I’ve worked at summer camps 7 of the last 10 summers. I’m pretty biased when it comes to how awesome they are for kids and as simply great places that exist in the world. However as anything that provides short-term care and ministry it also opens itself to criticism. People ask (in both well-meaning and mean spirited ways) “What about the other 51 weeks of the year?”, “What about follow-up?”, “What about the cost involved? Is it worth it?”
I only spent a week at a summer camp this year but it crystalized in my mind why summer camp ministries are in fact, “worth it.”
Summer camp is for a large group of kids the only spiritual experience they get growing up.
These kids will never set foot in a church during their adolescence. Their parents are at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. But for whatever reason, grandparents or scholarships or parents just wanting to get rid rid of them for a week they end up at camp every summer.
And they have a blast.
They have fun and make friends and learn about God but most importantly they feel loved and cared for in a way that for a million different reasons they do not get at home.
I have volunteered with middle schoolers the last two years at my church. I’ve enjoyed it and I think most of the kids I hang out with enjoy it a ton too. I would love to see every broken kid I have seen in the past end up in a safe place like a church youth group. But the reality is they won’t. These are kids who every day is a struggle. They may become Christians at camp, they may not but whatever happens when they go home it is hard to maintain even a semblance of a spiritual life. But still, camp is all they’ve got. And I’ve seen too many kids grasp for that rope with all their might.
If one’s goal is to see as many kids as possible loved and cared for and given an opportunity to see Jesus as that ultimate reality that provides that than I cannot see another way. Supporting summer camp and other parachurch organizations is a must.
Tomorrow morning I drive back home after yet another summer at camp. Pretty much everyone has left from the summer staff leaving camp a quiet and humbling place. This was my 6th full summer on staff here and more than most left me thinking about why I keep returning to this place. As I thought about this and my summer as whole, two things entered my mind. The first was simply an image from week one, in fact the very first day campers had arrived. Most of the summer I felt pretty consistently tired and so at the start I was questioning my motivation to be here another summer. But as I greeted kids and their parents and saw them sitting in the dining hall, chatting and smiling away I knew I had made the right decision to return.
Fast forward to week six. 215 campers. Overall craziness and chaos. Many staff and myself are just tired. And I decide to plan the most epic night of fun for my camper’s unit night. Afterwards, as the kids are eating snack, a bunch of girls and counselors straggle in with a girl who is bawling. Apparently during the game some boys had said an awful comment about this girl’s appearance. I had not noticed this girl all week but in my position as unit director I sat her down and tried my best to comfort her. As I learned what had happened I simply said, “You know we can’t control what people say but God made you beautiful just the way you are and whenever says something like that again I want you to remember that.” She calmed down a little bit after that and I hoped for the best. There was only 2 more days left of camp but the change I saw in this girl was monumental. This quiet, unassuming 11 year old who I hadn’t even noticed for 4 days was now constantly smiling. She had a blast in her week at camp.
Lots of great stuff happened this summer. Kids played games, did activities and ran around in ways they simply can’t at home. They sang songs and had spiritual moments that they have never had and may never experience in their home churches. The logical outcome of all this is very simply smiles. I worked at camp this summer. I made kids smile. That is enough for me.
The next morning after my epiphany I got the news that the two biggest antagonists in my CIT program were being sent home for transgressions on their day off. A bit of me was sad; I didn’t want people to be sent home. But a larger side of me said, “Wow…God must really want me to pass this thing.” And so I set out to do it.
I gave devotions to my fellow CITS and even spoke to the whole camp as part of a chapel we did. The last week I shadowed a chief and stayed in a cabin. No major issues arose. When I sat down with my CIT director for my final evaluation I was confident. I got the sense he was not enormously impressed with me but it didn’t matter. I told him I had done what was expected of me as well as if not better than any of my peers. I think the big change here was not anything tangible it was simply a slight mental shift on my part. People were never going to treat me awesome everywhere, but that was not my responsibility. I simply had to do my best no matter what at all times. People could take it or leave it.
I passed my CIT.
