Ensuring church camps are spiritually and emotionally healthy for teens
Often physical safety is the primary concern when planning church camps, but there are other considerations just as important to ensure a positive experience for all.
If you mention "church camp," reactions from adults reflect a wide range. Some light up enthusiastically recalling happy memories from their youth, while others have a very different reaction. "I HATE camp" and "I LOVE camp" are equally common sentiments. Those responses and my own experiences, have led me to the question; How can we make church camps spiritually and emotionally safe for teens? Recent information and years of chaperoning and planning a half dozen church camps have shaped what I've learned.
In 2018, Bonnie L. Oscarson, president of a world-wide youth program for girls, spoke of changes to that organization's church camps. A big part of the program she led for five years, was hundreds of church camps for teen girls involving thousands of adult volunteers. Oscarson shared the *following new guidelines for planning camp:
Stick with the scriptures and the basic doctrines of Christ.
Choose appropriate activities that invite the Spirit, but which don’t try to manipulate emotions.
"Step back" from planning and let youth play a bigger role.
It's simple advice, but I'd like to break down how each of these things help ensure emotional and spiritual safety at church camps.
Sticking with the basic doctrines of Christ
Not every camper comes to camp with the same mindset. Some are eager to be there, while others are hesitant. A camper who is already feeling uncomfortable may become easily overwhelmed in the face of intense experiences. The following simple, yet edifying activities can result in impactful experiences at camp:
Personal time to read, ponder and/or write in a journal in a beautiful setting.
Youth-led devotionals where insights are shared with peers.
Opportunities to hear leaders share sincere, heart-felt testimonies of Jesus Christ.
Activities offered in not only spiritual, but also social, physical, and intellectual areas of growth.
Avoiding activities that manipulate emotions
There's nothing wrong with wanting church camp to be "spiritual." However, in exploring the experiences of unhappy campers across different dominations, I found a common theme;
Big, manufactured spiritual experiences with the goal of optimal emotional impact.
These "life-changing" experiences at camp often became life-changing in that they were traumatic. Some things to keep in mind when planning faith-promoting exercises at camp:
Is what's planned within the "normal" realm of my faith community's practice?
Are the time-tables reasonable?
Is the physical, social, and emotion exhaustion associated with long days being taken into consideration?
For example, if a testimony meeting is held, doubling or tripling the usual length could unintentionally lead to campers feeling like they have to participate. Exhaustion can make for an overly-emotional meeting, resulting in hesitant campers feeling even more uncomfortable. If, as leaders, we're intent on "making sure"everyone has a "spiritual experience" at camp, we may be missing something - spiritual experiences can't be forced. The "right" time is on the Lord's time, and that may different for everyone (2 Peter 3:9, Galatians 5:22-23).
Allowing youth opportunities to lead
This summer while chaperoning, I got to see the older girls in action at camp. They painted themed banners, led devotionals, planned a skit night, and mentored younger girls in ways that were age-appropriate. The first camp I assisted with many years ago, the Camp Director and I ignored the guideline to involve youth in planning. We thought it would unnecessarily overcomplicate things. This resulted in over-whelmed leaders, and underwhelmed (bored) teens at camp. Had we involved the older girls in planning, it might have been a better experience.
Ways to involve youth in planning and leading church camps:
Choosing a theme and camp songs
Planning ice-breakers and determining which outdoor skills/talents to develop
Leading campers in daily routines and short devotionals
Recently, while discussing a follow-up activity after a series of week-long camps for teen boys and girls, I proposed a few outlines to our youth planning committee. I was excited about the outline for a longer follow-up activity, but almost all the teens in the room responded with, "That's too looonnng!" In coming months, we will plan the shorter activity together - adults and teens. I'm looking forward to the specifics the youth will suggest. Who better understands the needs of teens than other teens?
Being invested in camp and wanting teens to grow in their faith is good, but it's important to manage expectations. Part of exercising of our faith as leaders may lie in entrusting God with outcomes. Camp can be wonderful, camp can be great, and sometimes, it can just be okay. It doesn't have to be perfect. At minimum, it should be a place where everyone feels safe.
*Information taken from: Church News, The Young Women Are Ready: Changes to Camp Provide Leadership Opportunities