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The Camp Connection

Lutheran and Christian summer camps rise from the country’s landscape, stretching from Washington to Florida, from North Dakota to Texas. These camps are the epitome of summer fun with their cookouts, campfires and canoes. But for many Concordia Seminary students, faculty and alums, these camps are about much more than fevered relay races and starry late-night hikes. They are where their Christian faith was deepened. Where their skills for ministry were tested and learned. And, for some, where the seed for vocational ministry was planted and watered as God’s Word was shared and studied during the sweltering days of summer.

“The Holy Spirit definitely used camp to bring me here,” says Luke Onken, a second-year Master of Divinity (M.Div.) student who attended Lakeview Ministries in Indiana from the time he was in kindergarten until he was able to volunteer and serve on staff, most recently during summer 2021. Soe Moe, a student in the Seminary’s Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT), shares a similar experience. “During my first summer as a counselor [at Camp Lutherhaven in Indiana], I came to understand that it was my calling to become a pastor,” he says. “My family thought I was crazy because, in my culture, young people cannot become pastors.” Moe, however, at the age of 25 is in his fourth year and nearing completion of the EIIT distance ministerial formation program.

This same story is echoed over and over by students and alums from across the Seminary’s various residential, distance and Advanced Studies programs. Rev. Michael Nielsen, who graduated from the Seminary in 2010, attended Camp Luther in Wisconsin as a child, then served on staff there and at Lutheran Island Camp in Minnesota. The camps helped cement his childhood dream of becoming a pastor. He is now serving as pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Barron, Wis., and will graduate from the Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) Program this spring. “Camp,” he says, “kept reaffirming the decision to go to Seminary to be equipped to serve the church.”

Alexandria Shick, a concluding Deaconess Studies student, served as a counselor at Camp Geneva in Michigan during her high school summers. “Between questions from and conversations with campers and the multidenominational staff I served with,” she says, “camp reconfirmed my desire to study theology.”

The Nature Effect

Faith-based summer camps can be deeply transformational, explains Dr. Joel Biermann, the Seminary’s Waldemar A. and June Schuette Professor of Systematic Theology. He spent four summers during college on staff at Camp Concordia in Michigan, Camp Luther in Nebraska and Camp Luther in Wisconsin.

Camp requires campers and counselors alike to unplug from their computers, cell phones and televisions and immerse themselves in God’s glorious creation, oftentimes with people they have never met. “The uniqueness of camp is the intentionality of being driven into nature,” Biermann says. “When you’re out of your home context and the safety of what’s comfortable, that kind of environment makes you more vulnerable, honest and receptive to being shaped.”

That was the case for Luke Kunze, who is enrolled in the Seminary’s Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Program, a distance pastoral education program. He attended Camp Luther in Wisconsin through high school, then worked on staff at Lutheran Valley Retreat in Colorado for seven years (with one summer at Shoshone Base Camp/Lutherhaven Ministries in Idaho due to a Colorado fire). “Camp demonstrated a daily walk with Christ, and not just on Sunday mornings,” he recalls. “It gave me a joy and desire to have strong relationships with people built on our common faith.”

“Talking about God while in an outdoor setting made the whole endeavor more intensely experiential for me in a way that I didn’t expect,” says Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) student Kendall Davis, who served at Camp Lutherwood in Oregon, Camp Lutherhoma in Oklahoma and Camp Lutherhaven in Indiana.

M.Div. student Vincent Otto, who served at Heit’s Point Lutheran Ministries in Missouri for three years, says Scripture came alive for him in the camp setting. “Teaching about Jesus as the solid rock becomes a lot more real when it is taught from the top of a rocky cliff,” he explains.

M.Div. student Deon Hull agrees. “We often forget how magnificent creation is when we are in our own sheltered, hyper-connected worlds,” he says. Hull served as program director at Woodlands Lutheran Camp in Florida and later as executive director at Walcamp in Illinois. “When campers or staff are unplugged, it ... tells them who they are in Christ and it helps them develop Christian character that transcends their current group of friends and situations.”

Many former campers and staff said they learned a lot from the highly structured schedule of camp life where set times were the norm for meals, rest, physical activity, group events and Bible study. “Being in creation forced me into a different routine for rest and daily life,” says M.Div. student Adam Tanney, who attended Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca in Iowa and Camp Lone Star in Texas, then served at Camp Luther in Wisconsin. “When I got back to the ‘real world’ after camp, that routine with no phone signal and more time walking trails, sitting with friends and being in daily devotions was something I could keep striving for.”

The Ministry Effect

For many students, summer camp instilled and enhanced important skills and routines for their Seminary years and beyond. Time and again they said the experience reaffirmed that God was calling them to vocational ministry and provided hands-on training in a sense. “I loved molding and teaching kids, showing them how to do things and influencing them,” Biermann says. “That kind of role I’ve never let go of.”

Kunze said he struggled with where to go next in life and ministry after college. Before deciding to attend the Seminary, he served as a program director at Lutheran Valley Retreat in Colorado for several years. “Now when I look back at my decision to work at camp versus going directly to the Seminary, I see how God used that time to build a joy and desire for sharing the Gospel with others in any setting,” he says.

Former camp staffers say spiritual formation happened on a daily basis. “Camp is intense and intentional,” Hull says. “The everyday application of Law and Gospel is very formative for future church workers.”
That was true for Online Deaconess Studies (ODS) student Naomi Moon. “I learned about how to better provide spiritual care for people, evaluating whether someone was growing by being challenged, or harming themselves by pushing too hard,” recalls Moon, who served at Lutheran Valley Retreat in Colorado during college.

Joseph Reineke, a fourth-year M.Div. student who attended and served at Camp Luther in Wisconsin, says he too learned important lessons that still resonate in his life. “Camp showed me the power of a community that surrounds you with Christ,” he says. “I hope to bring that into future congregations I serve.” Dr. Brian Gauthier, a Seminary alumnus and professor at Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward, says camp taught him how to work in a team environment. “Sometimes you lead,” he explains. “Other times you play second chair. I came to understand the time and demands of full-time ministry during my camp experience. That made all the difference for me.”

Biermann says he would do summer camp again if he could and encourages others to experience it for themselves if they can. “That’s how I’d spend my summers, no doubt,” he says. During his own camp experiences, “We did everything together, whether we all liked it or not,” he says. “This hike, that campout. We made breakfast together. And it was bad, but we did it together. And then you add studying and talking about God’s Word together every day. It makes a real impact.”

To learn more about Lutheran camps and to see a complete directory, visit nloma.org.

Deaconess Rebekah Lukas is a communications specialist at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.