First Third Conversations

Setting the Table: Our Calling to Outdoor Ministry

TableA blog post by Alyssa Fitzgerald

Image Credit: Table_HDR2 by Mark Thornhill on Flickr

As the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” (Philippians 1:3). In this holiday season, I have been blessed with the opportunity to reminisce, remembering those I met at this year’s joint Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA) and Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM) Annual Conference as I give thanks to God for the work they do every day in an effort to “set the table.” Jesus too set the table, inviting others to welcome God into their lives. In this cold, winter off-season, camp and retreat staff are busy “setting the table” for the upcoming summer, preparing a welcoming environment in which people of all ages can experience God at work in their lives.

This year’s conference theme, Into Uncharted Waters, captured the energy and inspiration that one can find in outdoor ministries today. Defining their own traditions, camps and retreat centers around the country are re-imagining ministry. From equestrian programs that serve youth throughout the summer and veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during the year, to camp gardens which teach children about gardening and then bring the lesson one step further into the kitchen, teaching youth about healthy cooking, camp ministries are blossoming in new and innovative ways. The conference was both inspiring and exhausting; how do these camp professionals, these table setters, find the energy to keep re-imagining ministry?

As a current Luther Seminary student, discerning my call to ministry, I am in awe of the amazing ministries that are taking place at camps and retreat centers around the country. In addition to being blessed with the opportunity to meet these tireless camp professionals at this year’s conference, I am incredibly thankful for the advice that I was given and the encouragement I received over the course of my conversations that week. While I left the conference feeling inspired, I struggled to see a clear way forward. I want to get involved in outdoor ministry, but where was I to begin? Where do we even start?

As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:6-8). I believe the answer is we must begin with our strengths, with our passions and abilities, with the things we deem important enough that we will stand behind and fight for. We may not all be called to serve at a camp or retreat center, but we can support the transformative ministries that occur at these sites.

For those engaged in congregational ministry, talk to “your” camp and ask how you can help or if there are any questions the camp has about your youth as future campers. Seek to redefine your understanding of camp and campers, trusting in the powerful change that occurs through outdoor ministry experiences. We need to start thinking outside the box, “setting the table” for God to step in by providing opportunities for all people to encounter God. While religious leaders cannot plan for God to enter in, they too can “set the table,” providing opportunities for faith formation and growth.

For those with other skills and talents outside ministry, never doubt that you are valuable! The Apostle Paul even argued this point centuries ago! Your skills, passions, and talents can be used by God for greater purposes. Good Grief at Camp Frederick, for example, seeks out the assistance of professional Social Workers to support campers who have recently lost a loved one. The gardening and equestrian programs mentioned above also require the skills and expertise of those with talents outside traditional ministry including gardeners, culinary experts, and those with veterinary experience. As beloved children of God, we are all blessed with gifts and talents that have a place in outdoor ministry; now we just need to seek out these opportunities and trust that God will take care of the rest!

(The “setting the table” analogy comes from one of Dr. Paul Hill’s workshops I attended while at the joint PCCCA / LOM Annual Conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in early November 2013. Dr. Paul Hill is the Executive Director of Vibrant Faith Ministries, which can be found at: http://www.vibrantfaith.org/.)

Author Bio
Alyssa Fitzgerald is a senior Master of Arts student in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Lakeville, Minnesota. After spending a year serving as an AmeriCorps member in the Twin Cities and a year in the United Kingdom as a Young Adult in Global Mission, she chose to further pursue her call to ministry at Luther and currently serve at St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran on West 7th Street in St. Paul as the Christian Education Director.

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