Program offers learning and worship opportunities
August 2, 2017
Nearly 700 people of all ages descended upon a small town in Iowa July 23–28 to sing, study, worship and play. Synod School, offered by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, is thriving — and unusual, since it is the only such Presbyterian program left in the country.
“It feeds people in such holistic ways — body, mind and soul,” said Deb DeMeester, the synod’s director of leadership development. Many attendees consider it the best week of the summer, she said, and “seeing children and youth enjoying each other, dancing during worship, tie-dyeing T-shirts — it’s a unique experience in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
“Every year I go, something really stands out,” said Paul Penn, the associate dean of the school and an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, Iowa. “Maybe it’s the convocation speaker, or a class or a worship service, but I always come back with a more positive outlook on everything.”
Attendance this summer set a record, DeMeester said, with 27 states and one foreign country represented. A particular attraction this year was that the keynote speaker was J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly.
Presbyterian synods across the country have offered less programming in recent years, and traditional Christian summer camps have declined in popularity amid competition for leisure time. “We’re delighted that for children and youth, Synod School is a high priority,” DeMeester said. “That speaks volumes.”
The week is designed to keep families busy, including many grandparents who bring their grandchildren. DeMeester said that participants’ ages ranged from 5 weeks to over 90 years. In addition to the usual crafts and Bible study, this year the school added yoga for children and convocation speakers for youths in grades 6–12.
“My family and I love it,” said Katie Estes, this year’s dean of the school and the co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in South St. Paul, Minnesota. Her children, ages 17 and 15, “have grown up in that environment. They have close friends that they only see at Synod School.”
Many people comment on the sense of hospitality and inclusion at the event, “but that doesn’t happen by accident,” Estes said. “We’re taking on the care and feeding of 600-plus people.”
Participants are kept busy during the day with classes and worship. Evening activities may include an open-mic at a coffeehouse, a movie or one-hour mini courses.
The 100-plus teenagers who attend can take some adult courses, but there are also plenty of chances to examine their emerging sense of self. Joel Morien, the youth director at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wisconsin, helps facilitate “deep, meaningful conversations,” where the teens write questions on slips of paper that are drawn out of a hat for discussion. “No one’s judging them or looking at them differently because of their faith,” Morien said. “At school, there’s so much pressure to have the right answer or to know your future. Here, they can step back a bit.”
Facilitating those discussions takes patience, Bible knowledge and grace, which is “a very big factor,” Morien said. “There are definitely some conflicting ideas on pretty serious topics, like abortion or the death penalty. Or on truth. That was a big one.”
The program gets staff support from the synod, but is produced and run almost entirely by volunteers (although teachers do attend tuition-free). But producing a successful event takes both volunteers and institutional commitment. Estes said, “This one piece gets lots of energy and attention and staff resources.”
Class offerings for adults have ranged widely over theology (the Reformation at 500, the last days of Jesus), current events (white privilege, LGBTQ integration), worship (new choir repertoire, how to write liturgy), personal growth (aging gracefully, stress management), and fun (basket-weaving, outdoor cooking). Much of the planning team’s work, Estes said, involves sorting through proposals and trying to achieve a good balance of time slots, subject matter, teachers and topics.
“There’s a great sense of community,” Penn said. “We don’t agree on everything by any means — we’re Presbyterians, after all — but there’s a real sense of fellowship.”
David Lewellen, Correspondent, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Synod of Lakes and Prairies
Let us join in prayer for:
Synod of Lakes and Prairies Staff
Elona Street-Stewart, synod executive
Deb DeMeester, director of leadership development
Alex De Veyra, director of financial services
Duane Sweep, director of communications/new technology
Pam Prouty, stated clerk
Jim Koon, treasurer
Mary Kes, administrator
Jackie Palmer, business manager
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, grant us wisdom as we explore new ways of serving. Though none of us follow your path perfectly, we know your grace goes with us on the journey. Help us to serve others along the way. Amen.