When we think about the impacts of summer camp, we most often think about the camper experience. Indeed, the lion’s share of camp research has focused on the campers (e.g. the Effective Camp Project and ACA’s Impact Study). The research provides compelling evidence that only a week or two of summer camp can have positive, lasting impacts on young people and their families. This begs the question of how much an entire summer of working at camp impacts summer staff members.

Anecdotally, we know that working at summer camp can be one of the most impactful experiences in a young adult’s life. It can alter their life trajectory and propel them on a path of service to others or professional ministry. The more I interact with colleagues in camping and congregational ministry, the more stories of impact I hear. A new research initiative seeks to go beyond the anecdotes and personal biases to drill down into what makes the summer staff experience so powerful to so many. It is called the Camp and Church Leadership Project. Our research team is hoping to uncover the characteristics of the summer camp staff experience that nurture leadership for long-term faith formation, congregational involvement, and professional leadership.

We began with people who previously worked at summer camp and are now engaged in congregational ministries. With the help of synod staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we identified 24 individuals (half ordained clergy and half lay members of ELCA congregations) to participate in semi-structured interviews. These folks worked at camp from the 1970s through the 2010s. Some worked for a single summer and others for five summers or more. Together, they offered a compelling picture of how the experience of working on summer camp staff impacts individuals long-term.

What a privilege to hear these unique stories! For some, working on camp staff was the most impactful experience of their lives, influencing their careers and key relationships. For others, it was a moderately impactful experience among others, which together shaped their lives. What everyone agreed on was the power of relationships formed while on camp staff. Many met their best friends at camp, with some still gathering with camp friends decades later. It was telling that, of the 19 interviewees who were married, 7 met their spouse at camp. The clearest recommendation they had for camp directors was to focus on staff bonding and group building during summer staff training. They were clear that the quality of relationships among the summer staff greatly influenced the quality of the ministry and the camper experience. Beyond this, there were three major themes we uncovered:

Particular Life Stories: Young people do not come into the staff community as blank slates. They come from diverse backgrounds, each with personal baggage and unique gifts to offer. Previous experiences and relationships shape their own experience and influence those of their fellow staff members. Summer staff are usually in the crucial life stage of emerging adulthood, making them open to life change and formation.

Three Major Elements of the Summer Staff Experience:

  1. Set-apart community of common purpose: Commitment to the mission and ministry of the camp unites the staff. They forge deep relationships through the oftentimes demanding and exhausting work, creating a place of acceptance and safety.
  2. Experiential leadership: Staff not only learn through doing; they learn through leading and teaching, thereby discovering their own personal gifts.
  3. Openness to experiences of God: Staff participate in daily Christian practices and interpret experiences with Christian language, creating an openness to God’s activity in the world, particularly through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Major Outcomes: The interaction of particular life stories with the three key elements lead directly to major life outcomes. These often include lasting relationships, a strong sense of vocation/calling, faith formation, valuable new life skills, and an ongoing connection to the camp and its model of ministry.

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Conceptual Model of the Summer Camp Staff Experience

For more details on the project findings so far, along with where we are going next, visit the PROJECT WEBSITE!

The next step in this exciting research is a survey of all rostered leaders in the ELCA, which is the denominational focus of the project. This survey will help us determine how many ELCA pastors and deacons attended or worked at camp, along with how these experiences fit in with other crucial life experiences in their stories of faith formation and call to ministry. There is much more to come!

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