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Heroic Leadership Institute – An Interview with Kylie Erickson and Jess Munson

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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There is a fantastic new opportunity for young people (from about 18 to 35) across North America to be trained as leaders and life-long lovers of Jesus in the form of a 9 month program called Heroic Leadership Institute. HLI is designed to serve the Vineyard movement and create a path for these young people to explore their callings in the Kingdom of God.

HLI immerses students in three strategic venues of training; education, spiritual formation, and participation. Each student also chooses a focus, or stream, that will help them lean into the future, to give them the experience in the ministry area of interest. Students leave their home churches to attend the boot-camp-style course, and get a full experience of study and service there, with each other and with the host church. There are now four different sites that host the program. After they graduate, it is the full commitment of HLI for students to return to their home churches and communities and apply what they have learned from HLI in their work and ministry back home. You can find out more about HLI at www.godogreatthings.com or by emailing [email protected].

The Duluth Vineyard graduated its first batch of HLI students this spring. Most of them have already returned home, but recently I was able to catch up with Kylie Erickson, one of the graduates from the church planting stream who has stuck around for further training in Duluth, as well as Jess Munson, who, together with her husband, Mike, serves as HLI Director in Duluth, to talk about the program.

Multiply Vineyard [MV]: So Kylie, can you start by telling us a little bit about how you ended up in HLI? How did you find out about it, and why did you choose it?

Kylie Erickson [KE]: Yes, well, I didn’t grow up in Duluth or in the Vineyard, but my grandparents live in Duluth and they started coming to the Vineyard about 8 or 9 years ago, so I started getting familiar with the church on weekend visits, and just fell in love with it. On a visit last spring, I saw a flier for HLI, and even though I didn’t really know what it was, and even though I was planning to go back to college in the fall, I took it with me.

God was doing a lot in me that summer, and I started questioning whether to go back to school or not. I’ve always had a heart for missions, and when I looked at the HLI website, I saw that they had a missions track, which prompted me to email Jess to say I was interested in HLI, but I still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. But God actually coordinated a lot of things to get me here. Like how I had to stay home sick from work the day I was supposed to tell my resident adviser at school if I was coming back, but Jess called me to talk about HLI, and because I wasn’t at work, I was able to hear all about it. She told me that it was for students who feel like they have a calling, but they’re not certain what that is. That was exactly what I had been struggling with. So I applied to HLI that weekend, was accepted, and a month later I was up here.

So it was really quick. And I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.

MV: So now that you’ve experienced it, what effect do you think HLI has had in your life?

KE: I would say that HLI, now that I’ve experienced it, is really a chance for you to come and figure out what your calling is. You may not leave with a definitive answer—I mean we were all in our late teens and early twenties, so it’s not like we all have an exact idea of what’s next—but I think HLI is really about forming you. It’s taking all these ideas that you’ve had about Christianity, about your faith, and making them your own. You ask yourself things like, “ok what is the theology of the kingdom; what does it mean for me,” or, “what does it mean that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins?” You go beyond just a Sunday school answer. You actually have to think through these things and understand them for yourself.

Jess Munson [JM]: How about you personally? What path would you say HLI has set you on?

KE: For me, HLI was really a healing experience. I struggled, and I still do, with control. Control was a big factor in my life, and through HLI I discovered all those places where I was trying to control things. Once it was pinpointed, I could start to see it, like “oh I’m scared, so I’m trying to control the situation now.”  And I’ve learned that God is bigger than control.

When I’m able to release control to God, life is better. So, coming out of HLI, the path that I’m on is to continue taking those things that HLI has taught me and put them into practice, even though I don’t have that community around me all the time. To keep releasing control to Jesus and making that spiritual exchange with him.

MV: So what about HLI, specifically, helped you come to this path of healing, as opposed to, say, a year in college?

KE: The community. The way HLI stresses community really sets it apart from other programs.One of the Vineyard values is community, and that is reflected in HLI. The first thing we do is go out on a camping trip to get to know each other and we begin moving into a state of vulnerability with each other. I couldn’t have gotten to the place I am now without that community.

That’s something that really makes HLI different from college, for example. I went to college the year before HLI, and the floor I lived in was pretty close, but I did not get to a place with the people from my floor like I did in HLI. In HLI, we spent time creating this culture of honor; time for each of us to talk about what was important to us in community. I remember many talks where there were tears, frustration, and anger; people saying things like, “I feel left out. I feel like I’m the only one that doesn’t get included in things.” And we had to deal with that, even though it was really uncomfortable. And then we would come together and pray with each other. It was hard, and it took work, but it was worth it.

