Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Major gifts from two donors are breathing new life into Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s summer youth leadership development program.
!Explore: A Theological Program for High School Youth will be able to continue on a regular basis for at least the next decade, thanks to a gift of $751,811 from the estate of Leatha Zook, formerly of Orrville, Ohio, which continued the support begun in 2015 with a $50,000 gift from Laura Ann King and the late Kenneth King of Scottdale, Pennsylvania. The program offers youth in 10th, 11th and 12th grades the opportunity to develop leadership skills and test their gifts for ministry.
“These gifts are huge because they help us continue a program that has proven to be immensely successful,” said Andy Brubacher Kaethler, director of AMBS’s Center for Faith Formation and Culture (CFFC), which administers the program. “Rarely do I open an issue of The Mennonite, Canadian Mennonite or Mennonite World Review and not read something about a former !Explore participant. Many of them are leaders in the church in Canada and the U.S.”
Kaethler added that !Explore participants who have chosen vocations outside of the church are going about them in ways that are informed by the program: “One participant from eight years ago told me that although he had considered becoming a pastor, he was going to become a doctor. He said, ‘!Explore has shaped the way I think about what it means to become a doctor, who I want to serve and what kind of doctor I want to become.’ I think that’s huge.”
A grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc., initially funded !Explore from 2003 to 2010, when it ran every summer, sometimes with two groups of students. Since then, AMBS has had to raise funds to run the program, so it has been offered about every other year. Kaethler is grateful that the gifts will help the program continue to bear fruit into the future.
Inspiration and challenge
Kaethler said he consistently hears about the importance of both the group and congregational components of the program.
In the 16-day group experience, participants come together at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana, for worship, spiritual disciplines, service and study of a theological question. AMBS faculty and students serve as mentors and conversation partners.
For 100 hours during other weeks that summer, the students fulfill the congregational experience part of the program, working alongside a pastor in their home community in a mentoring relationship. Within their congregations, they are testing their gifts, practicing leadership skills and continuing to engage spiritual disciplines and theological questions.
“Part of what makes the program work is that the youth come here to the seminary to be with youth who are kind of like them; they’re used to being leaders, but they’re not used to being with other leaders. They can really challenge and inspire each other, and being able to do that on the AMBS campus is significant,” he said. “Also, working and developing their leadership skills in their congregations, surrounded by adults who will continue to encourage them — that’s another key part.”
Josh Janzen of Aurora, Nebraska, a 2013 !Explore alum and a current Master of Divinity student at AMBS, said his peers’ questions inspired and challenged him: “I loved being able to get into deep and complex questions about faith and theology in !Explore, such as how we interpret Scripture.”
Janzen is one of three !Explore alumni who are currently studying at AMBS. Of the 158 students who have come through the program, eight have returned to AMBS to study. At least nine have gone on to other seminaries or theological schools.
Integration into AMBS academics
About four years ago, AMBS leaders began to work at integrating the program more fully into the curricular life of the seminary, said Kaethler, who also serves as assistant professor of Christian formation and culture at AMBS. For example, the !Explore event pastors are now seminary students, and those who serve in this capacity can get course credit.
He noted that part of Lilly Endowment’s goal in funding programs like !Explore was to help shape seminaries. A book published in March 2016, How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education – If We Let It: Reflections from the Lilly Endowment’s High School Theology Program Seminar, edited by Kenda Creasy Dean and Christy Lang Hearlson, includes a chapter by Kaethler with reflections on his experience of directing !Explore.
He shared feedback from Mary Schertz, professor of New Testament at AMBS, who met with a small group of !Explore students five to six times during the group experience to explore their biblical and theological questions together.
“She said that what she liked about working with !Explore youth was that she could try educational approaches with the students that she might not try in a seminary classroom. If one of them worked, she’d use it in her seminary-level courses,” he said. “This setting gave her a chance to test her creative ideas.”
Leatha Zook, who passed away in December 2015, would have been glad to hear about these transformative experiences, said Steve Schmid of Wooster, Ohio, one of her nephews, who delivered the check from Zook’s estate to AMBS in August with his sister, Barb Fridley of Elkhart, Indiana. Leatha and her husband, Paul, were farmers; they didn’t have children of their own and were close to their nieces and nephews.
“Leatha gave several transformational gifts while she was alive, helping the church and church organizations in Kidron, Smithville and Orrville [Ohio] do things that were only distant dreams — not just business as usual,” Schmid said.
“Leatha’s gift demonstrates her love for AMBS, youth and the church, and she was able to express that beautifully through her final gift,” added Missy Kauffman Schrock, director of development for AMBS.
According to Gerald Shenk, major gifts officer for AMBS, donor Laura Ann King also expressed affirmation for the transformative nature of the youth program. King’s late husband, Kenneth, had worked with young people at Goshen (Indiana) College and Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.
“Kenneth passed away in 2002, but they had spoken often of their hopes for these funds, and she was very grateful to be able to follow through in fulfilling their shared vision to make a difference in the lives of young people who love the church,” Shenk said.
Kaethler is energized by the way that the !Explore program generates excitement, goodwill and partnerships between families, churches, the seminary and young people: “When you have all those groups of people working toward the same cause, this is where the call of Samuel comes alive today: young people, parents and church leaders can work to develop the next generation of faithful, thoughtful leaders.”
The application deadline for !Explore 2017 is Feb. 1, 2017.
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