Lutherans in Minnesota

Economic downturn affects context for summer camps

Church-based camps have been experiencing challenging times for about a
decade. Competition from school and community programs and other
specialty camps (sports or music) has increased, with a commensurate
decrease in the number of campers (and income).

New concerns are arising at local Lutheran camps for the summer of 2009,
as the effects of the economic downturn play themselves out. Still, camp
directors and counselors are keeping an upbeat attitude as they face the
uncertain future.

“Parents need to make choices,” explains Joel Legred, director of Luther Park
Camping and Retreat Center, “and it might be that Bible camp is bypassed for
sports or music camps.” This has been part of a national trend, according to
Legred.

The decrease in campers is changing the funding structure and needs of
camps. “Our budget has been scaled back slightly for this year, assuming
slightly lower camper numbers,” said Marv Nysetvold, the new executive
director of Shetek Lutheran Ministries in Slayton, Minnesota. “But a
corresponding drop in some of the variable expenses, like food” are factored
in since “less campers” means “less food.”

The funding formula for camp ministries is changing significantly according
to several camp staff members. “About two-thirds of Luther Park’s revenue
used to come from campers — either summer campers or retreat guests —
and one-third of the income from gifts; now it is closer to 50 percent each,”
Legred said. “One reason for this is the need for scholarships for so many
campers.”

Judy Johnson, program director at Luther Crest Bible Camp in Alexandria,
Minnesota, sees additional reasons for the shift. “Increase[d] cost of utilities,
insurance and food have all put greater pressure on the budget,” she
maintained. “In some cases, but not all, the sources of revenue seem to be
shifting from summer campers and congregations to retreat fees and
donations.”

David Holtz, executive director at Luther Crest, added “We are building our
ministry through our connection to the congregations. Our camp is an
extension of the congregation!”

Legred pointed out some significant institutional support that is available.
“Thrivent Financial has provided huge support through programs it offers,” he
said.

It’s too early to predict lower numbers for camps” for this year, said Maria
Schugel, section executive for ACA Northland, the accrediting agency in the
Midwest for summer camps. “But most camps want the greatest number of
kids possible, so camps are willing to make family deals or offer scholarships”
in difficult economic times.

So what are camps doing to position themselves in this highly competitive
time?

Camp directors agree that the mission of the camp is to serve as many
children as possible. Holtz said, “It is our policy that no one, due to their
economic situation, not come to camp. We will make it possible!”

“Turning a young person away from camp simply because they cannot pay,”
said Legred, “would be like saying no to someone’s participation in a church
because they can’t put money in the collection plate.”

Camps are also trying innovative ways to draw more kids in. “Some of the
new, specialized, innovative programs, like the collaborative West and
Wilderness Canoe Trips with Camp Emmaus near Menagha, have been a huge
success,” said Luther Crest’s Johnson. “Our Senior High Waterama Program
filled quickly last year as well.

“We are offering more speicialized programs like Arts Camp, Choir Camp,
Guitar Camp, as well as basketball, volleyball, and football camps,” she
further explained. “Specialty programs have seen an increase in demand.”
Direct competition with the specialty camps offered by other organizations
increases the number of campers and the stability of the camp. New
opportunities and technologies for marketing the camps also make a
difference.

“We are using more technology, the Internet, and so on,” said Johnson, “but I
still see a huge amount of value in word-of-mouth promotion and face-to-
face relationship building.”

“Directors [of camps] need to use multiple strategies now to show the
benefits of participating in camp,” Schugel argued. “Increasingly, nonprofit
camps need to share the demonstrated outcomes that children will
experience.”

Schugel hasn’t heard of any camps adapting their programming to address
issues of economic stress. But she said that “camps have to be sensitive [to
the economic duress] that campers may be experiencing because kids come
from so many different situations.”

Joel Legred believes that “we want kids to escape their current situation and
leave the stress behind” when they come to camp. “If people have never
worked at a camp, they can’t know the impact it could have” for the life of a
camper and what they are struggling with. And it is this reality — the life-
changing experience of the camper — that drives the camp experience.

“The unique and deliberate ministry of camp is an experience which proclaims
the gospel in a unique way to not only build a life of faithful service in each
individual, but also build a servant heart in each congregation,” Holtz
emphasized. “We will continue to proclaim the true message of hope in Jesus,
and that is not going to change.”