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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Camperships for All! Wait, really?

It is a good thing when we can get our church kids to church camp, and a wonderful thing when the local church can lift the financial burden for families. But do we need some parameters around who we help, and how much? This week's questioner shares a frustrating scenario.

Chilly Fingers writes:

I serve as pastor for a small, rural church.  Every year, we fully pay for one of our member's children (now teens) to go to camp. It's about $600 - 700.  We've done this for 5 years.  We pay half for another member's children to attend which is about $400 for us this year.   The money is really beside the point.

At risk of sounding like a cranky pastor, these members do not come to church on Sundays (reasons they give are, "I just don't want to give up a Sunday morning with my children," "I just can't get it together on Sundays). They don't come with any regularity to our children's mid-week ministries.  Yet, they show up every year with their camp applications in hand.  This year, to speak plainly, I am sick of it (and I feel guilty for typing that).  Of course, I want the children to have the camp experience, and of course, we will pay for it.  But one week of camp every year is not the extent of our commitment to their faith.  

We help non-members with bills and financial things a lot with no expectation of anything in return.  I guess my expectations are different for someone who claims membership.

Am I just being grumpy?  Is there any way to address this issue without completely alienating these families?

Chilly, you have the sympathy of the Matriarchs, starting with Jennifer (An Orientation of Heart):

Who wouldn’t sound a little grumpy?  What can small, rural church do to create experiences at church that children and their families don’t want to miss? I wonder how they would answer that…

Blessings to you as you seek to build strong, through the year relationships.

Lakeview UMC camp, Texas
Sarah, blogging at Sarah's Space, offers a system for potential campership recipients:

Faith formation is different from feeding the hungry. Church camp is part of the formation of faith and an extension of the ministry of the church. As such, it is reasonable to have regular interactions with the people you fund for the faith formation of church camp. You also have a reasonable expectation to interact with them on return to know what kind of investment it has been. You should hear about the ways in which the young people have encountered God and other Christians to be shaped, formed, stretched, and have grown in new ways in their faith. This is about discipleship. So I think you are right to view it differently because it is different. It is not about the money.

I know your church is small but maybe a variation on an idea of what we did at a large church could work. When I was an Associate at a large church, we sponsored "camperships" to church camp for many children. We tracked attendance at worship, Sunday School, children's choir, and anything else church related at which children could remotely participate giving points that earned "camperships." If there was something we wanted children to attend like Vacation Bible School we offered points for coming. We offered bonus points for bringing friends. Bringing your Bible was more points. Bonus points could be earned for knowing all the books of the Bible or participating in Worship. Service projects got a lot of bonus points. There was not a direct correlation of points to dollars. (Direct correlation will give you trouble with IRS.) And we wanted to be sure that at any time some one who was highly motivated could get enough bonus points to earn enough "campership" points so it was always worth it. Campership points were offered all year toward the next camp. Coming to worship and Sunday School every week for 9 months (the weeks of school) was almost enough on their own.

Outdoor ministries of the Maine and New Hampshire Conferences, United Church of Christ.

Martha, blogging at Reflectionary, (yes, that's me!) concurs with Sarah:

It sounds like it's time for a policy about church involvement and scholarships. I wouldn't take them away, but perhaps consider offering a smaller percentage unless there is a more measurable involvement at church.  Consider starting a conversation now with the committee that oversees the funds. "Our resources are limited. We want to be able to share them with more families." You may find out interesting things about the history of giving the camperships, or the place of that family in the church's family history and some reason there is a motivation to please them, or you may find out others are ready to make a change, too. I love Sarah's suggestion about incentives toward a campership. 

Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness, recommends a forthright conversation:

I think that it is time to sit down with the parents and tell them what the reality is.  If you are going to be shelling out scholarship money, it needs to be reciprocated with participation and relationship.  That is what it means to be a member in good standing.

Climbing Tower at Krislund Camp (PCUSA)
And lastly, kathrynzj offers three levels of response:

Okay, the harsh approach: It sounds like these families are already alienated - why worry about it? They are using the church for their own means, there is nothing wrong with holding them accountable to that behavior and cutting off the funds. 

A slightly more even approach: The families have to put down the deposit and 50% of the camp fees. The church pays the rest. For future families you could have a group that determines the amount to be given to each family based on certain factors (church attendance, mission participation, etc...).

OR... if no one else seems to mind and they are in general okay with this approach as long as young folks are going to camp, then keep yourself out of it and have others handle it all. I have a couple of hot button items for me that other people are fine with and so I let them handle those things and I return the favor on other things.

