Camp as holy ground

June 29th, 2016

The summer after I graduated from divinity school and was ordained as a transitional deacon, I completed my very first official ministry job — camp chaplain. After the intellectually rigorous formation of divinity school and the dire warnings to maintain proper boundaries and care for myself lest the ministry eat me alive, camp ministry came as a breath of fresh air, or perhaps as the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Spending a month on top of a mountain with kids from first grade to high school seniors and their college-aged counselors was a better tutorial in ministry than any study of Fowler’s stages of faith development. We sang and worshipped. We went on hikes and splashed around in the pool. We had important conversations and frivolous ones. We resolved conflicts and nursed homesickness. I saw adults, who had been campers and then counselors and were now volunteers, give back to a place and a community that had formed them into the Christians they are today.

I did not grow up attending the same camp, year after year; but now, as an adult, I find myself returning every season, even if it is just to celebrate an opening or closing Eucharist. Honestly, I do it as much for myself as I do for the campers and staff because there is something about gathering for the liturgy with a room of over sixty middle-schoolers, their eyes bright and their arms around one another. There is something about pressing bread into their outstretched palms as they line up to receive communion that restores my hope and faith in the church.

Even so, camp ministry, like children’s ministry or youth ministry, is often seen as something lesser, something not as serious or important, something that younger clergy or those aspiring to the clergy do as part of paying their dues. But what could be more important than the intense formation of our children and youth? During the school year, there is so much distraction, so much that takes away from Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings at church. But at camp, they have a whole week with an intentional Christian community, a whole week of worship and small group, a whole week of regular prayer.

Even if the lessons and programming we so painstakingly planned are quickly forgotten, the feeling of belonging, of love, and of home will not be. The most important thing that can be gained from camp is the knowledge that the church belongs to them, that church is where they will always be safe and loved. Our children, youth and young adults are not the future of the church; they are the church. Their voices, ideas and experiences matter, and spending my time hiking or playing games with them is as equally important and holy as making pastoral visits to homebound parishioners or writing a sermon.

Most of all, I continue to support camp ministry for selfish reasons. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by bad news, it does my spirit good to see a group of children be the church. It is good to remember that God is playful and creative, that ministry is fun and life-giving. Every year, I am struck by their innate pastoral nature with one another; this year they lifted up prayers for those affected by the violence in Orlando. In previous years, I’ve watched as groups of friends expanded to include new campers, defying the usual cliquishness. I’ve seen the counselors grow in their faith and leadership as well.

Camp is holy ground. Camp is the church outside of the building. Camp is kids from different congregations and cities coming together to worship and serve, to learn and love. It should not be a peripheral ministry, but one central to who and what the church claims to be. Camp is the body of Christ. 

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