Presbyterian pastor Wade Halva believes that his experience in high school playing three varsity sports was one of his most valuable preparations for pastoral ministry. He says individual sports, like swimming and track and field, taught him to compete against himself, to compare his performance times to what he had done before, not to the times of others. He asked himself the question, “What have I learned from this meet that will help me the next time?” As a young pastor serving in a three-point charge in Indiana, he asks the same question: “What have I learned?” There are many experiences in the first years of ministry that are painful. A pastor constantly disappoints others because of unrealistic expectations members of a congregation often have of their pastor, expectations the pastor sometimes shares. It helps a new pastor to ask the constructive question that Wade Halva asks himself, the question that moves toward mature leadership: “What have I learned?”
Halva is one of a new generation of pastors who are starting to graduate from seminary after sharing an unusual experience during high school. He, and approximately 50 other high school students per year since 1993, attended the Summer Academy of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) sponsored by Candler School of Theology. This program is designed to create a safe space for intellectually talented and theologically curious high school seniors to ask complex questions and imagine new possibilities related to important issues of the public good within the context of theology. Now Catholic and Protestant theological schools across the United States and Canada host 50 such programs that engage youth in theological study and exploration of vocation, including the option of a church vocation.1 Today a high school student attending one of these programs takes classes taught by seminary professors, participates in intense discussions about issues of public theology, and lives in a Christian community for a period, on average, of two weeks.2 These experiences form young people in powerful and lasting ways. As one young person said, “The fact that I am sitting here as a college senior talking about . . . something I did as a junior in high school says a lot.” While it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions about how having had this experience in high school assists young pastors to flourish in their first years of ministry, some of the early indicators point in that direction.
A look at these programs offers some insight into formation of highschool-age young people who exhibit identifiable gifts for a church vocation, even if they do not know if they have this call. (Most of the young people who participate in these programs do not sense that they have a call at the time they participate.) Two things are striking: in these programs, high school students learn Christian practices, especially that of asking theological questions, and they are deeply shaped by the experience of living in a residential Christian community.
As one young woman said of the Summer Youth Institute (SYI) at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, “SYI stirs thought in people. It makes you question things. It challenges you in ways that you still will think about years later. You’ll say, ‘I remember when I had that conversation,’ and now I am talking about things on a much deeper level.” For some, like Noelle York-Simons, SYI was a place to find her voice. “In that month I went from a kid who wasn’t taken seriously to becoming a person who had opinions—informed opinions —that people listened to.” Some students who later became pastors say they still use the question-asking model they learned in the high school programs in their current ministries with both youth and adults. One of these pastors leads a monthly “Faith Talks” session in his rural church, where he says “people have never had room to ask questions.” As a pastor, he is nurtured in his own faith as church members explore theological questions linked to their personal struggles.
Derek Davenport, an alumnus of the SYI program, not only learned to ask questions; he believes SYI also “planted seeds of a prayer life and spiritual disciplines that took root later.” As a seminary senior seeking a call, he hopes this will help him to combat burnout in ministry.
A second formative experience gleaned almost universally from the seminary-sponsored theological programs for high school youth is learning to see oneself not as an individual on a career track but as part of a company of people who do ministry together. Typically, alumnae and alumni of these programs say: “I learned that it is all about community.” “I learned to connect with other people.” The webs of relationships that these young pastors develop as high school students can be strong and enduring. One young woman describes another person in the high school program “who was very much like myself—musical. We did not keep in touch, but she turned up at seminary too.” It was reassuring to her that there are people from her high school years with whom she shares a call to a vocation in the church. Occasionally these young pastors also name seminary professors and mentors from the high school years who are still part of their lives. More significantly, they tend to transfer this value for community to their current collegial relationships. As one young pastor who attended YTI says, “Clergy friendships are important to me, including relationships with older ones. I ask them, ‘Am I being an idiot?’ or ‘Can you believe what they said to me?’”
