Jay Peterson of the Lab House Band stopped himself mid-strum, holding his guitar as his bandmates changed instruments, to address the crowd.

“Hey, Lab, how do you feel?” he asked the worshipers.

An audible “woo!” came from a smattering of teens within the crowd of about 100, gathered on the fourth floor of the Gerber Center for Student Life at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.

“Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Peterson said, stopping them. “I mean, Lab, how do you feel?”

Some veteran staff had to stand up to lead the customary response: “We feel good! Oh, do we feel good! Hunh!” The teen campers looked around, a bit bemused, trying to catch on while the chant continued with some rhythmic claps, a loud whoop and a final clap.

Now in its 61st year, Leadership Lab is home to many such idiosyncratic traditions.

The weeklong weeklong camp, held annually at Augustana, places young people in a “laboratory” of faith formation and leadership development. Leadership Lab began at Augustana as a Lutheran Church in America (a predecessor body to the ELCA) program and continues today under the ELCA.

Encouraging growth

In 2019 the Lab drew 250 participants, but the program has had to rebuild since the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant everything from re-envisioning what it means to develop leaders (in the age of a post-pandemic church) to restoring the camp traditions that make “Lab” what it is.

The pandemic was a reality check for institutions of all shapes and sizes, but for summer camps such as Leadership Lab, it was an existential threat. Lab staff did their best to present the programming online. After two years of spottily attended Zoom sessions, Lab reemerged at Augustana in 2022 with 59 participants.

“We knew if we were not back in person in 2022, Lab was over,” said Marissa Metevelis, the program’s co-director. “There was no way we were going to have enough institutional knowledge to convince people to come back.”

In five days, students experience 28 hours of small-group time; 22 hours of worship time; and 14 meals with peers or faith leaders.

Metevelis and co-director Nick Rex began attending Leadership Lab as high school students in 1999, when Lab attendance hit its zenith of about 400 people.

Coming out of the pandemic, Metevelis and Rex have sought to adapt the camp rather than restore it to the same Lab it had been when they first experienced it years ago. To prioritize the faith formation experience, they’ve created faster-paced programming, wider age groupings and a “Life Long Lab” option open to Lab alums or clergy looking for a retreat-style space.

“It used to be thought of as a leadership camp where you would experience Jesus, and now it’s a place of faith formation where you learn leadership skills,” Metevelis said.

This shift to prioritizing faith is evident in the programming: in just five days, students experience 28 hours of small-group time, equivalent to 14 weeks of youth group; 22 hours of worship time, equivalent to about half a year of Sunday services; and 14 meals with peers or faith leaders.

This summer, Lab showed encouraging growth, with 81 participants. “Lab doesn’t have to exist, but if God wants it to exist, it will,” Metevelis said. “We’ll definitely hit 100 next year.”

“I could be my true self”

Toni Sultzbaugh had anxieties about attending Leadership Lab. He was invited by Metevelis, youth minister of his congregation, Living Hope Lutheran in Las Vegas.

“When she said ‘Leadership Lab,’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re just going to, like, learn to lead the world?’” Sultzbaugh recalled. “And that’s kind of what it was.”

At the end of the week Sultzbaugh decided to be baptized at Lab. He said it was a “spur-of-the-moment decision” but one he’d also “been thinking about for a while.” Alienated by his previous experiences with different churches, Sultzbaugh found a church home at Living Hope that has helped him rebuild his faith over the past year.

“Being a Lutheran has been just an awesome experience for me,” Sultzbaugh said. “I love it. I’m living for it.”

Sultzbaugh is transgender and was concerned about how that aspect of his identity would be received at Leadership Lab. But as he explains, “Lab is probably one of the safest places you could go to for a church camp if you’re LGBTQ. Lab says, ‘Come as you are,’ and it’s really come-as-you-are.”

Baley Robinson of Jonesboro, Ill., said she was ready for her second year at Leadership Lab but that it felt different from her first.

“Being a Lutheran has been just an awesome experience for me.”

“It was more working on ourselves, getting closer to God,” Robinson said. “That was my experience, getting closer to God and learning my emotions and feelings better.” Robinson is now in the last year of her high school experience, an experience tainted by COVID.

“I’ve heard some people say—and I relate to it—that it feels like they haven’t moved from eighth grade,” she said. “It feels like I haven’t grown up since then, and everything is going a million miles an hour now.”

Since Landon Zelenka was little, he dreamed of showing people that he had a talent for singing, but he was always too nervous. He didn’t expect his first year at Lab to open him up to it, or to open him up at all. “Going into it, I really just wanted to get through the week because I was very antisocial,” he said.

But in the end Zelenka, of Brenham, Texas, felt confident enough to get onstage, singing “Good God Almighty” in worship with a new friend, Zach Rediger of Rockford, Ill.

“It felt amazing being up there—the energy was great,” Rediger said. “We were kids up there instead of the adults, and you could feel everyone’s excitement from the crowd.” Lab is a rare oasis of connection, vulnerability and acceptance at a time when many teens feel as if they’ve missed out on the community experience of high school.

“I found I could be my true self to everyone,” Zelenka said. “They liked me for who I was and wouldn’t judge me. Lab is a second home because people here are like family.”

Avery Applewhite, a Leadership Lab attendee and a high school junior from Burton, Texas, contributed to this story.

Eliot Sill
Eliot Sill is a freelance writer and educator living in Denver. He attends Epiphany Lutheran Church with his wife, Jenn, and their two children, Luther and Zora.

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