Church Camp


Bill Tune

I’m one of those active church adults who has been known to cringe and go into hiding with the mention of just two words: church camp.  Inevitably, the call goes out seeking adults who are able and, more importantly, willing to serve as camp counselors.  As an educator who was used to spending 10 months of the year instructing and supervising pre-adults, it was not a favorite activity of mine to “volunteer” to watch youth for 24 hours a day for 5 days at church camp during the summer.  However, it has happened a few times.  I guess I’m just a guy who can’t say, “No.”

As a kid I only attended church camp once, which is a little odd considering that my father was a pastor.  But a small-church pastor with 4 kids could not easily afford to send them all to camp so it just didn’t happen. The one time I went, the twins and I were in junior high, and my older sister was married and gone.  Dad was pastoring a three-point charge, which is three small churches sharing one preacher.  The churches got together and each paid for one of us to go to camp, so we went.  That was about five decades ago so I don’t remember much about it, but I think we had fun.

My first experience as a counselor was some time in the early 80’s. The camp was near Glen Rose, TX.  I was asked to serve again the next year, but graduate school made that not possible, and we soon moved a few miles down the road, which put us in a different conference with a different camp.  For the past 30 years, my church camp has been Camp Lakeview, near Palestine in east Texas.

As a church musician, I’ve had minimal association with youth programs and have been able to avoid camp counselor duties for most of my life.  Then my wife completed seminary in 2000, and her first appointment as a pastor was as an associate pastor in Palestine, TX. Prior to this move, Lakeview had been a 2 ½ hour car trip.  From 2000 to 2003 it was just 15 minutes down the road, and as a pastor’s spouse, church camp became an expectation.

The first year was the worst.  The cabin of junior high boys, believe it or not, was not the problem.  My cabin co-counselor was bi-polar, a fact to which I was made privy only after he had traumatized the cabin of “innocents” over a broken bottle of cologne.  It was just a verbal rant with some inappropriate language thrown in, but after doing damage control in the aftermath of that incident, I was not too keen on returning to camp the next year.  Fortunately, by this time Beverly had taken over a leadership position in the camp, and I was able to work with the program team rather than be a counselor. (It is good to have connections in high places.)

In 2003 we moved from Palestine, and for the next 7 years my services as a camp counselor were not needed. Then my luck ran out.  In 2010 we moved into a district that prides itself on church camp participation, but struggles each year to find enough counselors.  I was at Choir Camp that first summer when I got a call on my cell phone begging me to return to Lakeview in two weeks as a counselor.  I tried to say, “no”, but it came out, “okay”.  As a pastor’s spouse and retired teacher, I’ve really run out of excuses for not working camp.

Resigned to my fate, but fearful of what young monsters I would be given, I showed up at the Mid-Hi (8th & 9th grade) camp ready for the ordeal.  But to my surprise, the young gentlemen (and, yes, I use the term somewhat loosely) in my cabin were a joy to be with!  They had their quirks, and I had to occasionally curb their over-zealous antics, but overall they were well behaved.  I had no serious problems.  Other counselors were not as fortunate as I, but no one that I know of was scarred for life by his experience that year.  I left thinking, “Lucky me! Dodged a bullet.  Maybe they won’t need me next year.”

Yeah, right.  I tried to lay low, but once again the late, desperate call came.  Once again my, “sorry, no can do” came out, “Sure.  When’s the pre-camp meeting?”  And once again, I had a great group of guys to look after.  The only significant problem in year 2, besides the blistering heat, which restricted our mid-afternoon activities, was a female counselor who was certifiably crazy.  Without going into too much detail, she had no boundaries, she wanted the lion’s share of attention, and she even led the girls in her cabin into most inappropriate behavior.  Needless to say, she was not asked back.

This year “they” did not have a chance to rope me into another year of camp at the last minute.  I signed up in advance.  I figured that this would be the year of cabin catastrophe, that surely my luck would not hold out for a third year.  Would you believe the best group ever?  This group of guys would even get up, get dressed, and get to breakfast ON TIME EVERY DAY – all of them! 

When I arrived at camp this year, I had an epiphany of sorts.  A few of the counselors with whom I had worked the past two years were reminiscing and started talking about the crazy lady from the year before.  I remembered my kids from the year before (except for their names) and several of the activities we did, but I had completely forgotten about the crazy lady.  I don’t know if this was a blessing or just the failing memory of an old man, but I had blocked out all memory of the worst part of last year.  Sadly, with a little prodding it all came back, but while processing this memory, I realized something important.  The worst part of camp for me over the years has nearly always had to do with adults, not kids.  As a teacher, I had my share of difficult students, and that is probably the source of my apprehensions about camp, but as a camp counselor my kids have never been the big problem.  Now there have been a few emotionally disturbed kids that the collective group has had to deal with, especially the deans and heads of camp, but overall most kids aren’t so bad.

Let me conclude with some observations from my camp experiences.  Hopefully they will be somewhat humorous while not in the least profound.

Lakeview is always trying to upgrade and improve, but it is a daunting task.  Most of the facilities are in good shape, and all the enclosed structures are air-conditioned which is a huge blessing.  The cabins used by Mid-Hi are nice – at least they were during the Eisenhower administration.  The mattresses definitely leave something to be desired, and while the showers are not a pretty sight, they are functional.  Maintenance crews do their best to keep everything in working order.  For instance, last year I mopped my cabin every night.  No, I’m not OCD.  The shower leaked profusely.  I noticed this year that the people in that cabin had no such problem.  Good for the maintenance crew! (And I didn’t wet a mop all week.)

Speaking of showers, I was warned early on about how difficult it is to get adolescent males to bathe regularly.  Well, that may be true of the elementary and junior high camps, but at Mid-Hi, these young men are already aware of the opposite sex, and I’ve never had a problem getting them to shower.  Now, on the last day I’m still appalled at the towels, washcloths, and dirty underwear that go unclaimed.  These guys would have me believe that in the course of the week, mysterious neer-do-wells sneak in and litter our shower with other people’s dirties, because nothing there belongs to them!

I believe strongly in teaching responsibility.  We are required to leave our cabins clean, so every year I insist that the boys sweep the cabin.  Then after they leave I sweep it again so it’ll actually be clean.

Never underestimate the vanity of the male.  I had an athletic kid one year, whose grandfather had played in the NFL, who insisted on wearing a swim-shirt in the pool for its slimming effect.   This was briefly a topic of discussion with his peers who in the end agreed he looked better with the shirt on.  Fortunately, cologne was not a problem, but I have vivid memories of a junior high camp 10 years ago where it was.  The big event at camp back then was the Thursday night dance, and after days of angsting over who was going with whom, a WWII gas mask was needed while the guys got ready.

I try to be sensitive to certain kids’ needs, but there’s not a lot one can do in such a short time.  I once had an insecure kid who dealt with his mistakes by being self-deprecating.  Normally, I can appreciate that approach as I’ve been known to do the same, but he gave me a moment I may never forget.  After making a minor mistake with another counselor, he shook his head and said, “Well, I’m not the sharpest knife in that place where they keep knives.”

So what’s the future of this camp counselor?  I guess I’ll try it one more time.


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