Best Practices of Faith Formation: Confirmation Requirements

Some years ago, I was working on a video documentary for Ford Motor Company about the famous American industrial statistician, W. Edwards Deming, who is credited with transforming Japan’s industrial quality after WWII, and making the Japanese the competitive powerhouse they are today.

Quality Control

In 1950, Deming had been upset with the quality of American products and attempted to persuade American industry to implement a statistical process control system to correct the problem. But, he was rebuffed, so he went to the Japanese who listened and turned around their quality control procedures. Today the Japanese government offers the Deming Prize to individuals, applications, and companies who excel in product quality.

In the early 1980s, when the American automobile industry led the country into a recession because Japan was taking market share, Ford Motor Company invited Deming (1900-1993), also in his 80s, to teach his methods of quality control to Ford management.

One of Deming’s famous lines, which we captured in our documentary, was this: “It costs just as much to make a bad part as it does a good one. So, why don’t you make a good one — instead of a bad one?”

He pointed out management’s error in their willingness to spend 20%-40% of the cost fixing problems or repairing parts that were made wrong, instead of investing that same money into controlling the process through regular and precise measurements, thus improving all over productivity and quality. Today, Deming’s measurement and testing techniques are the backbone of American industry.

Deming’s techniques also have a direct application in human resource management, as many companies have discovered, including training and educating students. In this article I will explain how Deming’s insights are only common sense and should be the backbone for the catechesis of children and adults in the Catholic Church. But first, let me tell a true, personal, and ironic story about Deming to illustrate my point.

True and Ironic

When I first met Deming, it was 1981. He was 81, tall, slightly stooped, and particular about his diet — forget the vegetables, he loved pies. He was also particular about what kind of chair he sat in.  I interviewed him on the top floor of Ford World Headquarters, just down the hall from the the office of the chairman, Donald Peterson, whom we were scheduled to interview an hour after we finished with Deming. The chairs available in the executive lounge were these lush, deep plush jobs that did nothing for the posture, but they looked great on camera. We set up our camera and lights, and when Deming came he took one look at the chair I directed him to, growled, and said to me, “I will not sit in that chair. It’s bad for my back.”

I was off to a great start. The man was tired, and still slightly bitter at being rejected by U.S. industry for 30 years. We hustled and got him a proper chair, and after a few moments began the interview. Because our audience supposedly knew nothing about his history, theories or management techniques (although I had read the manuscript of his latest, yet-unpublished book) I began by asking the basic questions, which I knew he had answered a thousand times before. It was an error on my part not to have briefed him on who I was and my own research. He was impatient, and considered my documentary and me a waste of his time. I started to get one and two word answers. He was miffed, and I had no idea how to fix the system I had created.

After no more than ten minutes of the scheduled 45-minute interview, I asked that the camera be stopped. It was useless; we were getting nothing on tape that I could use. I thanked Deming for his time, and asked the soundman to remove Mr. Deming’s microphone.

CL3 - hbratton notxt

©Heidi Bratton Photography

As Deming got out of the chair and began to leave, I was sad at missing the opportunity to get to know this great industrialist — one of the great benefits of making documentaries is what you learn about the people you interview and the subjects you investigate. As he left the room, I leaned over into my briefcase, and withdrew the dog-eared copy of his latest unpublished manuscript that I had read and marked up. I approached him with a pen, and asked for his signature. He paused before he took the manuscript and my pen, but immediately sat down at a nearby table, and signed his name simply but with penmanship that was magnificent.

His handwriting was remarkable for a man of his age, and I said something tacky like: “Mr. Deming, your penmanship is as sound and smooth as your management theories.”  He looked down, paused, then said, “You know, I, ah — could probably answer your questions a lot better than I did.”

It was one of those moments I hope I never forget. He sat back down, we wired him again for sound, and I conducted a solid 45-minute interview that made our project a huge success within Ford Motor Company.

It’s Up to Management to Fix It

That story has a moral, as you might expect — When something is wrong with the system, it’s up to management to fix it. That is also one of Deming’s themes — “The problem is at the top: the system can only be fixed by management.”

In our interview, I was the manager. I knew it was my responsibility to fix the problem, but I really didn’t know how to do it. By asking Deming for his signature on his manuscript I unwittingly demonstrated to him that I was not the regular journalist hack who had not done my homework. When he realized that I knew what he was all about, and that I deeply appreciated him, the problem was fixed. It was a lesson right out of his book.

The heart of his quality management theories is this: If you want a good product to emanate from your system, management has to test the system continually and make adjustments. If they don’t they’ll turn out bad parts as often as good ones.

Catechism Instruction

That is a concept that has everything to do with catechism instruction.

There has been enough written about the pathetic situation of Catholic faith formation and how poorly children, teens, and adults are formed in their faith, that I will not review it here. The analogy in Catholicism that parallels American industry from the 1950s to the 1990s is that we’re turning out bad “parts” that don’t work well. That is, the products of Catholic faith formation have not generally met the requirements of being Christians capable of defending or living their faith in the face of a belligerent society.

Taking a lesson from Deming and applying it to religious instruction, let us review. There are four levels of instructional testing that can be administered. So far, I’ve written about one of those in an article that deals with the importance of a Level 1 Evaluation. I also provided a form catechism instructors can use when conducting that bit of research — see my Best Practices in Faith Formation web page and the link titled: “CLASS SESSION EVALUATION: A Level 1 Form.”

