Camp directors know their job makes little sense to people on the outside.
“They think of camp as sitting around the campfire singing Kum Ba Yah,” laughs Chantal Jackson, co – director of the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda’s Camp Cairn. She explains that camp, especially for those who run it, is much more than that: “It’s an industry that dabbles in every industry—healthcare, transportation, human relations, food, hiring practices, hospitality, building and maintenance, insurance … plus there’s always taking care of the children. It’s not just running a camp. It’s an entire ministry.”
And, despite popular misconceptions of camp directors singing their way through the summer and then settling down to a “real job” during the winter months, the work doesn’t stop in September. Most of the residential summer camp directors in the Presbyterian Church work at least part – time in the off – season, taking care of registration, committee meetings, site maintenance, administration, staff hiring, program development, advertising and fundraising. Many also spend months visiting a different church every Sunday, participating in the service and sharing the camping ministry with the congregation.
Why, then, if the job is so much work, are these people so excited about what they do?
“It’s one of the few ministries in our denomination that’s actually growing,” says Jennifer Bell, who took the position of regional staff person for the Synod of Saskatchewan largely because it involved directing Camp Christopher. “It’s a spot where children and youth are given the opportunity to ask questions and sort out their faith for themselves. They are also given the chance to form relationships.”
Those relationships, according to these directors, are the foundation of the camping ministry. “Our camp is built on relationships,” affirms Audrey Cameron, who, as the camping and youth consultant for Atlantic Canada, directs Camp Geddie in Nova Scotia. There, like at other camps, the primary focus is welcoming campers into a Christian community where they feel physically and emotionally secure.
“They get to experience being in a comfortable, safe environment where they know that everyone is here to be friends, and not to hurt them,” says Grace MacLeod, who shares her last name with the Cape Breton camp she co – directs. “For some kids that’s the only time they get to experience that.”
Camp director Randy Johnson agrees, speaking enthusiastically of the “cross – cultural exchange” that happens between rural and inner – city kids at Camp d’action biblique in the Presbytery of Quebec and Eastern Ontario. “It thrills my heart when I see it happening,” he says, adding that many of these friendships “go forever” as the young people keep in touch throughout the years.
At Camp Douglas in the Presbytery of Westminster, bonds aren’t only formed between kids. “It’s got a really strong intergenerational component,” explains director Rebecca Simpson. “We have older adults who are coming and going from the camp supporting it as chaplains and volunteers, and they participate in activities alongside the children and youth and leaders.” The camp also hosts women’s retreats, with the women sharing meals and worship with the camp staff. “The camp is what we have in common, and we draw from that our Christian journeys,” says Simpson. “Our lives become connected after that.”
Such connections are valuable in and of themselves, but Tim McNeil, director of the Synod of Alberta and the Northwest’s Camp Kannawin, also feels they are necessary for effective ministry. “The communities that you get here are unlike those you see in a church,” he points out. “So in terms of being a good place for evangelism, camps have some real advantages.” One of those advantages is the sheer amount of time available to camp staff. Being with campers all day every day for the duration of their stay at camp amounts to far more hours than church school, where teachers have “just half an hour or 20 minutes out of a week to spend on actual instruction.”
Another advantage that camps have is the chance to give their staff very intentional training. “Being a counsellor isn’t just a six – week or eight – week venture,” says Andrew Campbell, who directs PEI’s Camp Keir. “Without the training that I got when I was a camper and a younger counsellor, I wouldn’t have made the choices that I have.” Those choices include committing himself to ministry in the Presbyterian Church; in September he left PEI to begin studies at the Vancouver School of Theology.
Southwestern Ontario’s Camp Kintail also takes leadership training seriously, and sees success stories similar to Campbell’s. “We devote a significant amount of staff and financial resources to our Leader in Training Program each summer,” says director Theresa McDonald – Lee, who is also an ordained minister. “About 30 Presbyterian young people go through our program each summer, where they develop skills for church, school, camp and community leadership. They spend time learning skills in communication, teamwork and group dynamics as well as ways in which to be better counsellors. And then each year that a young person returns to staff we give them more and more opportunities for leadership development. Tons and tons of people who are involved in their home congregations and many, many ministers have come from the LIT program at Kintail.”
Not every camp can attest to flocks of young Presbyterians leaving their programs for seminary. After all, many campers have never even experienced a Presbyterian setting before. “If we relied on the church to supply our camp, our camp would be very small,” Cameron points out. Yet while unchurched campers may not all end up in the pulpit one day (though some do), many of them go on to become church or community leaders in some capacity.
“The goal is to send these younger people home, have them fired up and passionate about the scriptures and with strong prayer lives and a real sense of what they believe, so they can continue to do those kinds of things in the local setting,” says Tim McNeil.
Chantal Jackson calls the mindset camp cultivates in campers and staff a “ministry mentality.” When she and co – director Rebecca Jess sat down last year to write a statement about the “why” of Presbyterian camping—why they do it, why it’s worthwhile—one of their responses was, “we believe that the world needs extraordinary leaders.”
The pride in these directors’ voices is obvious when they speak of the “extraordinary leaders” their camps turn out. Rebecca Simpson explains that Camp Douglas has “concentric circles” of leadership training that focus on different parts of the leaders’ lives. “We have some parts of our leadership training that are meant to grow young people into strong leaders in any place they end up in, and we have another layer that works to encourage them to leadership in their own congregations.” She sees young people go home as new Christians, as youth leaders, as members of worship committees, as church school teachers. To encourage them, Camp Douglas has worked to raise its pay scale to a level where leaders can continue to work there while paying for university. Other camps, though, have fewer resources.
“Our staff aren’t paid; they receive an honorarium,” admits Jennifer Bell. (While camps may apply for aid for special projects through the church’s Life and Mission Agency, there is little funding from the national church, though it does provide a national camp association membership. Generally speaking, camps rely on the synod or presbytery that oversees them and especially on support from individual churches and alumni to operate.) Yet while Camp Christopher cannot provide its staff with much money, it does give them the same kind of deliberate training that Camp Douglas staff can expect. “Part of the funding that we apply for is specifically for leadership training. We train them not just for camp but for the wider church and the wider community.”
And does the wider church and community benefit from this training? Well, sometimes.
Jackson sees a great number of young people return home from Cairn’s programs to lead youth groups and conduct other ministries, but some just aren’t given the opportunity. “Often the church doesn’t use the kids when they go back because they don’t know what kind of skills they have,” she explains.
McNeil feels churches have a role to play in nurturing the seeds that camps have planted, noting that parishioners should get to know the kids and young adults in their church, and mentor them in leadership roles.
Cameron has a plea for the church to stand not just with the staff and campers, but with camping itself. “I believe that it’s an important mission and I believe that it’s an important outreach, and I believe that it’s the one thing the church has done well, but the church needs to invest in camp in order for it to continue. We live on shoestrings. And if the church is intentional and gets behind it, then I think we have a strong future.”
Of course, this is a reciprocal relationship, as McDonald – Lee points out: “I think Presbyterian camping is the jewel of our church. I think it is a resource that should be used. There are camps across the country and we all work hard to provide ministry for children and young people. It’s my dream that congregations would be able to take advantage of it in some way, shape or form.”
No two camps are alike in their geography, their traditions or even their programs. But all of their leaders share a foundation in Christian community, a dedication to forming strong individuals, and a calling few understand and fewer would choose.
“I see camping ministry as an amazing outreach that I can’t—I don’t know how to describe anything that would compare with it,” says Campbell, words failing him for a moment. “It’s immensely important.”