By: Theresa McDonald-Lee
Summer camps have long been a part of the traditional matrix of Christian education for the children in Presbyterian churches. Children would attend Sunday school through the year and head off to a week of camp in the summer, often paid for or as a gift from the church. Camp was seen as an extension of the work of the local congregation, a partner in providing quality summer ministry to reinforce what children learned throughout the year in Sunday school.
Today, summer camp and its constituents look quite a bit different. Many churches still send children to camp in the summer, but for some children, summer camp may now be the primary site of Christian education. Grandparents send their grandchildren, hoping that a week of Christian education will at least offer some connection to the gospel, as their grandchildren do not take part in weekly worship or Sunday school. Churches, with few children of their own, send children from the community to camp. These days, summer camp may be the only time a child hears the story of Jesus. The partnership between churches and camps remains, but in new ways, and it has taken both congregations and camps some time to understand and make sense of this shift.
In the midst of this change, the camp I serve, Camp Kintail, was searching for new ways to partner with churches. We regularly heard the hurt and confusion that congregations were feeling over the changes to their Sunday schools and other children’s programming. We also heard how tired and discouraged their leaders and volunteers were feeling. We wondered how we could share some of the energy, excitement, and creativity that are the hallmarks of summer camp with the congregations that had supported us so faithfully for so many years. We wanted to reach out and make a difference, not just at camp on our site, but throughout our region. We knew not every child could get to camp, but we wanted to take some of camp to them.
As we were beginning to think through our approach, a travelling Vacation Bible School program in our Synod made the decision to close. The planning group had faithfully been offering this program for several years, but due to changes in leadership and a lack of funding, they had decided it was the time for the program to finish. At the camp, we decided to pick up the Travelling VBS concept and make it a bit more “campy.” To get the program off the ground, we received some funding from our national church and from a local congregation. We offered our program to both local congregations and congregations from further away across the Synod. In less than a week we were booked for twelve churches, double our goal!
Five years later, we now partner with seventeen churches to provide “Kintail On The Road.” Three Kintail staff arrive at the church on Sunday evening to prepare for the week ahead. On Monday morning, they, along with volunteers from the congregation, greet the children and begin the day the same way we do at camp, with a chapel service. From there, the children are involved in a whirlwind of activities such as arts and crafts, adventure, nature study, mission awareness, FLASH (Faith, Learning, and Sharing), and music and drama. We run a full-day program, so after lunch, the children participate in primetime (a large group game) and campfire. The Kintail staff are prepared to offer most of the programming, but many congregations plan for special events with members of their congregation leading various elements of the day. Congregations have offered special stained-glass crafts, hayrides at a farm, outdoor campfires, and pool parties. We try to bring the fun and excitement of camp, along with our experience in teaching Bible stories, and add that to the commitment local church leaders have in providing year-round support and Christian education to their neighborhood children.
The camp pledges to help a congregation out for several years in hopes that after that period the congregation will feel confident in leading a summer program on their own. We are pleased that several congregations we have partnered with are now prepared to lead their own Vacation Bible Camp. This will be our fifth summer offering the program, and it has now become an integral part of what Camp Kintail does. We estimate that approximately 700 children have taken part in this outreach program each summer.
It may seem odd for a camp to send out resources to congregations, when the pattern was for so many years reversed. At Kintail, we feel that the partnerships created with the congregations have benefited so many. The congregations are glad to be able to provide summer ministry to children in their neighborhoods, as Vacation Bible Camps are still a trusted outreach into most communities. The staff members thoroughly enjoy their week in a congregation, and it exposes them to intergenerational leadership, new pastors, and of course, children who are excited about everything they are teaching. The camp has been able to fill a need in the Synod and move beyond our site on the beach to the communities who have supported us for so long. By leaving our familiar roles and embarking on new partnerships, the camp and the congregations have been able to share God’s love with children and their families, hopefully helping them find a church to connect to and a faith that will sustain them.
Rev. Theresa McDonald-Lee joyfully serves Camp Kintail as Director alongside her husband Johnathon. Together they are raising three beautiful and busy little girls. Camp Kintail is located north of Goderich, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron. Theresa serves on the board of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA).