Dennis Wilhite: A Ministry in the Wilderness

Dennis Wilhite: A Ministry in the Wilderness

Dennis Wilhite
Growing up a son of missionaries in the Philippines, Dennis Wilhite learned a lot about making connections and his faith. Relating to American youth, though, was a bit more difficult for Dennis as a young youth pastor in North Tonawanda, NY.

His love for the youth in his ministry and a desire to make real connections with them motivated his first wilderness trip to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada in 1974.

A little later, Dennis moved to Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, MI, and continued his youth wilderness program. It was there he realized a need to train others to lead these powerful and life changing trips.

The Pilgrimage wilderness program grew and transitioned from a youth ministry program to an independent organization, enabling other youth and ministry leaders to lead trips and make those valuable connections. In 1984, the Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) was officially formed.

With a passion for youth and for leadership development, Pilgrimage has partnered with BBC since 1991. With the partnership, it has grown and evolved to include academic programs and courses on the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels.

Read other In the Spotlights here.

Insight Questions

How did Pilgrimage start?
The first trip happened just out of desperation. I was in my first year as a youth pastor and I struggled with motivating the kids. We took a long shot and tried a trip. We knew nothing. We did everything wrong. But through it God did some amazing things, and we just kept going back and learning the craft. I didn't know anyone else that was doing it at the time. When I moved to Michigan, I began to meet some people who had been experimenting in the same kinds of ideas.

Why did the program begin?
Our core idea was: "How do we help church leaders develop a ministry that becomes a seamless part of what they're doing and super-charges all of their ministry?" And that is where we have remained. How do you lead people in the stuff of life, to help them expand and grow?

How does it work?
Undergraduate Camping Ministries students spend three years on campus. In their fourth year, they are in an internship in a real camp situation. They do a full year's worth of credit as an intern. They are coached and evaluated as they walk through it. The approach to learning is very active. Students coming out have a far more usable comprehension and we have a high level of placement right out of the program.

The graduate program is different. These are mostly pastors, business people, or missionaries who remain in their workplace or ministry environment. One or more professors deal with them via email, website, or phone. They coach them, help them solve real problems, and give them the materials they need to grow their skills and to deal with those problems in more aggressive ways.

How has the program grown in the last 25 years?
We brought The Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development to BBC and began to offer credit for it on the undergraduate and graduate levels. This is where Pilgrimage Educational Resources was developed. A few years ago we began to branch out as an organization and develop an educational program for other non-wilderness things. We started in the wilderness but we've taken those principles into a range of other disciplines. We call it experience-based learning. Right now, we offer over 100 credit hours of camping ministry, organizational leadership at the graduate level and even some doctoral-level work. We've sought to become people on the cutting edge of understanding and implementing experience-based learning.

Who is interested in this program?
Students in the undergraduate camping ministries program usually come because they love camp. They tend to be people who aren't big on theory but really want to do something and make it work. While we do work heavily in theory, this is a way of helping them work through it in the context of reality.

On the graduate level, there are a lot of people out there in business or in ministry that are doing practical things everyday and seeing the results of their effort fairly quickly and they're very impatient about going to school. I can help somebody take half of their program in an experience-based manor where what they are doing has an immediate effect on what is important to them.

What part does a week in the wilderness play?
This is the lynchpin of the program. We will have people from a wide variety of situations, from students to business leaders to pastors. For example at one time we had some people from a Mennonite camp that worked with inner-city kids, a man studying to be a counselor, and some military folks all together.

The week begins with some basic curriculum and concepts that are going to be used in the process. Then we put them into an intense wilderness laboratory for a week, just making it happen and coming together everyday to figure out what happened that day and why. In that process they are tearing apart scripture, which is guiding the whole thing. So, what they are doing is looking for real answers to real situations out of the scripture and using the wilderness and curriculum as utensils to build a connection between the experience and the scripture. Then, we follow these people back out into their environments and help them figure out how those principles work there. The idea is that the same principles will work wherever they are.

Why the wilderness?
What makes the wilderness environment work so well is the close proximity of the people in a group. You can't escape each other. And you have no control. Good leadership is not about controlling the environment; you need to master how you interact with the environment. And it is also a highly active environment that compresses the pressure. You are being pushed physically, emotionally, and socially. The focus in on people, as opposed to making sure your lights work and there is heat. It is highly focused on the Word and how it plays out in reality.

What are some challenges you have faced while doing this?
Well, I like challenges. Figuring out how to take what grew out of youth ministry and wilderness trips and distill it into something usable in a wide variety of environments has been the continuing challenge.

Taking all the stuff I knew was good education and bringing it to a part of the culture that doesn't understand it was a cool challenge. Figuring out how to help accreditors and classic educators understand and appreciate the power of this tool, that has been the most fun challenge.

What do you hope to see happen going forward?
I envision us being in the position to help a lot of people reproduce what we are doing. Becoming a community of learners as we continue to figure out new ways to use experience based learning in other fields as well. That is a continuing project for me.

Learn more about the Camping Ministries program here.

Learn more about Experience-Based Educational Leadership here.

Learn more about Pilgrimage Educational Resources here.

Contact Information

B.R.E., Baptist Bible College
M.R.E., Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary
Ed.D., Nova Southeastern University

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Posted on: 11/24/2009 11:28:48 AM

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