The ecumenical future of camps and conferences 

Invitations to other denominations isn’t enough. Instead, Joel Winchip believes, finding the strengths – and weaknesses – we all see in our ministries can help us serve more people.

Participants from the Outdoor Ministries Institute at the PCCCA/Campfire Collective Annual Conference in November 2023 at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Joel Winchip.

Our camps and conference centers have an ecumenical future. That mantra has been repeated many times during the annual conferences of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA). The phrase “ecumenical future” gives direction to the leaders at our camps and conference centers, but it has grown even more important to the association itself.

PCCCA had humble beginnings in the 1960s and grew steadily as the organization equipped more and more camp and conference leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The association’s scope expanded when Presbyterian camps in Canada started attending PCCCA events. In 2008, the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) endorsed PCCCA as its recognized international association for camps and conference centers in its denomination.

PCCCA has always been a grassroots organization of camp and conference leaders who support each other. The members have a vested interest in the association’s future and serve as a constant source of new ideas to equip leaders. Those ideas become new programs and services. The association’s original annual event has gradually become nine programs offered each year. Websites for marketing camps were built, a member discount program was created, and a resource library was assembled. PCCCA came to provide more programs and services than any other denominational outdoor ministry association.

Two choices

While PCCCA is strong, its long-term future has been uncertain. Not often, but occasionally, a Presbyterian camp or conference center closes. Because new ones are no longer being built, the number of sites served by the association has seemed likely to slowly decrease over time. PCCCA’s future has boiled down to two choices:

  1. Decrease the programs and services we provide to stay more in line with the current number of camps and conference centers in the PC(USA) and PCC denominations.
  2. Increase non-Presbyterian membership in the association so that more camps and conference centers can use our programs and services.

PCCCA has already included non-Presbyterian camps, but the association recognized that changes needed to be made to attract more outdoor ministries. In the process, PCCCA sought to expand the circle of leaders we serve without turning our backs on the denomination that built our camps and conference centers and that continues to support them today.

The P-word

One of the keys for this new effort was to help the leaders of non-Presbyterian camps and conference centers feel as though they are a part of a larger collaborative effort without losing their identity. A given camp or conference center might be interested in joining an association that offers an abundance of programs and member benefits, for example, but it might find it difficult to convince its board to join an association with “Presbyterian” in the name. To be truly ecumenical, the PCCCA board of directors knew the association would need to take additional steps to be more inclusive.

Camps and conference leaders have so much to offer one another, regardless of denomination. …A good idea can benefit all camps and conference centers, regardless of size.

Campfire Collective

The name Campfire Collective was introduced as the ecumenical arm of PCCCA. This alternate name allowed non-Presbyterian members to identify with the association’s focus. PCCCA now has member sites representing the American Baptist Church, the Moravian Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ.

Taking it to the next level

These new members offered an incredible benefit to the association. The board of PCCCA and the Campfire Collective discussed how to pursue this effort on a larger scale. Instead of relating to one camp, that is, what if the Campfire Collective could attract all outdoor ministries that belong to a particular denomination? Perhaps the Campfire Collective could become the name of the umbrella organization, and the different denominational outdoor ministry associations could operate under it. If this idea succeeded, the PCCCA would never go away. It would simply evolve into the PC(USA) and PCC wing of the Campfire Collective.

In other words, the associations under the umbrella could keep their programs, communication platforms and everything else that made them distinctive. They would pay dues to the Campfire Collective, but their denominational identities would remain intact.

This idea was a lofty goal until November 14, 2023, when the Outdoor Ministries Institute (the organization serving the camps of the United Church of Canada) officially joined the Campfire Collective. The Institute’s 55 camps now operate under the Campfire Collective umbrella.

How did this latest step happen?

When the Outdoor Ministries Institute’s leaders started attending PCCCA annual conferences many years ago, they were encouraged to become more involved, for example, by leading workshop sessions at the conference. When PCCCA seemed to offer much to their camps, the United Church of Canada provided funding for PCCCA staff to visit a region of its camps each summer. Those camps responded by sending more camp leaders to the annual PCCCA conference. Eventually, plans were made to formalize the relationship, including representation on the board of directors. A ceremony was planned for last November’s annual conference to commemorate this important step.

When this prayer was answered and this new relationship became official, the change was both exciting and daunting for our association. Much work had to be done to onboard new members, write new bylaws and teach a new and more inclusive vocabulary to the association’s members and constituency.

When this prayer was answered and this new relationship became official, the change was both exciting and daunting for our association.

What has been learned?

Camps and conference leaders have so much to offer one another, regardless of denomination. When these leaders are given a proper platform, outdoor ministries can share valuable ideas and best practices. A good idea can benefit all camps and conference centers, regardless of size.

Bringing together our camp and conference leaders is important. Theological differences seem minor compared to the vast similarities of our ministries. While we might find it more comfortable to focus on people within our own denomination, we can gain much when we work side by side with others. Since the Campfire Collective was established, the programs and services that PCCCA once created continue to thrive. We are better stewards of God’s gifts by sharing them with others.

Congregations and governing bodies have ministries worth sharing with other denominations. Other denominations offer programs that can be merged or be offered in tandem with what Presbyterians have established. Inviting these folks to join us is not enough. We should sit down with them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses we all see in our ministries. If we work hard and welcome the feedback of others, the combined ecumenical ministry can be more effective and can serve more people. With an ecumenical future, our ministries will be able to be better stewards of God’s blessings.