Rethinking Summer Camp Part V: Attracting and Keeping Camp Staff!

Here is an email that I get far too often:

“Ken, I’m hoping that you can help me. I run a summer camp called _______(fill in name) and I am in need for camp staff. In fact, we may have to cancel some of our camps if we do not get more volunteers. I could possibly take on some nonChristians to help out but I’d really rather not. Any suggestions?”

I don’t want to be too pessimistic but as I have said earlier, this is a sign that the future is not as rosy in youth ministry as we would like to believe. Healthy youth groups produce healthy Christian youth who can then go on to do youth ministry. The end result is that camps (and other ministries) have a surplus of volunteers. However, we are not in that situation any longer. So, instead of moaning for the good old days, may I suggest five courses of action to help alleviate this problem…

1. Seek financial help.If you pay your staff well, you will have a much easier time of finding workers. This is pretty basic I know, but the average camp pays very poorly. From my perspective, I have students who would love to spend their summer in camp ministry—much more than working at the local grocery store. But they simply cannot afford it. So, they sacrifice a summer of fruitful ministry to chase next year’s tuition.

With this in mind, one of your first priorities must be to raise a significant amount of capital. Your first place to start is with alumni. These former campers will have fond memories of their time in camp. Don’t be afraid to explain to them very clearly what your needs are and where the money will go. You may get some push back with statements such as “but in my day all the staff were volunteers”. You need to clearly explain that we are living in a very different culture and that the future of the camp is becoming less clear unless something changes.

You may even want to give all your campers the chance to contribute financially throughout the year. Plenty of campers have part time jobs. You may be surprised at what you could raise through this.

Consider meeting with the missions committees from churches that send campers and staff. Explain to them your needs. See if you can become part of their missionary giving.

2. Train your staff for long-term partnership. This goes without saying. In fact, many camps are quite good at training up leaders. Stay focused here and always be thinking about how do we keep our junior staff and use them for the next 3-10 years.

3. Partner with churches. As I wrote in my previous post, it is imperative that camps work with church for follow up. It is also very important that they work with churches for staff. How can your camp promote a partnership with a local congregation that last more than a summer or two? If you can have a number of churches, from a wide area support your camp, many of your key needs (follow up, financial support etc.) will be solved. Your goal is that when it comes to camp, your camp will be the obvious place for this church to support.

Here’s a quick story: when I worked in Vancouver there was a camp that many of our youth went on. Early on I noticed that the youth who were the best at helping on our weekend retreats were those who had done ‘pit crew’ on this summer camp. These kids where such a blessing to our retreat ministry (we had about ten retreats per year in the various ministries). I quickly realized that we needed to give back to this camp—we would promote this camp each year and, we would strongly encourage our youth to sign on as volunteers knowing that they would be trained in ministry. Our church and this camp formed a partnership, a two way street blessing if you will.

4. If you can’t find young staff, find older ones! This is pretty straightforward. If there are no youth to staff your camps, seek non-youth. Are there seniors who are time rich, don’t need to be paid, strong in the faith and willing to give you a week or two? With a bit of searching, you may find more than you realize. Especially if you modify the camp just a bit to have less focus on the ‘wild side’ and more on what the older volunteers are good at: talking with youth, listening to them, talking with them about God and praying with them. Most young people today really don’t care about the age of the staff, they care about whether the staff cares about them.

5. One last word, don’t sacrifice on spiritual quality in the search for quantity. It is tempting to fill your staff needs with people who are less spiritually mature, or even not in a relationship with Jesus. Be very careful of this. If your goal is to produce strong followers of Jesus, you need strong leaders who themselves follow our Lord. They must be able to echo Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

I would love to hear more suggestions to add to the list on how we can reverse this staff shortage in our summer camps!

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