By Brett Hetherington*
Every summer for 37 years the East Ohio Conference invites teens in grades seven through 12 to explore what it means to pursue a life dedicated to ministry. The Ministerial Recruitment Institute (MRI) held at Baldwin Wallace University (North Coast District) July 14-19 offered an environment conducive to allowing young people to hear, question, consider, struggle and respond to God’s call and claim on their lives to become true Christian disciples, leaders, ministers, pastors and evangelists. Equal parts camp and training seminar, this “mountaintop experience” aims to alert teens at an early age to the reality that God is calling them to a lifetime of Christian service and may also be leading them to pursue ministry as a vocation.
Brian C. Smart, longtime dean of MRI, shares a vision of a place where camaraderie, laughter, and growth are a part of each day. MRI typically welcomes approximately 90 teenagers from districts within the East Ohio Conference for the weeklong spiritual retreat and encourages them to become a family for each other. For the week of MRI, participants are placed into family groups, each with an adult mentor. During their week together, each family group shares in study times, relationship building, and leadership opportunities, such as planning and leading a worship service for MRI participants.
I attended Friends and Family Day, a day set aside for loved ones back home to visit and see what their teenage brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends are experiencing at MRI. The day closed out with a worship service designed to challenge those present to be disturbed in a good way by the Holy Spirit to reach outside their own comfort zones and give themselves over fully to God.
Participants were eager to share the impact MRI has on their lives. Terrell McCann has attended MRI for years because he finds it comforting to know that there are people out in the world who are like him and who love him. He currently serves as the vice president of Conference Council on Youth Ministries (CCYM) and has already taken much of what he has learned at MRI and put it into practice in his daily life.
Worship and reflection time rank high on the list of reasons that students return to MRI year after year, but perhaps the strongest testimony I heard for MRI came in a conversation I sat in on during some down time. Shayanna had brought her brother with her to experience MRI for a day. As she asked other attendees what the best part of MRI is for them, you could see in her brother’s face that he was unsure if MRI was something he should be stepping into. But then a young high school graduate, who will be a freshman this fall at the University of Akron, shared his experience.
“Most people who come once, come back. For me, this is a spiritual reset. The times in worship, times in class learning, and the people… my soul craves that connection. Even though this time is a bit of a disconnect from the world outside, this is something my soul needs,” he said.
Indeed, the soul needs these times away, and together with others where their faith can be restored and encouraged. Smart shared with me one of the ways that MRI is connecting students, not only with how God is placing calls on their lives, but how He is also calling others into a deeper commitment to serve Him.
“The past couple years we have hosted panels where we feature a few alumni – some in their late 20s to early 30s – who have benefitted from their time at MRI,” the dean shared. “Some are in ministry full-time, others are doctors or another profession outside the walls of the church. It means a lot to the kids here to see someone who can say ‘I was sitting right where you are now and look where God brought me.’”
MRI sparked God’s mission in the lives of those teenagers years ago, and it continues to show teens today what God is calling them into.
If you have a story of how God is transforming your community, please e-mail the Conference Communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to tell your story.
*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.