Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Training Camp Leaders in a Pandemic

I have been training young adults in the setting of camp ministry most of my life. In the beginning, I was quick to repeat what I was always told: “Camp is for the camper!” Mostly, we said that to make sure our staff didn’t have too much fun and miss the reason they were there. But I quickly began to see that the ones who were most vitally impacted by the camp environment were the young adults who came to serve there. Many of you might say that your summers of serving at camp were some of the most transformative times of your life.

Half a dozen years ago, I met a camper I will call Sam. He was known for his eagerness to be talked into any crazy stunt for attention and usually finished up by taking off his shirt at the most inappropriate times, like in the middle of the dining hall. Sam wanted to be a cabin leader, and the director gave him the opportunity despite the misgivings of many, including parents of campers. He and his campers had a rough start, but I saw that they loved him and that - in his unique way - he loved them too. 

Today, Sam is working in a high school with at-risk kids and is about to marry a great girl who is also a teacher. I would trust Sam with my grandchildren, if my kids would hurry up and have some. How on earth did that transformation take place, I sometimes wonder. I know that it was largely God at work through the ministry of camp. Sam has become the kind of person I would want my grandkids to become, and so I would be glad to have them spend some time together.

Most of you would agree that leadership training is included in the mandate of your ministry. But what is it that we hope to accomplish with these young leaders? Is it that they gain the necessary skills and training to follow our policies? Certainly, but that is not enough. I want to propose to you that the goal is that your leaders become the kind of people you want your campers to become. 

I also want to suggest that much of the discipleship training we will talk about can and should be continued despite the limitations of the pandemic. We “can” do this because there are so many ways to connect these days, and we “should” give time to this training because discipleship is what we do. If we can’t disciple kids as well as we would like, we can at least disciple their leaders.

The Apostle Paul summed up his ministry like this: “[Christ] is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29). Paul was not satisfied with well-informed church-goers. He saw his ministry as formative. He was shaping and molding people into the image of Jesus, by the power of God.

At the end of 1 Cor 10 and the start of chapter 11, Paul talks about the principles that inform our moral choices and says of himself, “I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul describes his ministry in the language of discipleship. Christian discipleship is to follow Jesus to become like Jesus and join him in his work. Paul inserts himself into that process. He says, follow me – become like me and join me in my work – and by doing so, you will follow the Jesus I follow. You know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions and sufferings. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.

Young men such as Timothy and Titus and Mark did just that. We see them fearful and faltering at first, but then as they come under Paul’s example, they catch his vision and become useful ministers of the Gospel. They become like Paul, and in doing so, become like Jesus. Others begin to follow these young guys and girls, and they become like Jesus too. That is how disciples are made.

The discipleship of your camp leaders is an essential part of your ministry because it is disciples who produce disciples. If the distinctive of Christian camp ministry is that we make disciples of Jesus Christ, the place to begin is to find and develop disciples who can make disciples, who can make disciples.

In training up young leaders, it makes sense to follow the example of the Master Disciple-Maker, Jesus. I observe several components to his program of discipleship that take place in this order, but that also happen simultaneously.

1. Choosing

Jesus was selective in finding disciples, and his choices were surprising. Have you seen the miniseries “The Chosen” yet? Each episode develops the imagined character of Jesus’s disciples, and you wonder why on earth he chooses these guys. What I observe about Jesus and his choice of disciples can be applied to the camp setting.

  • Who will do the choosing of your leaders? Whoever it is has a vital role in their discipleship, which means a high level of spiritual maturity is crucial. If you delegate this role, choose carefully! 
  • Look for spiritual hunger, for those who are aware of their spiritual poverty. You have no shortage of young leaders who are spiritually poor! The effects of secular schooling, social pressures, and limited fellowship in this time of COVID are creating a spiritual crisis. And perhaps that is what God has in mind. I believe young adults are desperately hungry right now, and some are realizing that their hunger is for God.
  • Look for people who are committed to camp, not just interested in camp. Motive matters to God, and it matters to your ministry. If your leaders don't have a fire within them, you will forever have to light a fire beneath them. What are they giving up to be at camp? What are they willing to do to support the overall ministry of your camp?
  • Watch for character over experience and skill. It matters much more who they are than what they know or what they can do! 
  • Remember that the whole idea is for your campers to become like your leaders as they become like Jesus. Will you be happy if campers become like this potential staff person? Look for people after God's own heart, even if – like King David – they are pretty raw material to begin with.

2. Teaching

This is the part many of us find most difficult. How can we do staff training in the midst of a pandemic? What do our leaders need to know? And by what methods can we teach our leaders in these difficult times? Thankfully, this is the one component of the five that we can delegate away, often to the advantage of both the leader and the supervisor. There are quality resources and effective modes of communication available to us today, and these resources are accessible like never before. We will talk about some examples, but first, what is the content we need to teach young camp leaders?

Jesus’s parable about the sower and the seed shows us that though people hear and receive the Gospel, only some apply faith to what they have received. The rest is stolen or withered or choked away due to poor environments and adverse conditions. 

