Jim Condap serves as president of the Association of Covenant Camps and Conference Centers. He is also the executive director of Pilgrim Pines Camp and Retreat Center in Swanzey, New Hampshire.
When Covid-19 restrictions curtailed camping options last year, how did Covenant camps adjust?
We had to cancel so much over the year—summer camps, volunteer groups, youth retreats, Sunday worship services, community events, mother-daughter retreats, church retreats, and more. In the more than 20 years I’ve been in Covenant camping, this is by far the worst situation we’ve faced.
But we’ve been creative. Some of the most creative people I know are in Covenant camping, and we’ve found ways to do things differently. We worked to adjust our schedules and staff so we could provide some safe individual and family retreat options. Some of our members were able to offer day camps by implementing extensive safety measures.
How have our camps weathered those losses?
Prior to March, we were on pace for a record summer, but by June we were in survival mode. In order to survive, we had to aggressively cut costs. The losses are huge. We’ve lost millions of dollars. Many of our camps have missed budget by up to 70 percent over the year before, and we expect 2021 to be down substantially as well. Most of our income comes in between May and August, and nearly all of our camps lost that.
Some of our camps had to cut 50 to 70 percent of their staff. That’s hard for a ministry that focuses on relationships. Our staff live in community—we eat together, we do holidays together. Camp staffers are family. Making some of these tough decisions was
gut-wrenching. There have been a lot of sleepless nights and stressful days. Our call in Christian camping is related to the great tradition of hospitality. Not being able to welcome people through our usual ways is very disorienting.
I will say that our donors have been super. Their financial gifts have been critical in keeping our operations going. We’ve also tried to be good stewards of what we have.
How are you planning for the coming year?
Normally there’s a rhythm to the camping year—winter retreats, church retreats, summer camp, fall retreats, holidays. This virus has certainly destroyed that rhythm. We don’t think things will return to normal until 2022.
We do think we have learned some ways to offer modified, safe experiences that are meaningful. In January, we expect to have registration available for family camps and summer camps. We’re simplifying a lot of things, and the offerings will look very different—probably smaller and shorter, with a lot more activities happening outside.
We’ve taken Covid-19 very seriously and there are a lot of new safety protocols, including how we hire staff, check campers in, and do registration, meals, and cabin assignments. We’re listening to parents, the CDC, and guidance from the medical community.
What have you learned that will impact your ministry in the future?
One of the big things we’ve learned is that sometimes simpler is better. At times in the past, we tried to pack too much into our programs. This year has taught us to simplify and focus on what really matters—our God, our people, the relationships we all have together. It also has forced us to experiment, whether with different staffing structures, new ways of running games and serving meals, or how to hold worship services.
More than anything, we have developed a renewed sense of call to our ministry of Christian camping. We are an extension of the local church so people can hear the good news of Jesus Christ and experience his creation.
Any final words?
We miss our campers! We miss our kids and our adults. We miss the summer staff. We miss the growth that happens when a college-age or older high school person comes on staff. Many times, it’s their first job and it’s a time when many young people first sense a call to ministry. The bottom line is we really miss our people. We look forward to having our spaces filled with laughter and stories again.