Camp speakers are unique people in the Christian camping world. They parachute into camp for a week and become the focus of spiritual instruction and pastoral care. Speakers can rarely get through a meal without deep spiritual conversations or impromptu counseling sessions. They become the brunt of upfront shenanigans, stay in that “special cottage” and often sigh when they receive their honorarium check (or just a free T-shirt!). Many people consider camp a holiday for a speaker, since he or she only works for half an hour twice a day. But those people probably think the same thing of their pastors. Camp speaker is a difficult and taxing role.
Where did we get the idea of having a camp speaker? This is a tradition that goes back to the revival tent meetings of the 19th century, when farmers and tradespeople would gather to listen to itinerant preachers while camped out around the big top. Back in the early 20th century, the church combined these events with the growing interest in outdoor recreation schools to form what we know as Christian camping today. Most Christian camps have a time in the day devoted to worship and the word of God, communicated in an engaging and relevant way by a camp speaker.
Prepping the camp speaker is a delicate issue. You want to respect the speaker’s calling, gifting, experience and expertise. It may seem an insult to tell them how to do their job. But have you considered how seldom outside of camp your speakers are called on to present the Gospel to kids with an invitation to respond? Perhaps their only examples of this task have been at camp. We could easily self-perpetuate methods that are dated and ineffective.
Something shrivels up inside me when I am sitting around the campfire with dozens of campers—many from no church background—and the camp speaker begins to weave his magic. We have already primed the pump with action songs followed by emotional worship. Our eyes are on the fire, stars fill the sky, we are among fast-made friends. Where will the camp speaker take us? I don’t know, and it makes me nervous. Too often they have told stories about a camper who drowned the next day and lost his chance. Or used incomprehensible catch-phrases like “asking Jesus into my heart” or “receiving Jesus as Lord and Saviour” (try and find those in your Bible). I wonder also what it really means when a camper raises her hand, with every head bowed and every eye closed.
Have you ever fervently wished you had talked this over with the camp speaker before that night?
Here are some thoughts about how to do that diligently and respectfully:
1. Invest time when choosing camp speakers. You are right - speakers are sometimes hard to find. It may go along with what I already said about how demanding and thankless this role can be. But when you locate speakers whom you know are already on the same page as your ministry, you have made the best step toward their success in your setting. Stick with your tried and true speakers, because campers don’t mind hearing the same stories for the two to three years before they move on. Don’t be afraid to retire the tried and tired speaker, or the one who has consistently missed the mark. Be careful with referrals - how will you know if they will suit your ministry unless you hear them yourself? If you must delegate the job of finding speakers, choose someone who clearly understands your expectations and the tenor of your camp.
2. Write up a job description or list of expectations for this role. Sending something official to a speaker makes it less like a personal insult. Many of you already have such a document in place, and I read some of them online. I have to say that I found them to be quite general, which makes me think we are a little afraid of camp speakers. Do your speakers a favour - give them more to go by, and do it well in advance:
- What is your theme, and how do you expect it to be incorporated? What is the focus?
- What do you anticipate the speaker’s typical day to look like?
- What is expected outside of chapel times?
- What is okay/not okay? Secular music clips? Use of phone/tablet for notes or as a Bible?
- Where do your campers come from, socially and spiritually? Percentage of church/non-church?
- How deep do you want to go? Gospel only? Discipleship?
- What are the summer staff expecting of the speaker?
- How do you want the Gospel message to be framed?
- What are the best ways to allow campers to respond to the Gospel presentation in your setting?
- Are there expectations about memory verses, or discussion guides for cabin leaders?
- What is happening just before and after they speak?
- Do they have a copy of the week’s schedule and special events?
- Are there camp traditions they may not know?
- What is your camp’s theological orientation?
3. Have a conversation. Especially if this is a speaker you never heard in action before, have a personal conversation by phone or in person. Tell them about your camp. Have them tell you their story. See if they have any recorded demo talks. Talk about your theme. Ask them to share the Gospel message with you as they understand it, using the language they would use with your campers. This is not a time to critique or correct, but do take notes. It is appalling that we interview our cabin leaders but go by recommendation for speakers. Do your homework. Make a decision.
4. Ask for a plan. You don’t need a transcript or even an outline from your speaker. Many of them like to get to know the campers and see how the week plays out before finalizing their talks. But if they give you a plan of how they intend to approach the week, it means that they have a plan, and now you know they have a plan. Much better than the alternative.
5. Plan for your speaker. “It is great when camps plan their schedule so that if God moves in sessions there is a space and a way for kids to process or debrief what God is doing in their hearts” (Randy Carter, Straight Talk Ministries). A dance party scheduled immediately following the speaker’s Gospel presentation is perhaps an indication that we don’t really expect God to show up in chapel.
6. Let the speaker talk with your staff. If your cabin leaders and other staff know where your speaker is headed that day with the sessions, it prepares them to have conversations with campers in that same direction.
7. Pray with the speaker, every time. When it comes down to it your speaker is an ordinary person like you, in need of grace. I have often made a point of pulling the speaker aside for a moment during that last song, asking God to do what only he can do. I can tell how much it is appreciated, and often in the next twenty minutes I get to watch unfold the very things I requested.
Camp speaker is a tough job, but often very rewarding. Of all the many roles I have filled at camp, it might be the best. You can help make it so this summer for your speakers, by preparing the stage for God to do his work through them.
(Published originally in the May 2016 Newsletter of the Fellowship of Christian Camps in BC)