Trailhead For Our Church and School Partners


Why should my church or school partner with Trailhead?

Trailhead extends the work of churches and Christian schools by helping high school students, as they head into the next stages of their journey, think holistically about their lives, their faith, and their impact on the world.

High school youth are on a path that leads into new territory: unfamiliar and stimulating academic fields, troubling real-world needs, and exciting career possibilities. But there are many ways that that exploration can be derailed. Feeling overwhelmed by the race to success, students can lose sight of the real purpose of their education. Caught up in enthusiasm for new things, students can forget the relevance of Christian faith to the ideas and problems they're pursuing. Singlemindedly chasing a particular major or career, students can fail to see and know the whole of God's richly interrelated world. Led by Westmont College and Fuller Seminary faculty, professionals in the Santa Barbara community, and experts in spiritual direction and career development, Trailhead helps students envision a life of authentic Christian vocation—a life that draws all their interests, abilities, and questions into God’s work in the world. 


How is the program structured?

Trailhead consists of an on-campus summer experience at Westmont and a yearlong mentorship with Trailhead faculty and partner churches or schools.

An intensive on-campus experience equips students with core tools and encounters: interaction with top Christian scholars, engagement with real-world problems, reflection on students’ own abilities and interests, and discernment in a vibrant community of colleagues and peers. Following the on-campus summer experience, a yearlong mentorship program, facilitated by Trailhead faculty and adult mentors in students' churches and schools, supports students as they live out the lessons of Trailhead in their home context. For 2024, we’re offering a choice of three residency sessions: June 9-14, June 16-21, or June 23-28.


What do students do in the on-campus experience?

They explore pressing real-world problems.

In a sense, Christian vocation isn't primarily about us—it's about the world God calls us to serve. At Trailhead, Westmont and Fuller faculty lead students in exploring a selection of real-world problems from the perspectives of classroom, church, and community. On campus, faculty teams bring academic learning and theological reflection to bear on particular issues, investigating how Christian intellectual life can propel us into engagement with God's world. Then, in partnership with Santa Barbara-area business, non-profit, and ministry leaders, students head into the community to encounter that issue face to face. Finally, participants process and express the experience through concluding acts of worship planned and led by Trailhead students and faculty.

  • Example: A theologian and a biologist host a conversation about creation care, partnering with a local ecological organization to explore the Santa Barbara Channel, closing with an open-air worship service that celebrates God's creative work in the natural world.
  • Example: A sociologist and a computer scientist host discussion of technology and personal identity, partnering with a Christian psychologist to think about the benefits and costs of social media, closing with a liturgical service that gives thanks for the communities into which God calls us.

They learn more about who they are.

Understanding God’s call often begins with understanding ourselves. What do we do well? What brings us joy? Who are we as part of a community? With Westmont faculty, specialists in career counseling, pastors, and experts in spiritual direction, Trailhead students journal, paint, draw, play-act, hike, reflect, read, discuss, pray, and sit in silence, all with the purpose of highlighting their abilities and interests, known and unknown.

They build relationships, reflect, and have fun.

Trailhead’s core content is stimulating and challenging, but much of the real work of processing, internalizing, and carrying forward the Trailhead experience will happen in the spaces between the formal programming. In recreation, conversation, and reflection in and around Westmont’s mountainous campus, in excursions to Santa Barbara, in enjoyment of an exquisitely beautiful part of God’s creation, Trailhead participants practice life together as a Christian community, growing in faith, knowledge, and service.


How does the yearlong mentorship program work?

Through two mentoring relationships, students begin building a community of support as they embark on their vocational journeys.

Unlike a camp or a conference, Trailhead is an extended experience, begun in the on-campus summer experience and continuing in students’ home contexts in the following year. As the program continues at home, students will process and apply what they’ve learned in two mentoring relationships: one in small groups led via Zoom by Trailhead staff, and another in one-on-one meetings with an adult mentor from the student’s church or school. 


What are the goals of Trailhead?

In a nurturing community, students learn about themselves and the world, gaining vocational direction, practicality, and faith resiliency.

