University to start summer youth theology program

As part of an initiative from Lilly Endowment to provide opportunities for deeper theological study and discussion of contemporary issues, Shenandoah University will use $600,000 in grant money to set up a Youth Theology Institute for high school students starting in 2017.

The university was one of 82 schools in many different states to be awarded a grant, which Dean of Spiritual Life Dr. Justin Allen said will be used in  yearly increments of $150,000 over the course of four years.

SU is partnering with Wesley Theological Seminary and the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church to create its own program centered on exploring religious significance in both urban and rural contexts. Participating students will spend one week studying at SU in Winchester and the next studying at Wesley in D.C. There, Allen said the students will also take field trips to synagogues and mosques.

“Part of it is the monastic idea of living a life together,” he said.

Allen said that the grant program will be a new frontier for the United Methodist Church-affiliated university as its first theological institute. He said the curriculum has been divided into three different units as written out by assistant professor of religion Dr. Kevin Minister: Religious Vocation for a Religiously Plural World, Religious Vocation for a Sustainable Society and Religious Vocation for a Diverse Community.

“What we’re hoping is to empower these students to go back to their local congregation and bring what they learn … and give our local churches an eye to the fact that these youth are called by God to do great things,” he said.

The university’s first step toward establishing the institute and the first use of grant funds will be in hiring a director by July 2016. That director will work with other SU faculty and staff, plan for the inaugural year of students the following summer and visit other youth institutes in schools like Duke and Emory. Four SU students will have the chance to serve as paid youth mentors after receiving a week of training.

“We’re encouraging them to use what they learn,” Allen said. “That’s a great way to take theology and philosophy and turn them into a practical engagement.”

Despite other schools taking on student bodies of up to 300, Allen estimated that SU will maintain a smaller cohort of around 30 high school students entering their sophomore, junior or senior year. He said the finer details of the admission process haven’t been decided, but the institute will take students of any denomination.

“This is largely an opportunity for Shenandoah University to help the local church … and create a sense of leadership in our youth in local churches,” he said.

After the four-year grant ends in 2020, Allen said SU will be looking to raise funds for continuing the program to benefit students and local churches for years down the road.

“I’m just excited that we have a chance to do this,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get the right students and we’ll put our best efforts into making this an impactful institute.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com