It’s day four at Camp Pringle, a United Church camp on the shores of Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake. Sporting matted hair, braces, bug bites, acne and blue nail polish, the 20 sweaty preteens crammed cross-legged into the camp’s “Faith Fort” are about to get deep — again. They’re in a room not much bigger than a supplies cupboard. An old United Church of Canada crest dangles from above the doorway, the purple fringe ratty. Miniature Christmas lights brighten up the ceiling tiles.
“What are you scared of?” asks Sarah Prestwich, the 23-year-old chaplain, a question from her question box. Hands shoot up.
“Spiders.” “Being alone.” “Swimming in the ocean.” “Death.” “Shots.” “The end of the world.” “Centipedes.”
The quieter kids — and their teenaged leaders — let their curious eyes zip around at the brave souls answering the questions. Some softly say, “yessss,” to acknowledge that they too share those fears. Then, they’re on to the next question-box prompt: “Do you think God is calling you?”
Every day for 70 minutes, the campers undergo faith formation. Prestwich leads four sessions daily, to accommodate the 80 campers in smaller groups. Alongside swimming and campfires and wide games, faith is a core part of the programming here. Which is remarkable, given that four out of five Pringle campers arrive with no faith background at all.
A couple of years ago, though, Christian education here was on the chopping block. From the outside looking in, Camp Pringle seemed to be shrinking toward oblivion. On an average week, only a third of the cabin beds were full. The budget was busted. So a marketer, hired by several local camps, gave Pringle’s board a piece of advice: get The United Church of Canada logo off your flyers and website. Delete the crosses. Don’t advertise that you’re a church camp on Vancouver Island, the least-religious part of Canada. It’s killing your business.
Faith is a reasonable scapegoat, probably, on which to blame the widespread problem of the United Church’s underused and money-losing camps. Some unnamed thing has clearly gone horribly wrong. Since 2004, 16 United Church camps have closed, including half of the camps in the Atlantic provinces. Just 54 remain across Canada, and many of those are near closing — either because of they’re broke, they lack campers, or their board members and volunteers are growing older. In fact, the October 2016 United Church Camping conference was aggressively titled, “Rethink. Rebuild. Be Relevant.”
At the General Council office in Toronto, Beverlea Oag collects statistics from camps as part of her role as program co-ordinator for Duty of Care and Co-ordinated Ministries. How much actual Christian education happens at camp is a question mark, she says. Camps have to report whether it happens, but they don’t have to report what happens.
“One thing that’s important is that we continue to provide a safe and welcoming environment and, often, a child’s only exposure to church, to understanding Christian values and Jesus and God,” she says, demurring from answering whether she thinks United Church camping will survive the next decade.
Even here at idyllic Camp Pringle, where campers’ neon-coloured running shoes stamp cedar smells into the air on their way down the wooded path to Shawnigan Lake, just half of the camp beds are full this week.
Kezia Cowtan, the camp’s executive director, notes that numbers are up slightly. Many new faces are trying Pringle this summer. In part, she credits ignoring the marketer’s advice. In fact, she enlarged the United Church crest in ads. Camps are in the business of trust, she says. The United Church is trusted.
Interestingly, Cowtan isn’t a church member. But with a 20-year background in non-profit management, she believes that animating the “church” part of Pringle is a vital part of her work. It’s the whole point of the operation, she knows. So not only did she retain the United Church crest in marketing, but she centres the camp on Christian values: Faith Fort’s daily sessions; morning and evening mini-services; a modest dress code for leaders and campers; strict policies on bullying, alcohol and drug use; and a radical commitment to integrating campers living with autism, mental health challenges, attention deficits and other disabilities.
Faith is not at fault for camp failings, Cowtan says. Instead, she says, it’s the economy. There’s a disconnect between how much it costs to run camp — about $500 per camper per week — and the reality of most families’ budgets.
“Almost every family that sends their kids to camp asks for a bursary,” she says. “The cost of living is so high, and disposable income has shrunk since the  crash.”
Confidence, new friends, self-expression and Christian values: this is what kids gain at camp, she says. The 80 empty beds at camp this week represent 80 kids not experiencing those gifts. If camping is outreach, Cowtan advises, the church needs to fund it as a mission.
Across the country at Pearce Williams Christian Centre, located by the shores of Lake Erie in southern Ontario, executive director Joe Richards is also trying to think his way out of the quagmire of United Church camping. He’s hosting October’s “Rethink. Rebuild. Be Relevant” conference (which Cowtan won’t attend because her camp can’t afford to send her). The summer program at Pearce Williams is widely recognized for its innovation and vitality — but the beds are just half full, too.
