In praise of camp counselors

By John B. Chilton

In the summers I live in a rural community where there is an Episcopal conference center. If you care to dig deeply enough, you can figure out which one. But what I want to share is my gratitude to the young adults – and not so young adults – who work as cabin counselors on Episcopal camp staffs across the country. What I have the pleasure of witnessing locally happens in many places.

Part of the conference center operation is a collection of camps for children and young people. From mid-June through mid-August there are always four to five camps running with over 200 campers at any point in time. Some camps are for kids with challenges such as the camp for teens and young adults with Down syndrome. Some camps are outdoor-oriented, another is focused on the arts, and another does organized sports. Camp enrollment this year remained at capacity despite the widely publicized (or shall I say, megaphoned) departure of a few churches in my diocese back in December.

All of the camps are coeducational. Limited access to a mirror, a shower, and a laundry for a week or more conveys a lesson in mutuality that, I suspect, is a beneficial life-skill to develop early on. It doesn’t hurt that each camp staff works together and effectively models healthy working relationships between adults.

One camp may focus on outdoor activities and another on music and drama, but every camp is Christ-centered. It’s not just camp with an Episcopal name attached. There is daily worship. There is weekly worship where all the camps gather together (and a bishop is likely to be present). An environment is created where it is safe to express doubt and ask questions. The purpose of the camps is to build up the body of Christ. This is what the campers take away with them when they leave the mountain.

No camp operates without staff such as directors and nurses. But as I have observed these camps over many years, I have developed a special appreciation for the cabin counselors. Living with a cabin of kids 24/7 for several months is not something everyone is called to do. To take one example of many foregone comforts of home, how many of us would be willing to go two months with no more than a suitcase of clothes? I simply cannot comprehend how they maintain their energy, enthusiasm and patience. Counselors are the heart of camps. In virtuous cycle, the camps attract counselors who are committed to working with kids and staying on message – building up the body of Christ.

Over the years many campers have become counselors. Several campers and counselors have entered the priesthood, and the camps have produced a bishop or two. But what I believe is the finest dividend of camps is that so many campers and counselors have become nothing more or less than active members of the ministry of the laity. Praise God.

Camps are risky. You might fall and twist your knee. Your life might be changed. One counselor this year, a bruiser of a football player, said at end of his camp’s session “My life has been changed. I now know my vocation is to work with kids.”

I’d be interested in reading your comments about your experience in church camp as a camper or counselor.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) specializing in applied game theory. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

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