In my mind, the Level 1 Evaluation is the first test that every faith formation instructor and developer should be administering, nearly every class time. It is a test that evaluates the instructors, the course designers, the coordinators, and parents or spouses — those who orchestrate the learning process and environment — Deming’s management.  The Level 1 evaluates the instruction in an “affective” way. That is, it measures the instruction’s ability to engage and motivate students.

The Level 2 Evaluation

Just as important, is the Level 2 Evaluation, which tests the student’s cognitive understanding of course content. In regular school courses the tests students take for their report cards are Level 2 Evaluations except that, in an instructional design sense, the test is as much an evaluation of how well the instructional design, the instruction itself, the instructor and the parents/spouses do — as much as how well the student does. This gets back to the onus for good instruction falling on management, although it does not remove responsibility from the students.

So, at Mass this morning, Fr. John Riccardo (Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Plymouth, MI) delivered a homily that I almost interrupted with cheers and cartwheels. (I didn’t, for which he is thankful. But my angel was urging me on). Here is what he said, via an email he sent me later in the day at my request:

Several weeks ago I had the chance to go into our school and teach our 7th and 8th graders for four days in a row. It was supposed to be a sort of introduction to the Theology of the Body, but it really turned into a basic understanding, rooted in several key Scriptural texts, of who God is, who we are, why He made us, and how to find happiness. At one point, on the last day, I went into a quick overview of the Ten Commandments, and at least as importantly, the context of when these ten gifts were given. It was at that point that I told the 8th graders that in order to graduate this year they would need to know the Ten Commandments. Since then, I have also made it clear that all the 8th graders need to know the Ten Commandments in order to be confirmed.

Now, a bit surprising to me, this has caused no small stir, and not merely among our students, but even among our catechists and among parents. For whatever reason, in religious education, we’ve gotten out of the habit of demanding that kids memorize anything, even though in every other discipline, whether it’s football, dance, cheerleading, math, or science, coaches and teachers make absolutely no bones about demanding that their students and players memorize things. In fact, because we often don’t demand that our kids memorize anything in religious education, we give the impression that this isn’t really that important. Where we demand little, little is understood to be of significance.

But I don’t want kids to memorize simply for the sake of memorizing. There is great value in learning the context of the Ten Commandments. This is one of the greatest dramas revealed in the Old Testament, and in helping the kids learn the context of when God gave these, we help to shatter the mistaken and distorted image of God that is so rampant in our culture: that God is some sort of ‘celestial kill joy.’ In reality, the God who gave the Ten Commandments is a God who liberates and saves. If He had wanted to enslave us somehow, He would have left us in slavery in Egypt, where the Israelites had been for more than 400 years. But He wants life for us! And the God who rescued us out of slavery is the God who gave these Ten Gifts so that we could find happiness. [Stan notes: King David wrote about how he loved God’s law. David understood that by obeying those laws, he was led into a life of happiness, contentment and joy.]

Jesus says in the Gospel today, “This is the verdict: the Light has come into the world but men preferred darkness to light.” (John 3:16-21) My experience with the kids and the discussion of the Ten Commandments comes to mind this morning because many of our kids think that darkness is light and light is darkness. They have been inundated by a culture that calls good “evil” and evil “good,” and so they are confused. And it is up to us as parents and educators to help them understand that God is a God of life and that He has laid out for us the way that leads to life, and warned us of the way that leads to death — no matter how enticing it may appear.


And the way for us to approach the light that both faith and reason require of us to be happy is to be ACCOUNTABLE and RESPONSIBLE for what it is we are supposed to KNOW. To require that students (whether children, youth, or adults) for TEMPORAL REASONS memorize, understand, demonstrate, and provide feedback successfully through a variety of mental and physical tests in order to graduate from one grade to the next, and not to require the same testing for ETERNAL REASONS, is irrational, irresponsible, and demeans and scandalizes the importance that supposedly the things of God are supposed to be in our lives.

We should not have to think about this for more than a moment. Level 2 Evaluations (and even Level 3 and 4 that measure how implicitly the values of Christian living get into our lives) should be the demand of every bishop, every priest, every DRE or FFD, and every religious education instructor throughout Christianity. It is not a grace to pass (and/or confirm) everyone that shows up. It is a scandal to confirm students that go through the motions but do not understand because of their lazy attitude, or more seriously because of their ambivalence. Apologist and author Dave Armstrong writes, “It is no less sensible to demand appropriate religious knowledge than for anything else. To not do this presupposes that religious matters are somehow only ‘private’ or unimportant, or optional, or separated from the mind and common sense.”

If you are scandalized that, according to a report that came out this week, few are graduating from high school these days without dropping out or extended delays, (only 24.9% in nearby Detroit), then what would you think if only that percentage could pass an examination of faith (both cognitive and attitudinal) after years or months of religious education? We need to change this ASAP.

So, what are you doing, or what have you experienced? Let’s hear from you. Fill up the comments under this article at my blog. We need to compile some “best practice” illustrations of how Level 2 evaluations can be applied to revitalize Catholic catechesis.

(© 2011 Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D)

Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.