“I’ve never known anyone who came to Christ because they lost an argument ... our job is to have the conversation.”
Rather than serving in a traditional parish setting for the required eight-week, full-time program, Connor acts as the in-residence spiritual leader for dozens of college-aged camp counselors. Because those counselors are themselves serving as spiritual leaders to hundreds of campers, the impact of Connor’s ministry this summer spreads diocesan- and even nation-wide.
In ministering to summer campers and their counselors, Connor is, in a sense, paying it forward: “I was formed at summer camps,” Connor said. “I can trace so much of my relationship to God to summer camps at [the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast’s] Camp Beckwith. My earliest and most vivid feelings of call – God’s call – were at summer camp. And my call to ministry was first articulated to a summer camp chaplain.”
Sitting in on a recent hour-long chaplain’s time with a group of about a dozen campers and their counselors, I could see, firsthand, the impact Connor makes on teenagers and their millennial-generation counselors. I’ve been in ordained ministry for over twenty years, including four years as a youth pastor, and so I’ve sat through or conducted hundreds of presentations and Bible studies. Until that session, though, I had never seen someone so artfully, powerfully and gracefully steer a spiritual conversation into deeper and deeper levels until – by the end of the hour – we all not only had a better understanding of the inadequacy of cultural images of God, but a better and richer understanding of biblical images of God.
And all this was done without Connor “teaching” the class in the sense of lecturing, or pouring information into students' ears. Rather, he led them in a conversation, drawing out ideas from their heads and memories while literally drawing out images on a whiteboard.
“I’ve never known anyone who came to Christ because they lost an argument,” Connor told me afterward, when I had a chance to ask about his teaching style. “Changing hearts is the work of God through the Holy Spirit; our job is to have the conversation.”
However, conversations about God while at Shrine Mont are only the start for Connor. His real motivation is to “stop the dichotomy of Shrine Mont verses the ‘real world.’”
“This is the real-est world,” Connor said, “and what we try to do is experience the reality of God so fully here at camp, that we know it and see it better back home. In this community and place, there’s a chance to experience God who is the source of all that is. Here we get a glimpse of reality that is not only possible back home, but is one we should strive for. Camp is not just some getaway to renew, it’s a chance to make the world more like the Kingdom of God, so the ‘real’ we experience here can happen out there, not just at a camp and conference center.”
Over the past several years, more and more Gen X and Millennial-age Episcopalians like Connor are offering themselves for ordained leadership: At Virginia Theological Seminary, the largest accredited Episcopal seminary in the United States, the median age of students pursuing a masters in divinity degree is 34, and 33 percent of the student body are in their 20s. Their 20s.
And the timing of that change – that shift – is good.
You see, there’s a narrative about the Episcopal Church, repeated ad nauseam within our own camp and seized upon by our critics and detractors, that we are a shrinking or even dying institution. Go to almost any Episcopal Church conference in the last 10 years and at some point or another, someone – speaking as if he was the only adult in the room – will solemnly intone statistics about declining growth patterns and decreasing average Sunday attendance, as if criticism were wisdom and being a wet blanket was the same thing as being prophetic.
Next time I’m sitting through one of those doomsday presentations, I think I’m going to raise my hand and ask the speaker if he or she has ever been to Shrine Mont; if he or she has ever attended a closing worship ceremony for St. George’s camp; if they’ve ever met the 20-something counselors spending their summers here; if they’ve ever spent any time with the Connor Gwins – the future ordained leadership – of this Church.
So thank you, Connor. As my friend and colleague the Rev. Mike Kinman said in reflecting on his own years in campus ministry “I have no fear for the future of the Church, because I’ve seen it, and it’s great.”
By John Ohmer
He authored a weekly spiritual advice column titled “Faithfully Yours,” and covered the past four General Conventions as an issues writer for the Diocese of Virginia’s “Center Aisle.” John blogs at Unapologetic Theology.