One of the things I appreciate most about the Silver Lake program is the intentionality with which we create Christian community. Even the youngest kids at camp are invited to think about what kind of community they want to create—and then they are empowered to create it! The first night of the week at camp, each conference writes a covenant: “How do we want to be who we want to be?” they are asked—not always in those exact words. How do we want to be together? What are our baseline norms of behavior? What is fair for us to expect of each other in creating this community? How would Jesus want us to treat each other? What kind of community are we building here?
The kids often come up with ideas like “no interrupting” and “respect each other” and “be quiet during quiet time.” Usually a kid will serve as Recorder, and write down the items that their fellow campers suggest. (I will admit, it once took me a few moments to figure out what “onisty” meant. Nobody suggested correct spelling as an item for that community covenant.)
A few weeks ago, I had the enormous and mostly-joyful task of reimagining and leading Clergy Camp with my colleague Rev. Jackie Hall from Winchester Center. In previous years, Clergy Camp had been a mid-week retreat in May, but after lackluster registrations the last couple of years, I decided to reinvent Clergy Camp as an opportunity to bring ministers to Silver Lake during the summer season and experience camp like the kids do. Swimming in the lake. Popsicles at the store. Singing loud songs after dinner. Jockeying for space at the cereal bar with a bunch of nine-year-olds. Would clergy want to do these things? Yes. Yes they would, it turns out.
And when clergy make a covenant together, asking “How do we want to be who we want to be” it turns out they mostly suggest ideas that resemble the kids’ covenants. Pick up after yourself. Have fun. Try new things. But also, “Be supportive of each others’ ministries and place in life.” “Hold space to be authentic and know that trust will not be broken when we leave this place.” “Do things together as much as we can for the sake of community,“ which appropriately contradicted the nap-permitting “Know thyself—do what you need to do.”
All of us participated in morning Bible studies centered on upcoming lectionary texts. One of our Clergy Campers planned out her sermons for the entire summer. Another learned of helpful new resources for her church’s Faith Formation program. One climbed an element on the new high ropes course for the first time ever, following years as a summer volunteer without trying the old course at all. A newbie experienced a minor bout of illness and a visit to the camp nurse, ego-blows softened by the compassion and accompaniment of caring colleagues. The covenant worked, as we built a community where each of us could express our individual needs and find ways to meet them appropriately in partnership with one another. And we capped it all off with a final campfire and communion with s’mores on the last night.
In most conferences, the final night involves a conversation about how to take what we’ve learned at camp—especially what we’ve learned about how to create community—back to our “real lives.” For the Clergy Campers, that meant imagining how they were going to tell their colleagues about what they’d experienced at Silver Lake, and how they were going to encourage kids (and their parents) to consider coming to camp. It also meant sharing their hopes for Clergy Camp next year—yes, we’re already planning for next year, mark your calendars for the end of June! One said he wants his entire Clergy Excellence Group to attend. Another said that he’s “not a camp person, and will never be a camp person,” but he found himself energized by what happens at Silver Lake, and eager to sign up for more community-building clergy events through CTUCC—even though he is a pastor with standing in Massachusetts!
Like the kids usually do, the Clergy Campers asked to be allowed to stay longer, avoided going to sleep so the conference wouldn’t end, tossed around the inside jokes they’d developed in just two days, and generally buzzed with excitement about what they’d experienced and learned. This community-building thing we do works for grown-ups, too! And being a grown-up at camp is the best of all. How do we want to be who we want to be? Clergy Camp has it all figured out, it turns out.
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Mary Nelson's primary work is with congregations in transition and crisis and providing leadership resources. She works with clergy of the Region in offering counsel, support and advice as well as pastoral care. Raised in Plymouth UCC in Des Moines,...