Forging young leaders: A week of growth and faith in the wilderness at AIL 2024

In the fast-paced world of adolescence, Adventures in Leadership (AIL) offers an invaluable opportunity for Northwest Conference high school students to slow down for a week and focus on essential leadership skills and insights, deepen their faith and cultivate a sense of servant leadership and community that will guide them through life.

To participate in AIL, NWC students must be nominated by an adult leader in their church who sees their leadership potential. They then undergo a rigorous screening process. The nine who were selected this year came from churches across the NWC.

The week focuses on what it means to be a shepherd leader. Using the book of Mark as a guide, students learned how shepherd leaders see others, move towards them and seek to serve them. Interactive experiences throughout the week helped them understand what it means to be a leader who serves.

Students engaged in leadership lessons and challenges from the moment they began the experience, including: interactive teaching, team-building exercises, an acclimatization hike, carving a new trail in the wilderness as a service project for a neighboring camp, canoeing, orienteering and other vital camping skills.

They also reflected on their unique leadership wiring. New this year, each participant underwent a personal assessment called “Working Genius,” developed by Patrick Lencioni and the Table Group and designed specifically for high school students. This tool helps students identify their top two “Working Geniuses” and areas of frustration, aiding them not only during AIL but also in making informed career choices.

After several days at Adventurous Christians learning the essentials, the team split into two canoe groups and ventured into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where they put their skills and wisdom to the test. Although each group had an AC guide and a NWC adult for safety and processing, the students bore much of the leadership burden, each taking turns leading for half a day. This time out on the trail exposes them to leadership situations that are hard to replicate anywhere else—unexpected weather, challenging portages, and the constant need to set up and break camp—demanding effective shepherd leadership and cooperative problem-solving.

Their leadership was immediately tested on the first evening as a “once in a century” storm furiously cut across the BWCA. They huddled under tarps, trying to avoid the torrential rains and wind. They had to figure out how to keep up team morale, as well as how to stay warm and relatively dry. This “baptism by water” experience gave them many stories and valuable lessons.

“It was harder than I expected, but looking back, that was a good thing,” one student said. “I will remember this experience for the rest of my life as something that toughened me mentally, physically and spiritually.”

A highlight of AIL is the sense of community that develops. With no cell service in the BWCA, students weren’t digitally distracted. They engaged in meaningful conversations, shared their thoughts and fears, and supported and prayed for each other. Several students had musical abilities and stepped up and led the group in times of worship. A deep and supportive community developed with this special group of students.

These are some of the reflections from students:

  • “AIL taught me lots of things about myself and my leadership skills. It is an amazing experience that has bonded me with new friends, grown my faith with God and did things I thought I was never capable of.”
  • “AIL taught me to be open to meeting new people and to trying new things even when I knew it would be hard.”
  • “The trip was an eye-opener. I knew God but I found out now I can use my leadership through him. He taught me patience through this.”
  • “This was one of the best times I have ever had with the people, staff, activities and the actual canoe trip.”

Brian Zahasky (Hope Covenant, St. Cloud), Shawn Brown (Oxboro Free Church), Kathy Castor (Wooddale Church), and Ginny Olson (Northwest Conference) made up the AIL team, joined by two trained guides from Adventurous Christians, Makenna and Grant. The Adventurous Christians base team: Matt, Lina and Trisha (an AIL alumna) played critical roles in the success of Adventures in Leadership. Buffalo Covenant generously provided transportation for the trip.

Next year’s AIL will be June 14-21, 2025. Application materials will be available this fall.