Conferences Adapting Youth Leadership Training

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (May 30, 2013) – An intensive summer leadership program for youth that the Northwest Conference (NWC) of the Evangelical Covenant Church has led for more than two decades is being adapted by two other Covenant conferences this year, with a third conference exploring the idea.

Adventures in Leadership (AIL) is a week-long wilderness experience that provides students an opportunity to learn about their leadership styles in the context of working as part of a team. The Canada and Central conferences are running their own programs this summer, and the East Coast Conference will send a team to the NWC to experience their program

The adventure is open to students in grades nine through 11 so that they will have the opportunity to use their new skills when they return to their youth groups and high schools, says Jon Kramka, the NWC director of congregational vitality who also oversees AIL.

“I never knew that carrying a canoe would mean so much more than carrying a canoe,” student Micah Friez said after participating last year.

The program has four components – intellectual, experiential, relational, and spiritual. It is enhanced through a low adult-to-student ratio that enables more personalized attention and feedback.

Students in the NWC program spend the first couple of days in an intensive base camp experience that prepares them for their time canoeing through the Boundary Waters over the rest of the week. The conference works in cooperation with Adventurous Christians/Covenant Wilderness Center.

During the canoe trip, each of the students leads their group for half a day. They are responsible for navigation, safety, making sure everyone is fed, and putting up and taking down the campsites.

“They understand that they don’t have to do it all, but they are responsible for making sure it happens,” Kramka says. After students take their turn leading, adults help them process the experience.

Students must apply to participate and are accompanied by a youthworker from the church who serves as a spiritual advisor. Adventurous Camp staff resource the wilderness activities.

After the week is over, the AIL team communicates back to the church, which includes sending an evaluation of the student’s time as well as input on how the congregation might give more opportunities to participate in a leadership role.

Kramka says one woman told him she still makes decisions in her life based on principles she learned when she participated in the trip 10 years earlier.

Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota, has incorporated AIL into their own youth leadership development process.

“We invite students who will serve on our leadership team during the following school year,” says Ben Pease, Salem’s youth pastor. “In this way, AIL veterans serve as leaders among leaders as they continue to hone their skills and develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their God-given leadership gifts.

“Students who have participated in AIL return to us with increased confidence and a great understanding of their giftedness and responsibilities as leaders,” Pease says. “After spending a week immersed in leadership development and rubbing shoulders – and portaging and paddling – with peer leaders, AIL veterans routinely look for ways to serve and lead both in our youth ministry and in wider contexts.”

The program has benefited students in other ways, Pease adds. “Time spent in wilderness adventure gives participants a renewed sense of awe for God and appreciation for creation.”

Josh Rude, pastor to students and families at Lighthouse Covenant Church in Sarnia, Ontario, promoted the idea of bringing the AIL program to Canada. He grew up in the NWC and worked as a guide at Adventurous Christians for three years.

“A student may feel confident, even express over-confidence, in their leadership, but once they are on their first canoe trip heading into the wind on a five-mile lake on a cold morning, they find there is little to control and they must search for depth in their own person and leadership style,” Rude says. “As they lead, they need to listen to one another, be patient, take note on how everyone is doing, and reach deep within themselves as they learn to lead.”

Rude says the great distances in the Canada Conference make it difficult to bring the students together, but, “Through the newly formed Trellis Foundation: A Legacy of Covenant Bible College, we have received significant financial support from the conference to enable this program and bring students to Covenant Bay Bible Camp in Alberta.”

Erik Strom, executive director of Covenant Point Bible Camp, saw the importance of the program while a youth pastor at Winnetka Covenant Church in Wilmette, Illinois. “I brought my seniors on a guided trip to the Boundary Waters. For me, the trip functioned as a sort of transition point and a reflection tool for helping students consider and prepare for living out their faith after their youth group days.

“We often shared space on the trip with AIL participants from the Northwest Conference,” he continues. “I began then dreaming about what it would look like to bring AIL to the Central Conference.” That started to come to fruition when Brian Zahasky at Libertyville Covenant Church in Libertyville, Illinois, suggested making they should work to make that dream a reality.

The Central Conference has adapted its program so that it involves four days of backpacking and one day of kayaking. Covenant Point will serve as the base camp.

Several leaders and students from the East Coast Conference will join NWC participants in its trip this year.

Strom and others say AIL represents another important way camps and local churches work together. “Churches send their young people to us to grow as disciples and leaders as they use their gifts to serve and gain practical ministry training and experience,” Strom explains. “In turn, the camps send young people back to the churches better equipped to serve the kingdom of God in their own local context. The temporary community of camp exists to nurture the permanent community of the Church.”

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