Building Camp Mount Luther’s Program

By Chad Hershberger

By all accounts, the first season was a good one, according to one written account: “The new camp founded in 1963 named Mount Luther located near Mifflinburg seemed an immediate success. From a first year with 228 campers, it almost doubled in enrollment in 1964 and continued to grow each subsequent year through 1967.”

Part of the camp’s success can be attributed to the support of local congregations. The 1963 brochure proclaimed, “A knowledge of God and of one another… developed in youth at a church sponsored camp… helps guarantee a future of responsible citizenship in church and community.” Church camping was to be an extension of the educational curriculum of local congregations!

Campers seemed eager to come back to Mount Luther. A 1963 camper journal reported, “We had come together just six nights before with only one thing in common, our love for Christ. Now at the close of the week, that love has grown into a shared fellowship. We felt very strongly all the aspects of the worshipping fellowship of believers that we had discussed all week.” The first director of Mount Luther, Rev. Ted Schneider agreed. “Mount Luther Camp and Conference Center is unique in matters other than its architecture. Its program is unique, having no counterpart in any present camping programs within our Central Pennsylvania Synod. Until the advent of Mount Luther Camp, church camping in our synod was predominately of one style and rather generally of one philosophy.”

Despite all the success, Rev. John Bishop said some had a hard time adjusting to small-group camping. “That first season was very gratifying. Two hundred twenty-eight campers signed up and Mount Luther continued to grow (in subsequent years). From the beginning Mount Luther became controversial. There was a very strong sense of loyalty to [other camps]. Consequently, there was some negative feedback from campers who had attended [other camps],” Bishop said.

Despite these comments, Mount Luther moved forward. In preparation for the second camping season, those involved with the camp tried to build upon the successes of the 1963 season. They also sought to make the camp a year-round place for people to gather in Christ’s name, as was written in a promotional piece. “As an integral part of the total education program of the church, camping offers unique opportunities for Christian growth. The outdoor setting, the time available for leadership experiences, and the close, personal relationships between campers and leaders are distinctive features of the camp experience. In each case the camp helps campers to develop a deeper commitment to God, to develop a Christian sense of personal identity and worth, to practice his Christian vocation in all his inter-personal relationships, and to relate in a Christian manner to the world of nature. Our camps seek to work in close relationship with the family and the local congregation. Our resident camps are looking forward to the time when they have all-weather facilities to serve our congregations throughout the year. At Camp Mount Luther such accommodations are available to take care of a maximum of 40 persons. These facilities are in use almost every weekend and over holidays throughout the fall and winter months. More church people are finding the camp setting a laboratory for creative experiences in Christian group living and learning.”

Staffing became a necessity as the camp began to take shape. In 1964, the synod approved the appointment of a synod-wide director of camping to guide the camping program and direct the various camps with the assistance of the part-time managers for the individual camps. The board also approved a single architectural and consulting engineering firm to service all four of the synod’s camps. While the synod may have seen benefit in consolidating these tasks for all the camps, it contributed to Mount Luther’s inability to set forth its own course. Its parents did what was best for all the siblings rather than allowing individuality.

In January 1964, the Executive Board of the Central Pennsylvania Synod adopted the motion that the Board of Parish Education employ a full-time director for Mount Luther Camp and Conference Center. On March 28, 1964, the Board of Parish Education elected Rev. Theodore Schneider to be full-time director of Mount Luther. The vote was 31-2. Schneider would work directing Mount Luther exclusively. The aforementioned Director of Camping for the synod would oversee and administer all four camps of the synod. Schneider ended up declining the call. Because it was close to the beginning of the camping season, Ira Sassaman assumed the role of director.

Other major changes also took place. The Managing Board reported that staff training would be expanded to four days and staff would be paid for nine weeks of employment. In addition, the need existed for a health building, and they felt this facility should be included in the administration center along with the director’s quarters and funds should come from the synod. Also, a motion passed to proceed with a village store as planned by the architect at an approximate cost of $850. At the time, that building would be used to store athletic equipment and later would be used as a multi-purpose building. The Executive Board of the synod was told they should consider building a residence at the camp for the director.

Mount Luther offered Family Camp for the first time during Summer 1964. According to the brochure, “The basic purpose of these family camps is to strengthen family relationships and to help parents in carrying out their promises made when their children were baptized. Christian Family Camping is an adventure in living in God’s out of doors with opportunities for strengthening and for enriching family life. A time for doing and dreaming together; a time for talking and listening together; a time for growing and sharing together; a time for playing and praying together. Christian Family Camping is a vacation with a lift.”

Betty Jane Mincemoyer said that the camp offered three weeks of family camp over the years: one in the middle to give the staff a break and two at the end of the summer. By all accounts, Mount Luther’s second season proved to be a success, as was reported to the synod.

At the end of the summer, on August 10-21, 1964, the Luther League of the Lutheran Church in America held a work camp at Mount Luther where campers engaged in activities for improvement of the camp property as well as in discussions, study, worship, and recreation. Twelve campers attended from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, and Nebraska under the leadership of Rev. George Doran, then from Jersey Shore.

As Mount Luther grew, thoughts turned to being able to offer year-round programming. In September 1964, the Executive Board took action to appropriate $4,000 from the synod’s Expansion and Building Fund for the installation of heating units in the cabins and lodge at Mount Luther.

A major event in the camp’s early history also took place that fall. “The Executive Committee of the Board of Parish Education on September 30 authorized the acting director of Mount Luther, Ira C. Sassaman, to employ Mr. Donald L. Mincemoyer as camp manager on a part-time basis.” Mincemoyer served as full-time summer resident manager and director and as part-time winter manager.

A few weeks later, on November 23-24, 1964, Mincemoyer was part of a group of people talking about the future of camping, as was reported in synod minutes. “One of the regional Camp Administrators Conferences sponsored by the LCA Board of Parish Education was held at Mount Luther Camp for the purpose of understanding the board’s approach and philosophy in the camping program, as well as to introduce administrators to the new curriculum materials for church camping. Representing our synod were Ira C. Sassaman and Donald L. Mincemoyer and Pastors Adam P. Bingaman, John S. Bishop, Emil J. Engelman, George E. Bowerson, Jr., and Richard H. Flock.”

The first two years of Mount Luther’s history coincided with the first two years of the Lutheran Church in America. The governance and structure initially set up by the synod for their camping ministry contributed to Mount Luther’s lack of its own identity. The Central Pennsylvania Synod attempted to standardize camp programs, training, budgets, and staff. These first years of the new structure were years of trial and error. The Managing Boards were learning that their function was an advisory board. They had all the power to suggest what was to be done at camp. But they had no authority to act on their ideas. In the new chain of command, they were the first link. They sent their requests to the [synod] Division for Camping, who sent them to the [synod] Board of Parish Education, who sent them to the Executive Board of the synod.

Mount Luther’s sophomore season was important as the new camp built on a successful first year and made some decisions to chart a new era in the camp’s young history. That new era would start in 1965 when Donald L. Mincemoyer began his tenure as director of Mount Luther. During Mincemoyer’s years, several new projects were taken on that would be a foundation for much of what Mount Luther would become and ultimately led to Mount Luther’s recognizable identity when the camp would hit adulthood.