Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges to Successful Outdoor Ministry

October 26th, 2013

No one would deny how fast life is changing in the 21st century. Education and churches have raced to keep up, with many ministries struggling to find their place in the new high-tech/high-speed world. This includes outdoor ministry. There’s no doubt about it, keeping a Christian camp open is harder than ever, but there is still good news.

First of all, understand that I love camp. Being involved in outdoor ministry has changed my life. When I talk to people who are part of the great fraternity of camp, we share a passion for this moving communion with God and the church. All it takes is “this one time at Church Camp…” Suddenly the conversation changes. A special bond sprouts, inspiring fellowship and understanding between us. That is why conversations about the future of Church camps are so difficult. It is hard to make decisions when you are grieving inside.

A Perfect Storm with Outdoor Ministry Caught in the Center

Many complex factors have combined into a perfect storm of obstacles that have made it harder to keep church camps open. First of all, the economic downturn has hit every organization and industry. This is also problematic for our understanding of Camp as ministry. At Church camp, the creation is a mission field where God is seen, smelled, heard, and felt in unique ways. We would never expect over-seas missionaries to make a profit or sustain themselves, but that is what many are asking of Camps. Camp is mission; not a revenue stream.

However, it’s not only the economy: shorter summer camps shrink revenues, kids today have many choices for immersive experiences both inside and out of church, while families need to spend time together, too. Of course, none of these are bad choices, but it requires that churches weigh benefits of camp within this broader context of possibilities.

Why this Matters:
How Camps Contribute to the Greater Sense of Community Year-Round

Although focused on the summer  camp, camp offers vital growth that affects the community year-round. As human beings, it’s harder for us to make connections. Think about it for a minute. When was the last time you truly formed a collective identity with a group of other people outside work or family? It doesn’t happen very often. And thanks to our technology, we’re regressing in our ability to form these tribes. It used to take approximately 15 hours of shared experience to form a communal bond. However, because we retreat into our smartphones and email, sociologist are now estimating it takes us 20-30 hours to form those same bonds.

Immersive activities like Christian camp fill a deep psychological need for connection, something that is increasingly harder to do with the me-centered culture that surrounds us. It is no coincidence that many clergy and Church leaders point to camp and immersive experiences as their reason for entering ministry. It is in these moments of true connection to others where people can cut through the spiritual isolation so common in today’s churches.

Shared identity has a large role to play in the growth of the church. When church camps close, participation in denominational conferences falls off as well. The depth at with which people identify with their particular Christian transition slows. A camp director recently told me about his Conference’s closing of Camps and the lack of fellowship and identity the congregations now share. It’s become clear to me and other church professionals that these two trends are related.

Despite Challenges, Camps Find New Ways to Survive and Thrive

In Northern California, an ecumenical group of camps joined together to form United Camps, Conferences and Retreats (UCCR). They drastically changed their business plan for a new model of success. UCCR hired a management firm, so during the off-season they go through the same booking process as anyone else. But during the summer, they are guaranteed use of their space. This has allowed them to have a marketing person on staff, promoting the campsites to other ministries, corporations for retreats and for large family reunions.

It’s always tragic when a camp ground closes, but many have continued their ministry by merging with other camps or finding new space for their programming. Partnerships extend our understanding of Church and ensures that children continue to have the opportunity to experience transformative ministry.

Moving a program to a new space can be difficult. We get very attached to holy ground. But, trust me, if you ask anyone what camp experience is most powerful, they will tell it was the one they just attended, the one freshest in their mind. As we continue in out-door ministry, we form new memories and create sacramental moments in new places. New landmarks stand as reminders of God’s presence in our mind. While there will be sadness when a Christian camp closes, moving or merging with another camp can ensure this special experience will continue to change lives, calling people to a stronger relationship with God and the church.

What to do if Your Camp’s Future is Uncertain

If the future of your camp seems uncertain, you’re not alone. The great fraternity of camp I mentioned earlier is behind you and praying for you. Communicate the benefits of camp to the church community and explain how it contributes to a healthy collective identity all year. Start having open conversation about the cost of camp and the cost of not having camp. Think creatively about the needs in your community (and the camps neighboring community) that might be an opportunity for service.

One option many camps are exploring is Day Camp. For facilities that are close enough to a population center, providing programming for local children when school is not in session (regardless of their Church tradition) has become an exciting new ministry. Using a flexible curriculum such as InsideOut, can allow your program to use the same material for summer residential camps, Day Camps and off-season retreats.

Allyson Ashmore, of Hopewell Camp and Conference Center, points out that Christian camp professionals are not like lawyers or accountants. There is no monthly lawyer meeting to connect with other professionals. Often, camp directors live in small areas close to nature and far from many other camps. It takes some effort to network and learn from others. She says, “Every time I speak with another camp director, I learn something new and feel renewed passion. Find places online or a facebook group to share both concerns and successes with others.” InsideOut’s facebook page presents this unique opportunity for fellowship and inspiration.

In addition to reaching out to other camp directors, Ashmore suggests looking to the people closest to your camp and nurture those relationships. The people around you will provide unexpected support and possible partnerships. If your camp closed in the red, talk to the finance committee and take the opportunity to educate them about what it takes to successfully run a camp. They may have some misconceptions and will bring fresh perspectives and possibly resources.

The changes happening in outdoor ministry are scary, but they present an opportunity to take a fresh look at our best practices and to rally around what camps offer: life-changing relationships and spiritual growth, a stronger collective identity, and time with God that isn’t interrupted by another status update.

Remember, every Camp and every ministry is unique. What works in one place might not fit the mission or community of another. Still, every Camp is a ministry. We must never forget, and must constantly remind others that in out-door ministry, the creation itself is our mission field and it is a ministry we cannot afford to neglect.

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