Young People Take ‘LEAP’ of Faith

LEAP group at departure

High school youth gathered in a seminary? In the summer? What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

Forty-eight high school students, mostly juniors and seniors and primarily from East Coast states, not only spent five days on the campus of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, but they seemed excited to be there, anticipating what is certain to be a life-changing experience.

The group was the first contingent to enter the “LEAP Program” (Learning, Experiencing and Participating), a new initiative at EMS aimed at helping high school-age youth to hone their leadership skills, to explore Christ centered theological studies and pastoral ministry (or other church leadership roles) as a possible vocation and to engage in cross-cultural learning experiences.

“Some of you may never have set foot inside a seminary or know what a seminary is or does,” EMS dean Ervin Stutzman told the group at an opening ceremony Aug. 1. “You might even feel a bit scared, but don’t be,” he advised. “Seminary is a place where something develops or grows, where seeds are being planted, and that’s what’s going to happen to each of you.”

For the initial summer experience, LEAP is taking the student group and adult leaders to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Africa, Aug. 8-17, to attend a Global Youth Summit and the 14th Mennonite World Conference Assembly. Between 6,500 and 7,000 people from around the world are expected to attend the gatherings being held at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair Centre. Linford Stutzman, associate professor of culture and mission at EMS who worked on curriculum for the LEAP program, led theology classes during the orientation and is accompanying the group as “theologian in residence,” leading Bible studies and helping participants process what they are seeing and hearing.

The students and adult leaders spent Aug. 1-5 at EMS for orientation sessions that included classes and workshops, worship and Bible study, group-building exercises, a day at Highland Retreat Camp, a Zimbabwean meal and other activities aimed at building group cohesion.

Participants for the first LEAP experience were selected through initial primary partners – Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pa.; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions, Harrisonburg; Philadelphia (PA) Mennonite High School and Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va. They were also recruited from Menonnite churches in New York City and the Tidewater, Va., area and other states, largely from the East Coast.

One LEAP participant, from Jamaica, was unable to attend the orientation but will join the group en route to Africa.

“One of the distinctives of this program is that each LEAP member was identified and chosen from within his or her local community of faith, whether church, school or conference, as a young person exhibiting potential for future leadership as pastors or other church leadership roles,” said LEAP director Richard A. Pannell.

“This will be an experience unlike anything you’ve ever had before,” Pannell said in welcoming the group to campus. “This is to be a spiritual training exercise – that’s why we’re here.”

“You have been chosen because someone believes you have leadership potential,” EMU interim president Beryl H. Brubaker told the studens. “Through this cross-cultural experience you will learn much about other people, about yourself and about God,” she said.

LEAP participants praised the orientation experience, citing “the amazing way that a diverse group bonded in a short time.”

Sara Hershberger, 18, of Harrisonburg, said she “anticipates meeting people from around the world and learning how God is working in their lives” while at World Conference. She plans to major in nursing in college and expects to use her skills to “minister to people in an overseas setting.”

Shannon Carroll, 16, of Houston, Tex., is a youth leader at her home congregation, Abundant Love Christian Center, which is affiliated with Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va. She envisions herself in some type of nurturing role in the future, “possibly as a teacher and encourager of young children.”

Ben Brickhouse, 17, of Hampton, Va., who goes by “Brick,” was impressed with the “incredible diversity and openness” among his fellow LEAP members. “I
have a call to ministry,” he said, noting that he serves as an understudy to the youth minister at Calvary Community Church.

“I hope to become a youth minister and eventually a pastor,” Brick said. “I anticipate that my time in Africa will help provide more insight into what God wants for my life.”

EMS dean Ervin Stutzman led a commissioning prayer for the students and adult leaders at the closing worship period as they prepared to embark on their “great adventure” in Zimbabwe. They will return to the U.S. on Aug. 21.

LEAP is being funded by a $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, Ind., through its “Theological Exploration of Vocation” program designed to help seminaries provide young people with increased opportunities for serious intellectual encounters with the Christian faith and to encourage ministry inquiry among high school youth.

Each year, the LEAP program at EMS intends to identify up to 50 students representing different ethnic and language groups who will enter a month-long program. Several days of orientation will be followed by one or two off-campus cross cultural learning experiences in smaller groups. The program will also offer a host of resources aimed at helping Mennonite congregations to introduce theological inquiry to their young people early on.

More information about the LEAP program, including reports from the group’s experience at the Global Youth Summit and Mennonite World Conference, is available on the LEAP program web site at