Church Camps Surging, But Changing

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In the early 2000s, the beloved tradition of attending an Episcopal summer camp in Minnesota appeared to be ending after three sun-soaked decades. Upkeep costs had climbed, the diocesan facility was sold, and for more than a decade the church camp experience was reduced to a memory.

Mustang Island | Diocese of West Texas.

But Episcopal camps have roared back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. A restart that began in 2014 has grown to 12 programs that now draw about 600 campers each summer. By signing one-year rental leases rather than owning camp facilities, the church keeps overhead low and sets camp fees below much of the competition. It also gets a rightly-sized facility each year, no matter how much enrollment grows from the prior year.

This rebirth has been good news for campers like Fiona Ehling, a 19-year-old college freshman who’s attended five Episcopal Church in Minnesota (ECMN) camp sessions since 2015. The camp experience has shaped everything from where she now sees God (everywhere) to her career goal (youth social worker) and her college leadership ambitions (dorm resident advisor, teaching assistant and peer leader).

“Camp creates this safe space” for being authentic and sharing personal stories, said Ehling, a Rochester native who attends the University of Minnesota Duluth. “There aren’t a lot of other places or people in life that produce that type of environment. But camp definitely does.”

What’s happening in Minnesota is part of a wider resurgence among the 92 summer camps affiliated with Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers (ECCC). In 2018, 35 percent experienced their highest enrollments of the past five years, according to a survey conducted by Sacred Playgrounds, a Wisconsin-based Christian camp research and consulting firm. The survey garnered responses from 36 Episcopal camps. Among the findings:

  • 53 percent said enrollments were up in 2018 over the prior year
  • 70 percent had at least three-quarters of their camper slots filled in 2018
  • Only 13 percent reported lower enrollments in 2018 than in 2017

Driving the upward trend is partly a strong economy. The Great Recession hit camps hard, according to Sacred Playgrounds Director Jacob Sorenson, and the entire camping industry (religious and secular) has benefited from the rebound. The trend has buoyed camps affiliated with six other mainline Protestant denominations, too, with 43 percent of other mainline camps reporting enrollments on the rise in 2018.

In these trends, researchers see burgeoning possibilities for church revival. At the same time, explicit faith formation is less and less a staple of Episcopal camp experiences. For the camp surge to have a lasting impact, it’s going to need more intentional partnering among camps, families, congregations and dioceses.

“We have in Christian camping a tremendous opportunity to revitalize the church and relearn how to spread the gospel in the 21st century,” Sorenson said. “Camps can be a place of evangelism and a place of outreach because of their broader appeal [than congregations have for youth]. And that allows campers an entree to invite friends.”

Congregations and families play crucial roles that go beyond sending kids off to Episcopal camps, according to Sorenson and Lisa Kimball, professor of lifelong Christian formation at Virginia Theological Seminary. When kids return from camp, they can be led to maintain and deepen faith practices if they find encouragement to sustain or adapt them at home and/or in church.

“What we are finding is that when relationships are sustained between camp and the camper households, there are all sorts of ways to learn whether camp has a significant impact,” said Kimball, who directs Baptized for Life: An Episcopal Discipleship Initiative, a project of the Lilly Endowment. “It’s when we don’t have continued relationships and they’re just customers who show up and hand in a health form that we compromise the formation that can continue.”

But data suggest that as Episcopal camp facilities increasingly function also as retreat and conference centers, emphasis on hospitality is growing and faith instruction is waning. Only 21 percent of Episcopal camp directors say instilling familiarity with the Bible is very important, versus 68 percent of other mainline camp directors who say it’s either very or extremely important. Only 17 percent of Episcopal camps say it’s very important to facilitate post-camp faith formation.

At Episcopal camps, “the importance placed on facilitating participants’ experiences of or encounters with God has declined steadily since 2014,” Sorenson writes in his report.

