of designing a free curriculum to pair with the confirmation retreat, though it does not have to be used. Churches can have the option of doing the curriculum only, the retreat only or both.
Murray said the vision is that a group with only two kids would not just be OK but invitational. “This is meant for all churches but especially small churches,” she said.
Hodge said she’s long been concerned about the need for a confirmation retreat that includes small churches and churches of color in a way that enriches them and calls them to discipleship.
Hodge said she and Kluever have been friends for many years, and over the years they have had a number of talks about this need. Much of Hinton Theotokos stems from those conversations—and that need.
“One of thing that warms my heart and speaks to my hope for the children and youth of our conference is that Karen always heard me,” Hodge said. “She didn’t dismiss or pooh-pooh it; the idea didn’t leave her, either.”
In the past, South Carolina’s youth often had Youth Annual Conference and Springmaid youth retreats to help connect them and create intimacy and meaning in relationship with each other. That time is now over, and while current youth events like Revolution and Immerse are good, youth ministry has been missing a piece in the form of a confirmation experience, Hodge and Murray said.
“You have to have (confirmation) for the whole picture, the whole rhythm for youth ministry,” Hodge said.
Hodge said she sees the confirmation experience as an opportunity to lead more into the ministry, particularly African Americans.
“We have fewer and fewer younger people coming into the ministry, and I wonder if participating in a different, intentional, diverse and inclusive confirmation program and curriculum might help us,” Hodge said. “That’s my hope.”
Murray said she has the same hope. She’ll be passing the role as design team leader off this fall—she has the bittersweet opportunity to serve as the associate pastor of youth and young adult ministries at the American Church of Paris, and she’ll start her new position Oct. 10.
“I’m excited about job but I also felt sick to my stomach—Hinton Theotokos is our baby!” Murray said.
Still, she’s doing her part with the other team members to finalize plans for the March event, as well as finish the curriculum, so all churches will have the opportunity for their students this winter.
The name of the experience, Theotokos, comes from the Greek word for the Virgin Mary, which means Christ-bearer or God-bearer. In essence, Murray said, this is what Christians are to do as disciples—bear Christ to the world through our gifts and ministry.
Anyone interested in being a part of the design team, or interested in learning more about Hinton Theotokos, should visit https://hintontheotokos.org.