Written by special contributor Lance Fleming
Old friends mingled with new faces once again this year as ACU was able to host Leadership Summit in January, the first time since 2020 that the university’s Christ-focused leadership development course had been able to meet.
Established in 1998 in the College of Business Administration, Summit is a one-week, 3-hour course hosted in picturesque Colorado. The course blends academic rigor with an environment ripe for deep, personal, and lasting encounters with Jesus. The course ran for 23 consecutive years until COVID forced its cancellation in 2021. The group was set to meet at Crooked Creek camp in Fraser, Colorado, in 2022 until a water pipe burst just before everyone arrived, forcing the cancellation of the entire course.
Summit 2023 returned to its birthplace – Glen Eyrie Castle in Colorado Springs, Colorado – where founders Dr. Rick Lytle, Tim Johnston, and Mike Winegaert hosted the first meeting in 1998. The tone for this year’s week-long stay was set by best-selling author Mo Aiken, who spoke on the evening of January 7, kicking off the event.
“Mo Aiken was our kickoff speaker, and she crafted such a unique and tailored vision for our students,” said Dr. Dennis Marquardt, Associate Professor of Management and Director of the Lytle Center for Faith and Leadership. “One of my students wrote on his exam, ‘The first night that Mo Aiken spoke, she spoke with such fire and passion that set the tone for the week. She saw something that God desired for this group and was able to inspire all of us to strive for that same vision.’ Mo set a clear tone that living for Christ isn’t an add-on but an all-encompassing relationship upon which everything else is based.”
From there, speakers like Elise Mitchell (‘83), founder of the Mitchell Communications Group, Rick Atchley (‘78), Teaching Minister at The Hills Church of Christ, Tony Roach (‘01), Senior Vice President for Marketing and Customer Experience for Southwest Airlines, Mike Willoughby (‘86), CEO of PFSweb Inc., and Greg Feasel (‘80), President and CEO of the Colorado Rockies – as well as many others – opened their hearts to the attendees. Message after message of openness about sin and struggles and connecting it to leadership took everyone to a place where, as Marquardt said, “we realized that it is in our weakness that we are strong. God delivers and redeems and makes broken things beautiful.”
Jenny Fridge (‘92), Director of Community Relations for The Sanctuary Foster Care Services in Fort Bend County, attends with her husband, Eric (‘91), who is currently the Director of Advancement Officers for the university. She agreed that the spiritual air in 2023 differed from years past.
“Leadership Summit is our favorite way to begin a new year,” Jenny said. “We have lost count, but I think we’ve attended the last seven or eight Summit experiences, and we’ve been a mentor couple for students, and at this Summit, we were able to speak to students on one of the last days of the week to encourage them in their next steps as they headed back to campus.
“While every year is similar, and we even have returning speakers from year to year, each Summit class is uniquely different,” she said. “This year, this group had a notable air of spiritual maturity. While these students have seen their share of brokenness, they also seemed very self-aware, repentant, and committed to their walk with the Lord. There was a maturity in this group that had not been as evident in years past. Personally, this gave me hope and optimism for our future. Case in point: our first grandbaby was born the Monday we were at Summit, and during one of our group sessions that evening, the students asked if they could pray for us! It was a precious moment and meant the world. Again, a simple reflection of the spiritual maturity of this special group.”
One of the event’s founders – Dr. Lytle, who spoke to the group about the transforming power of His presence – said even he sensed a renewed spirit at this year’s meeting.
“As I approached Glen Eyrie Castle, my mind flashed back to 25 years ago when we started this dream of pouring into students in a unique way,” he said. “I was hopeful that if we invited God to the mountain to join us, He would favor us with His presence as He did with Moses. I hoped that He would transform us more and more into His image so that we might authentically serve and lead with His power to bless humanity and expand and advance God’s Kingdom work.
“God’s spirit moved palpably among us,” Lytle continued. “Students were changed each day – conversations were different, their thoughts were different, their eagerness was different, and finally, their surrender was more fully leveraged for His glory and pleasure.”
In fact, on the final evening of Summit, four people decided to give their lives to Christ in baptism. Those students didn’t know that when Lytle arrived, he asked the general manager at Glen Eyrie if they had a baptistry, a pond, or a tank in case someone there needed to be baptized. The GM even said to Lytle, “you guys actually do the plunge thing.” Lytle answered in the affirmative.
On the morning of the final day, Shane Jennings (‘89) – husband of ACU’s M.C. Jennings (‘91), the Student Engagement and Marketing Manager in COBA – went to an ag store in the area and bought a feed trough with the hope that it would need to be used that day. When the staff learned that it would be necessary for four students, they formed a “hot water bucket brigade” to fill the trough for the baptisms, which would take place outside in 20-degree temperatures.
“These awesome students were baptized into Christ by faith on all accounts,” Lytle said. “Dr. Marquardt and I had the privilege of baptizing them in the feed trough. On our departure, we, in faith, left the feed trough there for next year’s use.”
The movement of the Spirit among those who were in Colorado that week was easy to see and feel. And it provided a sense of renewal for Heather Fortner (‘97), current CEO at SignatureFD. She hadn’t participated in an ACU event in 25 years but quickly found that the Holy Spirit was in that place.
“The goodness and faithfulness of Jesus were on full display at this year’s Leadership Summit,” she said. “It’s so easy to forget the power, and holiness one encounters when a group of God-fearing people takes the time to step away from the normal day-to-day of life and seek Jesus wholeheartedly. The opportunity to share my heart and a few lessons I have learned while highlighting how the Lord has guided every step of the journey was a stark reminder of Jesus’s calling for each of our lives.”
Fortner said she prayed for months about what the Lord wanted her to share at this year’s meeting and kept hearing the same two words come back to her: But God. Over the next few weeks, she said, God revealed to her four areas that she has struggled with as a leader and continually needs reminding that He is in charge: fear, focus, forgiveness (of others and self), and faith.
“This was my first Leadership Summit, but I can say the Spirit of the Lord was clearly present and actively working in the hearts of all who were there,” she said.
Allee Casey, who will graduate from ACU in May, was one of 80 students enrolled in Summit 2023, and she said she left Colorado believing each of the 16 speakers she heard over the six days at Glen Eyrie was speaking directly to her.
“It just felt like most of the speakers were talking about issues that I see in my life,” Casey said. “Each
speaker had their own message and some personal story that made their lesson all the more impactful. I left each session with a new idea for improving my life. My internal dialogue was no longer ‘That’s just how it is,’ or ‘I was born like this,’ or ‘they’ll never change.’ It was now a hope that I could improve my life and that my decisions and relationships weren’t previously dictated to fail by genetics, fate, or whatever reason.”
All that from someone hesitant to attend the event.
“I was honestly regretting signing up for Summit,” Casey said. “I didn’t need the credit, I had a ton on my plate leading into the new year, and it just seemed like something I didn’t want or need. But I figured since my family was paying for it, I should go in with a good attitude to learn something. And boy, did I learn something. The speakers brought their ‘A-game,’ and everyone could tell and became as invested as I did. It was just such an atmosphere of learning that you don’t normally see, even on a college campus.”
The planning and preparation for Leadership Summit 2024 has already begun. The dates for this one-week, 3-credit, short course are January 6th – 12th. Summit is open to all undergraduate ACU students of any major. To learn about Leadership Summit 2024 you can contact the Lytle Center for Faith and Leadership at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to lytlecenter.org/summit.