At Two Moose Ranch in Montana, Calvin's team captains learned about communication, working together and leading.
Learning to lead at Gainey
At Two Moose Ranch in Montana, Calvin's team captains learned about communication, working together and leading.

Now in its seventh year of existence, the Gainey Leadership Retreat for Calvin's student-athletes continues to thrive. The week-long retreat, which takes place in mid-August at the Two Moose Ranch in southwest Montana, builds leadership skills in the leaders of Calvin's sports teams, both at the club and varsity levels.

Every summer, 33 student-athletes, representing each of Calvin's 17 varsity and three club sports teams, are selected by their respective coaching staffs to participate in the annual retreat. While in Montana, the student-athletes are mentored by Calvin's campus ministries, student life and athletics department staff.

Great expectations

Gainey leadership participants"When the Gainey Leadership Retreat was put together seven years ago, we realized that we were expecting a lot of the captains of our athletics teams, but we were not doing enough to equip them with leadership skills,” said Calvin associate chaplain Aaron Winkle. “We had been sending student leadership teams from other areas on campus on week-long leadership retreats, so it made sense to do the same for the leaders of our athletics teams.”

The first Gainey Leadership Retreat in the summer of 2004 was a resounding success, Winkle said: "There was an incredible synergy with all of the athletes. For the first time, we were bringing leaders from all of the teams together. Many of them had never spoken to one another before because of the demands of being an athlete in-season, but once they got a chance to know each other, they realized that these are people they can partner with—not compete with—regardless of their sport or their background.”

The goals of the retreat are to provide time and space for student-athletes to focus on knowing God and themselves better, to equip varsity leaders with the knowledge, skills and resources to effectively lead their teams and to create a Christian community among student-athletes that extends beyond individual teams.

The first half of the week-long retreat focuses on individual leadership. “We begin with what we call the ‘fundamentals,’” said Winkle. “We think that leadership first begins with a person. If you’re going to lead others, we think you need to first understand yourself well.”

The student-athletes each take a Myers-Briggs test to recognize their individual strengths. They are immersed in seminars focused on individual leadership. “Kevin Vande Streek (Calvin men's basketball coach) leads a seminar every year on the original 12 disciples of Christ, pointing out how unique they were and how they were able to lead, using their unique strengths,” Winkle said. (Calvin women’s athletic director Nancy Meyer leads a session on leading yourself.)

Building the team

The second half of the week is centered on team building with an emphasis on building trust and communication with others. One of the team-building activities is a group project; team members are asked to build a small tent while blindfolded.

"The person who is blindfolded has to rely on the others in his or her group to receive instructions on where the tent materials are located and how to fit them together,” explained Winkle. “It involves trust, communicating well, learning how to deal with setbacks and developing a level of patience and understanding.”

Groups also participate in wilderness hikes into the nearby mountains where student-athletes get to know one another. “There are many meaningful conversations that take place during the hiking trips as well as throughout the week,” said Winkle. The week culminates with a worship service where each of the student-athletes receives an individual commission based on her or his leadership gifts.

The site for the retreat is the 5,000-acre ranch owned by Harvey and Annie Gainey in Dillon, Montana. The Gainey Ranch is situated on the Big Hole River, which runs through the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains. "It really provides for a fantastic setting," said Winkle. "We are very thankful to the Gainey Family for providing the location every year."

Students playing baseballThe cost of the trip is $1,000 per individual, and each of the 33 student-athletes participates cost-free thanks to donors. “Every year, the college receives donations from people who believe in leadership and want to partner with this project,” said Winkle. “We have each of our student-athletes write a letter to the person who sponsored them.  We bring the paper, stamps and envelopes with us to Montana. It’s all about learning a sense of gratitude.”

In fact, one of the benefactors of this year’s retreat was a former Calvin student-athlete who participated in the first retreat in 2004. "It shows that the former participants greatly value the program and want others to have the same experience," said Winkle.

The gift of time

Meyer, who has been on the leadership team for all seven years of the retreat, says that the event offers the chance to focus on a common goal without distractions. "One of the gifts of the retreat is the gift of time," said Meyer. "The retreat is intense, but it is intense without any outside distractions … . It gives everyone present a chance to really focus on leadership as Christian student-athletes."

The timing of the retreat also fits nicely into the school year as it arrives just days before students return to campus. "For the fall sports athletes in particular, they're able to take their training immediately into action, and they go right from Montana to their first pre-season practices,” said Winkle.

The spiritual focus, however, is what drives the retreat. "These kids come back from the retreat on a real spiritual high and they use that energy to help infuse their teams," said men's associate athletic director Timmer. "They learn what it means to be Christian athletes."

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