by Kristen Johnson, September 10, 2013
My mom had posted a link on my Facebook page. I followed it and casually scrolled through. Going to the Leadership Training Institute of America conference in Washington, DC, sounded like a great adventure. However, it also seemed like a dream that would never come true. I dismissed the idea as yet another impossible feat to add to my bucket list. Weeks later my pastor brought it up in our conversation. The pastor encouraged me to go, saying that he thought it would be beneficial for me to meet more Christians my age from around the country and to learn from the classes about defending the Christian faith. That was it. I knew the trip would be expensive, and I knew that I was not acquainted with anyone I was going with; but I knew that I had to go. God only had to tell me twice. When making the decision to go to this conference I assumed that I would grow stronger in my faith, but I never expected that my entire manner and outlook on the world would be altered.
Throughout my childhood years, I had become a shy, quiet girl, who never spoke unless spoken to. I had just turned seventeen. It was time to shake this timidity and become who I was made to be. How many times had I been so bound by my fear that I was paralyzed against what I knew I should be doing! This fear was not healthy. In fact, it was childish. My dad even had doubts about me going. He didn’t think I would enjoy it, knowing that I had such difficulty talking to people. Pastor Love, who would be driving a van of “young adults” from his church in Cincinnati to Washington, DC, for the conference, assured him that I would be in a safe, Christian, learning environment. With this assurance, Dad consented. I was free to go. I decided the time had come to “get over it” and grow up. The time had come for me to dive into the unknown and see what would happen.
The next month I had to make a phone call. This wasn’t just any phone call to a long-time friend – I even dreaded those. This was a call I had to make to a stranger’s cell phone. I had never seen or talked to Pastor Love, and I was mortified. I didn’t know what to expect! My parents assured me that he was nice and gave me the phone number. I sat at the table for an hour starring at the telephone, my arch nemesis. Mom poked her head through the cracked door. “Do you want me to call him?”
“No,” I replied “I have to do it.” I knew in order to make my dive I first had to step out to the edge. I picked up the phone and blasted past my comfort zone as I dialed the numbers. Some guy in Indianapolis answered. How humiliating! I had entered the wrong area code! After minutes of recovery, I grabbed the phone again. Pastor Love answered the phone. I quickly ran through the questions I had written in front of me and jotted down his answers. He was nice enough. It was done now. I knew how long the car ride was going to be and when we were leaving.
Finally, the morning arrived. As our family van pulled into the parking lot, I took a deep breath. I was about to spend all of next week with people I had never seen in my life. My parents introduced me to Pastor Love and helped me load up my stuff. There were only four other students riding in the van. To my relief one was a girl, named Kaylie, about my age. I was nervous, but I knew everything would be fine. The ride there was long and quiet. Everyone was tired, and both of us girls were too shy to converse much. Yet I did manage to introduce myself and get everyone’s names.
Once we unpacked in our dorm rooms, I took a look around. There weren’t near as many people as I was expecting – only twenty-six people total. We each got a text book and had assigned seating. Thankfully, I was assigned a seat next to Jereme, one of the boys that I had ridden with in the van. Students and counselors alike bustled about introducing themselves and asking each other how the travels fared. Talking and laughter filled the room. This was going to be a good week. Jereme and I eagerly browsed through our text books. We came across a graph checklist for graduation requirements, which neither of us had anticipated. Who knew there was a graduation? Looking through the list, I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved in graduating. The counselors explained that because we had voluntarily decided to come to a leadership conference, that they knew we were special people and that a lot would be expected of us. There would be papers and thank you letters to write, Bible verses to memorize, and discussions to participate in. This was the real deal.
The evening class commenced in a rapid fire of worldview questions from Dr. Patrick Briney. He had a certain way of glaring over his glasses that was intimidating. Dr. Briney asked one student what she hoped to learn. Then, he asked several other students what they thought about her answer and what they assumed he thought about her answer. Already we were forced to think deeply about what others thought and how to communicate what we as individuals thought.
The next day was Father’s Day. The instructors encouraged each of us to take a moment and call our dads to let them know how much we appreciated them. This assignment got me thinking. I hardly ever told anyone how much they meant to me, let alone my own dad. Of course, both of my parents made certain that I knew they loved me and that they were proud of me. Yet, I had never returned the love and gratitude verbally. There were several people I knew I needed to say “thank you” to. But I had never actually done it. Now was the best time to start. I called my dad, but there was no answer. Perhaps it was best. I left a message on his phone thanking him for investing in my life and for teaching me so much. I knew that my reputation as a good worker and a sweet girl originated in the morals that my dad had taught me. I never got a call back from Dad the whole week I was gone, because he rarely checks his messages. Eventually, he told me he did listen to it, and he thanked me for it. The message has been kept on his phone ever since.
Later that week, we went to the White House to meet Congressman Steve Womack from Arkansas. He shook each of our hands and inquired our names and where we were from. He engaged in casual conversation with each of us. Since many of the students and staff of LTIA were from Arkansas, he encouraged us all to “Call the Hogs.” I had no idea what that meant, but I played along, mimicking my Arkansas friends as accurately as I could. This encounter helped me realize something. Congressmen and all government officials were just as human as everyone else. They had personal lives and favorite sports teams. They had a sense of humor and knew how to have fun. All my life, I had assumed that celebrities, government officials, and all important people were too professional to make mistakes or to do anything outside of their vocation. I was wrong! That day I learned that professionals had feelings too, and that they were approachable. I didn’t have to be afraid to talk to them simply because they were known and popular on the national scale. I could talk to them because they were people just like me.
Many classes and hours of lecture taught me what I had expected to learn. We talked about different religions and why the Biblical world view is the truth. Speakers told us that, in order to reach lost people, we need to study their worldview, find the flaw in it, and help them see that flaw. Then we must share the gospel with them in a loving manner. We students also learned to act and look professional. But most impacting about the classes was the fact that no matter who was speaking, we were encouraged to ask questions. Contrary to this newly discovered concept, I had always assumed that asking questions meant you didn’t understand something. Thus, I concluded that those who asked a lot of questions were not as smart. During the LTIA conference, however, we were taught that asking questions let the speaker know that you were listening and that you cared about what was being said. In fact, questions are expected and are seen as a sign of etiquette in the professional world. Questions are treasured because they show concern. That’s what so many of us desire anyway. We want someone to care, to listen to us.
The Leadership Training Institute of America opened my eyes to hundreds of things I had never thought of before. Unexpectedly, the things I learned there transformed my entire personality and outlook on the world. The experience had required me to break through my comfort zone, but the decision to go initiated one of the most exhilarating adventures in my life! Granted, some of the things I learned at the conference seemed like common knowledge; but that summer was the first time I had ever connected that knowledge to real life interaction. My tendencies to scare myself out of motivation, which on previous occasions had immobilized me, diminished greatly. After I recognized that people are people, regardless of their position, I knew I could communicate with anyone I pleased. The questions I had whizzing around in my head, now birthed from critical thinking, were not signs of lack of intelligence, but of concern because I cared. Because I cared, I knew the importance of communication. I learned to enjoy face-to-face conversations. Even telephone conversations became more frequent and less intimidating. Leadership Institute of America helped me find my voice. This discovery empowered me to destroy my fear and to pursue my dreams and to be the leader I always wanted to be.
Kristen is a student at Ivy Tech Community College in Ohio and a 2013 LTIA alumnus.