Connecting Faith Formation to Camping and Retreat Ministries
By Kevin Johnson
"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt." - John Muir
Have you been outside lately? Are you thinking of warmer days and time spent in the great outdoors? The above quote from John Muir, the “Father of our National Park System” is a reminder of how the outdoors affects our lives. John Muir wrote ecstatically about the outdoors one hundred years before you had an iPhone to stare at while your eyes glazed over. His words remind us today that the removal of the constant distractions of life—social media and an abundant workload—can refocus our view and deepen our faith. Genesis 2:7 tells us that “the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life” (CEB). This passage from the creation story reminds us that we are made in the image of God, and we are made from the “dirt.” Genesis, like Muir, informs us that we can experience God’s goodness through the outdoors.
While you are taking a few dirt paths in life, Jesus and, similarly the mission of the United Methodist Church, commands us to “go and make disciples.” Those disciples to transform the world. Making disciples is at the heart of who the church is.
In January 2021, the “Basics of Faith Formation” teaching series was launched by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries. This is a five-session series designed to equip local churches for disciple making by understanding the role of the church in forming faith. The course aims to help church staff and volunteers gain more clarity about discipleship and the role of the church/extension ministry settings in forming disciples. The fifth session of this new series was designed and written by United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministry leaders and delves into the significance of camping and retreat ministries and their important role in faith formation.
The “Basics of Faith Formation” course is open to all as either a free or a Continuing Education Unit version (same content, just with CEU credit for a nominal fee). Pastors, children’s ministers, local church leaders, camp and retreat leaders, and others are participating and sharing their learnings about ways to be more intentional in church activities. These leaders are becoming more strategic in forming disciples who are then forming other disciples.
Each of the five sessions is accompanied by a video segment that includes a diverse set of practitioners from across the connection, along with suggestions for “action steps” and questions for reflection and response. Sessions include the two dimensions of grace, purpose of the means of grace, the importance of context, and the above-mentioned session on camping and retreat ministries. In addition, this teaching series has an online forum where participants share their challenges, hopes, and celebrations in ministry.
More than 340 people have registered for the “Basics of Faith Formation” eLearning teaching series in the first month since its release. The facilitators of the course have enjoyed the comments and interactions with the participants. Participants’ comments about what resonates within their context or challenges them to do ministry in new ways is inspiring and encouraging to those who teach the course.
Below are some of the comments from participants who have chosen the “dirt path” at various times in their ministry and faith formation:
“I have volunteered at our nearby (sort of) United Methodist camp/retreat center for many years, and it has definitely been a faith-building experience for me. I love working with the kids and helping them grow in their faith. And their questions make me think and grow in my faith! The natural setting allows more freedom to talk about things that are more challenging.
“I also have participated in retreats at another nearby United Methodist retreat center. They have two labyrinths there that I enjoy going to walk. Sometimes I do nothing else but go there to walk along the lake or walk the labyrinth in the woods. I feel closer to God there in nature and can pray and meditate more freely. The veil seems thinner there.
“It was at the retreat center that I heard the call to become a spiritual director, and then I followed up on the two-year training to become one. And now I go back to the retreat center for more retreats - virtually at this time, unfortunately, although I can still go there for my walks..." - Bonnie-jean M Rowea
“Walk to Emmaus - Being afforded this opportunity was amazing. The fellowship, worship, and the spirit of the Lord moving in this place was unreal... God's presence and love is felt more due to being one with nature, being around other Christians, and those with the desire to further their walk, the love shown by everyone, the genuine concern, and the fellowship.
“I found it left me wanting to grow more in my walk and eager to learn more in order to share with others.” - Cassandra Justice
“I have participated in the Walk to Emmaus retreats a number of times, first as a pilgrim, then as a worker during the retreats – a wonderful experience for all involved. I also have participated in retreats of another type at a nearby United Methodist retreat center. These have most often led to times of prayer, grace, and worship; they have greatly impacted the spiritual growth of a large number of people. They are always a great growing experience.” - Marvin Moore
“I was blessed to be a participant at the Upper Room Two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation that was held at Camp Sumatanga in Alabama. It was a true camp retreat setting. With contemplative and creation as my spiritual pathways, this nature setting offered me the environment for a change of place and pace that just nurtured and refreshed my soul – a place to pause, calm down, lay my routine aside, and just be with God.
“For me, it definitely was the natural setting that soothed my soul – the walk around the lake, the trees, the streams where I could reflect, and sense and see God. The intentional teaching, reflection, sharing as a community – growing in faith together. The various ways we were encouraged to stretch ourselves to try new avenues and new practices – were like waves enveloping all of us. For me, it was the freedom to leave my every day, routine, somewhat structured life with its responsibilities aside – to come just as me. It was truly one of the most life-changing experiences that has led me on the journey to write and facilitate classes on individual spiritual formation.” - Lisa Rosea
“What comes to mind when I think of camp and retreat ministries? Fun! Indeed, fun for all ages and not just children. Belonging also comes to mind. When my son was a youngster, we decided to spend a week at family camp. We didn't know any of the people there, but nearly all of them knew one another. We were loved into that community. My conversion to Christ came during one of our stays. Camps and retreats can collaborate with local churches by connecting their unique role to the mission of the local church. They will not take the place of the local church but will enhance that role. Persons of all ages come to an awakening when they get away, and that awakening is to be nurtured in the worshiping community.” - Kevin Hugh Seymour
Scripture references marked CEB are from the Common English Bible. Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible.
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.