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Camp policies prove challenging for ministry moments

Despite regulatory complexities, camp still a great place to meet Jesus

Ask any child who’s been to camp what they remember most, and almost universally the answer is “friends.” Camp is the place for friendship, some of which last a lifetime. Some of the most meaningful friendships are those between campers and counsellors, often formed in a key conversation or moment of relational ministry.

But moments like these are becoming increasingly hard to come by. With parents and camp administration on high alert for instances of abuse, and liability issues becoming a growing concern for camp governing bodies, camp staff struggle to develop meaningful one-on-one relationships with their campers.

For many years, Red Rock Bible Camp in Rennie, Manitoba, has implemented a two-counsellor policy, wherein no staff member is permitted to be alone with campers in an isolated setting. Even so, executive director Kim Coursey doesn’t feel that ministry has suffered as a result of any increased attention to risk management.

“We ensure that the counselling that does happen is male counsellor with male campers, female counsellors with female campers in a public space… We’ve been taking those kinds of precautions for many, many years.”

Coursey says policies like these are standard procedure, as well as an interview and training process before camp begins.

Despite all of the procedural ‘hoop-jumping’ that some might see as discouraging, Coursey maintains that ministry moments are still happening in abundance at Red Rock.

“We do lots of things to facilitate those conversations and we find it’s that relationship between the campers and…their counsellor is really what’s important,” he says. “We’ve tried to not let any of those scenarios…interfere with those conversations and those relationships between staff and campers.”

Smaller camps, however, are often faced with an added challenge, given fewer staff carrying the workload.

Hanne Johnson, a long-time counsellor and current co-director at Covenant Heights Bible Camp in Onanole, Manitoba, says that having a true heart-to-heart with a camper sometimes doesn’t fit into a ministry template for cabin leaders.

At many camps, counsellors are often discouraged from entering into situations that leave them susceptible to abuse allegations, things like one-on-one conversations behind closed doors. Often, this increased awareness to abuse prevention has led to the advent of “safe-place training,” an initiative that focuses on avoiding scenarios for which the camp might be found liable for suspected abuse—something that can damage a camp’s reputation and a counsellor’s record, regardless of whether any instance actually took place.

And while protecting children is important, sometimes the hypersensitivity to avoiding precarious situations can lead staff to second-guess a ministry opportunity, Johnson says.

“Having the chance to talk with a camper one-on-one about their faith is complicated as it is,” she says. “The regulations of safe place training only add to the complexity.”

Staff policies and regulations, while important on an executive or “macro-ministry” level, are often inadequate to deal with the real-life situations that occur in the “trenches” of camp ministry. Johnson recalls an instance where “safe-place training” failed to provide an effective solution to a common scenario.

During one training session, Johnson and her fellow staff were informed that front hugs were listed as an “inappropriate” form of camper-counsellor interaction, she says.

“After having a ‘heart-to-heart’ conversation with a camper, [we were] not allowed to give them a hug,” she says. “[An] awkward side hug just did not seem to fit,” she adds.

“This is a small example of how these policies can take natural interactions and change them into something less natural.”

Photo courtesy of Camp Mini-Yo-We
Photo courtesy of Camp Mini-Yo-We

Camp Mini-Yo-We executive director Michael Ankemann notes the difficulty his camp has faced in performing effective follow-up work to campers after the summer has ended.

Cultural shifts, new child protection legislation in Ontario, and a hyper-sensitivity to liability issues created a culture of mistrust, where it seemed somewhat inappropriate for camp staff to be in touch with campers outside of a camp setting.

“[Things] got a little complicated with the privacy legislation…We used to send our staff home with an address list of all the kids that were in their section…and we stopped doing that when the privacy legislation came out,” he says.

Mini-Yo-We, located in the Muskoka region of southern Ontario, has since resumed its practice of providing staff with camper contact information for follow-up purposes. Still, he says that it’s been a slow process to get back to that point of contact—a point where camp staff don’t feel awkward about reaching out to their campers after the summer is over.

“It’s going to take a while to get that culture back again. I feel like we’ve lost momentum there.”

But despite the challenges that a ‘risk management culture’ brings to the table, camps are finding ways to continue to be effective, more often through careful hiring decisions than omnibus policy implementations. For directors, knowing their staff personally is far more important than filing the correct paperwork. And despite the complexities these regulations and staff policies bring, Johnson concurs that ministry at Covenant Heights hasn’t been disrupted to the point that the camp is no longer effective.

“Even though these policies bring challenges to the relational ministry of camp, they are also a part of camp ministry,” she says. “They’re in place to prevent harm and we must abide with the rules to keep our camps running.”

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.