This summer, thousands of young adults will serve at Christian camps across the United States and around the world. Serving on summer camp staff will be one of the most rewarding and highly impactful experiences of their lives. They will walk away from the experience with lifelong friends, a renewed and deepened faith in God, a better understanding of themselves and what God is calling them to do with their lives, practical skills that will serve them for a lifetime, and indelible memories.
I experienced these impacts personally, of course. I met my spouse at camp, along with many other dear friends. The experiences of five summers on seasonal camp staff shaped my life trajectory and call to ministry. I have also witnessed these impacts in the hundreds of staff I either worked with directly in my years on full-time staff or helped train at various camps through my work with Sacred Playgrounds. Now I can augment these direct experiences with empirical research from the Camp and Church Leadership Project. The evidence is overwhelming that the summer staff experience has powerful and lasting impacts on individuals and the church.
It is not universal, of course, and the impacts are not always predictable. This is because the camp staff experience comes alongside a myriad of other life experiences for each individual staff member. There are also important factors in the summer staff experience that contribute to more positive outcomes. These include things like ensuring agency and consistent support for the staff members, along with intentionally nurturing a community of faith. When any of these is absent, the experience suffers: fewer positive outcomes, increased burnout, and more.
Particular life stories
The experience centers on each unique individual who answers the call to serve on summer camp staff. They do this for a variety of reasons, though the most common are to be part of a caring Christian community, to grow as a person, to serve God and God’s children, and to do all of this while having a fun, memorable summer. Each person brings with them their own particular life story. This includes their faith background, their home life, their school experiences, any trauma they have experienced, and much more. Their camp experience will function as part of and be integrated into this life story. Camps that serve their staff members the best recognize the uniqueness of each individual and work to support them wherever they are in their story.
For example, many staff members come into the camp experience with significant mental health challenges. This is part of a nationwide rise in mental health concerns. In our 2021 survey of summer staff, two-thirds reported feeling overwhelming anxiety at least monthly in the months leading up to camp, and a third agreed with the statement, “I am oftentimes unhappy about my life and who I am.” Most concerning, almost a third of incoming staff reported having thoughts of self-harm at least once or twice in the months prior to camp. The best camps acknowledge these challenges and provide resources to care for their staff members’ spiritual, emotional, and mental health.
3 elements of the summer staff experience
The camp staff experience embeds each of these unique people into an environment with three main elements. First, they become part of a community of common purpose. This purpose centers on the mission and vision of the camp, which usually involves a combination of serving young people, sharing the gospel of Christ, and caring for God’s creation. Each individual brings their unique talents and perspectives to this community, meaning diversity adds value. The community is supportive of each individual, creating a safe space in which staff members look out for one another, encourage one another, and strive together toward their common purpose.
Second, the camp staff environment engages each of the individual staff members in experiential leadership. They not only learn by doing. They learn by leading others. This offers an incredible amount of agency, especially when staff members have taken ownership of the camp’s mission and recognize the value of their own contribution. It builds self-confidence, leadership abilities, and valuable skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
Third, this community of common purpose is open to experiences of God working in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. Of course, God is at work in all aspects of life. Prior to camp, the individuals who serve on camp staff had varying degrees of encounters with God. There is a deeper level of openness to God’s work in the faith-centered camp environment. Everything is interpreted through a faith lens. They are consistently engaged in the rhythm of Christian living through practices like prayer, Bible study, worship, and devotions. The experience goes beyond orthodoxy (right belief) to a deep bodily knowledge of orthopraxy (right practice), as staff members live out the Christian faith in community.
Experience leads to outcomes
The experience affects each individual differently, based on a variety of factors. However, the common outcomes include lasting relationships with fellow staff members (including some future spouses), new skills (especially leadership skills), deeper faith in God, vocational clarity (including many discerning a call to ministry), and an ongoing connection to camping ministry.
I find it difficult to put into words the value of serving on summer camp staff. It is holy work. It is deeply meaningful. The memories, friendships, and skills last a lifetime. Perhaps most importantly, it is a chance to have profound and often life-changing impacts on the lives of young people.