Why the Church Needs a High Camp-ology.

In the bubble of seminary you quickly discover that everyone wants to know where you stand on the high-low spectrum for dozens of -ologies (Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.). I often find myself put-off by this classification system because, as is our way here in the Western world, it makes huge and mysterious topics into overly-simple, false dichotomies – but that is for another post.

All of that is to say that I do have a strong position on one -ology.

Camp-ology.

I have a high camp-ology. And I believe that the Church needs to adopt one too.

I first went to summer camp in fifth grade at Camp Beckwith in Fairhope, Alabama. I have been at various camps every summer since then but one (which was occupied by CPE). I have been a camper or staff member at four Episcopal summer camps/conference centers (Beckwith, McDowell, Kanuga, Shrine Mont) and a camper at a Methodist camp in Montana (Flathead Lake), NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and an educational camp focused on politics at Georgetown University.

Of all these experiences, the Episcopal summer camps have been the most formative and influential. Episcopal Summer Camps show “the world as it could be“. This quote comes from the Executive Director of Camp McDowell, Rev. Mark Johnston, and it sums up my experiences at camp. I came to know God, myself, and some of my best friends while at camp.

There are many reasons why I have such a high camp-ology, here are four:

1. Camp is a rehearsal for the Kingdom of God. There are no “lost sheep” at Episcopal summer camps. Every camper is greeted like the Prodigal Daughter/Son. Camp Counselors are a special group of people who seek out the lost, lonely, and awkward campers and make them feel welcome. Churches hang banners that proclaim their radical hospitality; Episcopal summer camps simply practice radical hospitality as a given. The whole program is designed for everyone to be involved and everyone to have a good time. In most staff meetings the talk is not about the kids who are fitting in and having a great time, but about the kids who are outside of the fold and how the staff can bring them back in. Inclusion is not something Episcopal summer camps strive for, it is something they live out. Summer camp is a living laboratory for liturgical and social inclusion.

2. There is a lot of peer pressure… to be yourself. Camp is often the one place where campers (and staff) can be 100% themselves. When the camper’s “normal” life is full of commitments and roles that are outside of their control, camp offers a place where they are in full control of their identities. There is no pressure to conform or fit a mold, in fact, the only pressure is to see how far outside of the mold you can go. Wearing funky outfits, singing at the top of your lungs, dancing in the pews of the chapel: these are all normal practices at camp. Campers are given the space to try on different identities and versions of themselves in a non-threatening environment. (Check out this promotional video for Shrine Mont, the summer camp in the Diocese of Virginia, with some great comments on this point from Rev. Susan Daughtry and Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4x4HC1TPm7w).

3. Benefits to staff. There have been a couple of blog posts floating around about the professional benefits of being a camp counselor, so I won’t belabor the point (Read this one, this one, or this one). Remember that being a summer camp counselor is not a walk in the park and requires real skills, talents, and determination. In full disclosure, there have been times in my staff experience at summer camp where I did not take the job as seriously as I should have, but even in my goofiest or most immature moments (think high school senior and college freshman summers) the job of camp counselor was never a breeze. It requires grit, focus, and an incredible amount of tact to deal with campers, staff members, and parents, all while organizing games, hikes, canoe trips, bible studies, etc. And you have to be “on” 24/7. There were many nights as a counselor in which I was woken up by a homesick camper or fellow staff member needing help, all of which taught me the valuable ability to open my eyes and get to work.

4. Camp is the only place in the church where older folks, young adults, and youth all willingly sign-up to be together. There is not a 20’s-30’s group that meets separately from the youth group that meets separately from the adult forum hour at summer camp. No, camp is all about everyone being together all the time. Camp Directors mingle and get to know college-aged staff who mingle and get to know elementary school aged campers. Older staff members mentor younger staff members. Campers see counselors as role models and dream of the day they can be on staff (at least I did when I was a camper). Nowhere else in the life of the church are so many different age groups constantly interacting and supporting each other with the common goal of healthy Christian community.

These are just four of the countless reasons why I love Episcopal summer camps. They show the world as it could be, but more specifically they show the church what it looks like to be the church. Jesus was fairly specific about how important children are and how they are the ones who will teach us about God. Spend one day at an Episcopal summer camp and you will see God in the faces of the campers, you will hear God’s voice in the laughter of the staff, and you will see a hodgepodge of people who have very little in common except their love of God, camp, and each other.

It is sad that camp budgets are so small in much of the church. It is sadder still that youth and young adult budgets are usually the first to get cut when Dioceses start tightening the belt.

I have the great fortune to live and work in a Diocese that knows how important summer camps are. With support from the Bishops and the Diocese as a whole, our Diocesan camp is wonderful glimpse of the Kingdom of God and summer camp as it should be. It is the center of the Diocese and it shows.

I would guess that a quick poll of my classmates in seminary would show that a majority of them have been influenced by an Episcopal summer camp. A broader poll would most likely show that a lot of clergy have been touched by an Episcopal summer camp.

What the church needs is not another conference on the future of ministry or new social media tricks or a fight over tax credits (although these are all important).

What the church needs is a summer in the woods and a high camp-ology.

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