I have attended enough national CCCA events to know that much of the content is given by and directed towards the larger camp; when our camp was small, I could not see much value in hearing the speaker talk and explain how you get groups of 500 to attend your camp. Today, our camp has nearly 900 beds, so today I would like to hear a repeat of a 1990’s presentation.
However, I am still learning when I go and visit the small camp. I now visit 3 to 7 smaller camps a year; giving out free advice and encouragement to new directors and staff. But with every visit, I walk away encouraged and with a new idea on how to run our camp better. Here are seven things I have learned.
- Small camps are valuable and provide a needed niche in the Christian camping market. They provide intimate settings for young people to connect, encourage, and to learn. Large massive crowds are not for everyone; there are some campers who function best in the small group setting. Small can work if done well; small can be awkward if done poorly.
- Somewhere on the tour of the small camp, unique program areas or buildings exist. These unique areas are usually constructed or designed by an overly creative volunteer that is not up to what is “hot” in the camping circles. In reality this creative mind has just created a unique thing that his mind has come up with. I saw an overly large built porch-type swing, swinging from a swing-like apparatus; it was so clever, I came home and had the construction crew build our camp one!
- I see the passion and hear the heart of the small staff. I am encouraged by their commitment to stick with their job, even though times are tough, the pay is low, and there is more dust balls and peeling paint, than there is money. Money is short, but they are staying faithful to their mission; in spite of the adversities that engulf their daily routine.
- Programs are simple; however, the ministry remains just as effective. Young people are still making commitments to Christ, regardless of the size and scope of the camp. It doesn’t take all the bells and whistles of a high-energy program for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of young people.
- We are all in the people business. We are all about taking a young person and moving them towards and along in their faith. Often I am seeing that the small camps are more Bible centered than the larger camps. By this I mean, straight up Bible teaching is the focal point of the smaller camp, while at times, the larger camps with all the activity areas, can become more entertainment centered with a side-order of Bible thrown into the mix of the Christian camping experience. One of our recent speakers identified a cultural shift in Biblical training as the younger generation (under 40) has taken over the leadership of camps across the nation; there appears to be a shift from Biblical training to fun first.
- Small camps can be successful as long as they know their role and their abilities. When small camps try to be all things to all people, they usually are not able to do it well; however, when a smaller camp focus’ on a particular niche of the market, they usually can create momentum and do the job well. Small camps with limited housing options may just want to concentrate on ministering only to the Jr. High age group and lower. Trying to create an environment that is adult friendly out of a summer camp can become expensive and shifts the focus off of a camp’s primary role.
- Small camp staff needs encouragement to “never give up!” Large camps have staff to support each other; often times in the smaller camp, it is a ‘ma and pa’ operation, and the couple does everything to keep the camp operating: cooking, cleaning, office, mowing, and fund raising, promotions, and program. The routine is exhausting and at times, the rewards can be slim to none. In many cases, the smaller camps hire the inexperienced manager or director, and they struggle under the weight of wearing so many hats and trying to prioritize his work load.
To those who are laboring day in and day out to keep your camp open and available, I repeat, “Never, never give up.” To those in larger camps with multiple staff and a growing and vibrant ministry, I say, “Reach out and bring alongside you a younger, less experienced director from a small camp and encourage and help in his training.”