USMB high schoolers weren’t the only ones who enjoyed a summer camp planned just for them. About 480 children and youth plus approximately 155 counselors and staff from churches in the Southern District (SDC) and Central District (CDC) Conferences attended district-sponsored camps held in Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.
In the SDC, three summer camps for students grades three through high school are organized by the Youth Commission. The CDC Youth Committee, partnering with churches of the former North Central Conference, hosts a summer camp for youth ages 10 to 18.
Both districts cancelled 2020 summer camps due to the coronavirus pandemic, and camp organizers were glad camps could resume in 2021.
“It was so good to be back at camp this summer,” Russ Claassen, SDC district minister, says. “Even amidst all of the unknowns and constant changes that were being thrown at our planning teams, it was worth it. Energy was high, and I think everyone was just glad to be together.”
SDC camps focus on “Home”
The SDC Youth Commission has organized summer camps for grade school, middle school and high school students going back to at least 1964—a 56-year streak that was broken by COVID-19.
When the Youth Commission was selecting the theme for its activities during the 2020-21 school year, they decided to focus on abiding in Christ and Christ as our home, Claassen says in an email interview.
“We chose the theme prior to COVID-19 keeping everyone at home. Little did we know the additional meaning that ‘home’ would take on during COVID-19,” he says.
Each camp speaker addressed the theme of abiding in Christ in age-appropriate ways.
Kids Camp speaker Tena Loewen, an elementary school teacher from Hillsboro, Kansas, used a variety of visual aids and skits to challenge and encourage campers to accept Christ as their Savior, to abide in him and to share their faith with others.
“Tena did a great job writing materials for counselors for mod times, connecting with campers and was one of the best speakers we have had at Kids Camp because of her knowledge of camp, counselors and campers that age,” says J.L. Martin, Kids Camp director.
Colton Olsen, of Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, led the Kids Camp Worship Band that included musicians from a variety of SDC churches.
Junior High Camp speaker DJ Toelle, youth pastor at Koerner Heights Church, Newton, Kansas, also used props and illustrations in his twice daily messages. A music team from Presence Worship, Wichita, Kan., led the camp worship times.
In addition to being united around a common theme, campers support a common offering project selected by the Youth Commission. Claassen says the campers give generously to the project, which often benefits a Multiply missionary or associated program. Senior high camp goers also learn to know USMB ministry partners, including Multiply staff and short-and long-term workers, through stage time, booths and workshops, says Claassen.
The 2021 camp offering benefitted an evangelistic youth ministry music ministry in Niger, West Africa, affiliated with Multiply, the North American MB mission agency. Junior High Camp contributed about $700 and Kid’s Camp added another $920. Ascent attendees also gave to the offering project.
Activities at the three SDC summer camps—Kids Camp, Junior High Camp and Senior High Camp (now Ascent)—are similar but the schedule and format take into account the age of the students.
Kids Camp goes to college
Kid’s Camp, for grades three to five, was held June 29 to July 2, 2021, at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. One hundred and forty-four campers plus 40 counselors and 27 staff enjoyed a three-night camp that was intended to introduce campers to a personal and loving God. Camp director J.L. Martin reports that eight students accepted Christ for the first time.
Providing campers with community is important at Kids Camp. The college residence halls are set up in a modular style, with four rooms to a mod in most dorms. The first day of camp, each mod designs a flag and, aside from the activity times, often moves through the day as a group. Unity activities are encouraged. One day, a mod may all wear their hair the same or wear the same color of shirt. Another day they might all be wearing cardboard mustaches or walk backwards every time they enter a room.
Campers got a taste for college life, sleeping in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria and attending sessions and activities at various places on the campus. The schedule was packed, with twice daily chapel times followed by mod time, meals, an all-camp activity in the evening and activity blocks in the mornings and afternoons.
The activities are a unique feature of Kids Camp and are possible in part because the camp is on the Tabor campus. Activity options included cooking, crafts, drama, photography, science, movies, Book Club, drawing, table games, “spa” time for girls and various sports such as basketball, dodgeball, soccer, flag football, disc golf, tennis, bowling, swimming, miniature golf and volleyball.
