An Insider’s Guide to Summer Camp
Katelyn came to camp dressed in black, with a mood that matched her dark lipstick. She wasn’t there by choice—it was her mom’s idea. The first few days of camp were packed with activities and fun, but Katelyn told everyone she was bored. During morning worship she stared at the ground and refused to participate. But just when it seemed impossible that we would be able to reach her, Katelyn began to change. With help from her cabinmates, Katelyn’s black clothes were replaced with brightly colored outfits. She started to smile and then to laugh. By Friday she was singing worship songs at the top of her lungs and wishing she didn’t have to go home. At the end of the week, Katelyn’s mom arrived at the camp to take Katelyn home, but she couldn’t find her daughter in the crowd. For a moment she thought Katelyn must have run away, but then she looked again. In a corner of the room was a beautiful girl surrounded by laughing friends—she had a look of pure joy on her face. It was Katelyn. In seven short days Katelyn had transformed.
Every summer, youth groups pile into buses and vans and make the long journey to camp. The students go for the fun and adventure—youth leaders go because we hope and pray our teens will have a life-changing encounter with Christ. But transformation of our youth doesn’t occur just because we show up—it takes intentional planning. As a camp director for the past 11 summers, I’ve seen hundreds of lives dramatically changed through the ministry of camp. Youth leaders play a vital role in this transformation process. Here are a few tips to consider as you prepare for this summer’s camp experience:
1) Transformation begins with prayer.
Long before you load your students onto buses, spend time praying for each of them by name. Ask God to reveal himself to your students during their week of camp. Camps are located in peaceful, natural settings, but they’re ground zero in the battle for the soul. Don’t expect to win any victories without tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit.
2) Don’t be afraid to disconnect.
One of the ways transformation occurs at camp is through the creation of temporary communities. By isolating campers from their home environments and establishing communities built around a set of shared values and experiences, camps maximize the opportunities for change. For this purpose, many camps ask that cell phones and other digital devices be left at home. While it may seem challenging to you and to your students, disconnection will be one of the greatest gifts you receive during your stay.
3) The first 48 hours are crucial.
During the first 48 hours at camp, teens determine whether or not this new experience works for them. They test and evaluate their surroundings through a variety of questions: Do I like the food? Do I get along with my cabinmates? Do the camp staff unconditionally accept me? Once a camper feels comfortable, he or she will open up to the possibility of transformation. But if a camper doesn’t feel safe or accepted, the opportunity for growth and change is lost. During the first two days of camp, help campers establish a routine and connect with each other and with their surroundings. Check in with each of them at least two to three times a day to ask how they’re doing. Keep an eye out for campers who remain on the fringes, and seek to draw them back into the group.
4) Create a safe space.
Transformation can only occur in an environment of trust and safety. You may have fond memories of running your cabinmate’s underwear up the flagpole when you were a camper, but pranks, practical jokes, and other forms of bullying are destructive to the transformative process. Find ways to build a sense of community and trust within your campers. Affirmation, teamwork, and authentic sharing create a positive, grace-filled environment where God can work.
5) Facilitate the week.
Remember that you’re the curator of your teens’ week of camp. It’s your job to help them reflect on their experience and what it means for their lives. Look for teachable moments throughout the day, and help your campers unpack the meaning of those moments. One of the simplest facilitation techniques is to take time at the close of every day to help your campers identify the most significant moment they’ve experienced and have them name it. Giving a name to that experience helps campers own it and understand how it has changed them.
6) Prepare students to return home.
As the facilitator of the week, it’s important that you prepare your campers to return home. All week they’ve been changing, but their friends and family likely have remained the same. This can create conflict when those teens reenter their communities. Campers need to be prepared to reintegrate into their surroundings, or the changes that occurred at camp will be lost. Help your campers process how their lives will be different when they return home. Ask them to list the obstacles they will face, and tell them about support networks they can access to aid in their continued growth.
7) Follow up.
What happens after camp is over is just as important as camp itself. Decisions made at camp need to be celebrated and supported at home or they’ll have no lasting impact. Inform parents of decisions their children made at camp. Give parents tips and tools to support their children’s transformation. At the first church service after camp, bring your students up front and celebrate the transformations that occurred in their lives. Invite the congregation to pray for them. Connect your students to local resources that can aid in their continued growth. Invite your students to set goals for the next six months, and offer to hold them accountable for carrying out these action steps. This active follow-up will ensure that what happened at camp will grow into a life-long transformation.
David Yeagley is the youth director for the Washington Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists and the director of Sunset Lake Camp, a year-round residential camp in Wilkeson, Washington. He has been involved in summer camp ministry for more than 30 years. When not at camp, he can be found hiking at Mount Rainier National Park with his family.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.