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Power of camp experiences, camperships likely to overcome economic downturn

Even though the economic downturn and cultural trends slowed registrations for area church camps during May, most area managers and directors anticipate numbers will pick up and be near normal.

Camp Cross
Youth and children interact at Camp Cross.

Camps are less costly than other vacation and child-care options, plus most congregations provide camperships—camp scholarships—to help cover the costs for children and youth.

“Camp scholarships are key to keeping up participation regardless of campers’ ability to pay,” said Bruce Christensen of Camp MiVoden on Hayden Lake.

The national and regional Seventh-Day Adventist Church, he said, provide “strong support” because camp experiences are such “powerful tools” for drawing children and youth to commit to ongoing lives of faith, he said.

The support is similar for other churches.

Scholarships make it possible for low-income children to participate, so “funding should not prevent children from coming,” said Maureen Cosgrove, the new director at Camp Cross, the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane’s camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Brian White of Twinlow, the United Methodist Camp on Spirit Lake, said “families may be able to go to camp even if they can’t afford a vacation.”

Camps are life-changing

Beyond financial concern, “we pray for strong attendance because we are passionate about the impact a week at a Christian camp has in the lives of children and youth,” said Andy Sonneland, director of the Presbyterian Camp Spalding on Davis Lake.  He expects numbers to approach the 2008 record of 1,608 campers.

Camp gives time away from “the culture’s noise” in God’s creation with “fun, young adult role models excited about their faith.” It gives campers time to consider what their lives would be like “if lived more closely with Jesus Christ,” he said.

Camps are geared to excite youth about church and connect campers to local churches.

Every inch holds memories

Randy Crowe, managing director at N-Sid-Sen on Lake Coeur d’Alene, said he expects a good year for both United Church of Christ and other users.

“Camp is an extension of local church Christian education programs in a safe, nurturing environment,” where “every inch of the camp holds memories for returning campers,” he said. “They experience worship, learn and explore surprises in God’s creation.  It’s hard not to be moved to faith in a place like this.”

Camps develop a moral base

Jeff Potts said the Salvation Army’s Camp Gifford on Deer Lake offers affordable weekly camp experiences for about 1,000 children—14 teens at a wilderness camp, and 120 seven- to 12-year-olds in the youth camp.

“We talk with children about creating a moral platform for making good choices in life and understand that the Creator has a purpose for their lives,” he said.  “We also help them understand the consequences of their choices.”

When campers return as volunteers, staff mentor them to “a more profound faith,” said Jeff, who has been director for 16 years.  “In a recent survey, 80 percent of parents said the camp had a positive impact on their children’s behavior.”

Children love coming to camp

Marta Walker, administrative assistant at Ross Point Camp in Post Falls, Idaho, an American Baptist camp, is upbeat about the upcoming season, because “children love coming to camp, and the parents value that we provide a life-changing experience.” 

Like directors at other camps, she sees youth coming year after year and then stepping into leadership roles, returning because they have become “mission minded” and seek “to reach out to others with God’s love.”

When N-Sid-Sen recently dedicated a new lodge with a large meeting space, the Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, pastor of Eagle Harbor United Church of Christ in Bainbridge Island, spoke of the influence of multi-generational, life-long camping on her and her family.  She and her husband, John, have been camping since they were children. Over the years, they brought their now grown children to family camps.

“Camp is a holy place where we connect with family and friends outside the rat race, share tender moments, connecting with them and with God,” she said. “Even when I’m not at camp, it’s a place I can go in my mind to restore my soul.”

Camps collaborate

The region’s church camps operate collaboratively, rather than as competing businesses.

Inland Northwest camp managers and directors keep connected out of solidarity for their common work.  Because each camp has a unique niche, they share planning ideas and resources, even making referrals when space is full on a given date or if they know another camp can better accommodate a group.

“Our unity of purpose trumps any competitive issues of our operations as businesses, said Andy at Camp Spalding.  “We genuinely wish to see each other’s camp ministries flourish.”