These trends are part of a patchwork marked by wide variation across regions and even from one camp culture to the next. As each one tries to carve out a future, they’re aiming to identify core constituencies, evolve to fit the times and stay true all the while to principles that don’t change.

Going lean and nimble is among the trends enabling rapid growth. In addition to utilizing rental camps, the Episcopal Church in Minnesota also relies on more than 100 volunteers rather than paid staffers to carry out camp operations. The only one paid is Missioner for Children, Youth and Camp Sarah Barnett, who makes sure volunteers are screened and trained.

“The kids reach out to them … kind of as mentors,” Barnett said. “Adults who say yes to volunteering and come back year after year do it because they see themselves as mentors in these kids’ lives. And that is a really life-giving thing for them to be doing.”

Cathedral Ridge | Diocese of Colorado

Facility upgrades are helping bring camps up to standards expected by today’s parents. For instance, Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs, Va., has raised $2.6 million for renovated cabins, bathrooms and staff housing as well as scholarships to ensure diversity among campers, according to Director of Development Kirk Gibson.

Since 2015, the Diocese of West Texas has more than doubled its Camp Capers site, where 1,200 campers go each summer. It also acquired a 19-acre Duncan Park camp facility abutting public lands in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Because camping is central to the spiritual formation program of the Diocese of West Texas, investments in land and facilities are regarded as investments in relationships.

“We have a very healthy diocese with a couple of new church starts that have done really well,” said Rob Watson, executive director of camps and conferences for the Diocese of West Texas. “We’ve had conflict over the years, but that conflict has been able to be resolved in ways that are gracious, loving, and forgiving. A lot of people have said: ‘That’s because we’ve gone to camp together’.”

Programming has also evolved to offer more niche experiences that address needs of today’s families. Example: family camp, which lets kids bring parents, siblings and/or other relatives along, is now offered at 59 percent of Episcopal camps, according to the Sacred Playgrounds survey. ECMN began offering family camp last year. The Diocese of West Texas’ family camp sells out just about all 10 weeks each summer as some 800 family members flock to Mustang Island for a Thursday night to Sunday afternoon experience. It’s designed to be an incentivizing value: for $350, a family of three gets three nights at the beach with lodging, meals and activities included.

Segmented weeks have also made camp experiences accessible and appealing to a broader range of kids than in generations past. A third of Episcopal camps now offer programs for youth with special needs. Shrine Mont, for instance, has grown from two to nine camps. Offerings now include St. Andrew’s Camp for those needing individualized attention and St. Elizabeth’s camp for kids with autism and Downs Syndrome.

Quest Camp | Episcopal Church in Minnesota

A third of Episcopal camps also offer mission- or service-oriented camps. ECMN’s Summer in the City camp, for instance, involves staying three nights at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis and doing service projects downtown.

In today’s camping ecosystem, there are still challenges. Camp Stevens in Julian, Calif., for instance, saw only 30 percent of campers return in 2018 after the prior summer was marked by a number of problems that resulted in several staffers being fired, Director Kathy Wilder said. Camper retention bounced back to 62 percent the next year after a change in camp leadership and a renewed focus on training. The camp now has between 550 and 600 summer session participants.

Despite hurdles on the landscape, new camps having been opening in recent years to fulfill what they regard as unmet needs in their respective areas. The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado launched Cathedral Ridge for youth campers in 2016. It now offers five programs on 160 woodland acres acquired by the diocese in 2010.

In the Diocese of Ohio, the end of camping at Cedar Hills hasn’t meant the end of camping altogether. A new venture on 137 acres at Bellwether Farm now welcomes youth for camps that combine learning about organic gardening, animal care, cooking and nutrition with traditional camp activities such as canoeing, swimming, fishing and field games.

“Not everybody wants to attend church within the actual four walls of a church,” said ECCC Executive Director Patty Olson-Lindsey. “They would rather experience church in a different way. And I think that’s one of the things camps have been able to provide. Then how do you support kids in finding faith communities for them after their camp years? Those are the questions we’re thinking about.”



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