Vocational direction: We believe that “ministry” isn’t limited to pastoral or missionary careers, but can include a whole landscape of professional and non-professional pursuits. Trailhead models to students some of the many ways that faithful people might engage the world’s needs. As they draw connections between their faith commitments and their other passions, students prepare to think vocationally about the questions, challenges, and possibilities they’ll encounter in college and beyond.

Practicality: Christians throughout the centuries have understood that spiritual growth and maturity don’t need to be vague abstractions, but can emerge from concrete, repeatable practices. Trailhead demystifies the process of becoming a mature Christian adult by giving students practical tools for advancing in faith, self-knowledge, and vocational direction.

Resiliency: The Christian Church is universal and diverse, and isn’t captive to any culture or form of expression. At Trailhead, students encounter many ways of participating in the body of Christ, expanding their vision for future involvement in a faith community.


How can churches and schools partner with Trailhead?

Through nomination, funding, and mentorship. 

Trailhead is an ongoing relationship lasting at least one full year. With the Lilly Endowment, we see this as an investment, through your youth, in the future of Christian servanthood in the world. Many of the fruits of the Trailhead program will be realized, not in a few days on Westmont’s campus, but in the months and years following the residency, as students return home and begin to process their experience in context. This requires robust connections among the Trailhead program, families, pastors or teachers, and congregations or schools. To help foster these connections, we ask partnering institutions to observe the following practices in nominating, funding, and mentoring students.

Nomination: Though we welcome self-initiated applicants, we know that pastors and teachers are often in the best position to identify potential in their students and to help students integrate an experience into the ongoing life of their community. All Trailhead applicants must secure the nomination of a sponsoring pastor or teacher. Nominations are capped at three students per church, and total program space is limited to approximately twenty-five participants per residency session.

We'd ask that you be a little imaginative in choosing students to nominate. Trailhead can be a rich opportunity for students with conventional gifts for leadership. But as scripture abundantly demonstrates, extraordinary charisma, extroversion, or confidence are not prerequisites for participation in God’s work. In the nomination process, you might especially consider students:

  • who are quiet but thoughtful;
  • whose natural enthusiasm could benefit from shaping and direction;
  • who have some skepticism about faith, but are asking productive questions;
  • who are passionate about addressing the world’s problems.

Eligible students will begin their sophomore, junior, or senior years of high school in the fall of 2024, and will be 18 years of age or younger on July 2, 2024. We also have limited slots available for graduating seniors; please inquire with us. You can refer students using this form, and we will follow up with students about completing a short application form and obtaining a formal nomination from you.

Funding: Through the generosity of the Lilly Endowment, we’re able to significantly subsidize the real cost of the Trailhead program. The final cost per student is $800; that fee covers room, board, and program activities. We strongly recommend that congregations or schools share this cost with families; again, we see Trailhead as an investment in students and the future of the church, and one in which congregations and schools could very suitably share. Precise models, of course, are at the discretion of sending organizations, but we might suggest that you:

  • Be creative in sharing the cost with families. Possibilities might include support-raising activities, sponsorship by a mission or discipleship committee, or scholarship from a youth-ministry endowment. Trailhead itself offers a limited number of scholarships to students with exceptional need.
  • Let students share their experience with your community. Appropriate to these funding models, Trailhead might also be a good opportunity to showcase youth and their vocational development to your congregation or school—through a report to the session or board, a “minute for mission” during Sunday worship or chapel, or another channel. 

Mentorship: We hope that, as Trailhead students return from the summer residency, their experience will become part of the life of your community, being contextualized in the student’s home setting and contributing to the mission of your church or school. To aid this process, we’re asking partner institutions to pair each student with a “home mentor”—a pastor, youth leader, teacher, or other adult who can commit to meet with the student at least five times between July 2024 and May 2025. Trailhead will provide mentors with suggested themes for conversation; we expect that total time investment for the year will be 8–10 hours. Students will be asked to identify a home mentor, with the help of their sponsoring pastor or teacher, after they enroll in a residency. Learn more about Trailhead's home mentorship program here.