Deputy Director, Transition Ministry
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
On Wednesday, June 14, training for the Shrine Mont Camps directors began. On June 16, the rest of the camp leadership staff – program directors, assistant directors and camping directors – joined them. On Sunday the 18th, the 70-some cabin staff of all nine Shrine Mont Camps kicked off staff week in earnest.
On June 24 and 25, Explorers’ the Great, MAD, St. Andrew’s, St. Sebastian’s, and St. George’s greeted the first campers of summer 2017. From there, camp was off to its unstoppable pace—fast and slow, with its long days and short weeks—and before we know it 700+ campers will experience Shrine Mont Camps, a community unlike any other I’ve seen in this beautiful world of ours.
I was invited up from the diocesan offices in Richmond to sit in on part of directors’ training at Shrine Mont.
In my work for the bishop’s office, I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s needed to create a lively, thriving Christian community. Here’s my non-exhaustive, un-scientific list of the necessary pieces:
- Mission: Compelling, clearly articulated mission and purpose.
- Leadership: Leaders who are confident and humble, who are willing to learn and share responsibility, who are not afraid to speak the truth in love.
- Limitations: The community is aware of what it is not equipped to do.
- Best Practices: The leadership sets reasonable, realistic policies and procedures to attend to safety and the daily work without detracting from the mission.
- Value & Recognition: Every member feels valued and recognized for their contribution.
- Regeneration: Members have a clear path to leadership (if they’re called to it), they are trained for the work, and invite new people in to the community.
- Faith & Worship: The community comes together in regular worship and prayer. And, crucially, accepts its members wherever they are in their journey—creating space for relationship with God rather than expectations of what that relationship should look like.
From 2007-2010, I worked as a cabin counselor for three years and an assistant director for one, which means I experienced four staff weeks and one leadership training, but the directors’ training was new territory for me.
The agenda for the last session with Paris Ball and the nine directors was “1. God, 2. Crisis, & 3. Lots of Little Details” It was immediately clear to me that Paris was leading a master class on how to create Christian community.
During “God”, Paris prefaced the conversation by saying their job is to create space for their counselors to encounter God, and for the counselors to do the same for their campers. She said plainly that the object was to allow growth rather than make believers.
She had three questions for the directors:
- As a director, what do you see as your role in your counselors’ faith journey?
- What are some simple ways to make and acknowledge that this is a holy place?
- What about your staff members coming from different places in their faith journey?
Their responses to the questions came from their unique backgrounds and personalities, but spoke to a unified understanding of the work ahead of them. Here are some of the things I heard (paraphrasing):
“Be open and listen, and ask the same of your counselors.”
“Pray for your staff. Tell them you’re praying for them.”
“Begin staff meetings with quiet. ‘Arrive before you start’: put both feet on the ground, know where you are, and center yourselves.”
“Provide framework and explanation for the work we’re doing.”
“Claim your spiritual authority. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘We’re all family in this place and that’s not how we do things here.’”
“Remind them that God loves them.”
After the conversation about creating holy space, we moved to “Crisis”. Paris shared the emergency action plan with her directors, and went over the procedures in the event that something that put campers and staff in danger. God willing, there won’t ever be a need for the plan, but any worried parent should rest assured that every director and counselor knows what to do if the need arises.
Next up in the directors’ training session was “Lots of Little Details.” Paris listed the details to remember, before, during and after a camp session. The directors discussed them and offered wisdom from their wealth of experience. What struck me about this discussion is that these little details lead towards some of the most important work at Shrine Mont Camp: letting parents know their child will be safe and healthy at camp, planning for a successful transition between sessions, updating Paris and the Vienna House staff on what’s going on in the lives of their staff, learning from each session so camp can get more awesome, every day and every year.
* * *
Later that evening, I gave a presentation to a group of lay leaders [not involved with camp] on trends in clergy transitions and the ordination process. One of the slides detailed the reasons why the Diocese of Virginia has one of the largest ordination processes in the The Episcopal Church at a time where many dioceses are ordaining fewer priests every year.
One of the bullet points read: Shrine Mont Camps.
I told the group that because of our camp chaplains, when I was a counselor I got an up-close look at about 20 models of clergy leadership before I was 22 years old, not including the churches where I grew up. I had experience creating spiritual community for youth and young adults. I planned worship services and led others in planning.
Three of our diocese’s seminarians are former camp counselors. Right now there are close to 10 former camp staff discerning a call to ordination. On diocesan staff, I’ve worked with nine camp staff alumni. Many of the current diocesan staff send their children to camp. Around 18 clergy and lay professionals serve as chaplains every summer and return to their own communities enlivened by their experiences. Countless others who worked at camp chose helping professions, or teaching, or just being a better person in whatever field they chose.
But it’s important to point out that camp isn’t a means to an end. Camp isn’t a recruiting vehicle or a training ground. We don’t draw people away from camp. Camp sends people out in to the world, and beckons them back again—like a perpetual Eucharistic feast. More important than all of the leadership models I saw and “applicable experience” I gained is this: I hiked, swam, played, learned and slept for two months a year as part of a community who loved me – flaws and all – in the sight of a loving, joyful God.
Shrine Mont Camps isn’t a means to an end; it’s a means to the Kingdom of Heaven.
* * *
Before the last directors’ training session finished, Chris Pace, director of St. Sebastian’s, asked the group to take a moment to pray for the program/assistant/camping directors, who would be arriving that day. Another director pointed out that Chris had asked them to pray around the time that those folks would be getting in their cars to drive up to Shrine Mont.
This small, glorious community of faith had been established once again for the summer, and it was ready to draw that circle wider.