Tell us about yourself.
I grew up on a family fruit farm in Michigan and volunteered teaching kids at a local nature center. During school I logged a few camp style expeditions in Quetico Provincial Park, thru-hiked the southern 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail in between college semesters, and rock climbed all over the country and beyond. Somewhere in there I got a Bachelor of Science in Recreation and Master of Science in Experiential Education. The week long trips in the Boundary Waters really set me up for a passion for camping, group formation, and experiencing God’s creation. If I can include working seasonal summer and environmental education seasons, I’ve served at camps in: MI, NH, WA, NC, UT, MN, VA, OK, SC, and CO. Every one of those had something special, and I’ve been able to steal and adapt from things I learned and experienced in each place. The UMCRM sites were Buckhorn Camp (Colorado), where I currently serve, Asbury Hills, SC, and Lazy F Camp, WA.
Can you say a bit more about your family?
My wife Marieke and I are blessed with two kids – Lilly and Solon. Marieke and I have worked together at camps across the country. When we came to Buckhorn only I was on staff, but on many occasions you’d find our whole family in the dining hall baking cookies for the weekend. Over the first year we doubled our guest groups and Marieke came on as Co-Director. Not only can we work together as a family, but our kids get to meet so many great people. (I think people tend to be nicer when on retreat!)
Was there a specific turning point in your calling to work in this ministry?
My turning point came when I was just out of college struggling to make Christian faith my own. Accepting Romans and Corinthians was a commitment for me. I was driving a van full of campers somewhere around Pisgah National Forest when one asked me “Who is Jesus to you?” My short answer set my path that I’ve been trying to follow ever since.
How did you get into UMC camps and leave the secular camp world?
Grace. Well, grace and a pay cut. Better yet, grace and a chance to make a difference that’s close to my heart.
At the time my wife and I were running a secular camp in Virginia. I loved the programming, retention and enrollment seemed effortless, and we did our best to bring in virtue-based elements (“character values”). The natural world experienced through camp is much too powerful a tool to stop at “character.” We’re immersed in God’s creation and it would be a shame to let numinous faith developing experiences go unrecognized.
Tell us about your time at Buckhorn?
Buckhorn Camp has been an adventure. We left a thriving UMC camp (Asbury Hills in SC) and came into a mountain top camp that was destroyed by Colorado’s High Park Fire. The forest fire had taken 3 cabins, 2 barns, a house, shower house, water storage, arts and crafts building and left 160 acres of dead standing trees. The fire even melted the fish tank inside the director’s house! We had many friends and family members think we were nuts to move.
God so blessed the camp with the fire. First came mission teams and “salt of the earth” volunteers who made the transformation possible. Depressing ruins turned into breathtaking views. What was a forested camp became a mountaintop high country ranch and “thin space” where you can’t help but feel closer to God. Views turned into photos, photos into guests, and radical Christian hospitality into a full calendar. We’re now blessed with a crazy busy summer calendar, and our retreat season not only has weekend groups but environmental education during the weekdays.
Challenge-wise, we started “ma and pa” style, doing all the cooking and cleaning ourselves. Now we’re trying to keep up with growth and find time for family and sleep. That and fire insurance proceeds are about to start making a difference as new buildings come on line.
What assets does UMCRM have that are helping move these ministries forward?
Besides Kevin Witt?
Wow, has our National Gathering gotten good! I’m sure many of you remember not too many years back where innovation wasn’t something seen at our National Conference. The 2015 Epworth By the Sea Gathering not only brought great worship, but modern workshops worth attending. I can’t wait for the next one!
Describe some challenges in your ministry right now.
Competing with secular camps. Church camp isn’t perceived as “cool.” Parents buy benefits, not just experiences. Common session rates in camping ministry are grossly below those of secular camps, which to me suggests less value. Some church camps put out an inferior, lazy, #that’sthewaywe’vealwaysdoneit camp product that can damage all of our reputations. On the flip side, it might just be me, but it feels like when we are making the most impact and seeing the most growth the greatest difficulties arise. If there is not adversity, chances are we are being stagnant.
What significant changes have you seen over the years in camp ministry?
I perceive the ‘60s camping boom is continuing to fade. Denominational camps are increasingly taken for granted, and aren’t seen as a vital link in faith formation. Rising non-denominational churches are finding significant value in the benefits of camp, but often lack the size to start their own. There is greater emphasis on faith in action and service.
What nuggets of wisdom have you learned that you would pass on to new leadership?
Really new leadership should steal as many good ideas as they can from other places. Once you get settled in, though, copying other ideas only goes so far. Got a cross? Gaga pit? Campfire? Generic summer curriculum? Yup. Any camp and retreat center worth its salt sits on an amazing piece of God’s creation. God made it special for a reason. Centers are not just a ministry; they are a place-based ministry. Look at your setting, the natural history, and the community you serve. Dig deep to recognize what God has provided, the character and needs of the community, and develop new and innovative ministry opportunities accordingly.
Favorite verse/passage/story that embodies your call/ministry
My favorite scripture behind camping ministry is the second half of Psalm 121:1-2 “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
My favorite camping verse is John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”
What is your vision for the future of C&R ministry?
One of the beautiful parts about camp is that kids are able to recreate themselves each summer into the person they want to be. Faith can be an integral part of the new identity they create – the person we are in Christ. Today our identity is getting more complicated than ever.
In the near future I see a renewal in the value and benefit of camp and retreat ministries. More than ever we’ll need, and thirst for, real connections in a positive, supportive faith environment. If you come to camp, you can be yourself, be surrounded by good, friendly, real people, be able to share in faith, in fellowship, in fun, and not be alone.
Thanks for helping us get to know you, Ryan! We are grateful for your ministry. And special thanks to Joan Thorson, who volunteers with the UMCRM Communications Team and who conducted the interview. – Ed.