Are family finances responsible for the low numbers of campers? Pearce Williams introduced Canada’s first tiered fees, which allows parents to choose from three prices when sending their kids. He notes that $500 a week is the real cost of camp, but two-thirds of parents choose to pay the third tier — just $260 a week.
Is the problem systemic — a vast under-investment on the part of the church in camping ministries, including the aging infrastructure and increasingly costly operations? For example, Richards says, he can count on one hand how many United Church camps employ full-time executive directors. Consistency, he says, is a key to success.
Or, is it something else entirely? That’s what Richards hoped to address at the camping conference. “It’s meant to be a wake-up call,” he says. “Some might say the situation is dire. The church is changing, we’re losing congregations. We really want people to take a hard look at our future.”
The value of camp as an overt, Christian church ministry is clear to Richards. His parents met at Kenesserie Camp, located on Lake Erie’s shores; later, both he and his brother met their own wives there. His brother was camp director at Kenesserie for many years. Richards has worked for camps his entire adult life, and has been with Pearce Williams since 2005.
“I run chapel every day at camp with my guitar. We recently added an activity called, ‘Ask Joe anything about the Bible,’” says Richards, noting that about 60 percent of his campers have no church background at all — and among those who do, most are Catholic. “I’m fascinated by the questions from both campers and staff: ‘How did Jesus rise from the dead?’ ‘If Jesus isn’t dead, how old is he now?’ ‘Who wrote the Bible?’ The first time I did this, I stopped and said, ‘Do you really want to keep doing this?’ Ninety percent of kids said, ‘Yes!’”
Richards admits Pearce Williams has considered replacing “Christian” with “Retreat” in its name — as most of the centre’s revenue comes from rentals, not its summer camp, and perhaps removing “Christian” would attract more renters.
Richards shouldn’t be afraid to wonder if Christianity is undermining his camp, says former United Church moderator Mardi Tindal. In 2010, while serving as moderator, the former director of Camp Big Canoe (located in the Muskoka district of Ontario), wrote a call-to-arms for church investment in camping ministries as a core front-line faith outreach project. On the one hand, she wrote, camp “shouldn’t step back from describing who we are” as a Christian mission.
On the other hand, she stated, let’s try something new. If the church isn’t willing to fully subsidize camps to the point that they’re thriving, camps should do whatever it takes to survive. Even without overt Christian messaging, the value of camp stands, she argued. Community, connection to nature and reflection remain when Johnny Appleseed fades away.
In an interview, she says, “I think of my own sons. They both grew up at church camp. . . . That’s where they really had the support to discover their spark, found encouragement, learned to encourage others. It’s the kind of life approach that serves people well. . . . So let’s do some experimenting. The way we used to do things doesn’t work anymore.”
Indeed, a fresh perspective is needed, says Jocelyn Wagner, who is the Vancouver-based communications consultant who advised Camp Pringle to reduce its overt Christian marketing two years ago. Wagner is not a church member, but she consults to congregations and British Columbia Conference, “translating faith to the non-faith world.”
What was she thinking when she advised Pringle? “They were targeting a niche market that was slowly dying,” she says. “I asked, ‘Where do your campers come from?’ They said, ‘They come from the church.’ But it’s increasingly challenging for congregations to attract young families. I was encouraging them not to remove faith totally, but from the camp’s core messaging. Play up your other assets. Your other strengths.”
United Church camps, Wagner says, can attract non-religious families. They’re looking for meaning, for connection to nature and each other. Values like these are church specialties — but the Christian language creates barriers, rather than entryways, she advises. “Faith now, especially in urban centres, can be a hard thing to sell,” says Wagner.
Back to Camp Pringle. It was the last night of the session. On the lakeshore after sunset, the campers sat in small circles with their cabin groups. Prestwich asked them to share in their circles “Rocks, leaves and sticks;” that is, something that “rocked” about camp, one thing they’ll “leave” at camp, and something that will “stick” with them at home.
Then, she gave each camper a lit candle in a plastic holder, and invited the preteens to float them out onto the lake. The effect was enchanting — indigo sky and water, surrounded by stars, the twinkling lights from homes across the water, and the candles floating on ripples.
The campers stood in the sand side by side, watching their little lights float in a mass. What was in their young heads as they stood there: sacred prayers or secular thoughts? Does it matter?
Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.