Summer Camp is Young Adult Ministry, Too

by Martha Korienek

This past summer I had the joy of being the Spiritual Director for Camp Chicago, the summer camp for the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. My job description was three-fold: make sure that there is worship offered daily, work with the volunteer clergy to offer formation experiences, and be the chaplain to the staff. It was in this last role (as chaplain) that I heard repeatedly that camp matters a great deal to the staff, most of whom were young adults; camp was one of the few places where they could benefit from being in Christian community with their peers, since their experience is that communities of young adults are few and far between in the Episcopal Church. Nate (a staff member) put it this way: “Just being in a really Christian community, in a camp community, where you’re safe, it makes it really easy to see your own gifts and to see gifts in others, which is also very important as a Christian—seeing Christ in other people and seeing gifts in other people.” This is the church at its best—a place where people grow closer to God and others, and through that, grow into the person they were created to be. The young adults who staff summer camps are drawn to this kind of church, where people seek and serve Christ in one another.

These staff members loved their ministries (being a counselor, teaching archery, etc.) but were also at camp because of what camp offered them: quality young adult ministry. They had a chance to “be church” with people who were more or less at a similar place in their discernment of what God is calling them to do with their lives. And so, they had access to countless conversations about calling and purpose, something for which they had been longing. Reflecting back on these conversations, one staff member, Anna, told me, “I believe the staff saw gifts or talents in me that I had not yet discovered and they did everything to help me grow and realize the potential I had.” For Anna, similar to Nate, being in Christian community had a direct impact on her self-understanding, especially when considering what Spirit-given gifts they might have, and how they can use these to become the person God has created them to be. And for Anna, who is not a regular church attendee, staffing at Camp Chicago was her only opportunity to explore these questions.

And following a trend of other camps (thank you Camp Wright and Camp Stronghold for this idea!), we ended each week with a Bible study that helped the staff to see where God had been at work the previous week. Heather (a staff member) shared me with how our Bible study on Galatians 5:22-23 affected her: “when it came to actually communicating with God, building my own relationship, I felt that was hard because God wasn’t something that I could see… especially this year at camp we did a lot of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ and took time to recognize where we saw God—the Holy Spirit working throughout camp, and that was helpful for me to take a step back and be like, ‘God is here.’” In conversations that I had with them after camp, they all said that this simple Bible study was a spiritually enriching experience, and helped them to connect their personal efforts with God’s building of the kingdom, which is a connection that they’ve hopefully learned to see in the rest of their lives.

Let me be clear: these young adults were not at camp for self-serving purposes. They were dedicated to their ministry at camp, whatever it might be. And it was this combination of discerning gifts in community, as well as serving others, that really made camp an experience to grow closer to God through understanding better who God is calling them to be. Nate shared that serving at camp was crucial to his understanding of himself as a follower of Jesus: “Even though you’re in a place where everyone is loving, everyone is supportive, there’s no judgment, you’re still feeling yourself pushed to be a better person by the community…no one is pressuring you, other than yourself. You really feel an innate desire to serve as Christ for these kids.” And not only did these young adults desire to serve as Christ served, they also had multiple opportunities to serve other people, all of which they accepted and did with grace. Since this group of young adults had this kind of desire to serve others, they were grateful for the chance to do this at camp. As their chaplain, I learned a lot about Christ by witnessing the way they tried to be Christ-like in their service to others.

Throughout the Episcopal Church, summer camp has a strong tradition of being an excellent ministry for the campers (usually children and youth). Through the reflections of members of the Camp Chicago 2013 staff, it is clear that church camp is a critical ministry of the Episcopal Church, not just for the campers, but also for the young adults who staff the camp, so that they can grow in their faith and vocation, and fulfill their ministry in the church for the building of the kingdom and to the glory of God. After witnessing the transformation that took place in the lives of the staff members this summer through their intentional conversations about vocation with their peers, their considering what Scripture means in their individual and communal lives, and the ways that they lived out their Christian calling, I wonder: is it possible for the diocesan summer camps throughout the Episcopal Church to also develop a tradition of being an excellent ministry for the young adults who staff it?

The Rev. Martha Korienek is the Associate Rector at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Burlingame, CA, as well as part-time M.A. student at Virginia Theological Seminary, with a focus on ministry with young adults.

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