Reaching the end of summer at camp is a lot like running a marathon and finally making it to the finish line… and no one is there. No cheering fans. No trophy. Not even one of those cool banners you get to break through before you collapse. You look around, panting, and before you can reflect on what just happened, someone is shouting at you to get up and start running again. Get ready, friend. You’re not done yet.
I’m halfway convinced there could be a decent career path for me in post-summer “grief counseling.” In camping ministry, summer really is the big show. It’s the fruit of the labor. The harvest. It’s a heck of a lot of work to make summer camp happen, but you did it, and the plans have come to fruition, for better or worse. (If you’re still planning summer while summer is happening, we need to talk.) And then it’s over. Praise the Lord. You made it through another one. But wait…
Where is everyone? What just happened? I still have work to do. Fall programming happens when? NOW? Didn’t we just have staff training? I think I was supposed to fix something… three weeks ago. Where did summer go?
Did any of that even make a difference?
Ministry is hard. It’s not hard for the same reasons that brain surgery is hard, though. I’m guessing here, but I assume brain surgeons think their job is hard. You have to know a lot about brains before you go poking around in there. There’s a pretty high level of skill involved. And if you mess up, well… It’s a hard job. But being in ministry is rough too because at the end of the day, you don’t get to walk into a patient’s hospital room and say, “It was a success! You’re fixed. Off you go.” There isn’t an endgame in genuine ministry. There is no “you did it right.” (I could probably come up with a “you did it wrong,” though.) In ministry, you make it to “post-op” and everyone is just gone.
Did everything go okay? I think so. Were lives changed? Maybe… Will everything that happened here have a lasting effect on the campers and the staff and the volunteers and make them better people with better lives or at least do something to change the trajectory of their life toward Christ-inspired joy in some way?
I’ve always struggled with this part of working in camping ministry. I thrive on praise. I love to hear that I have done a good job and to see the finished product of my hard work. That is not flowing in abundance in this line of work. Sure, people say thank you. Events happen without massive failure and that is good. But it’s almost impossible to know if you have really achieved the task you set out to do.
Did I show that person Christ? Did I help them in a meaningful way? Did I make them feel loved, accepted, powerful, forgiven, and worthy? Did I change their story?
Ministry is hard because it isn’t life or death work. It’s life or life abundant. It’s without Jesus or with Him. It’s “yeah, life is pretty good” or “I am redeemed, dearly loved, and part of the big picture.” And one of the hardest parts is never really knowing if you have done your job. Because your job isn’t really hire the summer staff, schedule the meetings, plan the activities, raise the money, make the nametags. Right?
I had a past camper reach out to me out of the blue recently. She was part of a cohort of campers that have been a huge part of my life, so we’ve stayed in touch, but we usually just catch up and occasionally reminisce. I wouldn’t say I have an active role in many of their lives at this point. They know if they ever need someone, I will be there, and that’s good enough for me. Anyway, one of them sent me a message and said she needed to tell me something.
“Do you remember that time that one summer around a fire at worship when you had us write down something we were afraid to fail at and then you said to give it to God and then we crumpled our papers and threw them in the fire?” (Classic. I know.)
I tried to remember the specific night she was talking about, but I truly do not. This camper remembers the night vividly. She told me what she had written and burned, how many times she had thought about it, and the impact it has had on her through the years. It meant something to her. Something huge.
I probably pulled out that exercise at the last minute. I probably thought, “The kids are going to think this is pretty lame, but I don’t know what else to do.” I probably looked at Sam when the kids were in their tents, while we watched the fire go out, and said, “Do you think that went okay?”
“It was just on my mind again and I really wanted to share it with you. Never ever stop doing what you’re doing; you have quite literally changed my life.”
Y’all know I cried, right?
God used me. That prayer that sits near constantly on my lips was heard. He did something in someone else’s life through me. Hearing that and knowing it for certain is a moment I now treasure. (I totally get why those moments are rare now though because that stuff will go to your head.) And it came at the perfect time. As we meet people along the road, my first goal is to encourage them in their ministry. I want them to know what they do is so important, and not to quit, and to know that they are making a real difference even when they can’t see it. But I needed to know that too.
So here we are at the end of another summer. We ran the race and there’s not much waiting for us at the finish line except the start of another race. Here, it’s so important to know that when we ask God to use us, He never really says no. Heck, most of the time God says, “get ready,” and we are the ones digging our nails into the dirt. You might not get to see the finished product, but God is with you in the work. And every now and then, someone will send you a message that says, “Hey. Remember that night? I saw God there with you.”
I’ll take that over a cool banner any day.