Our Lutheran Outdoor Ministries provide places to engage people of all ages with the beauty of God’s creation and programs that enrich faith formation. These camping and retreat opportunities allow space and time for deeper reflection on relationships and promote unique leadership skills in young adults.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Presiding Bishop, ELCA

From my point of view…Bible camps are the best place where some of our really fine leaders…were affirmed…and they discovered ‘maybe I could do a life of ministry’.

Rick Foss

Bishop & Former President, Luther Seminary

Project Introduction & Rationale

The words above capture what has been anecdotally known for decades throughout theological education and the church: Bible camps are highly effective incubators for forming faith in young adults and developing church leaders. There is troubling evidence, however, that the connection between camp and congregational leadership is often tenuous or misunderstood. Camping ministry is sometimes dismissed among church professionals as fun and games or theologically shallow, while congregational ministry is sometimes dismissed among camp people as resistant to change or even obsolete. In a time of dwindling church resources, it is incredibly important to identify the places Christian leaders are formed and promote collaboration among these ministries.

Outdoor ministry is one of the three largest young adult ministry programs in the ELCA, along with campus ministries and military chaplaincy. Camps employ more than 3500 young adults every summer, and we know that many of these young people go on to rostered ministry or active church membership. The problem is, we do not know how many become church leaders or the key factors that lead them to do so. What President Foss and Bishop Eaton recognize now demands to be rigorously studied and strengthened.  President Foss’s expanded remarks on this are captured in the video.

This project directly addresses five of the core values identified by the Youth and Young Adults Ministry of the ELCA. First and foremost, it is designed to promote collaboration among ministries and to develop and multiply youth and young adult leaders. Secondarily, this project works to form faith in young adults and enhance current ministry efforts. Additionally, this project will address engagement of young adults of color.

Project Purpose

The Camp and Church Leadership Project seeks to cultivate church leadership among young adults who have been engaged in camping ministries. We will identify the characteristics of the camp experience that nurture leadership for long-term faith formation, congregational involvement, and professional leadership.  We will then apply these findings in specific contexts in hopes of enhancing the intentional leadership development of camps and strengthening the partnerships between camps, congregations, synods, and seminaries.


The Project Team

This project is a partnership between camps and synods throughout the ELCA. The La Crosse Area Synod, with direction from Bishop Jim Arends, will serve as the primary contact point for other synod offices in the efforts to engage rostered leaders in the project. The two camps associated with the synod, Luther Park Bible Camp (Chetek, WI) and Sugar Creek Bible Camp (Ferryville, WI), are collaborating with the synod office to serve as testing grounds for innovative staff training programs. Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM), with direction from the Rev. Don Johnson, will engage ELCA camps throughout the country to connect with young adult camp staff. Sacred Playgrounds, directed by Dr. Jacob Sorenson, will facilitate the partnerships and conduct the research.

The Sacred Playgrounds team is uniquely qualified to do this work in partnership with synods and camps. The team has recently directed two research projects with direct connections to the Camp and Church Leadership Project. The Effective Camp Research Project (ECRP), co-founded by Dr. Paul Hill in 2015, continues doing cutting edge research in effective practices at camp and has identified five fundamental characteristics to the Christian camping model. The initial stages of the ECRP centered on ELCA camps in Wisconsin (including the two primary camp partners), where the proposed project will begin. The website www.effectivecamp.com provides depth and detail to the work of ECRP. The second related project is the Lutheran Campus Ministry Study, conducted in partnership with Dr. Roland Martinson and the Lutheran Campus Ministry Network (LuMin) from 2016-2018 (lumin-network.com/literature-research). The study included the largest known survey of Lutheran young adults, which the proposed project will directly build upon through another of the ELCA’s most vibrant ministries with young adults: summer camps.

The Camp and Church Leadership Project represents a continuation of this collaborative work through the La Crosse Area Synod, other ELCA synod offices, Luther Park Bible Camp, Sugar Creek Bible Camp, and Lutheran Outdoor Ministries.


Project Phases 

PROJECT PHASE 1: Exploring Church Leadership

We will begin by exploring the factors that current church leaders identify as impactful from their personal camp involvement as a camper and/or staff member. We will focus on the six synods of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan because we have already done extensive research of the outdoor ministries within these synods through the ECRP.