Readers, what do you think? Are we all grumpy and out of touch? Are the infrequent flyers taking advantage of the small church? Share your thoughts in the comments.

We welcome your questions for the Matriarchs, which can be emailed to us by clicking here: Ask the Matriarch


  1. I'm going to offer a different perspective. I'm wearing my "children's programme leader" hat !

    First off, I totally get that this makes you grumpy and I totally get that you are feeling a bit used by these families - because it sounds like you are being... But I also have the impression reading you that there isn't any financial issue here (ie you could afford to keep doing this, it just bugs you that the families seem to be taking advantage.)

    HOWEVER, despite this, I'd urge you to keep doing it if you possibly can - for the benefit of the kids. Studies show (and I'm going to commit the dreadful crime of not citing my sources here, because I don't have them to hand) that most adults who make a faith commitment have had some kind of formative faith experience in childhood - very often at camp. Maybe one day one of those kids will the there getting confirmed/baptised/whatever and they might just say "camp was really important to me, and I was so encouraged that the church supported me, even when my parents were behaving like idiots"

    You don't give the kids' ages, but when they come back from camp, I'd also put a lot of effort into inviting/including/involving them in your relevant programmes. We've seen several families re-engage with the church because the kids wanted to come.... We also have several teens and pre-teens who come to our programme independantly of their parents.

    As far as a policy is concerned, we have a "no questions asked" camp scolarship fund. Anyone associated in some way with the congregation can have a set amount to subsidise any christan-related camp for anyone aged 11 to 18. In the case of families with low incomes the committee can increase this to 100% of cost, at the committee's discretion. (The pastor is not on the committee.)

    Hmm, apparently I feel strongly about this :-)

    So yes, I think you are (justifiably) grumpy, that the infrequent flyers ARE taking advantage, but that you should do it anyway. Part of the church's job is to be taken advantage of, IMO.

  2. Our small, rural church (in a particularly non-prosperous part of our state) struggles with this issue as well. We have many families receiving assistance of one kind or another, and others whose adult members cobble together low-skill/low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet. For households like these, summer camp -- even church camp -- would fall in the "I want a pony" category of unattainable wishes if it weren't for full-ride camp scholarships. We want kids to derive the benefits of camp that une precheresse notes in her post; and we also think it's helpful for kids in our very isolated community to experience the diversity of our denominational camps, which draw kids from many different socioeconomic groups and parts of the state.

    But what has in the past rankled other members (particularly the people who help fund the scholarships...who aren't always that affluent themselves) is the lack of "buy-in," not only from a few mostly-absent frequent-flier parents but from the kids themselves...evident in things like camp fundraisers where no campers, only a few of the involved parents, showed up to work. I don't think that's unimportant, because lack of youth involvement discourages adult generosity and begs the question of how the campers themselves see their involvement in the faith community.

    We've been at the "We're all about grace and inclusion, so we're going to just keep funding scholarships for everyone, no questions asked" end of the continuum, but finally the resentment level of the congregation got to a point where the Education Committee rethought how we might restructure the camp program.

    I don't know all the specifics of our expectation level for involvement, since I'm not in the education loop, but parents and campers are now expected to invest at least some time in fundraising. (We have a monthly music series in the fall and winter, and the kids sell concessions. They also hold bake sales, and sell raffle tickets for quilts that our quilting group donate to the cause.) In the last couple of years I've certainly seen a raised profile for most of the involved kids. Now, if some new family from the neighborhood were to show up near enrollment time wanting their kids in camp but needing financial help, we wouldn't say, "No, your kids can't go to camp because you didn't do all these fundraising things" -- no one doubts the wisdom of helping someone like this. But they'd also be advised that in the future there's an expectation that they'll play a more active role in the camp program.

    Precheresse: Great question. What seems to work at our church -- and I think this is only the second year we've done this -- is to create a series of weekend retreats for older children, "tweens" and youth (one retreat per group) that are paired with adult get-togethers where parents can hang out, enjoy grown-up refreshments and music and talk to other simpatico adults. The retreats have also involved family worship, where the kids help create and lead a short worship service that both parents and kids attend. This seems to be working especially well with parents of younger kids. Among other things, it helps the parents, who may have not had a camp experience themselves, see how faith formation happens in a camp-like, kid-oriented atmosphere, even for only part of a weekend.

    It's a tough call, especially for people who are kind-hearted and generous but who have also been taken advantage of, and who don't want camp monies that could go to someone with more interest/enthusiasm instead being spent on families who simply don't seem to appreciate the experience as anything other than a "freebie" to which they're entitled, that gets the kids out of the house for a week. Best wishes to you as you sort this issue out in your faith community.

