NBA XPLOR: A Retrospective

The National Benevolent Association has been engaged with young adults in a multitude of ways over the years. Whether via our Scholars Program in the 1990s, our work alongside congregations and nonprofits with missions to serve young people, or our time hosting the XPLOR Residency program, intentionally and thoughtfully working with young adult communities has been an important part of NBA programming.

Throughout the years, more than 100 young adults have completed our residency program across nine different Disciples regions. These residents have gone on to lead lives of service as Disciples pastors and clergy members, returned to school to become therapists and social workers, and even found places within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where their passion for service could thrive.

In addition to our XPLOR program, we’ve engaged with young adults in new ways during an ongoing pandemic and the changing needs of this demographic. Since our last XPLOR cohort, we’ve launched several Peer Learning & Wellness groups that center young activists and Latine Disciples, we held feedback sessions to hear directly from young adults and those who work with them about what they’re needing most in this season, and we’ve formed a research and design team to dream up new ways in which NBA can support and work with young adults.  

NBA also acknowledges that to move forward, we have to look back. In preparation for our next phase of work with young adults, we took some time to reflect on what led us to this moment. The following is a reflection on how some of our most formative work with young adults came to be. It was written by XPLOR co-founder Ben Bohren towards the end of his time with NBA.

Whether the story is fact, legend, or apocryphal, it is told that the National Benevolent Association first began with six women in a prayer circle in a church basement in St. Louis, Missouri in 1886. As the small group completed their time together, they prayed, “O God, if there is a need that we can meet, please show us what it is.” As they exited the building, there on the church steps was an orphan child. Thus, began the vision of the NBA, formerly known as the Benevolent Association of The Christian Church. The vision became reality in March 1887 and the women kept their passionate and compassionate commitment to faith and to helping the helpless. Be careful what you pray for!

Over the 135 years since that humble beginning, the NBA has consistently sought to remain dedicated to that original vision, “O God, if there is a need that we can meet, please show us what it is.”

The written history of the NBA tells the story of many challenges as well as soaring successes. At the time of NBA’s 100-year anniversary celebration at the 1987 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the NBA was serving thousands of people in dozens of homes and programs across the United States. Only 17 years later, in 2004, the NBA was forced to declare bankruptcy, facing huge debt perpetrated by the stock market losses of September 11, 2001, and vast real estate over-extension. At one point, the closing of NBA was a potential outcome. Many prayer circles sought strength, wisdom, and vision for the next chapter of NBA’s ministry.

In 2011, new leadership was called to NBA as Mark D. Anderson was named President and CEO of the organization. Other significant leadership joined Mark; all were visionary and courageous and held fast to that founding prayer: if there is a need we can meet, show it to us. Again, be careful what you pray for!

Looking around the landscape of the denomination, numerous needs emerged, but one was almost glaring: the diminishing attention of a commitment to encourage, nurture, and develop young adult participation and leadership. This was not only a need in the life of the church but in the broader circles of communities and society.

So, it was in November 2012 that NBA leadership convened a small gathering of Disciples from across the country in Salt Lake City, Utah to envision what an intentional community-based young adult ministry might look like. Nine Disciples attended that event which sparked passionate and urgent interest in a deeper conversation. Also in November 2012, more than two dozen Disciples leaders, representing a range of ages, races, ethnicity, clergy-laity, local churches, Regional and General Disciples ministries, and social service agencies gathered in Nashville, Tennessee to create a forward movement for such a visionary program.

One main question that came out of these meetings: What would it mean for the NBA and the Disciples to launch such an opportunity that would focus on the potential for a young adult community-living, social-justice, spiritual, and vocational deepening experience? There was a strong consensus that “the need is great, and the time is now.”

