Each December, the Camping Executive leadership from Annual Conferences across the country gathers for three days to share in a time of fellowship, collaboration, and visioning. As I reflect back on our time together this past December I have realized that we as a national camping and retreat ministry are at the beginning of a new era.
Our time at this gathering together started with an inspiring vision shared by Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Philadelphia Episcopal Area. Bishop Johnson is a forerunner in advocating for those whom the rest of the world tends to forget. She has a strong passion for deaf and blind ministries and inspires everyone she interacts with to strengthen their service with “the outcasts.” During her time with us, the Bishop presented a fact that many of us who have been in the camping field for a while try to ignore; that prioritizing our promotional efforts toward the camping demographic of middle and upper-middle class suburban kids can no longer be our primary strategy. For many years, this was the main demographic attracted to and attending summer church camp programs. Today, this demographic is being pulled in so many different directions, church camp is no longer a priority for them or their parents. While it is still important for these young people to have a camping experience, we as a ministry have to begin looking beyond this demographic in order to survive. And more importantly to live out a ministry that models the life of Jesus Christ. The challenge that was put forward by the Bishop was to shift our efforts from the easy way of doing camp (which is really no longer “easy”), to faithfully ministering to the “outcasts,” the “untouchables,” those in society who many times just get passed by. United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries are at the beginning of a new era in ministering to the blind, deaf, poor, those with HIV/AIDS, those who speak a different language, and those who have addictions.
Our time then shifted into many discussions about what Camp and Retreat Ministry structure looks like in various Annual Conferences across the country. This is always an eye-opening conversation. Year after year, we are finding that more Conferences are losing their conference level camping executive for one reason or another. Some Conferences are choosing to combine this leadership position with other responsibilities: youth ministries, or outreach, for example. This loss of full time leadership is sometimes done strategically, but unfortunately most of the time this loss happens strictly for financial reasons. The reality is that less than half of our Annual Conferences have a full-time camping Executive. This results in Camp Directors taking on extra responsibilities, requiring more resources for guiding them through Conference structure and details of running a camp that they previously did not have to handle. Along with less Conference level leadership there is also the reality that many of our Camp Directors are soon going to be reaching retirement age. Over the next few years there will be a large number of new Camp Directors who will need additional training as well. United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries are at the beginning of a new era in leadership, both at individual sites and structurally as a whole.
This is an exciting time to be a part of this vital ministry. With the new era that is before us in mind, our time together ended with a number of discussions about how this group of Camping Executives and the newly formed UMCRM Association might successfully lead and resource United Methodist Camp and Retreat Centers. What will it look like for UMCRM to prepare all levels of leadership for a new era of reaching new people, preparing new and young Directors, and filling the newly formed gaps in Conference level leadership? What will it look like for United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries to find its place in this changing world?
Jessica Gamaché currently serves the church through her position as Camping Coordinator in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. She understands the importance of giving young people a chance to step away from the struggles of everyday life and to be immersed in an intentional Christian community with faith-strong mentors, while surrounded by the beauty of God’s Creation.