    1. I like the idea of weekends for tweens and teens. We've played with this a bit, but we tend to have adult retreats with some sort of "oh dear we better do a thing for the children" tacked on the side. Might be interestng to shift the focus. Food for thought !

  3. I'm falling on the side of une precheresse. I've been in a small rural church and know that whatever you do is going to create hard feelings. And even the fact that you are thinking about doing something will create gossip. So, not only do you have to think about the family and the children involved, but also about what impact the action will have on the congregation and the community.

    Une Precheresse said it well. You can have no idea what impact the congregation's generosity will have on the children. It seems to me they, not the parents should be your focus.

  4. I have been a camp director at a (not church) camp where a large number of children received camperships from the camp itself or from other non-profits. What I have found there may apply.

    1) The children that had to apply for their camperships tended to get the most out of camp. By this, I mean, some of our charities required the children to write a letter describing a) their involvement in the community that year, and b) why they want to go to camp, and specifically THAT camp. While this was often the only Girl Scout thing that they got to do all year (due to parents not being able or willing to support scouting the rest of the year), I found that it was a game changer for those kids. They had buy in. These same kids had to write a letter AFTER camp back to the charity.

    2) kids who got scholarships automatically (we had one charity that gave scholarships automatically to children from a particular neighborhood) tended to see this as something "earned" or "owed." They could be difficult.

    3) kids whose parents applied for the scholarships on their behalf often couldn't figure out why they were there. I had one little girl who repeatedly asked me why her mother made her come to camp.

    So, from my (limited) experience, I'm all in favor of CHILD buy-in. You can't control the parents. The children can't control the parents. Maybe this week is the highlight of the year for them. Maybe it isn't. But I think that if you expect the kids to ask for it--in their own words, and then expect them to follow up, with a presentation at church or at youth group or to the board, then you've done all that's reasonable to do. (I would ask all kids that went to camp to do this, not just the scholarship kids) Do the kids really love camp? Have you chatted with the camp director? Are the kids showing some real growth in that environment?

    1. I love the idea of child buy-in, and also of it not being scholarship releated.

      We are doing this to some extent this summer too. Camp-season is July and there are "no-strings" bursaries for that. In August a subset of our teens are going to Romania to help run a children's club in a church there. We are expecting all of the participants to fund-raise and also to take part in the preparation. Participation in this is a non-negotiable condition for going on the trip, regardless of who's paying.

    2. This seems like a great way to help separate the service you are giving the child from their parents. As others had said children don't always have a lot of control over what their parents take them to. This seems especially true for those whose parents who are divorced and have multiple homes.

  5. I hope it is okay for a non-blogger to post thoughts. Blogging is something I have approach/avoidance issues about starting.

    I have a small, semi-rural congregation that is financially challenged. We have only recently had children of camp age and we don't have that many.

    Last year the moderator promised the mother of one girl - 13 yo - that we would pay for a particular camp that would cot $420, plus pay for gas. I knew nothing about it, there was nothing in the budget and efforts to get ahold of the moderator, who was travelling, were unsuccessful.

    I didn't pay it. We had just agreed to pay for a girl scout camp for this girl and had given the girl scout troop, which we sponsor, enough money to pay for another camper. All of this is outside our budget. This family actively participates at worship. We have provided quite a bit of assistance to the family as well.

    This year, we paid for 4 kids to go to confirmation camp. This girl and her friend, who started to come about a month before camp and stopped coming right after camp, my older son and another boy. Our church was thrilled to have the problem of paying for the church camp for a class because it has been about 15+ years since their have been confirmands.

    Someone has mentioned that we should pay for all these kids to go to a summer camp at the church park. But without a designated way to pay for it, especially as my son is one of the primary beneficiaries (and I make way more than many in our congo), I feel reluctant. Once again our church, through indiv contribution and from the church, paid enough for the girl scouts to go to Chicago for a wknd. And we paid for this girl's family to go to a wknd at the church camp for a denominational meeting (in which the one delegate attended one meeting and spent the entire rest of the time playing).

    We aren't being taken advantage of like the original post. There are great ideas here on how to implement some guidelines and boost participation of the family. In a small congregation in a small town, feelings wll be hurt but if nothing is addressed, others will be feeling taken advantage of.

    My response about the girl who we paid to go to camp: if the worst thing that happens is that we spent $150 for a young woman in a very troubled situation had a good weekend and heard over and over that God loves her and wants to use her talents to serve the world, it is a pretty good use of our money. And I really mean it.

