Plans are underway to breathe life back into traditional overnight summer camp, a program staple of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM), after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many camps to cancel summer sessions in 2020—some for the very first time.

Don Johnson, executive director of LOM, said only 17 camps offered traditional overnight camp in summer 2020, hosting 5,263 campers. Although summer camp won’t return completely to pre-pandemic norms this year, Johnson said he expects a robust turnout when camps open this month and into July.

“My prediction for the summer of 2021 is that around 85 camps will have traditional overnight summer camp,” Johnson said. “I’m guessing that our 80 or so LOM camps having traditional overnight summer camp this summer will have a cumulative total of around 35,000 campers.”

Johnson estimates that about a dozen or so camps will feel it’s not prudent for them to have traditional overnight summer camp this year. And because of ongoing pandemic protocols, the capacity of most camps will be significantly limited.

“All activities will be confined to the pod that the camper is in [usually 15-16 campers],” Johnson said. “Pods will not be intermingling for activities of any kind. Masks [will be] worn anytime that social distancing is not possible or impractical. No large-group activities, campfires, worship, etc.”

Though some camps were canceled last summer, other programs adjusted to follow health and safety protocols. David Box, associate director of Lutherdale Ministries, Elkhorn, Wis., said what he saw last summer was “the power of the small-group ministry.”

“The pandemic forced us to slow down and create smaller groups to lessen the chance of spread across the whole camp community if we had a sickness, which we did not, praise God,” Box said. “While many things about last summer were different, the core of Lutherdale remained the same. Campers were welcomed, accepted, known and celebrated in a Christ-centered community.”

Clark Baldwin, executive director of Ewalu Camp & Retreat Center near Strawberry Point, Iowa, said that he hosted 455 campers last year and operated for about half the season. This year he anticipates about 900 campers, still about 10% less than in a normal year.

Ewalu, he said, will likely forego its campfire worship services in favor of its “mega-church” services, which occur on an athletic field and provide for much better social distancing.

Jon Halvorson, executive director of Metigoshe Ministries in Bottineau, N.D., expects to host 900 to 1,000 campers this year—nearly double the attendance last summer—and to operate at around 75% capacity in order to most effectively implement COVID-19 mitigation practices.

Metigoshe has a long history of using Wednesday nights to act out a passion play during what is known as the Christ Hike. Camp leadership decided not to do the Christ Hike in 2020 nor this year because the entire camp community walks from one location to another to watch scenes from the Gospels being acted out by camp staff.

Halvorson said staff have created an entirely new, “COVID friendly” faith experience for Wednesday nights, so for the second year they will perform a weekly “Stations of the Cross” program in cabin groups.

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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