JM: It’s cool to hear you say this, Kylie, because what you’re talking about didn’t happen on accident. These are things that are really core to HLI. I’m so glad that Kylie actually said “culture of honor,” because that is something we really strive for. We strive to create a culture of honor, and a culture of vulnerability and transparency so that students can come out of the experience knowing how to have intimate, vulnerable relationships with people that are from totally different backgrounds than they are.

The seven students we had in Duluth came from all over the spectrum. They were from totally different backgrounds spiritually, family-wise, culturally—everything. And yet, they learned interpersonal dynamics, conflict resolution techniques, and how to trust each other rather than be suspicious of each other. They really worked toward creating those intimate relationships, which, as followers of Jesus, we need to be doing. This is how we can flourish in our local churches.

MV: It seems like, no matter what school you go to, colleges and training programs are based on individual achievement and goals. But it sounds like in HLI you’re doing this with and for each other, and if that’s not happening, it’s kind of a deal breaker. Does that sound fair to say?

KE: Yeah. We would stop class or whatever if there was a problem in the group to try and deal with it right away.

JM: It’s really about learning how to identify “hey, this isn’t normal. Let’s not pretend that something isn’t going on. Let’s deal with it.” And to address it if there’s spiritual attack. I feel like all the students are coming out of HLI knowing how to do that in their own lives and in the communities that they’re now back in.

MV: What a valuable skill. I often wish I had learned more conflict resolution skills early in my life, because it comes up all the time, and if you haven’t practiced it, you don’t know what to do.

So, to change gears a bit, Kylie, every graduate loves this question: what are you doing next?

KE: Well, starting in September I’ll be interning in Duluth under Brenda Gatlin to learn about pastoral care, and I think I’ll have some church-planting with Michael Gatlin integrated in there, too. I feel like I’m called to do ministry, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. And so the internship is my next step into that. HLI was kind of like my diving board. I graduated and was launched, and now here’s the next step.

JM: And isn’t it so frustrating how we’re fed this idea that when you’re eight, you say “oh I want to be a doctor” and then you just become one? But that’s actually pretty rare. As you follow Jesus you realize that he just unveils the next step, one at a time. I think that that’s good; to have your next step and not be sure where it will lead you.

MV: Is there anything else you want to say about HLI, Kylie?

KE: I just want to add that sometimes I think a young person might think they can’t be in a program like HLI, because they’re not sure they want to be in ministry for the rest of their lives, and I think it’s important to say that it’s not true! HLI forms you on the inside. It forms you to be confident in the man or woman that God has created you to be. So one of the guys in my class is going back to school to be an engineer. And regardless of whether you want to be an engineer or a writer or whatever, you can come to HLI and be trained to know who you are in Christ, and how to stand against the enemy, and how to bring others to Jesus in a way that’s not weird or going to creep them out. So really HLI is for everyone, not just for those that want to be in ministry for life.

MV: Is there anything else you wanted to add, Jess?

JM: One thing we really like to emphasize is that we take a holistic approach to the experience, so a third of the program is education, covering the topics that are relevant no matter what you want to go on and do. Theological, Biblical knowledge. Another third of the program is participation. Everything from outreaches, serving in the local church, a missions trip, and experiencing different types of populations. And then spiritual formation is the other third. That piece is huge in really growing your intimacy level with Jesus and learning all the different ways you can connect with God besides just sitting alone in your room praying.

Another thing that I want to make clear is that HLI has a huge priority of sowing the students back into their home community to do the things that they just learned and to lead out of the place of what God just did. So Kylie’s kind of an anomaly because she’s from the Twin Cities and she’s staying in Duluth, but that’s what God was doing and we totally think that that’s the next step for her. It’s just not typical.

KE: Yeah, the idea of HLI isn’t for the students to stay. The whole point is that students aren’t allowed to come to the sites in their hometowns so they can get out and experience new things, but then they are also supposed to go back. So most of my classmates have gone back and are serving in their communities now, except for me.

MV: Thanks so much for taking time to chat with me.

HLI is still accepting applications for the 2014/2015 year. You can find out more at www.godogreatthings.com or by emailing [email protected].

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