James Hazelwood didn’t grow up in the church. Still, the directors at El Camino Pines, a Lutheran outdoor camp north of Los Angeles, took a chance on this “unchurched guy,” as Hazelwood said, and hired him as a summer camp counselor in 1980.
“In my first week, I found myself surrounded by fourth-grade boys,” he recalled. “Rather than I teach them, they taught me the Lord’s Prayer.”
That summer, Hazelwood discovered more about not only Christ, but himself, including leadership gifts he didn’t know he had. He was baptized that August.
“Five years later, still thirsting and hungering for a deeper connection to God, I entered seminary at Pacific Lutheran [Theological] Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.,” Hazelwood wrote in a reflection about his call to ministry. “Later, I was ordained, and then after 25 years of parish ministry, I was elected bishop in New England.
“I would not be in the Lutheran church, nor serving as a bishop, had I not been given the opportunity to work as a summer camp counselor at one of our Lutheran camps. It allowed my gifts to flourish, and it allowed the Holy Spirit to do her work in and through me.”
That’s the power of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM), a professional organization for leaders of camps and retreat centers affiliated with the ELCA that is celebrating 100 years of ministry starting this July.
Each year, more than 175,000 children attend LOM summer camp programs, and off-season retreat and conference participation reaches 300,000, said Don Johnson, executive director of LOM. Summer camp staff and counselors number 3,500.
There are endless stories like Hazelwood’s that begin with a formative week at camp and end with a vocation somewhere in the church, Johnson said.
Ralph Yernberg, who spent 32 years in outdoor ministries as director of several camps and later as co-president of LOM, agrees. The ELCA is also full of lay leaders who attended camp and now volunteer teaching Sunday school, encourage family ministry, and are open to change and diversity in congregations, he added.
Often that leadership is sparked during a week of camp. “Kids have a chance to learn about their identity as believers,” Yernberg said, “where they sense community that offers them support and encouragement, where they just have this freedom to explore their faith in a way that seems to make sense to them.”
In the past century, LOM has played a vital role in shaping Lutheran leaders for church and society. Here’s a look at the legacy of this long-standing ministry.
In technical terms, Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Inc. was formed in 2005 as a free-standing nonprofit. But LOM as a ministry, supported by the former Lutheran Church in America and American Lutheran Church, and now the ELCA, has a 100-year history rich in service.
Right after the turn of the 20th century, the country was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The Fresh Air Movement also was taking place—a call to get people out of dirty cities such as New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, “places where factories were literally cranking black smoke out of their chimneys, and steam locomotives were probably at their peak,” said Mark Burkhardt, the former ELCA director for faith formation and a former director of outdoor ministries whose master’s thesis is titled “The History of Lutheran Church Camping from 1919 to 1949.”
In 1915, Ambrose Hering, a Lutheran pastor and superintendent of the Pittsburgh Inner Mission Society (now a Lutheran Services in America affiliate), first proposed the idea of a Lutheran summer camp to provide fresh air to inner-city women and children working long hours in the polluted air.
But it wasn’t until four years later that his expensive dream came to fruition. “World War I was the war that was going to end all wars—that was the belief,” Burkhardt said. “So, immediately at the end of World War I, the U.S. government put up for sale massive amounts of equipment: beds, mess kits, large tents and so forth. This pastor jumped on it, and that made it possible to start the first camp outside of Pittsburgh [using] World War I surplus army equipment.”
A Lutheran layperson, Sidney Passavant, agreed to provide free use of his property along the Connoquenessing Creek at Zelienople for camp use. Located 28 miles north of Pittsburgh, it was easily accessible by public streetcar and had space for swimming, boating, fishing, exploration and hiking.
On July 5, 1919, Camp Wa–ba-ne-ki officially opened. (Johnson said this is the official day LOM selected to begin a year of observing this anniversary.) In 1919, one week at Camp Wa–ba-ne-ki cost $5, with an additional $1 for transportation, Burkhardt wrote in his thesis.
The camp’s first summer received mixed results, but any negativity was short-lived. “Once word got out that this social service agency in Pittsburgh had finally launched a camp, within just a few years, there were Lutheran camps popping up all over the country,” Burkhardt said. “The desire to get kids out-of-doors, [provide] a Christian education, connect with youth—the idea caught on like wildfire. Within 10 years, there were 20 to 25 or more Lutheran camps across the U.S.”
After World War II, another dozen or so camps were built. “That came about as soldiers returned, and they had seen things all over the world,” Yernberg said. “They had lived in camps, so some looked like army barracks, with cabins in straight rows . . . . [The Lutheran camps] had names like Luther Memorial [to honor veterans].”
From 1965 to 1980, Lutheran camps saw significant changes. Summer youth programs slowly began to expand to year-round; unheated cabins gave way to heated facilities for families; the focus on youth shifted to all age groups; and volunteer staff became paid staff.
In the 1980s, day camps were created, and during the last three decades, camps exclusively designed to facilitate mission trips and work trips—like Habitat for Humanity builds—have become a vital part of LOM.
“It’s profound what’s happened,” Yernberg said of those changes. “In my mind, the philosophical underpinnings is called service-learning education. It’s where you learn about people and about problems and about solutions to the service you provide in under-nurtured communities.”
Today, 91 organizations are affiliated with the ELCA, with 121 camps and retreat centers making up LOM, Johnson said. The upper Midwest has the largest concentration, with Minnesota leading the pack with 20 and Wisconsin adding another dozen.
