About to begin his third and final year at Virginia Theological Seminary, Connor Gwin is nearing the end of his first summer as chaplain to the staff at Shrine Mont Camps, a position that’s grown and evolved over the years, reaching a point now where the role is something that counselors and directors depend on by default for their - and their camp's - spiritual health. Connor has been no exception in making this a reality. As chaplain, he's preached, teached and guided counselors and directors through their faith journeys so that they are well equipped to help campers navigate their own journey.
Connor first came to Shrine Mont Camps two years ago to serve as a session chaplain. 2014 marks his second summer at Shrine Mont, but his 13th summer at an Episcopal summer camp.
Connor is the first seminarian and the youngest person ever to serve as chaplain to the staff. In years past, the second summer for any seminarian sent by the Diocese of Virginia was spent doing a parish internship, and most Virginia seminarians are working in parishes this summer. But this year the program that manages the internships (called the Mid-Atlantic Parish Training Program) opened up the internship possibilities to “non-traditional” placements. Which is good, because I have no qualm with saying that Shrine Mont Camps is the most important thing to happen in the Diocese during the summer, not that we're ranking. Connor and I spent twenty minutes prior to the interview below talking shop, which I’ll spare you from. Mostly we talked about the good news that the shift seemed to be happening from referring to camps condescendingly as “the future of the Church” to an active and vital part of the Episcopal Church.
On an especially cool day for Shrine Mont in July, Connor and I sat on the back porch of the Rectory, his home for the summer. Throughout the interview, we could hear St. George’s Camp singing from the upper pavilion on one side and the sounds of folks passing through the Shrine on the other. Connor is calm, self-contained and just a little impish. In reference to the tendency of some Episcopalians to avoid talking about Jesus, Connor said, “Well we wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” and cracked a Cheshire Cat grin. Connor was born in Charlottesville, went to school at JMU, and grew up in Fairhope, Alabama. I’m not dumb enough to attribute his calm demeanor to some kind of slow-talkin’ southern determinism – it probably has a lot more to do with being a centered person – but I will say there’s not much that seems “northern” about him. Often self-effacing, Connor insisted that our interview not be “another article that makes [him] look awesome” referring to the post John Ohmer wrote.
We tried to keep the focus on camp, but I make no promises.
EK: What's your favorite memory as a counselor?
CG: Relationships with campers. Camp Beckwith had nine different sessions, and so over the course of the summer I would interact with 900 campers. Seeing that many campers and that many age groups was really great. Specifically, cabin devotional time was my favorite memory. Which is fitting, and one of the early signs of my call to the priesthood.
EK: What’s a “cabin devotional”?
CG: It’s what we did as a cabin [at Camp Beckwith] at the end of every night before bed – kind of like feeling check. Highs and lows for the day. Then we would do some sort of activity which, on the low preparation side, would be just silence or prayer. On the high preparation side, it would be a Bible study or readings or more directed spirituality. Sometimes the Beckwith chaplain would provide what we were supposed to talk about, but a lot of the times it was on the counselor to prepare that. Another sign that I felt the call back then was that I took to cabin devotional time easily and really enjoyed coming up with lesson plans for it, and how natural and fulfilling that was for me. [Connor grins] I almost said chaplain’s time was my favorite memory, but that seemed like cheating.
EK: What do you think makes a successful camp chaplain?
CG: Presence is the biggest thing. It’s not just about physically being there with camp throughout their day – although that is really important – but you can have chaplains who stand in the back and aren’t fully present. Being available and engaged is really important. Ideally, when a staff member or a camper thinks of a question about theology or spirituality – about deep life questions in general – they think to go to the chaplain with that question.
The portrait that’s coming to mind is – and it goes back to being present – the chaplain that was there and such a part of camp that it just seemed natural to talk with them about emotional and spiritual issues. Authority figures are not necessarily the people you want to talk to about spiritual matters because [authority figures] can seem distant, but if the chaplain is really there, then going to the chaplain is a natural part of the rhythm of camp.
Camp is a different situation for ministry than a parish or a school. I’ve seen chaplains come into camp and treat it like a parish or like they would anything else. There has to be some recognition that this community is just a little different than stuff at home.
EK: What is your favorite part of being chaplain to the staff?
CG: I think it’s being in tune with nine different camp cultures and groups and situations. That’s pretty great. I was thinking about this earlier when St. Elizabeth’s sang the Good Night Song at their closing. I’ve been a part of the Good Night Song with every camp at one point or another. And even if I’m sitting out on my porch reading at night I can hear St. George’s sing at night. The Good Night Song is a very special moments at camp: a time to watch every camp end every day with song and prayer.
I especially love it when I’m there [for the good-night prayer] and counselors pray. Sometimes when they see me there they will ask me to pray by default because I’m the chaplain – which I love to do – but I found my voice, my ministry as a camp counselor and it was from people letting me lead prayers and lead discussions. So I love it when counselors, even seeing that the chaplain is there, will still pray.
EK: What are some of the challenges of being the chaplain to a congregation of 100 plus fully-engaged camp counselors?
CG: The biggest challenge is rooted in the same thing that’s the best part. There are nine different camps with nine different cultures, histories and spirits. There’s the unifying Shrine Mont Camp spirit, but each camp has its own thing. It’s not a huge challenge, but it is a factor in my job to keep the pulse of each camp at any different time. And Paris obviously has to be more intentional about that, logistically and administratively. Knowing when one camp is having a tough time or the entire staff is exhausted.
