A legacy of impact: A college ministry program shapes future church leaders

The alums are scattered across the country in various ministries, but if you ask them to talk about the genesis of the group that united them, they can talk for hours. And they all remember the music. John Williams, chaplain of Austin College, is nothing if not of a lover of good tunes. He typically has a tidbit or two to share about the artists he gleefully plays, but that is to be expected: Williams also loves fun facts, history and sharing his love of fun facts and history with as many people as possible. For the last quarter century, Williams has led the Austin College ACtivators, a group of students who plan and lead youth ministry events for young Presbyterians. The group began in 1995, early into Williams’ tenure as chaplain of Austin College, a Presbyterian-affiliated college in Sherman, Texas. Williams, searched for new ways to engage students and, in his words, “spread the good news about Austin College” to Presbyterians in Texas and beyond.

“It was one of those happy accidents,” he recalls as he sits in his office and reminisces on the last 25 years. In other words, he did not plan for the ACtivators to last this long, nor did he envision the program and his leadership leaving a lasting impact on generations of future ministers. He just packed up a van one weekend, turned on some good music and the rest is history.

A providential start

The story of the ACtivators (so-called because of the common abbreviation for Austin College) has an unlikely beginning: an elevator in Louisville, Kentucky. Williams, Jimmy Caldwell of Trinity University in San Antonio and Harry Smith, president of Austin College, were at a conference for church-related colleges, and each had spent ample time thinking about what exactly that meant in the mid-1990s.

“We spent a lot of time and energy thinking about being a Presbyterian college, and what that means for our students,” Williams recalls. “And, for some reason, the guy from San Antonio wanted to get Mexican food in Kentucky.”

As they stepped off the elevator, Smith turned to Williams and asked him to do something that would change the trajectory of Williams’ life and that of many future professionals in the ministry.

“He told me we should look in to how we could build connections with some of the Presbyterian churches in New Mexico,” Williams recalls. “And when the president of the college tells you something like that, it’s in your best interest to take it seriously.”

Williams’ mind raced with the possibilities, and as he searched for ways to satisfy his boss’ wish, he turned to an old friend: Jim Collie from Santa Fe Presbytery. Collie told Williams about his idea to host a presbytery-wide youth event for kids from the various congregations. The problem was a need for volunteers. Williams told him he could handle that part.

“I had no idea if I could handle that part,” he says 25 years later. “So I hung up, wondering how we’d do this.”

Creativity born of necessity

Enter the ACtivators. Williams knew five Austin College students who had expressed an interest in the ministry. The “First Five” – Amy Parker née Allen, Noelle Castin, Janet Hayes née Chester, Michael Harper and Brandon Wert – were recruited by Williams to plan and lead the weekend retreat in Santa Fe.

“I still remember thinking, ‘Can we really do this?’” recalls Amy Parker, now the director of Children’s Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas. “But John knew we could, and made sure we knew we could. He always had confidence in us, and that helped us do it successfully.”

While Williams drove his 1989 Hyundai Excel to Albuquerque, the five Austin College students flew to New Mexico to lead a weekend youth retreat for 37 high school students. The weekend went off without a hitch, and the early ACtivators were hooked. Over the next 25 years, Williams led similar trips to Sante Fe, Albuquerque, Oklahoma, Louisiana and all over Texas. The size of the ACtivator group varied (sometimes five, sometimes 10 to 12) and the size of the youth groups grew as high as 300. No matter the location or the numbers, the mission was always the same: plan and lead the most entertaining, engaging and educational youth retreat as possible.

Mentorship: Intentional and organic

The ACtivators and Williams became go-to resources for college students interested in the ministry. All five of the original ACtivators are now active in ministry or in administrative roles within the Presbyterian Church. Amy Sutherlun, a 2001 graduate who is now co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church in San Marcos, Texas, remembers the way Williams would take future ministers under his wing, mentoring them as they learned how to plan and lead ministry events.

“He radically trusted us,” she says. “The ACtivators was just a long road trip with some of your best friends, and at the end of it, you lead an event for 300 youth.”

