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Program for youth also helps seminary students confirm call to ministry

Mary E. Klassen

October 1, 2013

The 2013 !Explore group photo includes the two event pastors: Eric Vandrick is second from the left, standing on the ground; Sara Erb is at the far right. Event photographer is SaeJin Lee is at the far left.

The 2013 !Explore group photo includes the two event pastors: Eric Vandrick is second from the left, standing on the ground; Sara Erb is at the far right. Event photographer is SaeJin Lee is at the far left.

As two Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary students led a program that encourages high school youth to consider ministry, their own call to ministry grew stronger.

Sara Erb and Eric Vandrick worked with !Explore: A Theological Program for High School Youth when the participants were on campus for their group experience, July 9–24.

!Explore gives high school youth opportunities to study their own theological questions, join in service with others, test gifts for ministry and consider their role in the church. As event pastors, Erb and Vandrick were hosts and guides through the 16 days the participants were together.

Erb had been a participant in !Explore, so her return to the program as a leader gave her a new opportunity to consider her own questions. At 16, the question she worked with related to women in ministry.

“This time with !Explore I was seeking affirmation for what I am experiencing in my call now. This was a testing ground to see if working with youth is something that I find life-giving.”

Seriously examining questions of faith is something Vandrick believes everyone should do, and he knew that !Explore helps high school youth to do this. He hoped that being an event pastor would “encourage my own vision for what it might be like to do educational ministry in the church.”

Event pastors host the youth and are available for questions and conversations. They join in prayer times and help the youth lead prayers each morning and evening. In addition, they and the participants do service projects with others in the community; they guide discussions, help with research and support the youth in planning worship services.

“I was surprised how meaningful it was for me,” Erb said, although she admitted to some challenges, such as managing self-care during the two intense weeks. “I anticipated it to be a really wonderful experience, but not nearly to the extent that it was,”

Erb confessed she has been ambivalent about thinking of herself with the title of pastor. However, through her work with the youth, “I found myself claiming that title a lot more and not realizing when that decision happened. At the end I realized I owned that and I was comfortable with it. That was surprising.”

During the campus segment of the program, AMBS faculty work with the youth as they explore their theological questions, but the event pastors also are responsible for some teaching sessions. Vandrick focused his teaching on the importance being connected to the area where each person lives and on caring for and valuing creation.

“I was able to teach something meaningful,” he reflected. “When I heard those topics and themes come up in conversations throughout the week, I knew it had sunk in. The idea of being co-creators with God came up during the rest of our time together. That was fulfilling.

“All of these students clearly became competent in their ability to think about and articulate their faith,” Vandrick added. “Obviously it’s just the beginning, but at the end of the time, when they did presentations on their questions, you could see the really amazing growth.”

The two seminary students earned credit for their work with !Explore, and part of that responsibility included their own theological reflection the experience. Erb said, “I focused on redefining church as a theological playground, not making light of theological work but that we are free to ask questions and enjoy what we are doing.”

This focus connected with the work Mary Schertz, AMBS professor of New Testament, did with the youth. Schertz gave them tools so they could develop their own translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Erb, in her reflections, noted “what it meant to give youth the freedom and even trusting them with the ability to translate scripture, and the positive response that came from that.”

Both Erb and Vandrick are now more open to considering pastoral ministry with youth than they were before leading !Explore. Earlier misgivings grew from the view that youth ministry can focus more on doing activities than on faith formation, and that youth ministry often is assumed to be only a stepping stone to other forms of ministry.

Vandrick said, “After !Explore I see junior high and high school as a group in the church that I am particularly called or gifted to work with.” He is open to considering ministry with youth if there are churches looking for someone to guide them through exploration of questions of faith, similar to what !Explore does. He will complete a Master of Arts: Theological Studies degree this winter and is beginning to look at different forms of ministry with youth.

Erb said, “This experience reaffirmed that youth ministry is not just a stepping stone. This is something I really do want to engage in. Through the program my strengths were very clearly in worship and worship leading.” As Erb completes a Master of Divinity this year and begins looking beyond seminary study, she is interested in positions that combine her gifts of working with youth and leading congregational worship.