Matthew Williams, now a graduate of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, describes his poignant experience of “living bumper to bumper” with high school peers of different races who suddenly recognized their racism. As an African American, he was troubled by subtle assumptions imbedded in comments he heard from his fellow scholars at YTI as they passed through an inner-city neighborhood during one of their excursions off campus. In a close, trusting Christian community, he was able to name his discomfort and help his friends identify attitudes they did not know were racist. These programs often focus on difference and teaching people to see the common humanity in others who are different from themselves or with whom they disagree. This respect for difference learned in community is another value that has helped young pastors. One found himself serving as a pastor in a community with a much lower educational level than he was accustomed to. Despite this difference, he is gratified that the community has accepted him as a pastor, as evidenced in the high number of nonmember weddings he has been asked to perform.
Besides formation in Christian practices and community, young pastors who participated in these programs name a third thing that has had a lasting impact: they were helped to identify their call to a church vocation at an early age. Several said they consider this a great advantage. Becky Rowe, who attended the Theological Exploration of Youth (TEY) at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, is one who is grateful for her experience in the program. “TEY started a chain of events in my life that led to a call to explore ordination.” Derek Davenport, who is a pastor’s son and a pastor’s grandson, would not consider a call to ministry because “it was the family business.” But at SYI, he says, “I was allowed to think about it on my own terms. That’s where the idea started. In college, I realized this is for real.”
Many young people say they do not feel support from their parents or from their peers to explore a call to ministry. Jeff Kaster, director of the St. John’s School of Theology-Ministry, tells about James, who attended Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM), “During a large group discussion on vocation and listening to God’s call, James stood up and said to the group, ‘I be
lieve God is calling me to the priesthood.’ His peers immediately starting clapping and cheering for him.”
Noelle York-Simons, the associate rector for campus and neighborhood ministries at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta, knew that she was going to be a priest at age 14—before she attended YTI. For her, the experience shaped her drive. “I went from being like a six-year-old who looks at the man on the fire truck with the spotted dog and says, ‘That’s cool,’ to someone who knew what it was to be a firefighter. I went from thinking it would be nice to play with dishes on the altar to learning to think theologically in real terms and to becoming a public theologian.”
In these programs, high school youth are encouraged to ask what God is calling them to do with their lives, whether it is to enter a church vocation or some other calling. Youth also learn that there are many options for work in the church besides the pastorate. Several mention how liberating it was for them to meet television personality Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers”) through SYI and to learn that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister serving in a nonparish call.
The strategies for Christian formation mentioned here that are shown to be effective when used by theological schools with high school youth are, in fact, tried-and-true methods used for years by congregations, camps, schools, and other institutions that work with high school youth. What is notable is the intentionality and creativity with which these seminaries utilize them. Further, in this work, seminaries are venturing into territory that is new for them. They generally educate graduate students—not even college students. They are reaching to the high school age group to shape the kind of young person who will have the capacities to train for ministry. And there is evidence among the early cohorts that seminaries are forming youth in significant ways not only to prepare to become pastors but also to thrive in their early years of ministry.
Questions for Reflection
NOTES 1. For a list and contact information on theological programs for high school youth sponsored by theological schools and funded by the Lilly Endowment, contact the Fund for Theological Education at www.thefund.org.
2. There is tremendous variation in the models for these programs developed by theological schools. Some schools host the program off-campus at colleges, camps, and retreat centers. Some take youth on wilderness treks, local and international mission trips, pilgrimages to religious sites, and visits to national denominational meetings. Some involve a variety of institutions, including the home, congregation, school, and local community service organizations in the “village” that forms high school youth in Christian faith. Some ask youth to design and execute a project in their church or community after they return home. Many utilize mentors from the home congregation to extend the learning. For more information, please see “Strategic Advances in Theological Education: Theological Programs for High School Youth, 1999-2004,” by Carol E. Lytch, in Summer Reports of Lilly Endowment Grant Programs, 2005, made available through www.thefund.org.