My LIT was 11 summers ago. Since then I have been a chief all or parts of 6 summers. This summer I am a unit director. I plan activities and games, chapels and cabin bibles and am directly responsible for half the chiefs and campers in camp each week. It is in a word, unbelievable. Camp is amazing and fun, difficult and heartbreaking all at the same time. Without a doubt though, I love it. It is not the most glamorous or high-paying job and I realize many people may look at me and wonder why I am still doing this at 26. But overall I have gotten a tremendous amount of joy out of working at camp and will continue here for as long as I can.
My journey has not been short or simple. It has been marked by trials and missteps at every turn. But to close this long-winded episode of my life I’ll say this. God is there, however unnoticeably, working to turn you and me into the tools he desires to glorify him. And in that work, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.—Romans 8:28
I took the next summer off. I went on a summer missions trip with my church. I think some people attribute too much import to this experience in terms of my growth. Did it help me grow and mature? Certainly it did. Was it the magic bullet that led to what occurred the following summer? Not really. Life is complex and lots of factors work together to bring change and realization. I was in contact with the camp director during the winter. He said if I wanted to do the CIT program next summer I would be welcome to. I still remember that first day I got back to camp, walked into the dining hall and shaking the hand of my LIT director from two summers before. He was cordial and was glad to see me. I was happy to be back and determined to succeed with my second chance.
The CIT program involves serving camp in whatever way needed. In my summer it entailed washing the dishes at every meal and cleaning the shower house and bathrooms around camp daily. I still remember pushing my mop bucket up a small hill one morning a few days into the program and breaking down for a moment. This was becoming almost as difficult as LIT.
It got worse.
The CIT is a month long program and as the first couple weeks passed I realized (unbelievably and inexplicably) that I was failing in the same way I failed LIT. My relationships with most of my fellow CITs were awful and my behavior was suffering because of this. This is still a huge question mark for me. I have never been popular or well understood by the majority. But one of the best things about camp was that I got along with most people really well. I had friends, I talked to girls. It was a fantastic alternate universe to my life at home and school. But with LIT and CIT I just could not get along with most of my peers to save my life.
Again here I see a failure of leadership to recognize what I was going through and to understand why I might have been struggling. At one point I was pranked by having shaving cream put in and on my sleeping bag. I was furious and walked across camp to talk to my CIT director. He listened to me but only meekly told the guys to lay off me. No attempt to understand or work with me, just a meaningless reprimand and a desire for me to just get along. I’m not trying to place blame solely on my leaders but to acknowledge that when a person does not get along with a group it is not solely their fault.
At this point however I had the epiphany of my whole experience. One night I realized I could not let the actions of my peers result in me failing again. I had to grow up, do my work and make it impossible to fail.
And quite surprisingly…I did.
I have had a long and fruitful experience at my camp. I have never fully explained my camp story to people. It has not been a secret; at times I have told people openly bits and pieces. Having returned to camp this summer in a leadership position I thought now would be an appropriate time to write out what my journey looked like to this point. I’m telling this story, my story, because I think it is unique and it ultimately served as a vital shaper of who I am today as a person, a leader and a Christian.
I started at camp at the age of 8 or 9. Not the youngest possible age but still pretty early. I started with one week a summer but enjoyed it so much that when I was 13 I went three weeks and four weeks when I was 14. At this point I was ready to move on from being a camper and pursue what I thought was the ultimate job: camp counselor or “chief” as we call them at my camp. My camp has a two year process before you become a chief. First you do a three week Leadership in training (LIT) program when you are 15. This involves a week of backpacking, a week of canoeing and a week rock climbing and on a ropes course. It’s an intense experience but as I prepared to go I felt pretty confident. I knew camp, I knew this was what I wanted and I knew this was the next step. I was ready.
LIT was hell.
There is no nicer was to put it. Aside from certain moments being overseas, doing the LIT was the most difficult thing I have ever done. The funny thing is the physical part wasn’t the hard part. I could out hike anyone and my canoeing and climbing skills were tenacious if not precocious. The difficult thing was getting along with the other boys on my trip; I did that terribly. My leaders responded by failing to understand what I was going through and interpreting my sometimes exasperating behavior as unacceptable. I do not claim to be perfect but at a root level I think I was treated unfairly. This next part probably won’t mean much to people outside of camp but it was ultimately a significant and low point of my life.
I failed LIT.
To move onto the next year, the Counselor in Training (CIT) program, I needed to pass. I had a long conversation with my LIT leader that last night. I think I remember almost pleading with him. But ultimately he thought I needed more time to grow and mature. The clearest memory I have of that night is just bawling in the tent in front of the others. I was convinced I was never going to return to camp.
