The 1960’s – Pastor Dick Hanson had an idea for a program that would help young people develop leadership skills and learn how to work together with others to do ministry and prepare them to be leaders in the Church. About 60 years ago with 3 other adults Pastor Hanson held the first week long Leadership Lab on the Augustana Campus with about 20 high school youth. Everything from large group gatherings to small group activities happened in the Erickson Dorm.
After the first year the Rock Island Public Schools came to Pastor Hanson because they had heard of the great success of this program and asked him to adapt so they could use it in the schools to help with the problems of racism. The program also worked there and is still used in the public schools today.
Once Leadership Lab began there was just no stopping it. At first youth could go to Lab for two years. It soon became apparent that it needed to be expanded and so it grew to two levels: Basic and Advanced. The numbers continued to grow.
Every year programs were evaluated and tweaked, more youth signed up and more staff had to be recruited.
Things continued on a fairly even keel until the middle of the 80’s. In July of 1987, a few months before the merger of the new church body soon to be called the ELCA, Pastor Jim Bennett (Leadership Lab director) told the participants and volunteers of Leadership Lab that this could possibly be the last Leadership Lab that included all of Illinois and Metropolitan Saint Louis. The new synod structure of the ELCA would remove Metropolitan Saint Louis into another synod. This meant that there would be 4 synods where there was currently one and each synod would determine whether or not they would start their own Leadership Lab. At this time the future of Lab was questioned.
The youth and adult volunteers were saddened by the fact that this could be the end of the unity that had been sustained for so many years under the LCA. Large petitions of butcher paper were taped on the walls for each student and adult to sign stating their opposition to splitting Leadership Lab into several programs and into the different synodical boundaries. These petitions were sent to each new synod office along with phone calls and personal letters.
The new synod Bishops, realizing the importance of maintaining the integrity of Leadership Lab, after much prayer, discussion and grassroots support, decided that Lab would remain as it had been and would be a ministry of the three Illinois synods, BUT for the best interests of this ministry Leadership Lab was to continue to include Metropolitan Saint Louis.
Also, due to the new Synod structures and in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill, in 1987 Illinois Synod (LCA) Leadership Lab also invited the youth from the ALC and the AELC since they would be a part of Leadership Lab in whatever form that would take in 1988 and beyond.
And in 1988 the first ELCA Leadership Lab occurred at Augustana College.
In 1992 near the end of the Lab week representatives from the three youth committees of the three Illinois synods had a meeting and decided to recommend Pastor Lynn Bergren and Mary Ann Anderson as the new Lab directors. This was the first time co-directors were chosen and the three bishops affirmed their appointment and job description. In 1994 the three synod’s youth representatives met again and recommended Pastor Bill Knapp and Pastor Beverly Conway as the new directors of Lab. The three Bishops also affirmed them and their job description.
In 1999 both Pr. Knapp and Pr. Conway had decided they had served as long as they could as directors. Once again representatives of the youth committees of the three synods met and at the recommendation of both Pr. Knapp and Pr. Conway – Pastor Tom Christell and Cindy Svanda were recommended as the new co-directors of Leadership Lab, and again they along with their job description were affirmed by the bishops of the three Illinois Synods and began serving as directors in 2000.
Since becoming Directors in 2000 Pr. Christell and Ms. Svanda have been instrumental in helping Leadership Lab accomplish the following:
- Leadership Lab is now totally self-funded;
- Leadership Lab has a healthy scholarship program;
- A new level, Crossroads, was introduced in 2005 geared for the 20-something age group who are exploring their relationship with the church and the ministry they can offer; this level has seen the most growth since it’s inception.
- All Lab levels now have Co-Coordinators, there is a full time chaplain, as well as a coordinator of special events.
- Students come from many states but not limited to, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
- This $100,000 a year plus program is directed and staffed by volunteers who collectively give over 5,000 volunteer hours to this ministry every year. Many, including the directors and the coordinating staff, use vacation time or time off from work without pay.
In 2007 Tom Christell stepped down in leadership and Pr. Ben Bergren stepped in. Him and Cindy each brought their skills to the table to bring lab into a new landscape of the changing church. Ben with his preaching and ministry experience and Cindy with her organizational and cultural knowledge of Leadership Lab.
In 2015, the director structure changed in order to move Leadership Lab forward in meeting the needs of reaching out to a larger audience. Rob Zahn and Marissa Metevelis joined the team. Rob Zahn works as a liaison between the music team and the directors as well as long-range planning and organizational structuring. Marissa Metevelis brings her background in youth ministry and teaching to connect the staff to the staffing needs, as well as keeping curriculum up-to-date with the coordinators.
2019 pre-pandemic added a new director: Nick Rex. The pandemic along with its new challenges saw Nick and Marissa take the helm as the rest of the director team made themselves available for specific needs of Leadership Lab. Due to the pandemic, 2020 and 2021 Leadership Lab's were held virtually. Coming back to in-person Leadership Lab in 2022 will allow the directors and coordinators of Lab to undergo a HUGE restructuring and re-imagining Leadership Lab. We introduced a new level structure based on the year you graduate, simplifying the registration process and allowing anyone of any age to attend their first year of Lab with their peers. We hope this re-imagining creates an environment for Lab to thrive and continue into the future. We still intend to be week-long event where students will experience God's love through the community of Christ, while learning leadership skills.