Why the Church Needs a High Camp-ology (Part II)


A few months ago I published a little post on why I love Episcopal Summer Camps. The post took off quickly as people identified with the need for a high “camp-ology” and began to share it through their various circles.

This summer I am working at Shrine Mont Summer Camp in the Diocese of Virginia as the Chaplain to the Staff. My primary task is the spiritual formation and care of the ~75 college-aged counselors who have chosen to spend their summer here on the mountain. I participate in camp meals, games, activities, and worship. I get to spend time talking about the struggles of daily life, the ups and downs of faith, and the realities of following Christ in 2014 – all in a safe and uplifting community.

We have just passed the half-way point for the summer, which seems like as good a time as any to reflect on my previous post and see how it plays out in the real world of camp. Theology (and camp-ology) is pointless unless it is lived out. Here are my thoughts from the road, using my previous four criteria:

4. Camp is the only place in the church where older folks, young adults, and youth all willingly sign-up to be together. I was scheduled to preach at All-Camp Worship (a weekly Eucharist featuring every camp currently on the mountain) a few weeks ago. As I was preparing my notes I thought of the folks in the “congregation”. Who would I be talking to? What ages would be present? After some thought I realized that most of the campers would be from ages 8-13.

Easy enough, right?

Then I realized that the “Boomer Camp” would also be there, with campers from ages 22-70. There would also be the counselors: a wonderful and wildly smart group of college-aged folks.

On top of all of that, Bishop Ted Gulick (Assistant Bishop of Virginia) would be serving as the Chaplain for St. George’s camp and would also be present.

In one service there were children, young adults, “middle” adults, “upper” adults, and an Episcopal authority figure, all eager and willing to be there. They all sang together, prayed together, and participated in the Eucharist together. All of the inter-camp differences (age, activities, etc.) dissipated for one hour on a Sunday evening. And best of all…it was downright fun!

3. Benefits to staff. The amazing staff that I have the honor of working with this summer have proven this point over and over again. There have already been several blog posts on the Shrine Mont Camp blog about individual staff members going above and beyond in their roles as leaders, guides, and mentors to campers. Even though they are working for very little and giving up their entire summer, these staff members are proving that summer camp counselor is not always the easiest job in the world – but it is the best job in the world.

2. There is a lot of peer pressure… to be yourself. During the first sessions of MAD (Music and Drama) Camp and St. Sebastian’s (Sports) Camp, I found myself observing a joint-camp dance party. Held in the HAPPY Pavilion, the camps came together in goofy costumes and danced to loud pop music for what seemed like hours. At one point in the evening, a young camper came up to me where I was standing on the side of the dance floor.

“Come dance!”, she said enthusiastically.

“I’m not sure if I have any moves.”, I explained.

“It doesn’t matter! It’s not like anyone is going to judge you!”, she said (as if this was the most common sense idea in the world).

A camper who did not know me, except that I was not fully included in the fun, invited me to participate in the party. She took a chance because she wanted me to be a part of the group – no matter how silly my dancing was.

At the same dance, one of the session chaplains came up to me dressed in a long, blue dress and blonde wig. We talked for a few moments before he insisted on getting back on the dance floor. As he walked away, dress and wig swaying to the music, I realized how utterly different and absolutely beautiful this crazy dance was.

That dance was just a small sign of the culture of summer camps – where it is okay to be different as long as you are being you.

1. Camp is a rehearsal for the Kingdom of God. My job as Chaplain to the Staff means that I get to have a foot in each camp on the mountain. I get to eat breakfast with St. George’s camp, spend the morning with Sports Camp, eat lunch with MAD Camp, and worship in the evening with SHYC (Senior High Youth Conference). I get to see the joy and laughter and excitement that comes with each camp. I get to see the struggles and pain that some campers (and staff) overcome while at camp. In short, I get to see the Kingdom of God played out in real time, everyday.

Last night we had All-Camp Worship with Explorer’s Camp, St. George’s Camp, and SHYC. As I stood at the front of the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration and gave each camper and staff member the Bread that is the Body of Christ, I saw the hands of God.

Let me explain:

Some hands were very dirty, covered in the colorful residue of a day of fun at camp.

Some hands were experienced and had seen many summers on this mountain.

Some hands were connected to bodies that were wearing funny costumes.

Some hands were connected to bodies that carried a new, growing life inside of it.

Some hands were small.

Some hands were big.

Some hands were young.

Some hands were old(er).

Some hands had carried heavy burdens to this mountain.

Some hands had found freedom from those burdens in this place.

Some hands were carrying others.

Some hands were being carried.

All of the hands were holy.

All of the hands were sacred.

And as I placed the Bread of Life into each of the hands, I saw the hands of God in front of me.

I still have a high camp-ology and I will forever be changed by what I’ve experienced in my time at summer camps.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, all I can say is “Come and see.” Come to this place or a summer camp like it. Experience the love and joy and peace that comes with a community that knows who it is and whose it is.

As Jacob said in the Lectionary readings from Sunday, “Surely God is in this place!”


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.


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.