This entry was inspired by church this past Sunday. During the sermon I kept thinking about how I would like to use my thoughts this summer at camp but realized that’s too far away. So I’m writing it down now while it’s fresh.
My church is doing a sermon series on family and each week identifying a room of a typical house with the bigger point. This week was on the “family room” where generations meet together. The overall point was how important bringing up your kids in the right way is so that they have the best opportunity to live a life of faith as well. The thing that struck me was that many parents err by being too intense about their faith. They are incredibly strict and/or mandate large amounts of prayer or Bible study. Perhaps they have ministry of their own that they focus on too much, to the detriment of their relationship with their kids. Regardless of how the intensity is expressed, the results are similar. The kids don’t feel the vibrancy of Christianity, they just feel restricted. When they leave home their first instinct is to do anything and everything they want that isn’t steeped in religion. Note these parents aren’t bad, they almost certainly love their kids deeply. But the way they are passing on the faith is flawed.
What many Christians forget it seems is that following Jesus is fun! It is awesome and joyful and no matter how it looks for you it truly is the best way to live. This isn’t to say prayer, Bible study, or rules are bad or inappropriate, they are essential. But if they are given without any notion of freedom, joy or fun you risk falling into legalism and putting your child off from religion permanently.
I’m going to generalize a bit here but it seems like a lot of the more emergent Christian writers today are getting most of their writing fuel from the experience of growing up in an incredibly strict Christian environment and now are trying to come to terms with it. They know Jesus is great and don’t want to reject him outright but they are trying to match up real, true, joyful christianity with their decidedly miserable upbringing where everything involving God was at best a chore and at worst punishment.
One last thought. At my Christian camp that I have worked at many summer previously, there seems to be three main groups of kids. Kids who aren’t from Christian homes and are hostile to the gospel, kids who aren’t from Christians homes and are neutral (i.e. they haven’t thought about religion much) and finally, kids who have grown up in good, solid Christian homes who may even be Christians themselves. Now as you might expect the focus is almost always on the first two groups. Counselors long for the kid who doesn’t know God to get on fire for him in their week at camp. This is logical and good but I think we are mistaken if we ignore the “good” kids too much. Who knows what their home life might be? Camp might be the most fun experience they have involving Jesus in their entire childhood. I’ve had kids essentially tell me this more than once. By showing them that Christianity can be fun, they latch on to it with all their might. We must never forget the Gospel but we also must make sure that in presenting it we don’t neglect how truly good it is. In fact it is the best thing and any kid who doesn’t know that is going to be severely missing out. We can’t force kids to follow God but we can show them how truly good following him is.
After my week at Sandy Cove Ministries I was able to drive down to the summer camp it runs in West Virginia. It’s a basic sleep away camp for kids but it is distinctive by its fun and its focus on Jesus. I have worked all or part of four previous summers there as a counselor and was returning this time to help out for two weeks. I ended up taking care of a cabin of boys each of the weeks I was there.
Returning was fantastic if also a bit weird. The last time I was on staff was in 2007. I knew camp well but many of the new staff had no idea who I was. Of course there was a good number of staff still there who I knew and that made meeting many of the others that much easier. I was happily surprised that by my first day off on Thursday I was having a blast with people I hadn’t known the week earlier.
Camp is a hard place to work. It is busy, tiresome and sweaty. There is lots of food but no air conditioning. You are responsible for your kids essentially all the time besides your day off. The schedule can quickly become burdensome. And yet I and many others keep coming back. Giving up camp completely just isn’t an option, at least not yet.
Even amidst all the difficulties I love camp. More than probably any other place, camp is a place where I can just relax and be myself; a slightly crazier, sillier version of myself to be sure, but me nonetheless. Kids are kids, they don’t judge you; they just want to have a good time and to feel loved. Working together with other staff in the same chaotic conditions garners a commitment to each other that I have experienced in few other places. Tying is all together is a collective belief and practice of Christianity which is simply refreshing. I have been to some great churches in my life but few things beat a Vespers service with 200+ hyperactive kids singing worship songs.
Camp has had an indelible impact on my life and development since I was kid. I’m so thank ful for being able to return and will surely return again.