Contrast this with Paul’s use of the metaphor in 1 Cor 3: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” God has given believers a role in providing the conditions for spiritual growth. Only God can make someone grow, but we can provide an environment that is conducive to the growth of God’s word in someone’s heart. 

Unlike the state of agriculture in the Middle East in New Testament times, camp can be an awesome environment for the word of God to form and grow in people’s lives. Your camper leaders need instruction to be great farmers! Tell them what they need to know to create the environment and conditions needed for spiritual growth. There is much that young adults seem to be expected to know without anyone telling them:

  • Do they accurately know the Gospel and how to tell the story of Jesus? 
  • Do they know how to help campers feel at ease when they first arrive?
  • Do they know what it takes to build appropriate relationships with kids younger than themselves? 
  • Can they communicate their enthusiasm for the natural setting of your camp and instill a sense of wonder in campers?
  • Have they ever been responsible to offer hospitality to people outside their own circle?
  • What do they understand about intercessory prayer? Do they know you hope they prayed faithfully for their campers before they arrived?
  • Do they know how to respond in times of crisis, not just first aid but how to comfort, listen, instill hope, point them to Jesus?

3. Showing

How you interact with your leaders will inform their interaction with campers. What they see in you, you will discover in them. That can be scary, but camp is a huge opportunity to show rather than simply tell. “Showing” starts before your leaders arrive at camp

  • When you promptly answer their communications with you, they learn valuable lessons in consideration, interest and affirmation. They learn what it feels like to be cared for that way.
  • Use the interview to encourage and challenge your prospective staff. Show an interest in their story, be ready to listen and care. Offer help with church connections and spiritual disciplines.
  • Your leaders need to see their supervisors in action at camp. Be a playing coach, one who is willing to do any task or activity you expect of your leaders
  • Be kind and considerate in your delegation and direction. 
  • Treat your leaders like you would want to be treated – that was the bottom line for Jesus with his disciples.
  • Be fair and consistent when making broad decisions that affect your leader’s well-being
  • When you stop in passing to check in with your leaders, always pray with them 

4. Sending

Imagine Jesus sending off seventy disciples to multiply his work around the countryside. Most of these had not even made the cut to be one of his twelve, and the twelve themselves were enough of a headache! What was Jesus thinking? At some point, you need to let leaders lead, mistakes and all.

  • Trust their training – why would you not let them use what they have learned? They will not truly learn until they have tried it out, which includes an element of failure
  • Trust their good sense and moral character. Young adults are often more capable than we give them credit for, especially when given the freedom to make choices and find their own way.
  • Pray hard, and get others praying. This is not a cop-out; prayer is essential to their success.
  • Stay out of the way, be quick to affirm and slow to step in. As soon as you step in to “fix” a situation young leaders have got themselves into, the learning is limited. Do so only when necessary.

5. Paracleting

“Parakaleo” is a Greek word that means “called alongside,” and is translated several ways in the NT: comfort, advocate, encourage, admonish, urge, console, exhort. It is the description Jesus uses of the Holy Spirit who was about to indwell the disciples. Jesus calls him “another Counselor of the same kind,” meaning that Jesus was also a paraclete and he was sending the Holy Spirit to them after their departure to carry on his work.

  • First, your leaders desperately need this Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to empower them for their work. He has gifted them in unique ways, and they need to bear his fruit. Remember, they can only provide the conditions for campers to grow spiritually. You can’t grow plants by pulling on them. The Spirit alone makes people grow.
  • You also can be a paraclete to your young leaders, one who comes alongside. Some of this takes place on-site at your camp, as described in the “Showing” section, as you are available to encourage or confront. But camp leaders especially are in need of a paraclete after the camp experience, like the Holy Spirit was for the disciples after Jesus left. 
  • Often camp staff are out of mind as soon as they leave our gates, as there is a host of responsibilities to attend to after the summer. But the transition back into the world after camp can be very difficult for young adults, and it provides an opportunity to extend your discipleship of them.

A study led by Sid Koop a couple years ago showed that for those leaving home and entering post-secondary in another town, only 17% will find a church that year. That goes up to 70% if they had a mentor who continues to journey with them for three months after high school grad. Catch that? July, August AND September. Of course, mentoring is not something you can do on your own. But you can help line up fellow paracletes with young camp leaders to see them through this transition. 


I want you to notice that paracleting after camp is something we can do in spite of COVID, or maybe even better because of COVID. We can also choose leaders, teach them, show them, perhaps even send them in new and creative ways. These are trying times, but times have usually been trying. In perhaps the most trying time of the Apostle Paul’s life, and very near the end of it, he said these words to his young protégé, Timothy:


“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8-10).


We might feel chained by the limitations of a global pandemic. Yet the word of God is NOT chained. God has worked in big ways through camp ministry in Canada for the past hundred years or so. But the camp ministry that we feel so nostalgic about now was once innovative, new and daring. What will the work of God look like in 2021? 


Can I suggest that a big part of it will be the discipleship of the young leaders we have watched grow up through the ranks at camp? Like Jesus, will you seek them out, find creative ways to teach them, show them the way of Jesus through your interactions with them, discover new ways to send them out, and come alongside to encourage and challenge them in their walk and service? 


Let’s keep striving to become like Jesus and join him in his work!