Because counselors at Kids Camp typically have less experience working with the kids at this age than do counselors at the other SDC camps, counselors are asked to arrive a day prior to camp for orientation and training, Claassen says.
“The counselors that work with the junior highers and senior highers often work with their campers throughout the year,” says Claassen. “Counselor training is done throughout the week during daily counselor meetings at those camps. Kids Camp counselors usually aren’t working with their campers on a regular basis even if they are from the same church so there is more involved in training younger, less experienced counselors.”
Claassen does see a change in the profile of Kids Camp volunteers.
“We are starting to see more and more counselors come to Kids Camp that do work regularly in children’s ministry, and that is encouraging.”
Junior high campers head to Oklahoma
SDC Junior High Camp, for those who have just completed sixth, seventh and eighth grade, was held June 2-6, 2021, at Sky Ranch Cave Springs located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. Camp director Dustin Dick, Buhler MB Church youth pastor, reports that the four-night summer camp drew 238 campers representing 17 churches, 37 counselors and 16 staff. Junior camp seeks to engage students in personal ways to connect with God’s story.
The morning schedule included a morning “polar bear swim” before breakfast and a worship session followed by cabin discussion times. Afternoons included pod competitions and free time. Pods were groups of about two dozen campers who competed for points in a variety of activities, including water contests, “human” games (the human knot and human foosball), building a team “tank” with cardboard and duct tape and pre-session games.
The shift to an afternoon of free time is one of the ways Junior High Camp differs from Kids Camp. Cave Springs’ Edge zipline is Oklahoma’s longest zipline and each camper could ride the zipline if they chose. The Springs waterfront offered a blob, superslide, dock, paddle boats and water inflatables. Other activities included a basketball court, sand volleyball, paintball, laser tag, skeet shooting, gaga pit, human foosball and snookball.
An evening session followed dinner and an activity rounded out the day.
District senior high camp goes national
After the 2019 USMB national youth conference held at Glorieta Adventure Camps near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the SDC Youth Commission decided to move the district senior high camp from Sky Ranch Horn Creek, located near Westcliff, Colorado, to Glorieta for the 2020 summer camp. That camp was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the SDC Youth Commission and USMB Youth began making plans to work together to host Ascent, a new national camp for all USMB high school students to be held at Glorieta. Since most of the planning for the 2020 SDC senior high camp had been done, the two partners decided the SDC personnel would serve as Ascent planning team. In the future, Ascent planning team members will be recruited from across the USMB family, Claassen says.
Leaders are committed to camp
When asked about the SDC’s commitment to summer camps, Claassen says, “I think the long camp history can be attributed to those that had the vision to begin them in the first place. Those in leadership have created a culture of wanting to get together for worship, Bible study, encouragement and relationship. Many campers have a group of ‘camp friends’ and youth workers look forward to the opportunities to get together.”
Claassen lists numerous ways in which the district camping program contributes to the spiritual growth of students and positively impacts the local church, and he also sees ways the district itself benefits.
“The camp setting allows campers and adults from different churches to build and maintain friendships with one another,” Claassen says. “I think this is a significant contributing factor to the greater family feel many of us experience as a part of the district. The network of church contacts and friendships can start at a young age and create lifelong friendships.”
Long-time camp coordinator Les Hostettler of the Central District Conference says the summer camps is one way to prepare a new generation of leaders—both new camp staff and the campers themselves.
“We need to regenerate our smaller churches,” Hostettler says. “For me, working with the young people at camp has been one way to make that happen.”
CDC offers two camps in one
High school students in the Central District Conference had the option in 2021 of attending two denominational camps—Ascent, held June 16-20, at Glorieta Adventure Camps in New Mexico, as well as the district summer camp held Aug. 2-7 at Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp in Fosston, Minnesota.
The CDC Summer Camp, coordinated by Ron and Karri Muff with help from Les and Gail Hostettler, both of Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church in Ogema, Minnesota, was really two camps in one. Campers age 10 to 13 were part of junior camp and students age 14 through 18 attended senior high camp. Typically, attendance at the two camps totals between 90 and 120 students and the Sand Hills Bible Camp facility offers accommodations that allow the two camps to function independently from one another.