Each camp is unique not only in location and the environment it offers — campers could be kayaking in beautiful lakes or hiking through the mountains — but also in terms of constituency served and programs offered.
Still, there are commonalities that are important to the Lutheran camp model: faith formation, leadership formation, and community and relationships, Johnson said. “If there’s anything in common with any of our outdoor ministries, it’s being very intentional of gathering people together in order to impact them in the way their faith is being formed,” he said.
Similarly, most camps try to provide a community where people can truly explore and discern God’s call on their life — and not just those called to be ordained.
“[There are former campers] leading nonprofit organizations in the world, people serving in civic responsibilities, people who seek elected positions and seek to make a difference in . . . how they provide leadership, people in helping professions: nurses, doctors, teachers . . . there’s a lot of emphasis in all of our outdoor ministries [regarding] helping people discern where God is calling them to serve,” Johnson said.
Through all of this, Lutheran camps strive to be safe havens for campers, not only physically but emotionally, theologically and spiritually, he added.
As a pastor’s kid, Louise Johnson never thought she would want to follow a similar career path in ministry as her father. Then she became a counselor at Camp Mowana, Mansfield, Ohio.
“I just loved the opportunity to be with and interact with junior high girls — that was my group,” she said. “It was such a privilege to walk with them and connect with them in community with other camp counselors and be able to have an impact on their lives. And you can see that in the course of the week. They had had an experience not only of Christian community but, more significantly, an experience with God. And that, to me, that’s the part I really fell in love with and the part that made me think again of ministry as a vocation for myself.”
Louise Johnson went on to work in youth ministry and then attend seminary. She later became president of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and now serves as the ELCA's Executive for Administration. “I don’t think I ever would have done that without the experience of camp,” she said.
What is it about camp that shapes the future of campers’ lives? While many describe it as a place in the wilderness to “get away,” she sees it as more than that: “It’s a kind of environment that upsets our rhythms in such a way that makes you take stock of how you do spend your time and reframes how you might spend it, in community with other people in faith, in the beauty of the outdoors, in a regular rhythm of life with God.”
What camps do is remarkably simple, in a ritualistic kind of way, Yernberg said, adding, “You get up in the morning; you don’t lay in bed. You go to breakfast. You have devotions. You, sometime during the day, gather around God’s word. Most of the time, you end the evening with God’s word or the ritual of a campfire. And all these things have a way of adding up … through some very simple activities. It’s repetitive.”
Yernberg was once told that a week of camp is the equivalent of five years of Sunday school. Just picture the campers who enjoy seven or eight summers of camp, following those same rituals of daily prayer and engaging in faith talks, he suggested.
In addition to testimony, there’s research-based evidence that substantiates the influence of outdoor ministries.
Jacob Sorenson, director of Sacred Playgrounds, an organization that performs research and training to support camps and congregations, has conducted numerous surveys and studies to determine the impact of one week at summer camp.
“Many people critique summer camps and say it’s just a ‘spiritual high’ that quickly fades or a mountaintop experience, but you have to come down from the mountain,” he said.
After surveying more than 5,000 campers in 13 states and Canada, plus an additional 1,400 parents, Sorenson reports in “Effective Camp Findings” in 2017 that while not everyone has a life-changing experience at camp, more than half of all those who attend experience lasting impact.
“We discovered there is indeed something called a ‘camp high’: . . . increased positivity, greater zest for life, more happy and joyful [attitudes], but they don’t last [longer than] a few days or week after camp is done,” he said. “Horizontal faith — faith that is relevant in my daily life, that is reaching out to the world around me . . . increases and has lasting impacts months following camp.”
Between a half and two-thirds of campers showed measurable results in areas such as self-confidence, social skills, leadership, church attendance, devotional practices, etc.
It’s hard to predict where LOM’s future lies, Yernberg said. But outdoor ministries have been shaped by current social movements —and have tried to respond to them — so it likely will follow a similar pattern.
That could mean that camps try to play a larger role in addressing climate change issues (some already use wind power and super insulated buildings) or amp up their work toward social justice through mission trips, the hiring of international counselors and working with retention facilities, all things camps have done for years, Yernberg said.
Burkhardt said LOM is poised to play a major role in the ELCA’s two current priorities: leadership development and congregational vitality. He said camps can strengthen the personal growth work they’re doing with middle-aged and older adults — not just children — and encourage them to ask significant life questions: What kind of contribution do I want to make to society? How can I be a better neighbor?
And congregations could more fully use outdoor ministries to stay healthy. “Congregations that engage in other ministries like outdoor ministries are the ones that are healthier,” Burkhardt said. “They’re getting out of their local church, mixing it up with people from other places, taking advantage of spiritual growth opportunities and, as a result, they’re more vital and healthy than congregations that don’t take advantage of those opportunities.”
As a proponent of change in theological education, Louise Johnson thinks outdoor ministry could be one of the best training grounds for leaders tasked with growing congregations. “Oftentimes, we put seminary students in well-oiled machines of congregations, but I think what they miss is what it means to articulate the faith to someone who doesn’t have that background,” she said. “There are tons of people on the fringes of faith. [Seminarians have to] learn how to engage the conversation with someone who’s not already convinced. The gift of outdoor ministry is that there’s a place … not called church. For those allergic to that notion, it gives us a whole new opportunity to engage a life of faith in a different venue.”
*As of August 2023 there are currently 118 LOM sites.