Last month my family and I began our official journey as “church planters” which means I am now super acquainted with the coffee shops and gathering spaces in our new town. It also means I think a lot about the words I use when trying to communicate what “a Vineyard church” means. I am keenly aware of the variety of styles and stories one might encounter if they google “Vineyard church” so I started just sending folks the direct link to to avoid the inevitable blog that talks more about what the Vineyard is not. I super love what the Vineyard IS! If you have checked out the new VineyardUSA website and looked under “CORE VALUES”, what do you see?

“In the Vineyard, we see Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as the overarching and integrating theme of the Scriptures.”

Kingdom Theology informs everything! It’s how we live in the tension, the “already and not yet” worldview that calls us to care for the poor, pray for the sick and visit the prisoner but also gives us roots to hold on to as we sit with our friend as she passes or grieve with our brother when he learns of his sister’s abuse. This is huge!

I can’t wait for my city to have a Vineyard church. I can’t wait for the youth of our church to walk as naturally supernatural communicators of the greatest news on earth. But as I send the link to my new friends, I have this nagging thought in my head, “do all Vineyard kids know this stuff?” “Do our young leaders have the theological framework that can hold them as their friends commit suicide?” “Do our young worship leaders expect the prophetic interruption as they jam out with their small group?” “I know it’s on our website, but are the young people getting it?” Yes, these are things I think about, and the things I process with the team at Heroic Leadership Institute all the time.  

When we started Heroic Leadership Institute (HLI) in 2011, the dream was that the young people who longed to train further in their spiritual and leadership development would have a place to do so within the Vineyard movement. As former youth pastors, we had seen many of our students do discipleship programs with different theology that returned confused or simply didn’t return. We were eager to provide a place where parents, pastors, youth pastors and mentors could know that their students would be trained with Vineyard DNA.

At HLI we begin studying the theology and practicing the kingdom from the very first week, and that teaching speaks to every lesson that we teach throughout the year. Recently I was in Kansas City teaching on healthy sexuality (yes, a very important topic in leadership) and was struck by the way the theology of the kingdom informs how we pursue holiness. The kingdom has come and brings freedom and healing from shame and addiction and yet we live in the tension that we continue to face temptation, brokenness and disappointment. We believe that true growth comes both as they are learning the theology of the kingdom and as they are experiencing it for themselves, through healing, breakthrough and grace.

There are so many parts of HLI that I would love to share with you, but this article is supposed to be brief, so let me share a few favorites and we can talk more if you like!

Every day of HLI attempts to build the pillars of self-awareness, ingenuity, heroism and love into our students. These 4 pillars are taken from Christian Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership that breaks down the way the Jesuit’s training empowered them to travel around the globe taking on many vocations and kingdom assignments to bring glory to God and help people. This is done in 3 ways:

Spiritual Formation: Through the use of the Ignatian exercises, Scripture reading, reflection, kingdom activations and more we aim to help each student learn to hear God’s voice for themselves. A big part of self-awareness is knowing who we are in Christ and what He says about our identity. It also frees us from who we are not (but were maybe pretending to be.)

Education: We have many speakers from around the Vineyard Movement and Vineyard Institute that help to communicate the truths of the Scriptures with our students. (Our students graduate with 8 credits towards their VI certificate.)

The core content of HLI is based on the 5 Core Vineyard Values:

Partner with the Holy Spirit

Experience and Worship God

Reconcile people with God and all creation

Engage in compassionate ministry

Pursue culturally relevant mission in the world.

Participation: if we talk about it, we want the students to get to DO it! As John Wimber said “let’s do the stuff!” So if we learn about Jesus’ heart of compassion, let’s go show compassion. If we learn about praying for the sick, let’s go DO it. If we learn about the importance of diversity and intentionally crossing cultural barriers, let’s DO it!

And finally, all of this is done IN, THROUGH, and WITH the LOCAL CHURCH! This is something that is really important when considering a gap year. We believe that the local church is the community that is meant to journey with families from cradle to grave. From the time a young person is born until they are the cute little old lady who gives out candy and hugs, the local church is God’s plan to help spread his story in communities and create disciples. Why would we send our young leaders to be trained outside of the very environment we are hoping they will connect with, use their gifts in, and see transformation in for their life journey?

BUT, at HLI we also want to shatter any illusion that there is such things as a perfect church. As I mentioned, there is an eclectic variety of styles and approaches to the actual ways of doing church in the Vineyard. If you have traveled and visited another Vineyard, you know. It can be intensely different! So with HLI we purposefully work with a minimum of 10 different churches through the nine months, tiny churches that are just in the gathering phases (like ours) and big, older churches with budgets and toys. Churches that have the services planned to the minute where the worship leader is trained to hear the Spirit in spite of the click track playing in their ear, and the laid back churches that have the extended 45 minutes of open mic prophetic space during worship, and everything in between! What a joy to take our students to one church after another, as they interact and serve with the variety of styles they really start to get the idea. Each church you will ever work with is on a kingdom journey, sometimes you are there for one of their rockin’ seasons and sometimes you are there to walk through a crisis, but at the end of the day, we link arms with the folks around us, invite the kingdom to come, and watch Jesus transform lives because WE are the church.

One of the greatest joys of my life is watching the HLI students take what has been poured into them during the nine months and pour it into others. Here is a picture of one of the kingdom teachings our students prepared for youth group. They didn’t get the diagram perfect, but watching them communicate it was a blast!


Since 2011, I have had the privilege of serving with our alumni around the globe. I have watched them lead churches, facilitate various worship settings, preach, pray for the sick, start businesses, join Vineyard staffs, start families, make amazing films, face incredible pain and disappointment, fight illness and recovery, all through the worldview of the Kingdom of God. All the while, they continue to grow, press in and give it away.

Truth is, when our students can tell the story of the Gospel, when they can unpackage the meaning of the already and the not yet, when they know how to connect with their mentors and spiritual directors, you know they will be leading with a stronger foundation for the rest of their lives. This is our goal as a movement, to raise up the next generation to live kingdom lives! We are so grateful for the way you pour into your students each week. At HLI we are cheering and praying for you!

Heroic Leadership Institute exists to serve the young leaders of our movement and the churches that need young leaders to be equipped. If you have any questions or would like to learn more, please feel free to email me at I look forward to hearing about what God is doing in the youth around you, what questions or suggestions you may have about HLI and how we can partner with you to make sure that our students have every opportunity to engage with the resources available.

Jenna Stepp
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