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Camp Counselors in our Churches?

Aug 28, 2015 | Camp to Congregation, Rethinking Church, The Logic of Camp

I was speaking with a colleague and mentor about my camp research a few weeks ago. We were talking about the unique educational model of summer camp and how that model might be transferrable to congregational ministry. We were reflecting on the role of the camp counselor, who is oftentimes a college student. These young adults are engaged in intentional ministry with campers who are usually only a few years younger than they are.
My colleague posed a question: “So what if we thought of our congregational pastors as camp counselors?”
I chewed on that for a little while, and I realized that it tasted funny.
“I don’t think we want our pastors to be camp counselors,” I reflected. “I think they are more like the camp directors.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then who are the counselors?”

Our churches might look a whole lot different if we found a role for the camp counselors. Let me be clear: we do not want our pastors to turn into camp counselors. Their role is much more similar to a camp director than a camp counselor. Camp directors oversee the year-round ministries of the camp, help set the mission/vision, and ensure that the word of God is rightly proclaimed. The camp director cannot, however, operate the ministries of the camp alone, and this is where camp can be instructive for our congregations.

In last fall’s survey of over 300 mainline Protestant camps, 86% said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Our camp emphasizes summer staff formation as much as camper formation.” One of the most important roles of a camp director is to recruit and train others to be the primary ministers of the camp. Many camp professionals spend the better parts of February-May recruiting summer camp staff and preparing for the summer season. Many camps have two full weeks of dawn to dusk staff training before the first campers arrive in June. The ministry with these young people continues throughout the year with frequent check-ins, reunions, and campus visits. Summer staff members turn to their camp directors for advice and spiritual guidance throughout the year. Ministry to summer staff members may occupy more time than any other role of some camp directors. Yes, it is ministry. The training itself is ministry, and the ongoing communication and interaction is ministry.
What if our pastors, priests, and presbyters envisioned their role as training the church members to be the primary ministers of the congregation? What if we thought of our church members as camp counselors?
Have you ever seen camp counselors greet one another? Hugs, smiles, incessant talking. They have shared experiences and mutual love that forms an incredibly strong bond. Staff training sessions often feature a great deal of group building activities. Camp directors know that the summer staff community is the foundation for the entire summer’s ministry. When was the last time you did intentional group building in your congregation? This does not have to be a silly game or activity (though I highly recommend low ropes initiatives for church councils/boards). How about intentional one-on-one conversations? Cooperative activities or projects?
Camps take hospitality seriously. Counselors are trained to welcome campers and visitors into the community and engage them in conversation. When you arrive at camp, it seems like everyone was anxiously awaiting your arrival, and they are genuinely happy to see you. Are your church members trained in hospitality? Imagine if everyone who stepped on your church property was welcomed into the community like a long-lost sibling by all of your members, not just the ones assigned as “greeters” for the day.
Faith Stories
Camps are some of the few places where testimonies are alive and well. Camp counselors share their personal faith stories with each other and with their campers. As campers share their own stories, counselors help them identify God’s activity. Putting theological language to our own personal life stories is incredibly powerful. How often do your church members practice sharing their faith stories? Is testimony a regular part of your worship service? Do you encourage and set aside time for one-on-one sharing of faith stories, especially across generations?
Interpretive Guides
Camp counselors are not known for their great theology. They are not unlike our church members. Some have more biblical literacy than others, and few have formal theological training. But camp counselors are trained to use theological language in situational learning. Are your church members trained to do this? Camps recognize that the best learning happens through experience, not through formal instruction. Camp counselors are trained to help the campers identify where God is at work in the mundane, everyday affairs of life. It is wonderful that churches have pastors to preach from the pulpit and lead worship services. But the deepest faith formation happens outside of the formal worship environments. What if we taught our members to identify God’s activity in the world? Might they help non-members outside of the formal church environment identify where God is at work in the world?
Worship Leadership
Camp counselors are trained in worship leadership. Camp directors are fully capable of leading worship, and many of them participate in worship leadership, but the summer staff members are the primary leaders. Too many of our churches operate under the assumption that the pastor should be the one up front all the time. What if the pastor’s role was to train others to be the leaders? This is about more than reading scripture or leading a song. With the pastor’s training and guidance, members could be planning and leading the worship services.
An Integrative Role
These and so many other aspects of camp counseling work as an integrative whole. The same people that campers play games with, work with, and eat with also lead Bible study, worship, and interpret activities through a theological lens. Imagine a community in which neighbors, co-workers, and dinner companions were also trusted worship leaders and theological interpreters of life events. Imagine a church community that does not fret when the pastor is gone on Sunday because dozens of members are fully capable of leading the worship service.

Remember: the pastor is not a camp counselor. Maybe that is why this is so difficult. Pastors want to be up front. They think they are the most capable. And to be truthful, it is a lot easier to do it themselves than to train others to lead. Training others is hard. And those that are trained are bound to mess up or to espouse bad theology at some point. Just ask camp directors. They spend countless hours preparing, recruiting and training just so other people can take credit for the amazing ministries happening at the camp.

Train your church members to be camp counselors. They will mess up. They will embarrass you. But they will also point the way to Christ in a way that you could never hope to do on your own. They will create a thriving community where the Holy Spirit is present and active through trusted relationships, a place where all are welcome.


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