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A summer without church camps? Not exactly

Lakeshore United Methodist Camp and Retreat Center waterfront. Courtesy of Lakeshore.
Lakeshore United Methodist Camp and Retreat Center waterfront. Courtesy of Lakeshore.

As many parts of the United States continue to avoid large gatherings in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, United Methodist summer camps and retreat centers find themselves in an uncertain position. Many of these ministries have postponed or even cancelled their spring and summer activities while their area remains under shelter-in-place or strict social distancing conditions. While most camps are waiting for conditions to get better before safely opening their facilities, some are also connecting with campers and families virtually.

Many camps had to cancel retreats and events scheduled this spring as people continued to stay home. A number have already postponed summer camps into the month of June. The Baltimore-Washington Conference announced the closing of all its camp and retreat locations until Aug. 9. “We have three different locations at Camp Harmison in the mountains, Manidokan Camp and Retreat Center along the Potomac River and West River United Methodist Center in Churchton, Maryland,” said Chris Schlieckert, director of camp and retreat ministries for the conference.

“All our sites are year-long operations that offer a variety of overnight and day camps, special retreats and weekend events,” Schlieckert said. “Springtime is very popular for retreats while, of course, summer is our busiest time of all, so we’re seeing a big impact from COVID-19. The decision to close our facilities until August was not an easy one, but we had to put the safety and health of our campers and retreat groups first.”

Though they will not be hosting camps or other on-site events until August, Baltimore-Washington is developing a virtual experience for camp-age children and their families, which they hope to release in early June. “We sent out a survey to families that have frequently attended our camps asking them what they would envision for their child. We’re in the process of reviewing those results and will decide in the coming weeks whether it will be a series of stand-alone videos/media or be organized into daily sessions,” Schliekert explained.

Rather than cancel all of their summer activities, other United Methodist camps are postponing opening for the summer and continuing to follow the guidelines of the state where they are located.

Lakeshore United Methodist Camp and Retreat Center in Eva, Tennessee, made the difficult decision in April to cancel all camps and retreats scheduled before June 8. Though Lakeshore still hopes to open for most of the summer, the camp will initiate new protocols around camper registration and health monitoring based on guidelines from health experts.

“Each camper along with the persons accompanying them will have their temperature taken during registration. The camps will be at half of their normal size in terms of the number of campers with sanitizing stations at every activity and enhanced cleaning procedures for cabins and public areas,” the Rev. Gary Lawson, Lakeshore’s executive director, said. “Of course, we continue to monitor the situation in Tennessee and follow the state’s guidelines, so if conditions worsen in the coming weeks we may have to postpone camp further.”

Lakeshore is keeping up with its camping families across Tennessee through social media posts and fun videos shot on the campgrounds. Every day Lakeshore posts different themed content as part of its “Taste of Camp” series. These include photos-of-the-week, videos demonstrating camp activities such as crafts or a nature walk and live events every Friday night. Camp maintenance supervisor Travis Halter even does videos teaching campers life skills, such as how to change a tire. The camp-produced videos and media are all free and available on Lakeshore’s Facebook page. Ashley Martin, a former camp staffer, started making her own Lakeshore-inspired videos with her family performing some of the camp’s pop culture-inspired, sing-along blessings and posting them on YouTube.

Despite the delays and uncertainty around camp programs for this summer, Lakeshore is grateful for the overwhelming support of its camper families.

“When we cancelled the first couple weeks of camp we called each family that had paid registration up personally to let them know. They were very understanding,” Lawson said. “We gave them the option of receiving a refund, putting down a deposit for next year or offering their fees as a donation to the camp. A number of them chose either the deposit or the donation, which has helped us financially during this time when the camp itself isn’t bringing in revenue. We also held a fund raiser for #GivingTuesdayNow  on May 5 that surpassed expectations.”

One area that has yet to cancel any of its 2020 summer camps is Ocean Park Camp and Retreat Center in the Pacific Northwest Conference. Though Ocean Park hosts many spring and fall retreats that were cancelled, its summer camp program does not normally open until early July. As of now registration for the elementary, middle/high school and family kite camps is still open.The center continues to follow guidelines from the Washington state government.

“Because we open camp much later, we’ve had a lot of time to plan ahead and figure out what camp might look like in July,” said co-director Carole Sheer. “We will do temperature checks on-site while educating our campers on proper hygiene the first day. Our staff (particularly kitchen and cleaning staff) will have additional protective equipment on hand).”

One way Ocean Park is easing the decision for families as to whether to send their children to camp this summer is by no longer requiring registration deposits. Families who wish to sign up for camps in July or August don’t have to pay any cost upfront. If they change their mind or circumstances change, they can easily cancel. “This option is a comfort to families whose finances or job security may be uncertain at a moment due to the troubled economy,” Sheer said.

Like Lakeshore, Ocean Park is staying connected to its camp families through online videos and social media posts. Co-director Brandon Sheer has been recording virtual camp fires from Ocean Park with singing, prayer, and stories for kids. The camp also sends out weekly devotionals to families via email. Recently they’ve started producing arts and crafts videos.

Whether or not they usually participate in programs on site, United Methodists can support their conference camp ministries during the pandemic.

Continue to lift the camps and their staff in prayer as they wrestle with difficult decisions around whether to open and how to stay connected. Pray for the many families who cherish these programs and the opportunities they provide children and youth as well.

Consider making a donation to a camp or your conference camping camp ministry. Just as churches still need offerings even while not meeting in-person, the camp and retreat centers are also paying for utilities, maintenance and permanent staff salaries. Without the revenue from spring retreats and early summer program, many may be struggling. By giving to these camp and retreat centers now, you ensure they will be able again to provide vital ministries to Christians of all ages when they reopen.

To learn more ways to support camp and retreat ministries, contact your annual conference office.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.