While the summer camp has been part of the CDC Youth Committee’s ministry for only two years, the camp dates back to the late 1960s. The youth camp was the longest and most successful ministry of the North Central Conference (NCC), a conference affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. When five NCC churches joined the CDC in 2017, the CDC also gained the youth camp. (https://christianleadermag.com/celebrating-north-central-conference-story/)
“We have been working on transitioning the NCC camp into a CDC summer camp since they joined the Central District,” says Anthony Lind, CDC Youth Committee chair. “It’s been hard as many of our CDC churches have been attending local camps in their areas—some attending the same camps for decades.”
2019 marked the first summer the camp was promoted as a CDC event. In 2020, the camp was cancelled due to COVID-19, the first time the camp wasn’t held, says coordinator Hostettler.
Hostettler says the move to the CDC has been positive, adding that he was encouraged by CDC minister Rick Eshbaugh’s visit to the camp in 2019. That year CDC church planters Jon and Michele Fiester also attended the camp.
Ron and Karri Muff, who have been involved with the camp for about 10 years, the last two as camp coordinators with the Hostettlers, are now members of the CDC Youth Committee. The Hostettlers, who have been involved with the camp for about 45 years, passed the camp leadership on to the Muffs this year.
The 2021 camp also saw a change in camp staff due to COVID-19. Some older volunteers decided to step down due to COVID-19 protocols, and new staff were recruited. Nurses who had volunteered in the past as camp nurses chose not to attend camp this summer due to their regular exposure to COVID-19 in their job settings.
According to Hostettler, Youth Camp has met at Sand Hills Bible Camp for 35 consecutive years, which was a central location for the participating NCC churches. But now that the camp is serving the CDC congregations as well, Hostettler says it may be time to move the camp to a more convenient location for CDC churches.
This summer, 34 campers attended junior high camp and 53 came for senior high camp, Karri Muff says. A combined crew of 38 volunteers served as counselors and staff and were assigned to a specific camp.
Each camp had its own camp director and programming. While campers crossed paths in the dining hall and shower house, each camp had its own chapel building, recreation area and dorm facilities. The week of camp began Monday afternoon with a kick-off attended by all campers and concluded Saturday with a combined closing farewell time of singing and a prayer.
Jeremy Allard, a pastor from Sheldon, Wisconsin, served as the senior high speaker. His messages focused on moving mountains, taken from Matthew 17:20.
The senior campers spent time each morning in small groups that were led by an older camper and a counselor. Campers reflect on the speaker’s presentations and are encouraged to each share their own faith story.
Jon Fiester, pastor of Renewal MB Church, Rapid City, S.D., was the junior camp speaker. His talks took campers through the book of Ephesians, using the theme “Called by God.”
Students at both camps spent the morning in worship, small group time and hearing from the speaker. Recreational activities, including sports, water activities and crafts, filled the afternoon. In the evening, campers spent the early evening playing games and concluded the evening with a session, a practical scheduling decision that helps to avoid the evening mosquitos.
Over the years, traditions have been established—especially at the senior camp. For example, the last night of camp the groups enjoy banana splits and the senior campers autograph the each other’s copies of the camp photo. Each camp also has a talent show and the junior camp typically has a Friday evening cookout.
Community and family is emphasized during camp. The Hostettlers credit the counselors with creating a supportive community for the campers.
“We see kids grow from year to year,” Gail Hostettler says. “Camp creates a community. We can learn from the way the kids are pretty raw with one another. It’s a family.”
Connections a priority
The Hostettlers and Claassen agree that camp is a place where students meet God.
SDC’s Claassen says camp is a time during which God will “soften hearts, strengthen faith, find reconciliation and draw people to him. Camp speakers, worship leaders, workshops, counselors and other camp elements work together and are used by God as campers decide to follow Jesus or recommit their lives to living for Jesus.”
As Les Hostettler reflects on his decades of camp experience, the sense of family and community and the growth he’s seen in young people has kept him involved.
“I’ve had good talks late at night,” Hostettler says, recalling one midnight conversation in particular. “The Lord gets our attention when we are most receptive and if that’s at 1:30 a.m., then that’s okay with me.”
Gail Hostettler says, “We make our plans and then watch what God does. The Spirit has done things at camp that we have stood in awe of.”