Within a few months, under the leadership of Rev. Rebecca L. Hale, Rev. Patti Case, and myself, Rev. Ben Bohren, were invited to serve as NBA Consultants in envisioning, creating, and launching such a new program for and with young adults. Over the next few months, this staff convened many conversations across the Disciples networks which already offered some young adult programs of service and leadership. They did research and held conversations with the leadership of ecumenical partners of more than a dozen similar faith-based programs that cooperate under the umbrella of Volunteers Exploring Vocation. Finally, they began to create a potential model for the program NBA would hope to launch, receiving applications in late 2013 and welcoming the first cohort in late summer 2014.  they began to create a potential model for the program NBA would hope to launch, receiving applications in late 2013 and welcoming the first cohort in late summer 2014.

One final gathering was deemed necessary before more concrete details of this new program, or any promotional materials could be created. Since this was a program for and with young adults, young adults needed to interrogate the initial outlines of the program and help build the final model of this experience. In June 2013, fourteen young adults, representing significant diversity of the Disciples, plus five NBA staff and a chaplain at a Disciples-affiliated college gathered for a weekend retreat in St. Louis, Missouri with the question, “How might a Disciples mission house help young adults cultivate a heart for care?”

It could be said that a new program was born that weekend, including the actual name of NBA XPLOR! During that weekend, a few key themes emerged as foundational characteristics. This group agreed that the program they were helping shape had to encourage young people to get out of their comfort zone, celebrate the diversity of people and backgrounds, have a residential and community focus, and finally provide mentorship and Sabbath time where young people could explore their faith and their callings.

Following the St. Louis weekend, Rebecca, Patti, and I began to create a more defined program, including a draft of an extensive program manual, an application process and form, and a frequently asked questions sheet. This work resulted in several foundational aspects of the program that have been core to its identity every year since its inception. The core concepts are now known as the Cornerstones of our program. They are:

Community Engagement and Justice Work

Connect the life of faith to the work of justice in your day-to-day life.

Spiritual Deepening and Vocational Discernment

Say yes to new ways of living into God’s dreams for your life.

Leadership Development

Claim and hone your strengths for personal, spiritual, and professional leadership.

Simple Living in Intentional Community

Experience sharing resources and making decisions in a household community of faith.

By early fall of 2013, the NBA was ready to launch this program having made connections with three localities to become the first three Host Sites: Hiram-Mantua, Ohio, North Hollywood, California and St. Louis, Missouri. Promotional materials were released across all the networks named above and an application form was made available on the NBA website.

A solid NBA XPLOR staff also began to take form. The search for an NBA XPLOR Program Director led the organization to Rev. Bonnie Osei-Frimpong. Rev. Patty Case concluded her consultant position at the end of 2013. Rev. Virzola Law was invited to serve part-time as Mission Specialist Consultant with NBA XPLOR and I was asked to extend my hours with NBA XPLOR as a Mission Specialist Consultant.

A consistent and dedicated NBA XPLOR Team was now in place: Rebecca, Bonnie, Virzola, and I. We would work together until the end of 2020, navigating the many changes that would need to be made over the growth and transformation of the program. Because of the nimbleness and flexibility of this team, and the overall strong financial, organizational, professional, and personal support, NBA XPLOR gained a Disciples-wide recognition and appreciation for being one of the most dynamic young adult ministry programs in the denomination.

Through XPLOR, NBA has grown in its understanding of what it means to accompany young adults as they develop in leadership and discern the connections of faith and vocation. This work is expansive, and NBA has only just begun. Just as the young adults who have been part of our programming have evolved, so have we and so has our approach to this work. As we move forward, the way we interact with and support this demographic will expand to reflect all we’ve learned through conversations with clergy, young adults, health and social service partners, and former XPLOR Residents.

There are many ways to serve young people across the denomination. In 2023 we will launch a series of projects that reflect an expanded model of our residency program. While these offerings won’t necessarily be residency programs, they will still support the main goals of our work with young adults which are to host a space for a diverse group of young adults, support leadership development endeavors of young people, and cultivate community and connectivity. NBA is so excited to share what’s next in our work with young adults in the coming months.