Lofty Classroom for Leaders
<< Spark Online
Picture a setting high in the mountains of Colorado, where deer regularly wander across your path. Imagine an assignment of taking an early morning hike where only the sound of cascading waterfalls and bird calls break the peaceful silence. Envision an experience where the backdrop for every view is majestic mountain peaks piercing a spectacular blue sky.
This is the “classroom” that 29 Calvin students found themselves in this summer as part of the Leadership Challenge Institute, a joint initiative between Calvin and Snow Mountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies which exists to intentionally promote leadership skills and Christian discipleship.
The magnificent surroundings are part of what make the experience what it is, according to program director Glenn Triezenberg.
“This is a place where students discover their gifts and calling in ways not possible in other places,” he said. “This place gets students out of their comfort zone.”
At 9,000 feet above sea level, far away from family and most friends and working in an often times challenging position, program participants are certainly confronted with situations they have never faced before. That is one of the keys to creating good leaders, in Triezenberg’s opinion.
“Students in this program are stressed and tested in wondrous ways that they never imagined possible, but the outcome will be good,” he said.
The Leadership Challenge Institute began three years ago after Triezenberg, who serves as Calvin’s director of career services, had begun thinking seriously about how Calvin could be more intentional about producing strong Christian leaders.
“Part of our mission as a college is to develop students who will go out and be effective leaders,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to seek out the students who showed promising leadership skills and challenge them in that area.”
He noted that Calvin’s student life vision statement affirms the same goal: “With delight and anticipation, we present them [students] to the world as people who are learning to love the things that God loves so that the world is blessed by their leadership.”
During a vacation at Snow Mountain Ranch, which is located in Winter Park, Colo., close to the west entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, Triezenberg began formulating a program idea, where students would combine living and working experiences with training seminars. He talked about his visions with Phil Dicks, chaplain at Snow Mountain Ranch.
“It’s interesting that Glenn approached me when he did because I had been thinking about regaining a connection with our historical basis,” said Dicks. “We started as a training ground for leaders and the Board of Directors had recently said to me, ‘Let’s rediscover our true mission.’ I had started a file in my drawer with information about starting a program when a guy I had never met before from Calvin College walks into my office and starts describing what I had filed in my drawer. I call that a ‘God-incident’—not coincidence.”
So in the summer of 2000, 26 students found their way 1,300 miles from Calvin College for leadership instruction at the recreational/vacation facility. The following year 28 more took on the challenge and this past summer, with the program open to other college students as well, 31 students were involved in the program—29 from Calvin.
With the goal being deliberate attention to leadership then, how does one go about teaching it?
“Much of leadership is about making choices,” said Dicks. “Here is a safe environment for experimentation in making those choices. There are relationships issues, integrity issues and spiritual issues and a whole lot of other things to deal with. Students are repeatedly put to the test.”
Such was the case for Jessica Bratt, of Grand Rapids, who graduated from Calvin this past spring and then spent the summer working in the chaplain’s office at Snow Mountain Ranch. Among her responsibilities were responding to staff and visitors’ needs, assisting the chaplain with weddings, baptisms and planning worship, delivering the children’s message at worship and helping facilitate special programs.
“A highlight of the summer is being able to be creative in my job,” said Bratt. “I feel like I’m finally having the opportunity to put into practice the things I’ve learned. When I’m giving the children’s sermon, it is the best feeling. I feel like it’s what I’m meant to be doing right now. I have a passion for it.”
Drew de Jonge, of Petoskey, Mich., also worked in the chaplain’s office and found his work there meaningful. De Jonge was primarily responsible for leading praise and worship services throughout the week.
“I love leading praise and worship,” he said. “I have grown a lot through doing that and through just the experience of being here—in this place.”
While some students like Bratt and de Jonge are challenged in a position that they have a passion for, others face another “real world” reality—being tested by work assignments that aren’t so fulfilling.
“When I found out I was assigned to housekeeping, I was thinking, ‘Oh man, this is degrading and I have to do it for the whole summer,’” said Sarah Hastings, of Traverse City, Mich.
Spending the days making beds, cleaning rooms, and folding sheets and towels provided a lot of time to think, she said.
“I have the time to reflect and really find myself,” she said. “There are tons of opportunities for that here. Just being here surrounded by these awesome mountains is a whole spiritual thing in itself.”
But the experience at Snow Mountain Ranch goes way beyond the 40-hour work week in food services or child care or housekeeping or programming and even beyond the beautiful scenery.
One of the ways in which that happens is at the weekly seminars, in which a Calvin-affiliated speaker presents a lesson on leadership.
Topics range from “A Christian Worldview for Leadership” and “Rhyme, Reason and Vocation” to “Spiritual Formation, The Foundation of Leadership” and “’I’ll Never Do That Again!’—Lessons Learned in My Journey of Leadership.”
“The speakers have been incredible,” said de Jonge. “I have learned something from every one.”
During a week in July, Shirley Hoogstra, vice president of student life at Calvin and her sister, Elizabeth Maring, attorney and conciliator, gave a presentation on conflict resolution. Any leader will sooner or later face conflict or have persons around them in conflict. The students reviewed Matthew 18 as the model for resolving conflict and how to apply it personally and in organizations.
All of these are lessons Thom Retsema, of Grand Haven, Mich., hopes to put into practice following his summer at Snow Mountain.
Retsema applied to the program because he was searching for career options, he said.
“I went to talk to Glenn about career plans because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Glenn told me about this program, but I never considered myself a leader,” he said. “I told Glenn that, but this has been a great experience for me. Not that I’ve figured everything out, but I’m content in not knowing what I’m going to do. A lot of my prayers have been answered.”
In addition to the leadership seminars, participants grow through the challenge support groups, which also meet weekly.
“I found that I had the chance to talk about important issues without the stress of papers and tests,” Bratt said. “I was able to explore things with others that I didn’t have time to process during the school year.”
Lindsay Campbell, of Richland, Mich., found the same gratifying experience in her small group. “We were able to dive right into the Bible,” she said. “And it so great when random questions pop up. Calvin people are such deep thinkers.”
Such experiences are exactly what the program administrators were hoping for when the program was conceived.
“We wouldn’t do it if it was just about sending Calvin students to work at Snow Mountain,” said Triezenberg.
The program has been equally beneficial to Snow Mountain Ranch. “Across the board, people here are thrilled with the Calvin students and the Calvin program,” said Dicks.
Triezenberg and Dicks would like to see the program, which has been funded by a Lilly Foundation grant and individual donors Bill Alphenaar (Aspen Gold Investment Management, Inc.) and Ed Berends (Berends, Hendriks and Stuit Insurance), grow through additional participation and funding.
“I tell students that they can’t afford not to spend a summer at Snow Mountain Ranch,” said Triezenberg. “I think this can really be the capstone to their Calvin career before launching into a vocation. It’s a reinforcement of everything they’ve learned at Calvin.”
Only at a different altitude.
“This is a different type of Calvin,” said Bratt. “It’s a change of pace but with the quality of Calvin people and Calvin education. Things that couldn’t happen on campus, happen here.”
— Lynn Rosendale is Calvin’s publication coordinator.