Krislund Camp and Conference Center is settled in the rural northern stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in central Pennsylvania. Like many faith-based camps, Krislund began a slow decline in summer participation in the late 1990s, and by the turn of the century was facing significant economic concerns. As one of the several camp and conference centers located in the Synod of the Trinity, Krislund hit financial distress about 10 years ago.
Today, however, there’s a new story to tell. Krislund is thriving — the result of what volunteer leaders and staff have done together.
Krislund is owned and directed by three presbyteries: Carlisle, Huntingdon and Northumberland, and serves rural central Pennsylvania, stretching from the New York border south to Maryland. Those who oversee the ministry of Krislund come from each of the presbyteries, forming what is called the Joint Camp and Conference Committee (JCCC).
The committee has taken several steps that have resulted in greater outreach, improved service and more successful ministry. The numbers tell the story. For example, in the last five years Krislund’s summer campers have increased from 450 in 2014 to over 1,600 in 2018. And Krislund is hosting more retreats and conferences in the fall, winter and spring seasons as well.
The hope here: that exploring Krislund’s recent success, and what the committee took on in trying to turn the camp around, might give insight and inspiration to other faith-based camps.
Founded in 1963, Krislund has hosted summer campers from 10 to 18 years old for the past 55 years. As the attendance at many summer camps operated by churches has diminished, the need to improve year-round outreach to others became critical to the financial health of the camp and to the primary purpose of reaching young campers with the Christian message. Krislund clearly needed to renovate older buildings and to develop facilities that welcomed adults – who might have higher expectations for comfort – as well as children.
With limited funds, the committee took a first step in renovations – exchanging small cabins meant to house summer campers exclusively for new adult accommodations attached to the original meeting lodges. A small corps of volunteers did much of the work for free, building new lodging using recycled wood from the original cabins and materials donated by Presbyterians and congregations throughout the three presbyteries. The committee named the new structure Fellowship Lodge because of the fellowship of the volunteer workers who built relationships through long hours of labor together.
In the following years, again with support from churches and individual Presbyterians and much volunteer labor, Krislund added additional housing that can now accommodate 125 adults. The corps of volunteers – about 25 in all, and averaging about 15 people per week – has worked on lighting, heating, painting, siding and rebuilding all the youth housing to bring it up to 2019 standards. The volunteers also built four yurts and many sets of bunk beds to house the growing number of summer campers.
Connecting with congregations
As the volunteers improved the facilities, links to congregations were cultivated as well. About 10 congregations supply volunteers, connecting each of them to the ethos and essence of Krislund’s ministry. In addition, the committee created a team of Krislund Communicators to advocate for the summer camping programs in their home churches. Each month, the communicators send the congregations a “Krislund Korner” newsletter highlighting activities at camp, and representatives report at each presbytery meeting substantive information about Krislund’s ministry. The communicators improved the website and made it interactive. As funds became available, a part-time marketer joined the team to provide outreach to area newspapers, to develop a presence on social media and to communicate online with camper families.
Along with improvements in facilities and an emphasis on outreach, Krislund has explored changes in programming as well. Its leadership attributes much of the turnaround to explorations of innovative models of service, new outreach to college students, and an intentional initiative to bring mission and service groups to central Pennsylvania to help neighbors needing assistance because of age, low income and other socioeconomic factors.
When Krislund was at its lowest summer campership levels, the committee hired a new director, Gene Joiner, who brought both skills in leading rafting, adventure and water activities, plus experience in working with a variety of models of encouraging camp participation.
Residential camp activities
New adventure facilities, friendly competitive activities and specialty camps helped counter the downward trend in summer camp enrollment. Staff and volunteers built a new three-tier, 25-element adventure high ropes course – the centerpiece of a new adventure park that includes a climbing wall, twin zip lines and a giant swing.
Campers choose from various activity tracks such as adventure, water or creative arts. Specialty camps include choices such as fishing, cooking, woodworking, crafts and Legos. Volunteers skilled in specific activities lead many of the specialty camps (background checks are required for all volunteers as well as staff).
Traveling day camps
The KICK (Krislund’s Initiative to Churches and Kids) program probably has created the biggest difference in summer camper participation. A grant from the Synod of the Trinity helped start this program, allowing each congregation to hold a week-long day camp at their own church with the help of Krislund’s trained staff. The churches, with their own volunteers and help from Kruslund’s staff, promote the camps and recruit campers from their communities. The Krislund staff spends the week at the church leading the camp, which includes the same Bible lessons that Krislund’s resident campers use and many of the same activities.
