Maryville College’s Summer Get-A-Way 2003 explores issues of faith, leadership in first year

June 19, 2003
David Rasnake, Communications Assistant

The challenge looks simple enough: Two participants stand on steel cables, anchored just above the ground. The goal for each pair is to move, with arms interlocked, from one end of the span to the other, across an imaginary river. The difficulty arises in the fact that the cables, which start out only inches apart at one end, spread to nearly six feet apart at the other.

And on this particular day, teams from Maryville College’s 2003 Summer Get-A-Way retreat are finding out just how difficult those last few steps to success can be. None of the six pairs of high-school-aged students and their adult leaders has been able to successfully complete the challenge, though several have come close.

Mark Ticheon, a leader from the Mountain Challenge program that operates the ropes course in the College Woods, calls the group together to reflect. “How many of you think you could have gone that far,” he asks, gesturing toward the spot where most of the groups were derailed, “without a partner?” No one raises a hand.

To some, it may seem strange that a retreat ostensibly geared toward individual growth and leadership development would focus so much on dependence. Yet, the Summer Get-A-Way retreat is teaching both participants and organizers that even the best leaders cannot lead alone.

From vision to reality

A 2001 grant proposal submitted to Lilly Endowment, Inc., seeking funding for the College’s Initiative on Vocation, included a single page outlining the College’s desire to host an annual retreat for high-schoolers to promote the development of strong, committed church leaders.

“ We propose to host an annual summer retreat devoted to ‘Faith, Leadership, and Vocation,” the grant read. “The aim of the retreat … will be to introduce teens to the notion of vocation as it relates to the life of the Christian faith and, in particular, to introduce them to a possible call to ministry.”

Two years and $2 million worth of grant funding later, the 2003 Summer Get-A-Way represents the tangible product of this vision.

Organized by the Initiative on Vocation (the set of programs which the Lilly grant funds), the Summer Get-A-Way was created to provide a retreat experience in which a select group of Presbyterian youth from across the southeast region could gather to discuss issues of faith, vocation and church leadership.

In its inaugural year, the Get-A-Way has welcomed 18 youth and their adult leaders to the College campus for a weeklong event that is, in some ways, putting the vision of its organizers to the test.

Activity abounds

The days begin early and end late at the Summer Get-A-Way, and in the hours between breakfast at 7:30 and lights out at some time approaching midnight participants find time to do a little of everything. Worship, topical Bible study, and music, led by college alumnus the Rev. Bryan McFarland, constitute a large part of each day, but a number of activities set the Summer Get-A-Way apart from other retreats and keep participants on their toes.

A typical day’s schedule might, for example, include a basketball tournament, community and environmental service projects, an evening concert or a climb on the College’s 55-foot “Alpine Tower.” Spiritual gifts inventories and aptitude tests, administered throughout the week by the College’s Center for Calling & Career, serve to further emphasize the interrelatedness of faith and vocation.

However, retreat organizers also make reflection and journaling a priority amid all the activity of the week. For some students, this quiet time proves to be the most unique and meaningful experience of the week.

“A new perspective”

“It gave me a new perspective on how to talk to God.” Hearing Rebecca Dailey describe her experience, one likely would never guess that she is not really talking about talking at all, but about an hour spent in complete silence.

The practice Dailey, a high-schooler from Bethel Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Tenn., describes is known as “contemplative prayer,” and according to Dr. Harry Howard, director of education and discernment for the Center for Calling & Career, it constitutes a new way of thinking about worship for many Christians.

“Our typical way of understanding prayer emphasizes what we do – the words that we pray,” Howard states. “We think of prayer as a conversation, but in practice it becomes a monologue rather than a dialogue.”

Drawing heavily on the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, contemplative prayer is, in fact, just the opposite of this “typical way of understanding prayer,” encouraging practitioners to sit silently and focus on listening more and talking less.

In stark contrast, then, to the perpetual motion demanded by much of the retreat schedule, daily reflection and prayer time adds to the thoroughly diverse experience of the Get-A-Way. And with the College’s aptly named House in the Woods providing an appropriately serene setting, time for daily contemplative prayer has proven to be one of the most intensely meaningful experiences of the week for students and leaders.

Diverse approaches

“ I’ve never done anything like that before” has quite possibly been the most common response from participants to the retreat’s various worship activities. As in the case of contemplative prayer, much of the Summer Get-A-Way is designed to introduce young people to something new – be it an activity or a way of thinking.

Throughout, the job of retreat leaders – including Howard and campus minister the Rev. Anne McKee – remains to relate each component of the retreat (from studying writings of Paul to picking up trash) back to leadership, vocation and faith.

“ These young people will be leaders in the church,” affirms Dr. Bill Meyer, executive director of the Initiative on Vocation and associate professor of religion and philosophy, citing the importance of “exposing [participants] to diverse traditions in terms of worship and prayer.”

The very purpose, then, of the Summer Get-A-Way and the Initiative in general centers on filling the continuous need of the church for dynamic lay and clerical leaders.

“ All the activities,” states Hannah Sherrod, a student from Kingston, Tenn., “have given me a chance to grow spiritually.” And a growing experience for everyone involved is exactly what planners envisioned.

Teaching by example

In general, holding a retreat on a college campus is nothing out of the ordinary.

As a case in point, during the last year Maryville College has made nearly 900 reservations for the use of its facilities, including a large number from church groups. But the 2003 Summer Get-A-Way marks the first time in recent memory that the College itself has planned and implemented a retreat of this kind for Presbyterian youth.

“ To use an analogy, it’s the difference between sub-letting your apartment to a stranger and hosting a guest in your home,” acknowledges Meyer with regard to the added difficulty of creating programming for such an event largely from scratch. With no precedent for the event, planners are, at times, nearly as unsure of what to expect as participants.

The Summer Get-A-Way staff takes a further risk in aiming for an intentionally small group; each church is allowed to send no more than four youth in an attempt to create an intimate community and to force participants and their leaders to interact away from the safety of a familiar group.

Organizers are, moreover, fully aware of the inherent risk involved in attempting to get a new program off the ground. However, Meyer sees the challenges that the Summer Get-A-Way has faced as teaching an important lesson to students and leaders alike.

“ One of the points that we’ve emphasized throughout the week is that part of leadership is a willingness to challenge, to risk and, maybe, to get it wrong.” With continued mutual support of church and college and a successful pilot year completed, it appears that the Summer Get-A-Way will continue shaping and supporting young leaders for the foreseeable future.

Planning for the 2004 Summer Get-A-Way is already underway, with dates set for June 6-10. To learn more about next year’s retreat or the program in general, contact Kathleen Farnham, 865.981.8217, or Melanie Rasnake, 865.273.8816.