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Camps and congregations work together

By partnering with congregations and mid councils, camps and conference centers are transforming short-term experiences into lifelong faith engagement.

By Allyson Ashmore

2 boys with catfishWhen I began my career in camp and conference ministry at age 31 with two small children in tow, my family was blessed to be a part of a congregation that embraced the camp experience as part of its year-round ministry. Led by a pastor and spouse who met while working together at camp, this congregation sent its children and young adults to the presbytery’s summer camp, held school-year retreats there, and even arranged volunteers and raised funds for it. The congregation saw the camp as a true extension of its ministry.
Members, they believed, benefited from having a place to gather away from home to worship and to study God’s Word.

girl in sand

▲Ferncliff’s Camp Noah is a creative day camp designed to help children who have experienced a natural disaster. The curriculum uses the Noah story, activities, music, and crafts to give children a caring and fun environment for healing. Last summer, Ferncliff partnered with congregations to conduct five Camp Noahs for 183 children in Moore, Oklahoma, and Joplin, Missouri.

Our pastor once said, “The fellowship around a campfire or in a natural worship setting or even around the table in a camp dining hall enriches a church family’s common life in much the same way that a vacation setting enriches regular family life.”
But I quickly learned that my congregation’s experience was uncommon. Many camps, congregations, and mid councils were leading separate lives that intersected only once a year during summer camp. While many congregations sent their kids to camp each summer, they typically missed out on year-round opportunities. In many cases, congregations didn’t even know about these opportunities; those of us in camp and conference ministries weren’t doing a good job spreading the word.
Adding to this disconnect, many campers told us that their week of camp was their only church experience all year. They would enjoy an amazing and intense spiritual experience and community at camp, which would then vanish when they left. They were not engaging in a church community at home.
girl on a horseCamp and conference professionals began asking whether anything could be done to bring the two worlds together. And as more and more of our summer campers and staff members came from other denominations or had no church background whatsoever, our desire to connect them with a congregation during the non-summer months became even greater.
Today, almost 13 years later, progress has been made. With the help of social media, staying connected is easier than ever, and opportunities are more diverse. The camp setting continues to be a place for Sabbath, retreat, education, and fellowship. Camps are offering year-round programs for youth and are providing meeting spaces for groups such as presbytery youth councils. When colleges are nearby, camps, congregations, and mid councils are partnering to do campus ministry. In other cases, they are partnering to do mission in the community. Yearlong internships are equipping young adults to do ministry in both camp and congregational settings. And that’s not all.
Camp Hanover in Virginia, Heartland Center in Missouri, Crestfield in Pennsylvania, Ferncliff in Arkansas, and many others are now bringing camp directly to congregations, offering several weeks of a traveling program where camp staff spend a week operating a day camp at a church. This vital ministry benefits both the congregation (often replacing the vacation Bible school that they could no longer organize) and the camp (by providing fees, exposure, and staff opportunities).
Camp Hopewell in Mississippi and Calvin Crest in California have partnered with the Synod of Living Waters to offer water-purification training sessions multiple times throughout the year, working to solve the world water crisis one system at a time. Ferncliff, together with the Synod of the Sun, now provides training in solar energy to power the water systems.
Some of these programs have been going on for many years, while others are just beginning. All of them fill crucial needs for both the camp and the church community. And in the process, camp participants are beginning to connect with a lifelong faith community.

Allyson Ashmore is the director of camps and conferences at Camp Hopewell in Oxford, Mississippi.

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