We intend to interview rostered and active lay leaders to identify the factors that shaped their faith and vocational choices from attending or working at a camp. We will then compare these data with the data collected from the interviews and surveys of the Effective Camp project. A more clear and concise picture will emerge of how faith and vocation are formed at camp that creates congregational leaders. We will know how camp fits into their call story. In this phase, we will do 18-24 interviews of pastors, youth ministry professionals, and active lay members. Interviews will be recorded, transcribed, and analyzed. We will isolate the factors that are common across the camps that lead to congregational leadership development.

PROJECT PHASE 2: Quantifying Church Leadership Factors

Based on the Phase 1 results, we will develop a quantitative tool in order to survey rostered leaders nationwide. Our partnership with the La Crosse Area Synod will facilitate connection with the other synod offices of the ELCA in order to effectively distribute the survey. We will use the survey to determine the prevalence of the factors we identified in the interview phase. We will identify factors that contributed to rostered leaders becoming church professionals, including the role that camp played in that process. For the first time, we will be able to quantify the impact of camp experiences on rostered leaders of the ELCA in comparison to other factors, including such things as participation in campus ministry and youth congregational experiences.

Significantly, the Presbyterian Church (USA) already has data from their clergy members about the significance of camps and retreats, with which we will be able to compare and contrast what we learn.

PROJECT PHASE 3: Camp Leadership Training

The findings from the first two phases of the project will be used in a leadership training session designed for summer camp staff. This program will be piloted in summer 2019 at 3-6 camps during their staff orientation weeks. The included camps will include the two camps most closely partnered with the La Crosse Area Synod: Luther Park Bible Camp (Chetek, WI) and Sugar Creek Bible Camp (Ferryville, WI). The training session will be designed to encourage reflection among summer camp staff on their continued engagement in congregational ministries and potential for participating in church leadership. We will also gather feedback from young adult camp staff members on the findings of the project so far, using focus groups and listening sessions at each camp.

PROJECT PHASE 4: The State of Camp Leadership

Having identified the key factors from summer camp that influence church leadership, we will turn to the current cohort of summer camp staff to determine their experiences of these factors and their intentions of engaging in church leadership in the future. Our partnership with LOM and our history of working with camps will facilitate access to camp staff. We will select a representative sample of ELCA camps across the country and survey their summer staff members. This will help us understand how well camps are doing in cultivating church leadership among their staff members and reveal areas for growth.

In order to better match the core values of the youth and young adult ministry grant, we will include survey questions designed to determine the diversity of camp staff. Camps often strive to be places of welcome and diversity. We are interested in not only how many people of color work at ELCA camps but also whether their experience of serving on camp staff and intentions to engage in church leadership differ from white staff members. Identifying any differences can help camps be more effective at engaging youth and young adults of color.

The goal is to match or exceed the number of responses from the Lutheran Campus Ministry Study (about 850). Using certain identical questions will make these two surveys directly comparable and offer a multi-dimensional look of young adult ministries in the ELCA.

PROJECT PHASE 5: Enhancing Current Ministries

Based on the study findings, we will create inventories of action steps designed for camps, synod candidacy committees, and seminaries to help nurture faith and vocational discernment in young adults. The action steps for seminaries will be designed for admissions staff to more effectively recruit students and future church leaders who have served at summer camp. The action steps for synod candidacy committees will be designed to help them more effectively engage their area camps for encouraging leadership discernment and to nurture the faith development of current ministry candidates. The action steps for camps will be designed to more effectively nurture the key factors for church leadership identified in the study, focusing especially on those most in need of growth.

In addition to these specific action steps available to ministries throughout the ELCA, we will disseminate the findings through blogs, webinars, website sourcing, and scholarly articles. Specifically, we will offer a webinar designed for candidacy committee members to help them understand the project findings and apply the action steps in their particular contexts. LOM will host a presentation/workshop focused on project findings at their annual conference. We will also continue developing the camp leadership training sessions piloted in phase 3, making these available to more camps and providing resources for others to lead similar sessions. Resources will be made available through the LOM website.

We are not interested in doing research for research’s sake. We believe that these findings can be used to have direct impacts on current and future church leaders. While a large portion of this project focuses on research, the ultimate goal is to cultivate church leadership among young adults who have been engaged in camping ministries.

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