Creating Bridges Between Camp, Church, and Community
“It is not my job to do Vacation Bible School for churches.” For years, this was the rationale I gave for not wanting to explore day camp. But this summer our Wisconsin Annual Conference Camp & Retreat Ministries launched a pilot day camp program, Camp in the Community, to blend a traditional, residential camp program with congregational evangelism and outreach. Why the change? Because we started to envision a way to do day camp that would align with our Conference vision. We were able to tap directly into three of five Conference ministry areas:
- Launch Turn-Around Movement with Vital Congregations by helping churches establish outward focused ministry
- Imagine Mercy and Justice Ministries by establishing our churches as community based ministries, and by networking with local movements and networks
- Create Soul Food by partnering with local food pantries and feeding ministries
One of the most unique and valuable resources that WIUMCamps brings to the Wisconsin Annual Conference is a staff of caring, committed young adults who are trained in the relational, experiential style of ministry which offers positive Christian role models for young people. We were excited to offer this resource beyond the boundaries of our camp sites to accomplish our conference vision to Imagine Wisconsin Anew.
The goal of Camp in the Community is to reach children in grades K-5 who are not connected with a church. Although campers are the most direct recipients of this ministry, church leaders also learn skills on how to reach out to the community. This program is designed to meet the needs of both campers and church leaders by combining the best of our camping program with the resources of local churches. This meant we needed to be clear about who was responsible for each area of this program.
- Program curriculum and supplies
- Planning and training of church volunteers
- Transportation for camp staff to/from church site
- Follow ACA guidelines
- A site with shelter, restrooms/running water, shade, play space
- Housing and food for camp staff (all churches provided host homes)
- Church volunteers, including a lead coordinator
- Minor supplies
- A safe daily check-in/check-out process
- Meet the financial obligation of the contract with WIUMCamps
Establish Outward Focused Ministry and Network with Local Movements
Initially we expected to spend one year at a site, then move on. Wisconsin is large geographically, and we wanted to be able to reach a wide area. After our experiences in 2016, however, we decided it makes more sense to create a three-year progression to help congregations really invest in their communities. One specific goal we had for our first year was that 50% of the campers would not be affiliated with a church. Our churches excelled in this area, and 73% of our campers were not from our host churches. One church did extensive advertising, and 86% of their campers were from the community!
The three churches who continue with us into a second year of this ministry will have a new outreach goal. We are considering a goal of incorporating community leaders into the week as guest speakers, donors, or in some other creative way. We’re still thinking about a new goal for year three.
Soul Food Ministry
As we spoke to donors and churches, we realized there was a good opportunity to connect with the community through food. The requirement WIUMCamps set for churches was to provide lunch and one snack a day. We made it clear that churches should provide free food, rather than asking for contributions or inviting campers to bring their own from home. Our requirement was broad, and the creative people on site had great ideas for how to implement our program in their community.
Some churches provided both a morning and afternoon snack. One church spent an afternoon in their community garden, teaching kids about growing food. Their lunch that day included green beans the kids helped pick. One church had a community potluck in the park in the evening.
Our Keys to Success
By tapping directly into the Conference vision, we immediately had lots of institutional support. District Superintendents gave us opportunities to share the vision of this ministry through their written and in-person communication. In the early stages of exploring this ministry, two clergy Board members came forward to volunteer to be host sites in the pilot year.
In order to make the first year successful, we limited ourselves to three opportunities. Each of the sites for Camp in the Community was in a different size community. Our goal was to have one urban location, one suburban, and one rural. As we confirmed our church partnerships, we ended up with a suburb of Milwaukee, one small town, and one very rural community. We scheduled these weeks to coincide with our weeks of least usage on-site. This meant we didn’t need to hire additional staff to test out a new program.
We also increased our chances for success by applying for grants. Many congregations are wary of spending a large amount on an untested ministry. We secured enough grants to assure these churches that in this first year, they would not have to invest financially in an unknown program. Our grants covered the first year of the program in full!
As we prepare for year two, we are shifting out of a pilot model. We anticipate continuing with our first three churches to test out what a second year looks like, and we are planning to add three new sites. Given our expected camper numbers on site, we do not anticipate needing to hire additional staff for Camp in the Community next year.
We will shift most of the financial obligations to our host congregations. We are working with our grantors to invite those congregations to apply for assistance. We are looking into the possibility of creating a scholarship opportunity for congregations who might not be able to otherwise afford this ministry.
As we have told our stories of success, 20(!) new churches have indicated interest in hosting Camp in the Community in summer 2017. This is pushing us to consider the criteria for selecting new sites. As we expand, we are also aware we will need to standardize some of the resources we offer and streamline our paperwork. These are challenges we are excited to tackle.
Sharon Stowe Cook is an ordained United Methodist pastor who began a lifelong connection with camping in 3rd grade. She has been a camper, a summer staffer, a Board member, an event director, and now serves as the Coordinator of Camp and Retreat Ministries for the Wisconsin Conference.