Ira C. Sassaman and Small Group Camping

Who we are


One feature of our new Good SOIL blog is to highlight camp’s unique history. Periodically we will look at people, places, and events that have shaped Camp Mount Luther. For my masters’ thesis, I did extensive research on camp’s early history. And being part of the camp community for the past 42 years, I’ve lived a lot of it! Much of the material I’ll share comes from my thesis, “Seeking Its Own Identity: Camp Mount Luther in the Era of the Lutheran Church in America,” written in 2010.

To understand the thinking behind the founding of Mount Luther, you need to understand that the purchase and development of Mount Luther was the first step in implementing a 20-year-plan to reorganize the camping ministry of the Central Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church in America. Two important ideas converged. First, a new site was desired because of facilities. One of the local Lutheran camps, Camp Juniata, needed great repair. And, Camp Susquehanna, held annually on the campus of Susquehanna University, was starting to see a decline and did not own its own facility. The second main idea was a new approach that was developing around group camping. “Small group camping” demanded a new type of facility.

1963-4—The first director of Camp Mount Luther, Rev. Theodore Schneider (far right) addresses a group (presumably the 1963 Staff) in Maple Dining Hall. Standing next to him is Ira C. Sassaman

When you practice small group camping, living groups consist of 4-8 boys with a counselor and 4-8 girls with a counselor. The cabin group works together, plays together, and lives together for the week. Each group conducts its own program and participates occasionally in activities with the whole camp.

In contrast, conference style camping was the major type of scheduling in the camping industry in the early days. Here, there is a tightly structured scheduled with time periods set aside for classes, study halls, crafts, recreation, drama, interest groups, even clubs. Planning for the camp is carried out primarily by adult leaders.  Campers live with other campers in a cabin, tent, or dormitory with one or more counselors.  During the day, the camper moves from one activity to another (like a student in school), guided and instructed by several faculty members.  Many activities take place indoors in large assembly halls.  In this kind of camp, many campers can be accommodated on a small site.  At the conclusion of several years of camping, a certificate of graduation or achievement is often awarded.

Small group camping was of particular interest to Dr. Ira Sassaman. Seven years before Mount Luther’s start, he became the synodical director of Parish Education. Jurisdiction of the four synod owned camps– Juniata, Susquehanna, Nawakwa (near Gettysburg), and Sequanota (near Jennerstown)— came under his position.

“We had a strategy conference very early after I came to the job in Harrisburg to develop a synodical strategy for church camping.   A second assumption was that camping would be a thing of the future:  an experience which every child in the church would have at least one summer’s camping experience,” Sassman said in an oral history project for the Central Pennsylvania Synod, LCA.

The strategy said they needed more camps, placed geographically so no one would travel more than two hours for retreat and camping facilities.   Out of that strategy came the plans for Mount Luther and Kirchenwald, located near Lebanon, PA.

1963—Ira C. Sassaman is part of a group of individuals looking at a mock-up of Maple Dining Hall. He is pictured in the back row, second from left. 1963

The strategy said they needed more camps, placed geographically so no one would travel more than two hours for retreat and camping facilities.   Out of that strategy came the plans for Mount Luther and Kirchenwald, located near Lebanon, PA.

“The Board of Parish Education had planned to build two new camps so that there would be one camp in each of the four areas of the synod,” Rev. John S. Bishop said in the same oral history project. He also wrote, “In the early sixties, Ira Sassaman became intensely interested in and fascinated by the new approach in church camping developed in the early fifties.  After joining the synod staff, he guided the Parish Board of Education and its Division of Camping into establishing a new camp designed especially for small-group camping,” Rev. John S. Bishop said in A Brief History of Camps Affiliated with the Central Pennsylvania Synod.

Ira Sassaman participated in the experimental small-group camping experience in the late 1950s at Nawakwa, being a counselor for a cabin of junior boys.


“Small group camping was of particular interest to Dr. Ira Sassaman. “

“That was a new concept in camping that said to me we need younger camp leaders trained and recruited.  We talked about learning through interpersonal relationships in a new environment and (also) stewardship,” Sassaman said.  This was also the time when camp staff began to be paid instead of being volunteers; thus, camping costs went up as well.

We will explore the selection of the site for Mount Luther in another blog post. As you have guessed, small group camping was used as the model for Mount Luther when it started in 1963. Sassaman helped train the staff that year, surely giving insights into this new method. He later got to exclusively lead the staff in this model as he served as summer director in 1964 after the first director, Rev. Theodore Schneider, decided in early May not to take a new call as year-round camp director. Sassaman accepted responsibility of the position since it was too close to the camping season to hire a director. He had help from a seminarian, Charles Bergstrom, and they had double attendance from the first season and the two weeks of Family Camp were filled.

Sassaman would continue in his synod work. In March 1969, he became the assistant to the president of the synod as consultant for special ministries. That was also the first year of camping at Kirchenwald, the synod’s fourth camp, located in the Lebanon area.

“Another amusing incident, a certain gentleman owned land adjacent to Mount Luther and Kirchenwald.  Some of his land was purchased for Mount Luther.  When they came to him to negotiate for some of his land at Kirchenwald, his comment was ‘That man Sassaman surely gets around,’” John Bishop said. The opening of Kirchenwald completed the synod’s plan for four camps in different geographical areas of the synod.  It also meant that the synod had opened two new camps in the 1960s.

Ira Sassaman retired on February 28, 1975. His daughter, Annabelle, married Rev. John Wenzke and both of them were involved in outdoor ministries. John was also the Lutheran campus pastor at Penn State University. Their daughter, Ira’s granddaughter, is Rev. Liz Polanzke, who served on summer staff in the 80s and 90s and was our ELCA Regional Gift Planner in the 2010s. Sassaman moved to Virginia later in life and died on March 10, 1988, at the age of 78.