Camp no more

I have loved youth group camp trips for as long as I can remember.  Every year I look forward to them, I plan them, I dream about what they could be.  I love to imagine new ideas and programs, new games, new worship, new lessons.  Camps and retreats truly are the highlight of my ministry year.  We work hard to leverage these weekends and week long events so that our leaders can spend a maximum amount of time with their students, so kids can unplug and be away from the stress of life, and so that our group can grow in community.  Honestly I think our camps and retreats stack up against anyone’s in intentionality, focus on faith and Jesus, and success in reaching our goals.

Thats why I’m having such a hard time with the phase of ministry I feel God drawing us into.  We’re phasing ourselves out of traditional camps and retreats for the first time in 20 years.  It is, quite honestly, freaking me out.  But at the same time I have a growing peace its what we are supposed to do.  Here are a couple of the reasons why:

1. Effectiveness.  As I am measuring the effectiveness of camp over the long haul, we are not seeing the long term effects that I feel like we used to achieve.  In our estimation, we are not seeing students lives impacted beyond a small window.  The results, while often positive in the short term, are not being carried out in a life of faith for many of our students.  The impacts are fading quickly, are not impacting families in a substantial way, and are often isolated.  Obviously there are exceptions, but they seem to be in the lives of students who are already growing at home without the camp experience.

2. Cost.  As the economy continues to struggle, our families are working hard to manage their family’s income.  At the same time camps are being forced to raise their fees, which is completely understandable. So we find ourselves in a storm where families have less disposable income, the church’s budget is tightening, and camp costs are rising.  That creates an ever tightening noose.  I believe it’s worse in our community, due to our low to middle income economic bracket.  It isn’t rising with the cost of inflation, where a white collar community is doing a better job of salaries keeping up with rising cost.  This means a bigger hit on our families as camp costs creep upward.

3.  Re-evaluating success.  Alright, I will admit it. A small, closeted part of me has held on to the idea that taking a large group of kids (relatively speaking) to camp = success in ministry.  How many kids went did matter.  I know, how barbaric and selfish of me.  Actually, I’m 40 and admitting it. Other youth pastors are just in denial.  Almost all of us as leaders believe it at some level if we’re honest.  I simply have to kill this idea.  It’s not true.  Large numbers are neither good nor bad, they are just large numbers.  I want to get better at making disciples who make disciples.  I have a LOT of changes to make.  This is just one of them.  Again, I’m not anti-big group.  It’s just not a fair barometer of health in ministry.

4. Student’s Schedules.  Our students are busier and busier than ever.  When we call for a week, its tough for many of them.  If they can’t make this one week, often for reasons out of their control, then our students are forced to miss a major initiative in the ministry year and progression.  We have lightly punished them for this in the past, making them feel like outsiders.  Yeah, there are kids who just don’t want to give up a week without their cell phone.  I get it.  But there are others who want to go, but don’t have the ability (time, resources, freedom, parental support, etc.)  This program model is not healthy in our ministry towards them.

5. Less than Family Focused.  Our camps are always “parent free” events for the most part.  We’re working at being more intentional at providing opportunities for families to grow together.  We want to support parents as they lead their children spiritually, as opposed to replacing or competing with them.  We’re trying to re-orient our ministry towards this clearer focus, and having camps as a massive cornerstone re-routes resources away from parent ministry.  Obviously, we will continue to do many events that are students only.  Students need that space to grow on their own.  But to have one of our most foundational events be so devoid of families isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

6. Resource Drain.  In order to pull camp off each year, we are putting more and more of our budget, time, promotion, planning, and attention towards these couple of weeks a summer, and couple of weekends a year.  Much of my year is spent planning towards one of these events.  A vast majority of my budget goes towards paying for scholarships, leader’s costs, transportation, equipment, travel expenses, and other expenditures.  (Even as I write it, I have a knot in my stomach at the amount we spend.)  We spend weeks and weeks promoting, planning, begging, calling, re-working, and stressing over these events.  The resources going in are not equating in results.  They are also taking vast resources that need to be allocated towards carrying out the gospel and disciple making locally.

I honestly can not believe I am even writing these things.  There has not been a bigger proponent of excellent camp ministry than me.  I love camp.  I live for camp.  It’s the high point of my year.  My computer desktop is a picture of our summer camp in Wisconsin that I’ve been to for over 16 years.  At the same time, I know it is time for us to re-evaluate, re-tool, re-work, and reconsider our path.  I’m not sure where we are headed, but I’m excited about it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  Push back with arguments.  Question my thoughts.  This is just where I am at today.  Who knows where He will lead me tomorrow?  Weigh in.