Ecumenical Partnerships

By Chad Hershberger

At the end of my recent Compass Points class, “Articulating Mission, Vision, and Values,” we closed our half-week together with worship. The service was led by a Methodist pastor, who serves as an executive director of a camping corporation, and a longtime Lutheran camp director who was one of the first women in that role.

When we got to the meal part of the service, the Methodist pastor told us that we didn’t have written responses, but we should respond as we knew what to say and felt comfortable. “The Lord be with you…” he said. We responded, “And also with you.”

“Lift up your hearts.” And the crowd responded appropriately. As we continued, my mind wandered. I realized that this was a class of camp professionals from at least three denominations, and we were united in our communion responses. It was neat and veery powerful. There is more that unites us than divides us.

It also made me think of the ecumenical partnerships we’ve engaged in at Mount Luther. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has several full communion agreements with other denominations.  This means that the ELCA can easily share clergy, Eucharist, and other partnerships together.  The Episcopal Church is one of those denominations through a formal agreement called “Called to Common Mission.”  This document was lived out through joint programming offered by both camp and the diocese for many years.

Prior to 2006, the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania rented another camp and ran their own program, Agapeland.  Due to some concerns with the site at that time, leaders from the diocese wanted to look at alternative sites.  The assistant to the bishop of the Upper Susquehanna Synod told me of a conversation he had with his diocesan counterpart.  He wondered if I could meet with a committee of folks to talk about possibilities.

On a cool November morning, several members of the committee came to Mount Luther, where there was a tour and discussion.  As the talks progressed, it became quite obvious to all there that the best thing to do was not to have the diocese try to duplicate Mount Luther’s camping efforts, such as writing curriculum, coming up with crafts, and finding staff; but, rather it would be prudent to do a joint camping week where Episcopalians and Lutherans would be at Mount Luther together, at the same time, under the same program.  We’d take elements of the Mount Luther and the Agapeland camping experiences and put them together, living out the Call to Common Mission, showing both church bodies that indeed these full-communion agreements can be more than just something we say or have on paper.

Planning began, with both sides being cautiously optimistic that this arrangement would work.  When the first joint camping week came, in August 2006, it was a huge success.  Each denomination shared worship styles and liturgies and taught one another about their faith life.  It was a week featuring a melting pot of ideas, with lots of sharing, and new traditions.  We even called ourselves “Lutherpalians.” The program, which began with elementary school campers, expanded to include middle school campers.  In 2009, the week was renamed “BASIC Camp,” short for Brothers And Sisters In Christ!

From the start, there was a vision that this partnership could eventually grow to the point that Camp Mount Luther would be a joint ministry and outdoor ministry site of both the Upper Susquehanna Synod (ELCA) and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. It was the belief of the camp that partnerships like this give a larger pool to share programmatic ideas, increase the usage of camp, help others to experience God’s creation, allow time for the formation of Christian disciples, and reach a larger population to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I preached in Episcopal parishes in the diocese and consulted with the Children’s Commission.  The Board of Directors of Camp Mount Luther elected Episcopalians to the board so that the diocese had voice and vote at the camp board’s table.  In addition, they changed their by-laws to create two new board seats; one to be appointed by the bishop of the diocese and one to the appointed by the Council of Trustees. Those seats are currently filled by Rev. Ken Wagner-Pizza and Bob Kilp.

In 2011, the diocese’s Summer Youth Conference and Camp Mount Luther’s Senior High Camp merged to become “X-Teen,” a joint senior high summer camping experience.  That “X-Teen” was used by the diocese for other youth events as well, which were promoted by Camp Mount Luther and the synod.  The diocese also held their children, youth, and young adult events at the Mount Luther site, as well as a clergy training conference there.  To recognize the efforts of one of the early leaders of the partnership, the Camp Mount Luther Board established The Leslie Doyle Campership Fund, so that donors could give money toward summer camp scholarships for Episcopal campers.

Due to some leadership changes in the diocese and work to rebuilt their youth program,  Summer 2014 was the last summer that we held joint summer programs. Despite not doing these programs, the diocese has continued to use our site for their children and youth retreats and other events. We continue to be in communication to find ways we can support one another and maybe do joint programming again.

Another ecumenical partnership started with a phone call. Following a board retreat in 2014 that focused on new initiatives we could start, I called Gene Joiner, then executive director of Camp Krislund. Krislund, a Presbyterian camp, located about a half hour away from Mount Luther. I told Gene that our board was talking about ways that perhaps the local camps, including Wesley Forest, a Methodist Camp, could work together. They weren’t sure how it might look but knew that each camp had resources the others did not. Gene said he had been thinking about the same thing, so we met to talk.

One of the first ideas we explored was doing joint trip camps together. Gene had a rich background in adventure programming, and both knew that if they got just a few campers from each camp, it would be more advantageous to put a few from each camp together to make a critical mass. Because it was too late in the season to schedule those trips for that summer, that idea was put on the back burner for the next summer.

The first week of that summer, Mount Luther was in a bind when one of our lifeguards lost her father to cancer. Our only other lifeguard that summer was on a trip camp that week. I called Gene to see if he had any lifeguards that he could send our way for afternoon pool time. He said he had about a dozen certified guards and would happily send one my way. I never would have thought to call him if we hadn’t talked about ways to partner.

The following summer, our two camps offered our first joint trip camps, including a whitewater rafting and kayaking trip to Canada and an arts trip to New York. Despite some kinks to work out that are the normal part of a new partnership, everything went wonderfully. The next winter, we invited Emily Sliski, then the new director at Wesley Forest, to join in the conversations. She jumped on board and the three camps offered four joint trips in the second year of this partnership. We continued to offer joint trip and specialty camps for several years.

We eventually added a day of joint training with all three camps and rotated between the three sites. Staff got to know each other and shared some of their best practices. Some even met up outside of camp to do things together and hang out.

What was great about these partnerships was showcasing the best of what each has to offer. Sharing resources and expanding our reach is the joy of these ecumenical partnerships. I hope we can continue to work like this to further Christ’s mission.