Grant expands theological programs for high school students

The University of Indianapolis Lantz Center for Christian Vocations received a grant in August to expand theology programs for high school students. The $580,000 grant was one of 92 awarded by Lilly Endowment Incorporated. The Lantz Center will partner with the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, which will spread the word and support the programs by providing clergy mentors.

University Chaplain and Director of the Lantz Center for Christian Vocations Jeremiah Gibbs said UIndy will use the grant money over four years to fund two programs focused on helping high schoolers develop a deeper understanding of theology and their call from God. The grant will cover the cost of a new position, the assistant director of the Lantz Center, who will oversee the programs, recruit potential students and check in with alumni of the program. The grant also will provide stipends to program alumni interested in jumpstarting fundraisers or programs at their churches. In addition, the grant will fund two yearly retreats and the costs that go with them, such as for musicians, housing and food, and will reduce the cost of the registration fee to attend.

The first program is a fall retreat going into its sixth year of operation. While originally only available to 90 United Methodist high school students, the weekend-long retreat is now open to 250 students because of the grant’s funding. Gibbs said the retreat is geared toward any high school student interested in exploring his or her faith and call from God.

According to Gibbs, the high school students who attend will focus on learning to discern their call to help them make more informed decisions about their future.

“The idea is that if we can give them the frameworks to think about their calling at an early age, then they will be making decisions that are much more informed by their faith and informed by their own self-understanding,” Gibbs said. “The hope is that they’ll be able to make decisions about where God may be calling them, in ways that are much more informed and robust.”

The summer program launching in 2017 is a 12-day retreat for students who are interested in going into ministry-related careers, such as becoming an ordained clergy person, lay minister or missionary. After going through a competitive application process, 40 high school students will be selected for the program. At the retreat, participants will have the opportunity to explore theology with INUMC clergy and UIndy professors of religion. The retreat will include lectures, discussions and service opportunities.

According to Gibbs, the focus at the summer retreat is for the participants to get a deeper understanding of theology.

“The hope is that they [participants] would get exposure to really deep theology formation experiences that don’t happen in their youth groups,” he said. “[We want] to take the strongest students from lots of different areas and put them in an environment that is really theologically rich, where there’s going to be Ph.D. theologians around them for two entire weeks spending the entire time with them, being able to invest in them in this concentrated environment.”

Another goal of the programs is to get high school students interested in UIndy and to introduce them to college life. Chapel Steward of Men’s Fellowship and English education major Keenan Castetter believes that attending one of the retreats is a great way to introduce high school students to UIndy.

“I think it gives them a wonderful intro into the university,” Castetter said. “I know the Lantz Center puts on the Threshold retreat every year, which gives the incoming freshmen something to do, but I feel like if we start with the high schoolers, they will be more integrated into college life.”

UIndy students enrolled in Christian Vocations courses and religion majors will assist Gibbs, Lantz Center faculty, INUMC clergy and professors of religion in leading the programs. Musicians involved in chapel worship will be called on to help as well. Gibbs hopes that the students will gain experience through their leadership.

“For our college students, this is an opportunity for them to be a part of a really high-impact, extremely well-done youth ministry experience,” he said. “Hopefully, they have some high expectations for their own potential in youth ministry when they leave the university and [will] be involved in youth ministry at the churches. [The hope is] that they would understand, what does a program or what does an experience done really well look like for high school students?”

Castetter also thinks that UIndy students will benefit from the leadership experience.

“I think it’ll give them wonderful experience in what we’ve been taught and what we’re called to do, which is to bring others closer to God,” he said.

After the four years is up and the grant money is spent, Gibbs hopes to continue the programs on a smaller scale through fundraising, scaling back on staffing, raising registration fees and partnering further with the INUMC.

More information about the programs is available at the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs in the Schwitzer Student Center.