Cultivating a religious calling among teens

It's not the usual summer fare for teens, but hundreds of high school youths are venturing into the world of theology, and many are finding it "awesome."

In a bid to attract talented young people into the ministry, seminaries and divinity schools across the country are hosting summer residential camps of two to six weeks. Youths are invited to deepen their faith through theological reflection and community service, and to ponder their own vocation – what God wants them to do with their life.

For many, it's the first taste of wrestling with "the big questions." A few have already had inklings that they want to minister to others – and the church may be the place to do it.

Kevin Dirksen, a senior from Gresham, Ore., spent two weeks in July at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. An avid water polo player and a writer for his school newspaper, Kevin is also active in the Methodist church and says he has sometimes felt a call to the ministry. But life is so busy those thoughts get shoved to the back burner.

After his immersion experience at Duke with 69 other teens and the "best theologians," they came to the forefront. "I'm not 100 percent sure I will end up being a minister," he says, "but this was very important."

Melissa Hund and Nicole Alton, juniors at their Catholic high school in Fargo, N.D., had a similar "amazing" experience at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

This was their second summer there, and they say they've loved the in-depth discussions and opportunity to develop leadership skills. In the intervening year, they designed a service project that engaged their parish in helping young refugees from Sudan – the "lost boys" – adjust to life in blustery North Dakota.

"Before, church was just something I had to do every Sunday," says Nicole. "Now, my religion has so much more meaning to me."

Such enthusiasm for a life engaged in church ministry is exactly what the seminaries are aiming for. They recognize that not all who participate will become full-time pastors, and encouraging youth leadership in their congregations is also a goal.

Still, "it's definitely hoped they will have a hunger awakened in them to pursue the study of theology and perhaps hear a call to full-time ministry," says Carol Lytch of Louisville Seminary, who coordinates the national effort.

Since 1999, Lilly Endowment has given $57.3 million in grants to 49 seminaries – Catholic and Protestant (mainline and evangelical) – to design programs for high school youth. Participating schools consider the first three years of the program a tremendous success, says Ms. Lytch.

While it's too soon to see any effect on seminary enrollments, surveys have shown that the teenagers are overwhelmingly positive about the experience and its continuing impact on their lives. Melissa Hund, for example, says that at St. John's last summer, they learned a different form of Christian prayer each evening. "It has had a real impact on my daily life."

And the seminaries have been vitalized, with large numbers of faculty eager to participate in the initiative. Seminary students get involved on a 24/7 basis as resident counselors and mentors.

In most Christian denominations, the proportion of young people entering the ministry has dropped dramatically in recent decades. Studies have shown that in 2000, clergy 35 and under represented only 4 to 11 percent of total clergy in the various denominations. With large numbers of pastors nearing retirement, the situation looks bleak unless congregations and seminaries can fan the embers of interest among youth.

"Many do get a sense of calling in high school, but that calling sometimes wanes during college years," says David DeBoer, head of recruitment at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has ties to the evangelical Christian Reformed Church. "So the idea is to explore the fullness of ministry with them."

Calvin Seminary's month-long program for 35 students from the US and Canada includes an overseas excursion. The students come to the campus for 20 days of learning activities – discussions applying Christian thought to contemporary issues, and service projects in the city – and then head off to Turkey for 10 days to explore the early Christian church.

According to one participant, the 1,900 miles covered in Turkey "made me realize the passion and dedication that Paul must have had to have traveled all those miles ... and that I need to have a similar passion and be willing to go wherever God leads."

Most teens selected for the programs are clearly achievers, but they are also diverse. "For some, their congregations have been the center of their lives," says Fred Edie, director of the Duke Youth Academy. "But others are edgier students who have very serious theological issues, such as whether the Scriptures are historically true."

Most programs weigh in on the creationism-evolution debate, and teens often want to discuss questions relating to non-Christian faiths, given the diversity in their high schools.

While Duke has ties to the United Methodist Church, this year teens came from several mainline denominations and 22 states. Recognizing that people learn in different ways, the program offers artistic and service opportunities along with theological reflection, and involves students in design of worship services. Baptism was the central theme.

Brit Collins, a soccer player and class president from Knoxville, Tenn., found the camaraderie with teens and adult mentors a boon – "people facing the same issues and dealing with the same problems."

He's seriously considering becoming a pastor, and he appreciated the focus on baptism. "You realize you are joined in a family now, and, as a Christian, you need to step up and take part and serve others, not just yourselves and immediate family."

This sense of vocation is also the focus at St. John's, where Catholic teens reflect on who they are and how they are called to serve. "Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need," one speaker told them.

St. John's takes a team approach, involving an adult, typically a parish youth minister, and two teens from the same parish, says program director Jeffrey Kaster. The teams come for two summer programs. The adult works on a master's degree in pastoral ministry while the teens study theology and learn leadership skills.

Together they design and carry out a service project at home during the year in between. The young women from Fargo found it an exhilarating experience. When they learned of the pending arrival of the Sudanese youths, they decided they needed to raise money to buy them coats and other winter apparel. Their planning indicated they'd need about $4,000.

"We told parishioners about our plans after all the masses, and hung tags with coats and boots and shoes on a tree we use for donations," says Melissa. With the help of local radio and TV interviews, they raised all the money within a month. They went with the 42 young refugees to help buy the coats. They then raised another $2,500 so that each one had some money to buy Christmas presents.

The Sudanese youths live together in six homes, and the church has set up a committee to keep in touch and be available if the young men need any help.

"Now they are like our brothers," Nicole says. "I went into this with the mind-set that we were helping them, but with their culture and background, we've gotten so much more out of it – it's a real eye-opener."

The teens enjoyed the theological training just as much. In the latest St. John's survey, 79 percent of participants termed those classes "excellent." Many said it was the best experience of their lives.

As one commented: "God is big. It's a simple thought, but it goes a long way if you really have faith in it. Suddenly, things don't seem as challenging."

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