Russell Casteel reflects…
The daunting task of taking the next step in ministry is one that looms over all of us. When I decided to answer God’s call to move into being a Camp Director at Cedar Crest in the Tennessee Conference, after 10 summers of serving as Program Director at Camp Lake Stephens in the Mississippi Conference, I was left with nothing but questions amidst my faithful steps. Fortunately, I was blessed with a boss in Reverend Dickie Hinton who allowed me to take some chances and opportunities to fail. I was encouraged by our board to go out and make “connections with church folks that matter, because they don’t know who we are anymore.”
In going out to churches, coffee shops, and college campuses, I had more than my share of failing conversations. In turn, I also ran into grace time and again: grace constantly revealing God in the hearts of young adults who felt that they might be called to be part of our team at Cedar Crest. One of those faithful young adults who applied to work that first summer, Jessi Persson, stood out immediately. In her interview Jessi spoke eloquently and passionately about her time as a camper at Flathead Lake UM Camp in the Yellowstone Annual Conference (MT), where she grew in her faith, began to hear a call to ministry, and grew in her self-confidence. As she witnessed to what we hope to accomplish and achieve in camping ministry, I also heard a young woman who was on her way to lending places of meaning to young people.
Now almost five years later, Jessi has completed two summers of camp counseling, two as Ropes Director and Program Staff, a year as Program Intern and now is in the middle of her journey toward a Master’s of Divinity degree at Candler School of Theology. She has made church visits and plunged toilets, held crying youth and grown in navigating conflict of all kinds. In days where so much about the church and her future can get us down, distracting us from discipleship and relationships, Jessi’s discovery and then commitment to UM Camping gives me hope. Thanks to the love of camp by her spiritual mentor and youth director, Janna Lauver in Montana, and, in turn, campus ministers, friends, and connected colleagues, Jessi has been able to envision a path towards servant leadership in UM camping ministry. Now she has helped to build a program, meaningful relationships, and is ready to lead a camp with the gifts and graces of a seasoned camp veteran, one who has embodied and gifted the connection over and over again.
Morgan Tubbs, Cedar Crest Program Director (and lifelong UM camper, staff person, seminary grad) says about Jessi: “She is one of the most natural leaders I have ever seen; that, combined with her passion for both teaching and learning, makes her a dynamic camp professional and person of faith.”
In turn, I would add that Jessi’s story isn’t luck or circumstance but rather an embodied connection that did the work it was called to do. From Mississippi to North Georgia, from Flathead Lake to Middle Tennessee to all points east and west, our connection gives me hope.
May we keep at it and stay connected. May our young adults lead to imagine new, rich connections.
Russell Casteel is Director of Cedar Crest United Methodist Camp and Retreat Center and recently accepted the role of Executive Director for Tennessee Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries. He is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology and holds professional Certification in Camp and Retreat Ministry in the UMC. He also serves on the UMCRM Association’s Education Committee. In September, Russell and Callie welcomed a new baby into their family.