    So why I feel that we would be seen as the cash cow in terms of church camp over the summer, I don't know. Sounds like that is my issue that I need to explore. Thank for the great ideas.

    1. Given you have kids in the age group, maybe you need a policy and a (small) team to implement it that doesn't include you ? That way things are seen to be fair.

  6. My last church assignment we had an application process for all "discretionary" funds for mission trips, weekends and camps. It included:
    1) A letter/essay from the student with three paragraphs answer the questions:
    - why I want to go to ______
    - what I believe I will learn
    - how I will come back and invest what I have learned in my school, church and family
    2) A letter essay from the parents
    - explaining how they feel this camp will help the spiritual formation of their child (and "I'm not sure" or "I don't know" was OK)
    - give in writing a promise to bring the child to church at least half of the time between now and camp
    - provide round trip transportation to/from camp
    3) A meeting of the Education Committee to decide who/how much would attend. *The names of the children/families were redacted!* They were called "scholarships" and made it clear to help as many students as possible, it was likely that a full ride would not be given
    4) Offer plenty of fund-raising opportunities to "send a kid to camp" such as odd jobs, babysitting, helping with church weddings, funerals, receptions,etc.
    5) Our youth group consisted of only 5 kids, but they did not necessarily get a more favorable response. One year my child did not get a scholarship because she didn't write a very good essay. She got to do a LOT of babysitting in order to go.

  7. Okay, we approach it two ways in our little suburban blue-collar parish. The parish goes on a weekend retreat at the diocesan church camp. We raise money year-round to pay the cost for all children who are members of our parish, so parents only have to pay for themselves.

    We occasionally have folks who need help to send a kid to the camp in the summertime. We will share that cost up to 75% out of my discretionary fund (which is remarkably generous) but folks have to ask me. It is entirely my discretion as to paying. We usually have kids talk about their experience of the camp sometime in the fall (whether we help them with $$$ or not), which implies active membership in the parish.

    We have no set policy, but I like the idea of older kids writing an essay, if for no other reason than to get them in practice for writing their college application essays, focused on how the camp experience will aid their formation.

    FWIW, our diocese is about to kick off a major fundraising drive to set up a scholarship endowment, since many of the kids from poor families do not have the resources to go, nor do their parishes have the ability to pay for them, and often they are the kids who would most benefit from a week in a beautiful place with great counselors and chaplains...

    1. Just a thought about the essay writing... Some of the kids who you most want/need to help are likely to be the ones with literacy problems. This may be even more true of parents (probably a third of our regulars don't have French as a native language, and a large number have very limited reading and writing skills). Anyway, this might be a good opportunity to get some of your nice retired people to be "essay-buddies" with the kids.

  8. Thank you for such thoughtful responses. All of you have given me some new perspectives and possible directions to consider. And, mostly, thank you for not making me feel like Rev. Grumpy Pants.

  9. Amen to this all! We have a small, rural congregation where, for the first time in over 20 years, we have youth who are camp aged. This summer, we'll be sending about11 youth to camp, ages 7 -14. I am extremely grateful for these ideas; our congregation decided to pay half of the early bird fees (if you put in your deposit before a certain date, costs were reduced per camper). We had several fund raisers but many did not participate. When it came time to send out camp info, I attached a letter stating the council's agreement to fund 1/2 of the cost per youth at the early bird rate and wrote "additionally, there is a hopeful expectation' that you and your family will participate in the fund raisers throughout the year to assist next year's attendance." Almost immediately, I started getting feedback on which fund raisers folks could attend or not, to which I replied, you'll help as you are able. I've had several parents ask to do other fund raisers and we are 'lifting their gifts' so to speak and having these events take place. It has been a very fun (so far) rally to help one another and youth, many of whose parents do not participate, become more involved in the fellowship. We're planning a "camp Sunday" at the end of summer to have youth share their experiences during worship. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have youth (when I came 5 years ago, the average age was about 70 with me bringing it down!) Last week, a full half of our attendees at worship were under the age of 15. It is somewhat daunting to have this ministry be brought to our laps...
    Having said all of that, I love the idea of the kids writing letters...that is newsletter fodder as well as fodder for conversations about where we worship, how and why and with whom. It also seems to me that the parent participation in the writing, the "campership" process is/would be imperative (this is a struggle in our congregation currently--parent participation) but also can be a place for the pastor to discover some rationale for them not participating and not feeling welcome/worth to attend.
    You all have amazing ideas and I am so blessed to have read this. :) Happy Friday to you all!


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