Sutherlun logged thousands of miles driving to events in El Paso, New Mexico and Colorado, and she noticed a common trend.

“John gave everyone a turn in the shotgun seat, and when you were riding shotgun, you and John talked.”

While some of his favorite music played on his Hyundai’s cassette player, Williams would ask ACtivators about their studies, lives, challenges, triumphs and goals. If you were torn between two different majors, he would help you decide. If you were undecided about your career path, he would help you reach a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes ACtivators intent on enrolling in medical school would sit in the shotgun seat, and by the time the Hyundai reached its destination, they would realize their passions were elsewhere.

“He was intentional and inclusive with everything he did, but it never felt forced,” Sutherlun says. “John made it clear that he was preparing people for ministry, but also preparing people to serve inside and outside the church.”

When asked about his secrets for mentorship, the always-humble pastor deflects the praise onto his mentees.

“I’m a big believer in meeting people where they’re at,” he says. “I try to create an environment where people feel comfortable, and feel like they can be who they are. At the end of the day, all of the ACtivators were there because they loved the work and wanted to make a difference.”

Tending the spark of call

The program was the catalyst, the spark that ignited the fire within these young, soon-to-be ministers. Like Parker, Sutherlun was always impressed – if not daunted – by the amount of responsibility the ACtivators had for a group of college students. The future minister met her husband through the program, and holds a special place in her heart for these experiences and where they have led her.

“At its core, ACtivators was about relationships with youth,” she says. “John was always quick to remind us of that, and he reminded us by living it.”

In addition to the “shotgun” tradition, Williams developed mentor-mentee relationships that extended far beyond the ACtivator road trips.

“It was always very subtle,” Parker says, commenting on Williams’ mentorship style. “Sometimes I’ll think about an activity I did with the youth at my church, or think about the way I incorporated music into that day, and think, ‘Yep, that’s all John.’”

While the event planning helped the future ministers conceive, coordinate and execute major events from start to finish, it was often the activities in between that molded future ministers into the professionals they are today. Parker participated in Williams’ Sunday Bible studies, seeing firsthand how Williams crafted discussions. She also watched as he wrote sermons, always going to great lengths to engage the audience and leave them with questions they would debate for days afterward.

“We had front-row seats to what it took to be a successful minister,” she says. “That helped shape us, and helped shape the churches and communities we are now a part of.”

Building a web of relationships

And Williams is still helping shape the next generation of ministers. In addition to the veteran church leaders and ministers with ties to the ACtivators program, several of his mentees are just beginning their seminary studies. One future minister, Deric McCurry, a 2018 graduate, knows the community Williams fostered will continue to make a difference for him and his career preparation long into the future.

“Because of the ACtivators, I now have this network I can rely on,” he said. “I know people in Texas, in Colorado, in North Carolina, everywhere. So many ministers got their start where I did, so I know exactly who to reach out to as I have questions.”

One such connection, Jean-Paul Marshall, is currently a pastor at Rye Presbyterian Church in New York. He, too, admires the connection he made – and continues to make – as an ACtivator.

“It’s all about the fellowship,” he says. “This is a community built on the principles of loving God and walking with God, and it continues to live out that tradition across the country and the world.”

As Williams talks about his program, it’s clear he values that community the most. He has remained a part of the alums’ lives through marriages, new jobs, new careers and children, some of whom are now ACtivators, too. When asked to reflect on the impact the program has had, he thinks about his drive back to Texas following the program’s first event in New Mexico. As he listed to his cassette tapes, Williams thought about God, the ACtivators and, most importantly, the youth his ACtivators would encounter in future programs. As he often does, Williams wrote about that journey.

“I thought then – and I think now – that together we really can be part of the process of helping particular kids come to understand and believe that the truest thing about them is that they are beloved and gifted children of God.”

Tyler Hicks is a writer from Austin, Texas. He has written about everything from music to film to high school football. He loves coffee, long reads on the beach and hanging out with his family’s many dogs.