In a traditional parish you don’t interact with that many people on a given Sunday, but you know the 5-10 people that need special attention. But here there are a lot of people on each staff that have very pressing emotional and spiritual things. Making sure they get the attention and the listening ear that they need can be a challenge.
EK: What do you think it is about camp that makes those needs more present?
CG: A lot of the distraction of daily life is gone here. Not that it’s a distraction free environment; there will still be things drawing a counselor’s attention away on any given day. But there are three meals provided for you, no rent, no cell phones, no internet. Camp snaps into focus the emotional and spiritual things that could be looked past if you had other things to worry about.
EK: What do you think are the benefits of being a counselor?
CG: There’re a lot of different benefits. The practical benefits are working within the leadership structure. Each counselor has different kinds of directors and you have to answer to all of them. The benefit of working on a staff, like Explorers, that’s part of a bigger staff, Shrine Mont Camps. Your camp has its own mission and its own focus, but that’s part of a bigger mission and focus, part of the whole mission of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church. And what may seem like a small job at times is actually part of much bigger thing. Walking with a foot in each of those circles is a good skill to have.
EK: Why do you think it’s important for kids to come to camp?
CG: It’s important for kids to come for a lot of reasons, some practical hands-on reasons, and a lot of emotional, spiritual reasons. There’re less and less opportunities in kids daily lives for kids to do things they do at camp. There is not a ton of time in kids’ schedules now for just pure fun and being with each other. Here at camp they’re not expected to do anything else but be themselves and have fun and enjoy camp, which is growing more and more rare. Practically, it’s a good chance to learn skills that you wouldn’t in your daily life – like pooping in the woods. To live with a group of people who you didn’t select and to make that work and learn to share your space.
It’s the first time for a lot of campers to experience a spiritual setting without their parents or familiar authority figures around. They get to ask questions and explore their faith. A good example is worship planning. Every camper has the opportunity to plan and share in leading a service in the Shrine, which is a good way to give campers ownership over their faith and Church tradition. That’s another benefit for staff, not only are they leading campers, but they’re spiritual leaders as well. It’s really hard to give something or teach something you don’t have yourself. It makes staff figure out what they believe, so they can help the campers figure it out.
EK: How have you equipped counselors for that?
CG: The biggest thing I’ve tried to impart on the staff is that they have the ability to dig through really deep spiritual, theological questions. There’s room within Christianity and the Anglican tradition to ask your own questions and to figure out that we do and don’t believe as a Church; there’s not a lot of top-down, “Here’s the answer to your question.” We put a lot of emphasis on reason and coming to your own answers within the boundaries of Christianity.
What I’ve tried to do, with the exception of tenants and the stuff that make us a creedal Church, is say that if an answer doesn’t work for you that you’ve received at church, it’s okay for you to work through what makes sense for you.
College is notorious as the time when folks who grew up in the Church start asking questions. And when they don’t find the answers they’re looking for in the Church, they don’t go back. Part of what I’ve been trying to do is to let them know what makes us Anglicans is that we think through our theology and our explanations and that thinking through things does not mean a lack of faith. A sign of a vibrant and healthy faith is asking questions and thinking through things. If you tell college students asking these questions that that’s a bad thing or, “There’s no room for that,” there’s no reason for [college students] to stay or come back to church. Because there’s nothing for them there.
EK: So how do your conversations go?
CG: I hear counselors' questions and doubt and leave room for both, while doing things like examining the Nicene Creed [with all the counselors during staff week] and also in one-on-one conversation time with staff members. Not all the time, but often when counselors come to me they’re looking for a certain answer, and what they get instead is the explanation that God won’t be put in a box, and that anyone who is certain about the way that works or the ways of God needs to reconsider. Instead of a certain answer what they’ll get, a lot of the time, is we’ll just sit with the questions and talk through them. I’ve said it couple times: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” We’re not in the business of certainty.
I’ll point counselors to the Prayer Book as a way to explore their doubts and talk about how every single word in the prayer book was thought over and prayed over to be in there; it wasn’t just a room full of bishops saying “Hey, let’s just say X.” But at the same time I recognize that parts of the Prayer Book and the Creeds are what counselors might be struggling with, maybe they see it as rigid or struggle with valid, serious issues like putting gendered language on God. But doubting with the Prayer Book is a really good way to pray – to understand doubt and faith within the Anglican tradition, within our history.
EK: So, what’s the funniest thing that happened to you this summer?
CG: All-camp worship last Sunday. It will stick with me for all time. There was a St. Elizabeth’s camper who had a lot of physical and verbal ticks. One of them was that anytime someone said the word “yes” she was would say “No!” automatically. So during my sermon, every time I said “yes” I would hear the word shouted back, “No!” Later someone explained to me what was happening. But basically after the third shouted “No!” all my homiletics training left my brain. I wonder how many of my colleagues in Mid-Atlantic have had “No!” shouted at them during their sermons this year.
By Ed Keithly
Ed Keithly is the editor of The View from the Mountain. He first came to Shrine Mont as a St. George's camper in 2000, returning in 2007 to work as a counselor. He's worked at Shrine Mont in some capacity every summer since.
In his day job, Ed works as the vocation officer serving the Diocese of Virginia, shepherding future priests and deacons through the discernment and formation process and seeking to strengthen diocesan programs for future leaders of the Church.
Ed graduated from Sewanee in 2010. He lives in the Fan District of Richmond.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.