Retreat for UCC Camp Leaders Provides Respite, Shared Joys, and Transformation

Camp and retreat center leaders came away from the two-day gathering refreshed.

Who remembers attending a UCC summer camp? At a recent gathering for UCC Outdoor Ministries, camp leaders came together to discuss the joys and challenges of working with youth campers and left with an unexpected benefit: the gift of retreat with colleagues.

Held April 2 and 3, 2024, at the UCC’s national setting in downtown Cleveland, “Connection, Community and the Cosmos: A Volunteer Ministries Leaders Circle Retreat” was facilitation by CHHSM’s the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, associate for advocacy and leadership development.

“In CHHSM, we often say that we are the church out in the communities, providing essential health and human services to anyone who needs them,” said Berry. “Outdoor Ministries is the church in the mountains, by the lakes and rivers, beside the cornfields and woods of God’s beloved creation. Moreover, Outdoor Ministries camps and retreat centers have become a refuge and accessible community with which to encounter church for many young people who may have felt unwelcomed, not cared about, or like they don’t belong in a congregational church setting. These UCC camp sites offer a safe place to land, learn, and grow. What a gift.”

The retreat was divided into sessions, covering a wide variety of topics, including mental health issues and spiritually grounded program strategies. Some of the sessions that participants found most meaningful dealt with topics associated with belonging, safe space and transformation.

Tivvi Pare, executive director of the Horton Center in Gorham, N.H., found meaning in the opening session on belonging. “We covered belonging in different aspects and layers, such as belonging to place, body, self, and others,” Pare said. “Through engaging practices with poetry, sharing, and movement, we explored how we each individually belong to so much. I couldn’t help but think about how I could borrow some of the practices and bring them back to my summer staff. Now that I have undergone this transformative understanding of belonging, how powerful could it be to begin our staff training with the same chance to identify our roots and true selves?”

Pare extended her thoughts to the young campers, too. “How can we share this with our campers?” she asked. “When a camper feels like they belong in our place, to our community, and to ourselves, we have truly accomplished something extraordinary!”

In addition to Berry, the two-day retreat also included special sessions run by other UCC national staff members. As with the rest of the retreat, these special times also included much discussion and sharing of stories.

A morning session on the cultural, social, and practical aspects of gender and sexuality issues was led by the Rev. Amy Johnson, the UCC’s minister for sexual education and justice, and Dr. Sherry Warren, the UCC’s minister for women’s and gender justice. 

Warren and Johnson “worked to create a conversation about creating increasingly inclusive environments, remembering the trauma folks come in with, and being aware of challenges so they can think ahead about how to work within their sites to create more inclusion and hospitality for more people,” said Johnson. “I appreciate outdoor ministries so much, and know it transforms and saves lives.”

As with the other presenters, Warren spoke from the perspective of being a former UCC camper — she attended White Memorial Camp on Council Grove Reservoir in Kansas as a youth. “I am so grateful to the people who gave their time to us every summer,” Warren said. “They were instrumental in shaping who I am today, and I hold them close to my heart. Camp gave me the opportunity to get away from my small town where everyone had already formed an opinion about me and go to a place where I could practice being someone other than who they saw me as. It was freeing, transformative, and so important for my sense of self.”

The other special session was a “Power Hour” with the Rev. Shari Prestemon, the UCC’s  acting association general minister and co-executive of Global Ministries. Prestemon spent most of her hour-long time listening to the stories of joy and current challenges from the camp leaders. “It was a true pleasure to welcome this group of dedicated leaders to the national setting,” she said. “Our outdoor ministries across the United Church of Christ are precious in our shared church life. I was heartened to hear their stories, see their passion for their ministries, and talk together about opportunities for partnership and mutual support.”

The retreat was coordinated by Danielle Hickman, the UCC’s minister for volunteer engagement. Berry said she was thrilled when Hickman asked her to facilitate the retreat. “I had the opportunity to talk about such a wide range of topics based on the group’s interests, and yet all of which intersected with the work I do with CHHSM programming,” said Berry. “These also are passion topics of mine: belonging, mental health, how to infuse spirituality and justice into programming.”

The camp leaders, who came into Cleveland from across the country, left with resources to aid them in their ministries, but also much more. For the Rev. Tracy Heilman, site director of Tower Hill Camp & Retreat Center in Sawyer, Mich., one of the main takeaways was strengthened relationships with colleagues.

“One of the best parts of working in Outdoor  Ministry is being nurtured and surrounded by the natural world — trees and birds and blooms and all manner of animals,” Heilman said. “But it can be lonely not having colleagues who are close by. Having this opportunity to share ideas, hear of other ways to address challenges, and be inspired by the good ministry of others was a gift.”

Elizabeth Charles McGough director of Pilgrim Lodge in West Gardiner, Maine, agreed. “As leaders in Outdoor Ministries, so often we are called upon to curate meaningful experiences of retreat: giving our participants space for rejuvenation, exploration, and growth,” McGough said. “This opportunity provided us a chance to be on the receiving end of that gift: space to engage together, reflect, and ground ourselves in a sense of purpose lays an important foundation as we look toward nurturing young adults in their own growth and leadership developing at our various sites during the season to come. Time connecting together was rich and fruitful.”

Kent Busman, executive director of Camp Fowler in Lake Pleasant, N.Y., also found the retreat to be a gift.

“Most of us lead or coordinate retreats for our living,” he said “It was delightful to simply ‘be’ on retreat. It’s a tangible reminder of what a lot of our guests are longing for when they arrive at our camps and retreat centers.

“This was a helpful gift from Volunteer Ministries and the Cleveland office. The camps feel like welcomed partners within the great purpose of the UCC. For that, we are all grateful.”

Learn more about UCC Camps and Retreat Centers.

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