(Written by Sara Arthurs, Staff Writer for The Courier. Story originally published July 9, 2016.)
High school students will explore their faith more deeply at a University of Findlay summer theology institute next week.
The university received a nearly $400,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to finance free, annual, weeklong summer institutes for students in grades 10 through 12 who are interested in learning more about their faith and how it intersects with and informs other aspects of their lives, including career choice. The grant pays for accommodation, food and all activities for participants for four years, beginning this summer. The university hopes to sustain it with alternative financial assistance after 2019.
The Rev. Matt Ginter, director of Christian ministries at the University of Findlay, said about 35 to 40 high school students will attend Sunday to Friday, coming from as far away as Arkansas, Illinois and Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Ginter will be co-director of the institute with Shawn Graves, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy.
He was struck by the depth of the students’ commitment to their faith. The high school students had to apply online, writing essays on topics such as what they hope to gain by participating or how their faith had influenced their decision-making.
For a high school student to give up a week of their summer for a summer theology institute is a big commitment, Ginter said. But many wrote that they called themselves a Christian, or said their faith was important to them, but wouldn’t be able to explain it if someone asked. “They’re looking to take ownership of their faith,” he said.
Ginter said he spends much of his time with college students and is looking forward to getting to know high school students “just to see where they’re coming from, what they’re thinking, before they even get to college.” He said at that age he didn’t have a clear direction of what he wanted to do with his life, so he looks forward to helping these youths reflect upon that question. Still, he said it’s not necessarily that the students know exactly what career they want to pursue after the weeklong session.
“I would hope that they’re at least more confident that they’ve taken some time to reflect on who they are, who God made them to be, and who they might be in the future,” he said.
Mornings will start with a breakout session where they will address a big question for the day. Tuesday, for example, will focus on personal identity. “Questions like, ‘Who am I? How can I live a life of meaning?’” Ginter said.
A variety of speakers will come in, including University of Findlay faculty and staff and members of the community.
But Ginter thinks what may be most meaningful to the high school students is the dozen University of Findlay students who will be there for the week, acting as mentors to the younger teens.
Afternoons will include hands-on activities. The youths will take field trips, including going to Toledo to tour an Orthodox church, a synagogue and a mosque. Ginter said the institute is designed to include discussions of other world religions.
It will have a nondenominational, Christian-focused context. The effort is meant to serve as a faith-strengthening endeavor, not a proselytizing opportunity. The university is calling its program “The Well,” a Biblical reference, to emphasize how faith and future flow together.
The funding is part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage young people to explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service. The 82 colleges nationwide, including three in Ohio, received a total of $44.5 million through these grants.