In February, he met in Portland with camp representatives from around the whole Northwest.  At that gathering, they discussed some dynamics denominational camps face: 1) a declining pool of potential campers in aging congregations, 2) fewer parents sending children out of denominational loyalty and 3) a malaise among youth toward church.

While camps in some areas are closing, Inland Northwest churches continue their commitment to and investment in camping. 

The trends are not definitive, as Marta at Ross Point observed:  “Generally numbers have been fluctuating and declining as American Baptist members age and there are fewer youth, but recently some aging churches have reached out to their communities.  They have more families with children coming to camp.”

Camps expand programs

Each camp continues to build activities and adventures, while relying on the typical water and nature-based activities around which worship, crafts, campfires, small-group, and large gatherings build community.

water adventures
Water activities are a tradition, but new adventure with a "blob" is captures in time-release photo from Camp Spalding.

“As people relax, recreate and worship in the camp setting, they rejuvenate and are energized by creative activities,” said Brian at Twinlow, which will add a handbell camp.

Many camps have also broadened their scope to host camps, retreats and conferences for other community groups all year—inviting young people in churches with no camps and whose families do not attend church.

For 2009, Zephyr is offering two camps for children and youth related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the area, but it reaches out regularly to fill its lodge and cabins with people in women’s, men’s and youth groups from other denominations.

From early spring through late fall, religious and civic organizations use the grounds for camping, retreats, camps, seminars, reunions, study groups, classes and other activities.  Last year, every weekend from April to mid October was booked.

Camp Cross, which is open seasonally, plans a reunion for alumni and friends, retreats for other groups and family reunions.

Camps build for the future

MiVoden plans a 10-year building program to expand its capacity by 140 to 390, not just to accommodate large groups, but also to accommodate four to five mini camps, retreats or reunions simultaneously.  It will build 12 duplex cabins for summer campers, upgrade dorms to family-style units, and build a new cafeteria and gym, said Bruce.

N-Sid-Sen recently finished phase two of a 14-year dream, dedicating a new lodge with a large meeting room, a welcome center, offices and a labyrinth painted on the floor.

Bob Baker, executive director at Lutherhaven Ministries, said Camp Lutherhaven is dedicating its newly remodeled Zoerb Chapel on Sunday, June 7.  “The $750,000 project doubles the size of the historic center for worship and gathering, winterizes the building and adds audio and visual enhancement for the next generation of campers,” he said.

The same day, they are dedicating their new Shoshone Base Camp, purchased from the U.S. Forest Service, after seven years of negotiation.  The $705,000 purchase was made possible by major foundation grants of more than $500,000 and donations from individuals and congregations.

Maintenance and remodeling of buildings is necessary to attract church campers, retreat groups and other users who keep revenues steady.  Volunteer labor keep maintenance costs low.

To spruce up Camp Cross for 2009, Maureen said 250 students in Gonzaga University’s April’s Angels came there on the weekend of April 26.  The students painted and repaired 40 cabins.

Nico McClellan, manager at Zephyr Conference Center on Liberty Lake, began the season with a work camp to remodel a 1950s outhouse into restrooms for multi-season use.

Some offer adult education

Some retreat centers, like Sorrento Centre in British Columbia or Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth draw adults for educational programs.

In June, Sorrento Centre Retreat and Conference Centre is offering a session for seniors on life after death and continuing education with the Vancouver School of Theology on liturgical and sacramental leadership and skilled listening. Other programs include teen leadership and adventure, poetry, dreams, liturgy, icon painting, watercolor, day hikes and a class on the impact of empires.

The Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth offers classes wool spinning, video production, weaving, ceramics, painting, stained glass, song writing, print making, fabric dyeing and sculpting.  Some participants make art for their churches, said Dan Oberg, director, such as liturgical vestments, stoles, processional crosses, banners, stained glass, communion chalices or baptismal fonts.

Camps have websites

To facilitate promotion and registration, camps have websites appealing to those they seek to serve.  Websites describe the programs, mission, dates, activities and registration details.  They also provide photos and videos to excite potential campers about the setting, water sports, campfires, natural environment and relationships.

For information. visit and click on “Camps and Retreats.”