This summer Camp Hanover, a ministry of the Presbytery of the James (Virginia), will celebrate an important milestone. For fifty years the camp has been providing a summer residential camp experience for children and youth, and hosting a variety of church group retreats during the other seasons of the year.
Like many other denominational camps, Hanover was organized in the heyday of church camp startups in the 1950s and 60s. At that time congregations were flourishing and full of young families. Churches instinctively built vital, cooperative partnerships with the camps. Camp and church leaders frequently noted that a week at camp was worth a whole year of Sunday School.
Much has changed in the ensuing years. Many Presbyterian congregations no longer overflow with young families, and camps are serving more and more un-churched children and youth. Parents — and churches — see church camps as only one of the many options for camp experiences kids have today. The camps are not entrusted a primary role for faith formation. Camps and congregations no longer clearly understand the ways in which they serve as partners in ministry.
On the other hand much has remained the same. Children and youth still go to camp and find experiences of living in Christian community, encounter the wonder of God’s creation, and grow in their faith through hearing the stories of God’s people. Adults relish retreat experiences that enable them to step away from their hectic lives to a place apart for rest and renewal. Within these sacred spaces, God’s people are empowered to grow in their faith, to explore new ways of participating in the ministry of the church, and to pass on the good news.
A recent Presbyterian Panel survey asked pastors, elders, and laypeople about their formative faith experiences. Four in ten members and elders, and the majority of pastors, reported having a “significant spiritual experience” within a camp, retreat, or conference setting. Many pastors cite the camp experience as the reason they entered the ministry. “It was during those summers as a camp counselor that my call to ministry was nurtured and affirmed,” says the Rev. Mitzi Lesher-Thomas, a minister member of New Hope Presbytery.
Camps and retreats make these “significant spiritual experiences” possible, because people leave behind the chaos of modern life, take time to form deeper relationships, and encounter God within a spirit of Sabbath. “It is absolutely essential that camp, conferences, and retreats continue to be a part of our ministry to today’s generation,” says Edward Craxton, the former associate director of Christian Education and Leader Development for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). As a church, he says, “We have got to provide the opportunity for believers to have [those times away provided by camps and retreats] along with congregational life.”
The case for developing and maintaining a partnership between camps and congregations is clear. The question is how congregations can be intentional about affirming these experiences and building on them. How does a congregation celebrate the camp and retreat experience of the children, youth, and adult members and how do they incorporate those experiences into congregational ministry?
Congregations can begin by recognizing the value of camp and retreat experiences. Then they can ask how these experiences can be used as a purposeful aspect of the church’s plan for faith formation and nurture.
Congregations can learn more how camps and retreats cultivate “significant spiritual experiences” by inviting campers, church leaders, their pastor or educator, or youth to tell their stories. What happened at camp? What did you discover about God? How did this experience contribute to your Christian faith? How was God present to you?
Each of the more than 140 camps of the PC(USA) has an exciting story to tell about changed lives, their ministry opportunities, and beautiful sites. Congregations can find out more about PC(USA) camps all over the country by logging onto the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center Associates’ Web site www.pccca.pcusa.org. By clicking on Directory of Sites, congregational members can learn about the history and programs of sites all over the country, including their own presbytery camp.
Or churches can invite the director of their presbytery’s camp to speak to groups within the congregation. That person stands in a unique position to talk about the ministry of the local camp/retreat center as well as the overall ministry of camps and retreat centers.
The inclusion of camps and retreats in the regular schedule of church events also recognizes the value of these experiences. Many churches sponsor an annual church family retreat. The Presbyterian Panel found that 58% of congregations sponsored one or more retreats in the year prior to the survey. Scholarships for young people to attend summer camps encourage families to send their children to a church-sponsored camp.
Congregations can partner with camps/retreat centers by supporting them with their dollars and prayers, by staying informed about a camp’s needs and ministry, and by being an advocate for the importance of these special places.
There is no way to know what the next fifty years holds for Camp Hanover or at any other camp or retreat center of the church. Certainly the world won’t become any less chaotic. Certainly children, youth, and adults will still need places where they can go to nurture faith, find community, and enjoy the beauty of creation. Certainly camps and congregations will continue to share a common call as witnesses to the love and grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. Together camps/retreat centers and congregations can be faithful to this call.
Nancy Ferguson is a minister member of the Presbytery of the James, where she is Adjunct Instructor of Christian Education at Union-PSCE. She also serves on staff at Camp Hanover and is the co-author of The Retreat Leader’s Manual.
Â· Use your site – We are fortunate to have many wonderful camps and conference centers. They exist to serve Presbyterian churches and members. Use them. It will help you and it will help them continue to grow.
Â· Encourage your camp leaders to be connectional — Camping professionals learn much as they compare ideas at the annual gatherings sponsored by the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center Associates (PCCCA,), Web site www.pccca.pcusa.org and keep in contact through the year. Be sure your leaders attend and participate.
Â· Support your presbytery – Most camps are supported by their presbyteries. When you support the presbytery, you are supporting your camp. Camps need healthy presbyteries and vice versa.
Â· Consider Second Mile Giving – Do you want to help positively impact the lives of children beyond your church? Most all camps need scholarship funds to help children who otherwise would not be able to attend. Here is a way we can follow Jesus’ words to “let the children come to me.”