June 29, 2015

GAP YEAR: A parent's perspective

Written by  Nita Landis
Left to right: Brett, Mikael, and Caleb of YWAM's 2015 Fire and Fragrance Cambodia outreach team bypass the language barrier and make new friends in Pailin, Cambodia. Left to right: Brett, Mikael, and Caleb of YWAM's 2015 Fire and Fragrance Cambodia outreach team bypass the language barrier and make new friends in Pailin, Cambodia. Photo provided by Caleb Landis.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

We talked to each of our three kids about taking a gap year.
Dan didn't take a gap year.
Katie didn't take a gap year.

So we were surprised and pleased when Caleb announced that he would be taking a gap year. He contacted Lock Haven University, where he had won a seat in the accelerated Physician Assistant Program, and was given permission to defer his enrollment to the following year.

Caleb graduated from high school, got a summer carpentry job that extended into the fall, and then headed to a YWAM (Youth With a Mission) DTS (Discipleship Training School) in January. He chose a DTS called Fire and Fragrance, offered on YWAM’s University of the Nations campus in Kona, Hawaii. Following three months of training, he headed to South Africa for two and a half months of outreach at the University of Cape Town.

We loved hearing about Caleb and his team serving pancakes to drunken students who needed food and water in the wee hours of the morning and helping young women who’d spent the night in the bars get home safely. We heard wonderful reports about Caleb’s team bringing together the Christian students on campus and helping them start a prayer room. We gave thanks for how our son was growing spiritually and otherwise.

Not a new idea

There was a time when young adults spending a year or two in mission and/or service was not unusual. Mennonite Voluntary Service began in 1944, offering young adults the opportunity to integrate into new neighborhoods, live in intentional communities, engage deeply in local churches, and gain meaningful volunteer work experience.

Starting in 1952, conscientious objectors to war engaged in 1-W service — “civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest” — rather than serving in the armed forces. About 85% of the 1-W men volunteered their time and about 70% served in urban centers.

It wasn’t called a gap year then. But the essential ingredients were there: leaving home, engaging in new contexts, serving, learning, and growing in Christian faith and life experience before beginning college or a career.

I strongly suspect that these voluntary service and 1-W experiences had a tremendously positive missional impact on the congregations to which the participants returned. And I long for a fresh round of that kind of influence!

What if parents and teachers and grandparents and high school peers became so convinced of the value of a gap year, and so confident that college could wait a year or two, that the majority of our young people would spend a year serving and learning and growing before returning to the formal classroom? What might the wins be?

Just to be clear, although I am challenging the “gotta get ‘em to college right away!” mindset, I am not anti-college in any way. My Ph.D. husband and I (Master’s in TESOL) are big proponents of post-secondary education and believe it includes learning and growth of many kinds.

Gap year "glitch"

Well, back to our story. I can’t remember when I first began hearing about Caleb’s plan to give up going to Lock Haven and continue with YWAM as a staff member after his DTS and outreach. But I clearly remember being concerned and conflicted.

A gap year was one thing. But gap years? Giving up that hard-to-get spot in a good program with a good salary waiting on the other end of his degree? Gulp!  That wasn’t the plan.

I wish I could write that my first response was to cheer. I always cheer when Jesus followers choose to live among people who won’t encounter Jesus unless someone moves into their neighborhood and loves and serves them and shares God’s story with them. So why wasn’t I cheering then?

I imagine that any parent reading this article can answer that question. We want our kids to have the options that come with a college degree. We want them to maximize their chances of financial margin and stability. We believe that college is an essential feature of the journey to “the good life.”

Not a calamity

But I am learning to trust God, rather than education, for a good future for our son. I have been thinking deeply about the definition of a good future. I am learning that God’s plan for Caleb’s life may mean that he will take a different path than the one his father and I had in mind for him. And that this is not a calamity.

Caleb’s current sense of God’s leading in his life involves becoming a CrossFit trainer and moving to a country where Jesus is not yet well known to start a CrossFit box (gym). The growing popularity of CrossFit around the world makes it a good way to connect with a broad spectrum of people.

Caleb’s current dream does not involve a college degree, at least right now. Neither does it involve college debt, which frees Caleb to engage sooner in the mission that has gripped his heart than if he needed to pay back large loans.

Our family’s gap “year” story isn’t over yet, and I don’t know how or when it may end. But we see that Caleb has grown in his relationship with God, in his sense of purpose in life, and in his leadership skills during his mission service in South Africa, the Philippines, Nepal, and Cambodia. 

I am watching our son grow into a man who is willing to stand in the gap (see Ezekiel 22:30) on behalf of people still living in darkness, waiting for the light of Christ to dawn in their lives. And I am no longer concerned or conflicted. I am grateful and glad.


What did Katie do? She went straight from Lancaster Mennonite High School to Eastern Mennonite University, graduating with degrees in photography and digital media. She started work as a graphic designer at James Madison University the Monday after graduation and now works as a graphic designer for a printing company in Salem, Va.

And Dan? He interspersed employment and college for a few years in Idaho and Pennsylvania. After completing two years worth of credits, he began working full-time for an HVAC company. He currently serves as the company's inventory control supervisor and will complete his Bachelor's in business through Elizabethtown College's adult degree completion program at the end of July. mm

Nita Landis serves as communications director at EMM. She loves being married to Karl, lead pastor at Mount Joy Mennonite Church, and enjoys staying connected with their three young adult children and their spouses/fiancée.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

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