If the last few months have taught us anything, perhaps it’s that slowing down and enjoying the moment are good things. Or that simplicity is surprisingly refreshing compared to life’s daily complexities.

Some families have been practicing and enjoying these lessons for generations at Lutheran outdoor ministries, including Camp Luther in Ohio (part of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio), Calumet Lutheran Ministries Camp and Conference Center in New Hampshire, or Joy Ranch in South Dakota (part of Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota).

At these intergenerational camps, which typically provide short summer respites, families can spend intentional time with God, nature and one another.

And they quickly learn important lessons.

“You can survive—and thrive—on only what can fit inside of a tent, room, cabin or camper,” said Rebecca Rogers Maher, a family camp program assistant at Calumet. “As long as you’re together, simple things are enough.”

It’s not just baggage that can be pared down. Lifestyles can be simplified, too, when you put down your phone, disconnect from the world and reconnect with those around you, said Marta Diehm of Cleveland, a third-generation camper at Camp Luther.

“There’s a simplicity that comes from a camping experience that’s not going to come at Disney World or at Myrtle Beach, where everything is much more connected,” she said. “Because of it, I think that I have just been able to learn what it means to value family time and to value my relationships with the people who matter the most to me.”

What do you do at family camp?

Every ELCA family camp is a bit different, but you can expect certain daily activities. Most camps have a set time for meals at a dining hall, though some give the option of cooking at your campsite.

There is also time—usually midmorning—dedicated to typical “camp activities” that give the family a break. Kids can make crafts, play games, engage in Bible lessons or hike with others their age (all supervised by camp staff), whereas parents and grandparents can take part in an adult Bible study or spend time on their own, said Judy Hakanson Smith, a deacon and camp director for families and adults at Calumet Lutheran Ministries.

“We tell people, it’s kind of a challenge by choice: you participate in as much as you want, or if you need time to relax, you relax,” said Jenny Frantz, director of Camp Luther, which is exclusively a family camp.

Most afternoons are purposely left wide open, which gives families the opportunity to adventure together.

“You can survive—and thrive—on only what can fit inside of a tent, room, cabin or camper. As long as you’re together, simple things are enough.”

At Camp Luther, families hit the pool or hike through the woods along the shore of Lake Erie. At Calumet, the beach alongside Ossipee Lake is full of families enjoying the sun and sand, while others traipse through the White Mountains. At Joy Ranch, which is modeled after an 1800s western town, grandparents and grandkids saddle up and hit the trails on horses.

During this time, especially, families regroup and experience God’s creation together.

“We have done a really great job in our country of segregating ages: this is their activity, this is my activity … and [camp] is a great opportunity to play together,” Frantz said. “You don’t have to be concerned about who is cooking, who is washing the dishes. And if you need that little bit of a break, there’s that opportunity in the morning.”

At day’s end, families often gather for a final campfire worship or special activity before retiring.

That’s the “schedule.” But what really happens at family camp?

“That time [grandkids] get to spend with their grandma and grandpa and see them do activities they think are neat, whether it’s riding a horse or roasting a hot dog, there’s something that builds relationships with them in those moments,” said Jake Hanson, director of Joy Ranch, which hosts a “Grandparent Camp.”

“And we can talk about horseback riding, but [underlying this], they’re talking about faith, they’re talking about life, they’re talking about the Bible and the gospel message. And I think to myself, ‘How often do grandmas and grandpas and grandkids get to do that?’”

What do you learn?

Since it’s a vacation setting, most families probably don’t think of camp as a place to learn. But the lessons are there, report camp staff.

Frantz grew up attending Camp Luther and, as an adult, camps with four generations of her family: her grandma, parents, sisters and nephews. “One of our core values is faith, and so the focus on having faith conversations as a family is huge to us,” she said. “I tell people all the time [that] I had conversations with my grandma that I don’t think I would have had anywhere else, because there was built-in time [for them]. I learned more about my grandmother’s faith, and I learned more about my faith.”

But one of the most meaningful lessons from family camp is that repetition breeds retention. “When you live together with others in a place committed to kindness, goodwill and fellowship, you develop a muscle memory for that way of being, and carry it back home to your community,” Maher said.

Sometimes that means bringing camp ideas directly into your home. “I know some families who say, ‘We went to camp together, and when we got home, we continued to do family devotions together … because that was important to us,’” Frantz said.

“When you live together with others in a place committed to kindness, goodwill and fellowship, you develop a muscle memory for that way of being, and carry it back home to your community.”

Other times, that means bringing camp home and sharing it with a larger community.

“They have a lot of songs they sing at grace, and we’[ve] implement[ed] some of those in our household,” said Janis Vajdos of Connecticut, who has attended Calumet for years with her husband, Felix, and their children: Ben, 18; Jessica, 16; and Nikolas, 11. “Some songs, we’ve brought them to our church … or to our Sunday school to bring them something new. I think that the camp lifestyle is so ingrained in my kids that we probably don’t even recognize what has been an influence from camp.”

For Diehm, who has camped with her grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins and other extended family at Camp Luther for her entire life, the memories reach even further: “One of the key verses that is kind of preached or thought upon every Friday night at Camp Luther is Matthew 5:14-16: ‘You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works.’”

One thing that has stuck with her all these years, she said, was “the idea that we all have a light to shine, we all have something to give to the world, and we all have our own ways that we can show and experience Jesus with others.”

At press time, some Lutheran Outdoor Ministry (LOM) sites had closed for the summer due to the coronavirus, while others may offer adapted programming. Don Johnson, executive director of LOM, said ELCA camps “will need the support of all of us to regain the strength of their ministries as exemplified in this article,” For more information, visit elca.org/camps or lomnetwork.org/sites.

Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Grimoldby is a freelance writer living in Antioch, Ill.

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