Sizes of the camps depend upon the local church and community – and the fees participating churches pay depend on the size of the camp and the number of Krislund staff members involved. On one day each week, the campers travel to Krislund for a special overnight event including adventure park activities, a feast night and an outdoor vesper service. This initiative has grown from seven churches participating the first year to 19 churches during the summer of 2018.
Responding to the increasing need for enriching places for youngsters to go during the summer while their parents work, Krislund established a day camp. Since the camp is at least 25 minutes from any town, the camp also provides transportation to families for a fee. The marketing team promoted the day camps through local schools and via billboards and social media. For an extra fee, day campers also can choose to participate in the specialty camps and to stay overnight.
While Krislund had often offered retreat opportunities to churches, the accommodations for those gatherings were akin to those offered to summer campers: pretty basic. With the addition of comfortable adult-friendly housing, staff reached out to Presbyterian churches as well as other congregations from other denominations, and also to Penn State University, Lock Haven University and other organizations within an hour’s drive of Krislund. The result has been, during the non-summer months, to build a retreat season serving over 120 groups ranging from quilters, forestry students, crafters of all kinds, women’s and men’s groups and also members of the Amish community who live near the camp.
In addition to comfortable lodging, Krislund also has built challenge courses providing opportunities for groups to build leadership, trust and cohesiveness – marketing those opportunities to business, schools and university groups.
Training emerging leaders
With about 50 employees working on the summer staff, Krislund has gained much insight into the lives, hopes and dreams of college students.
When one college student asked for a retreat experience specifically for young adults to enjoy fellowship and share their faith journeys, the committee responded by seeking ways to fund such an experience. Using funding from the Stabler Foundation, Krislund established the Training Emerging Leaders Series (TELS) to offer leadership training, fellowship and adventure experiences as well as opportunities for service to college students during the fall and spring. This program is now in its fifth year and has proved a significant path to providing internships at Krislund throughout the year.
Mission outreach opportunities
The camp staff is aware of many needs in the community for help with housing repair, making buildings accessible to those with disabilities and assisting elderly residents stay in their homes. With support from another synod grant, Krislund established the Mission Outreach program that enables groups to stay at the camp and enjoy its facilities while doing mission work – helping individuals in the community with housing issues. This initiative is designed so that groups from throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states can provide service to others while building leadership qualities, sharing camaraderie and growing in faith.
Work yet to do
For the past several years, Krislund has concentrated on expanding its ministry and reaching more people with Christian hospitality and the message of Christ. Having focused on program and facility development, the committee has now begun to work on administrative aspects of the organization that accompany the expansion of programs. Jobs change, new responsibilities have been added and the mostly part-time staff members who have each worn several hats need help to identify their most important work and streamline their activities to meet their responsibilities.
The committee recently hired Kim Bosse as Krislund’s new executive director. Bosse has significant administrative experience in the camping field. Both staff and the JCCC will be examining changing job descriptions and camp policies, analyzing costs and investment returns and evaluating ongoing programs to ensure continued financial viability. It will require a fine balance to ensure that the Krislund ministry continues to reach out and enrich as many lives as possible while building on the current solid financial situation.
This changing environment over the last several years has implications that every camping program should consider. Change is inevitable, usually occurring on several fronts at the same time. While ministry to young people is at Krislund’s core, the need for financial viability requires looking more broadly, finding ways to reach people of all ages. That need to look “outside the box” has made Krislund stronger and more relevant to the larger faith community.
Other religious, social and educational groups in the region have partnered with Krislund for retreats, educational and leadership activities and summer camp experiences. Having an eagerness to examine both local and broader community needs and develop ways to respond is a critical factor in remaining viable for years to come.
LINDA VANCE has volunteered at Krislund with her husband Barry for the past 12 years. They started as a duo and now coordinate a group of 25 volunteers. Every Thursday, 15 to 18 of the volunteers arrive at Krislund at 8 a.m. for instructions and prayer, and spend the day maintaining the facilities, building needed equipment, gardening and performing tasks needed to support the Krislund ministry.
Additional information about Krislund Camp and Conference Center can be found at krislund.org.