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Finding a mountain to pray

Camps and conferences—not what you think

By Brian Frick

cross on hillEach morning, I wake up to a barrage of email. News of violence in the world slides across the television as I glance at a to-do list that ridiculously includes a reminder to create a to-do list. Coffee softens the expectation of a day full of noise: text messages, phone calls, meetings, and traffic. At some point during the day, I’ll probably hear about the declining church—about empty pews on Sunday morning, a budget (not to mention a social witness) now much reduced, and the search for those elusive young adults. I’ll read about family time on the decline and how people are more stressed than ever. And each time, I’ll think to myself: we have too much of all the wrong things and too little of what matters most.

But there are places on this green earth where that isn’t the case—places of spiritual formation that draw people of all ages in abundance to be renewed and then sent out into the world to do God’s work. With over 140 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) camps and conference centers spread across the nation, people are discovering the importance of retreat, as modeled by Jesus in his own journey.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. (Mark 6:45–46)

Camp ministry offers mountains of its own, often at critical moments in faith development. An awkward and frightened seventh grader sits on a zip-line platform. His counselor slowly coaxes him from the perch, and with a mile-wide grin the kid slides down the line—with newfound confidence. A week later, after campfires, swimming, new friendships, and Bible studies, he is filled with a sense of calm and belonging. Looking back on his week in such a supportive Christian community, he feels a warm glow as he realizes he was, perhaps for the first time in his life, truly “known” for who he was.

students dancing

Every week during the summer at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina, up to 1,000 junior high students from across the country gather for a week of high-energy fun, fellowship, and study. Not ones for your normal worship service, students start with energizers and are led in song and praise by young adult worship leaders.

That was how my life changed 30 years ago. And I’m not alone.

“This week has brought us so close and helped create a bond with one another and with God that I can never forget,” says one junior high student from a Montreat conference last summer in North Carolina. “I have learned that it’s OK to be uncertain, to be mad, and to feel the need to be heard. I have also learned that I am special and that there will always be someone with me ‘in the boat.’ And that God will help me by calming the waters.”

Though research consistently confirms the impact of camp experiences on faith development, we don’t need 30 years of Presbyterian Panels to tell us that camp works. After summer camp, children, youth, families, church groups, and others return to their daily lives deepened by and filled with the love of Jesus shared in community.

But camps and conference centers must be more than providers of transformational summer-camp experiences. They must become a partner in mission with a church that is in as much need of innovation and renewal as our camps are. 


Thirty feet above the forest floor, among the Redwoods at Westminster Woods Camp and Conference Center in Occidental, California, the Lion’s Leap challenges individuals to confront and overcome their fears.

Each year, 15,000 young adults come through PC(USA) camps and conferences as staff, volunteers, and event participants. Yet congregations struggle to engage young adults. That got folks wondering: How can congregations and the national church partner with these centers to empower and equip these young adults for a life (rather than just a week once a summer) of faith?

Partnerships are already emerging. Yearlong internships are giving young adults a chance to do ministry in both camp and congregational settings. New worshiping communities, as part of the 1001 movement, are taking root in camp and conference ministries. When Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was looking for a way to train and equip responders in between disasters, they established a network of camps and conference centers—a network that is now being used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and AmeriCorps. Because many rural areas and congregations have lost the population to support their own summer faith programming for children, Presbyterian camps are stepping in with traveling day camps that take their vast experience and resources directly to those congregations.

And when Presbyterian World Mission was looking to augment its mission-coworker Sabbath event with quality children’s programming, Crestfield Camp and Conference Center stepped up in partnership with Pittsburgh Presbytery. They sent counselors all the way to South Africa and led the best children’s program the Sabbath program can remember.

Everywhere, camps are becoming centers for mission and ministry. They offer a witness to God’s abundance in the face of the world’s scarcity. And yet many remain untapped resources, mountains we have yet to climb.
“We can [go] out into the world, and there’s this beautiful ripple effect of faith and practice that gets multiplied, and the whole world changes!” says Melanie Hardison, former associate for the Enough for Everyone program of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “What if it starts with camps and conference centers?” As you’ll see in the following photos, it’s already starting to happen.

Where it goes next is up to us.

Brian Frick is the associate for Camp and Conference Ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.




  • Well done Brian. God bless you in your ministry. by Marilyn Healy on 03/16/2014 at 3:32 p.m.

  • That great photo at top of article is Junior High Jubilee youth at Chapel on the Hill looking out at Guadalupe River valley at Mo-Ranch. Photo by Ashley Schaffer. by John Sniffen on 03/04/2014 at 9:49 a.m.

  • Excellent article, I'm sure Don Hostetter would say AMEN! by Joan Wise-Hostetter on 03/03/2014 at 10:18 p.m.

  • What an excellently crafted article! So informative - a delight to read! Thank you. by Michell Frick on 02/28/2014 at 11:25 p.m.

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