Call stories are unique and complex. When I was a camp program director, it was a privilege to accompany people on their faith journeys. I heard call stories from visiting pastors, retreat participants, campers, and summer staff members. I saw many camp staff called to professional ministry. Every story was unique, but there were also consistent patterns. Of course, most of the stories I heard featured camp experiences in transformative ways. I wondered how widespread these camp stories were and how they fit in with a complex matrix of other experiences.

It turns out, they are very common!

With the Camp and Church Leadership Project, we are finally getting real numbers. We surveyed more than 3,000 rostered ministers (pastors and deacons) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Among the patterns observed: serving on summer camp staff was the most consistently impactful experience on call to rostered ministry.

The first thing to note is that Christian summer camp experiences are quite common among ELCA ministers. Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents attended overnight Christian summer camp at least once as children or youth. Half attended multiple times. 40% served on Christian summer camp staff, including 31% who served at a Lutheran Outdoor Ministry (LOM) camp. Respondents interpreted these experiences as highly impactful to their faith formation and call to ministry. Among those who attended camp, over half (52%) said the experience was very or extremely important to their faith formation. Over a third (39%) said it was very or extremely important to their call to ministry. The experience of working on camp staff was much more consistently impactful. Three-quarters (74%) said it was very or extremely important to their call to ministry. Even more former camp staff (78%) said the same with regards to their faith formation.

Camp in Context

The clear and widespread impacts of Christian summer camp experiences do not stand on their own. They function as part of an incredibly complex matrix of life situations and other ministry experiences. Survey data make clear that ministry experiences build on one another. Each ministry experience made the others included in the survey more likely. Those who attended Sunday school were much more likely to be confirmed and participate in a church youth group. Those with all three of these experiences were much more likely to attend the triennial ELCA Gathering, attend summer camp, and become involved with campus ministry in college, with each of these experiences making the others more likely and correlating with increased church involvement.

A large majority of respondents (70%) grew up active and engaged in ELCA ministries. For most of them, camp was part of an integrated whole. Another 20% grew up active and engaged in another denomination. Camp experiences were somewhat less common among this group. The remaining 10% had various levels of Christian engagement in their childhood and were much less likely to participate in camping ministries.

Demographic Shifts among ELCA Ministers

A host of other factors play important roles in call narrative. Among these are race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age. The first women were ordained in the ELCA’s predecessor bodies in 1970, and people in same-gender romantic relationships were officially prohibited from rostered ministry until 2009. This history has had generational impacts on the roster. Of respondents who were rostered prior to 1980, only 5% were female, 2% identified as LGBTQIA, and 1% were people of color. Of those rostered since 2010, 61% were female, 9% identified as LGBTQIA, and 7% were people of color.

These numbers show tremendous demographic shifts, from a roster dominated by straight, white males to one with increasing diversity. These changes dramatically affect call story. For example, women and people who identified as LGBTQIA were significantly older, on average, when they were ordained and were also significantly more likely to be raised in a denomination other than the ELCA or its predecessor bodies. Just considering those rostered since the year 2000, the median age among straight, white males when rostered was 32, compared to 40 among all other ministers. It is reasonable to anticipate the median age decreasing as all demographic groups understand from an early age that their call to ministry is affirmed and encouraged.

All of these factors impact camp involvement, as camp involvement also impacts call narrative. The proportion of newly rostered ministers who attended LOM camp as children declined progressively from those rostered prior to 1980 (53%) to those rostered since 2010 (43%). However, this is not due to fewer people attending camp or less frequent impactful call experiences in the camp setting. Many of those rostered since 2010 were older and more likely to come from a tradition other than the ELCA . Both of these factors made camp experiences less common among recently rostered ministers. 

At the same time, camp was playing an increased roll in faith formation and call to ministry among young people. This was particularly true for those raised in the ELCA. Camp enrollment surged among LOM camps in the late 90s and early 2000s. Many of these camps operated leadership programs that directly encouraged call to ministry. In the survey, camp engagement was most frequent among rostered ministers age 45 and younger who grew up in the ELCA. Among this group, 71% attended LOM summer camp and 60% served on LOM summer camp staff. A remarkable 67% of this subgroup agreed that their camp experiences were instrumental in their call to rostered ministry.

3 Crucial Ministry Spaces

One way to assess the directness of the path to ministry is to consider the age of ministers when rostered. While call stories are incredibly complex, several experiences influence more direct paths to ministry. Four experiences predict ministers being rostered at a younger age, regardless of other factors like age, gender, race, and whether or not they were raised in the ELCA. These four factors were: participation in the ELCA Gathering at least once, serving on Christian summer camp staff at least once, attending an ELCA college/university, and increased involvement in college campus ministry (particularly those participating in worship or events more than monthly). A fifth factor was was not independently significant because it correlated so strongly with other ministries in the analysis. This factor was increased frequency of attending overnight Christian summer camp (particularly those who attended four or more times).  If a respondent had at least one of these experiences, their median age when rostered in the ELCA was 29. If a respondent had none of these experiences, the median age when rostered in the ELCA was 41.

These findings highlight the importance of three ministry areas on call to rostered ministry in the ELCA: camp, the Gathering, and campus ministry.

Three things are notable about these ministry spaces. First, they are interconnected ministries. If a respondent had one, they were likely to have at least one more. The experiences were also connected to other ministries. Those who attended camp more frequently, for example, tended to be more involved with their congregation in childhood and adolescence. Those who attended the Gathering were more likely to be involved with church youth group and attend worship services in high school. Second, most of these ministries are ELCA-specific ministries. Attending an ELCA college, working at a LOM camp, and attending the ELCA Gathering are all experiences that emphasize ELCA identity. This is in contrast to other ministries included in the survey, such as mission/service trips, church retreats, and VBS. Third, most of these are young adult ministries, indicating the importance of experiences in this stage of life to vocation and call.

Additional ministries showed remarkable impact in the survey, including Sunday school (described in a previous article) and Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM), which was highly impactful to a small cohort of ministers who served for a year or more in their young adult years. Of all the ministry areas included in the survey, serving on summer camp staff stood out as the most consistently impactful to faith formation and call to ministry. 

Support for camping ministries is widespread in the ELCA, as previously noted, though there are many ministers who are skeptical of camp’s value. This study makes clear that camping ministries play an integral role in faith formation and call to ministry. Strong partnerships between camps and congregations enhance the ministry of both spaces. The study has confirmed the tremendous potential of camps for faith formation and leadership development. It is time to double-down on support of camping ministries. Send your young people to camp, and encourage young adults to serve on camp staff.

To connect with a Lutheran Outdoor Ministry site near you, visit: https://www.lomnetwork.org.

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