By Kent Miller
Each summer, thousands of children and youth converge on Mennonite camps around the country. They participate in cabin groups, worship times, swimming, hiking and a host of other camp activities. What campers might not realize is they are participating in a tremendous leadership development program that has been actively producing leaders within the church for decades!
The process starts early. Kara Mishler, Youth Program Director at Amigo Centre (Sturgis, Mich.) states, “Because I had such a great experience as a kid at camp, I always knew I wanted to be a counselor. My counselors were always so much fun, and they made our week feel like a community and a family.”
Kara went on to serve on summer staff for five summers, working as a counselor for several years, and then took on other leadership roles with summer camp, eventually becoming the summer camp director. It was these experiences that led her to her current role at Amigo. Kara continued, “Camp is where I grew the most in my leadership skills, and taking a job where I can help develop others’ leadership abilities was very appealing as a great way to give back. I love being able to help others as former counselors and staff helped me!”
James Krabill stated, “It was at summer Bible Memory camp, listening to all the mission workers tell stories, that I first felt the call to a lifetime of service and mission.” James and his spouse Jeanette served as mission workers for many years in Africa, and today, he is the senior executive for global ministries with Mennonite Mission Network.
James continues, “Camp experiences are unique occasions when people, including children and youth, get away from their usual routines and create the time and space to ask important life questions. That’s what happened to me at camp and I have always been grateful for those formative experiences in my life.”
I, personally, became aware of how the seeds of leadership development are sown around the campfires in our camps, through my former work as the executive director of a Mennonite camp. Every two years at Mennonite Camping Association (MCA) gatherings, directors and their staff would share stories of how summer counselors and full-time staff would develop their leadership abilities at camp and then respond to a call to serve the community or church with their leadership capacities. While we might lament someone moving on, we also rejoice at the giftedness each person shared, and the ministry God continued to be about in them and through them.
Kara realizes she may one day leave camp and knows she will be ready. “Camp has given me confidence and the ability to feel more comfortable engaging other leaders throughout the church and I’m more aware of the great stuff happening in the church and am really excited about the future potential of the church.”
Kara studied youth ministry at Hesston College and finished her bachelors in education at Goshen College. She anticipates someday working in a classroom setting and says, “I’ve learned how to relate to all types of people from different walks of life, that’s important in a school setting or in the church. I’ve also learned a great deal about working with peers and the teamwork needed in ministry… I will always be supportive of the ministry of camps. They are mutually beneficial to our church.”
Yes, the campfire is a great place to develop leaders, and it happens in all our MCA camps each year. Kara commented on the importance of urging children to attend a summer camp. She said, “If kids don’t have the opportunity to attend camp because of finances, then I would encourage the church to send them, especially if they see any leadership potential in them… And I would tell college students to remember that the summers aren’t all about the money. I never realized how much more than leadership skills I would receive as summer staff. It’s about the relationships with campers and other staff and the bond created that is beyond explanation.”