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The Simpson Youth Academy, which includes a 10-day residence on the Simpson College campus each summer, offers a unique opportunity for high school juniors and seniors in the Iowa Annual Conference. “We’re creating a community of adult mentors and high school students that are together exploring deeper questions about their faith, about social justice and service, and about vocation,” explains Rev. Eric Rucker, the program’s director.
Founded by the Lilly Endowment and Simpson College, the Youth Academy was designed as a way to help address the fact that many young people who are active in their churches in high school often leave it once they head to college. “We want to create sort of a pipeline between high school and college, so when students get to college, they don’t feel like they have to choose between being intellectually honest and being a Christian. Or being creative or being accepting and being a Christian,” adds Rev. Rucker.
Typically 15 to 25 students participate in the Youth Academy each year. Students can apply to the program themselves, but adults – such as pastors or parents – can also nominate high schoolers (current 10th and 11th graders) who they think would be good candidates. “That’s a nudge of encouragement to say to a young person ‘we see you, we see your gifts, and we think that you’re capable of going through this leadership experience as a future leader in the church’,” says Rev. Rucker.
The 10-day experience includes exploratory classes on subjects like the history of Christianity and different ways to read scripture, taught by a UMC seminary faculty member. Covenant groups give students the chance to meet in small groups, facilitated by a college student. There are morning prayers which introduce the students to different kinds of prayer practices, as well as communal worship and prayer in the evenings. “Each night a different group of students plans and leads worship, so they get to learn how you start with some texts and an idea and then build that all the way to leading a worship service,” says Rev. Rucker.
Another major component of the Academy are opportunities to see how people are responding “on the ground” as people of faith. “We did a visit to an urban farm to talk about ecological justice and caring for creation. We did a visit to a homeless shelter and a place that provided housing to talk about homelessness. Last year we did an interfaith visit to talk about how do we relate to people of other faiths,” Rev. Rucker notes.
Last but not least, the program addresses vocation. “We then ask them to start listening to their lives and help them and give them tools to discern what is my vocation, what do I care about, where does my deep joy meet the world’s deep need in my community?” he explains. “When they finish in the summer, they’ve been exposed to a lot of ideas, they’ve seen a lot of creative ministries, and then we want to empower them to return to the local church and say okay, what’s my role in this? How can I cooperate with God to serve my community?”
To help the students tackle these questions, the Youth Academy continues on in different ways after the 10-day campus intensive. Students go on to choose a mentor that continues to walk beside them as they process and integrate what they learned over the summer, with the mentorship culminating in a special project. “They get to choose what’s an issue in the community and then work with the local church to plan a response. We really want to put our money where our mouth is in terms of taking them seriously as leaders, so they go through a process where they actually write grant proposals to us, learn to ask for money and use it responsibly on a project,” Rev. Rucker says.
Check out the SYA website and apply here: http://simpson.edu/religious-life/simpson-youth-academy/
Check out our Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/simpsonyouthacademy/
To nominate a student email the director: firstname.lastname@example.org
College students also benefit from the Youth Academy program. “I get to hire current students that are discerning careers in ministry and sort of throw them in the deep end – with support of course – but to say alright, go ahead and wrestle. Be a mentor. Learn what it feels like to be a pastor to these students,” he says. “So there’s a way in which this program equips these college students to prepare for careers in ministry as well and builds a leadership ladder where the high school students are discerning and learning, the college students are learning from mentoring them, and upward.”
Rev. Rucker feels that the program has helped deepen his own appreciation for the contributions that young people have to make to the church. “I think that within my understanding of the Christian tradition, the idea of the incarnation is that God comes to the outsiders, to the powerless, to the people in our community we don’t listen to very much,” he says. “In a lot of churches young people are that group, that have power but we don’t recognize it. And that have truths to tell, but we don’t listen.”
He continues, “When we listen to young people, they have critiques for us adults that are going to be hard to hear about the ways that the church needs to adjust and change and grow. So I think in some ways one of the gifts of the program is learning to listen to young people and ask them: What is the church? What is the future of the church? Because they have the answers, we don’t. They are the church of the present and future.”
To learn more about the program, to apply, or to nominate a student, visit the Simpson Youth Academy website here: http://simpson.edu/religious-life/simpson-youth-academy. Applications for the 2018 Summer Residency are being accepted now through February 1.