Church summer camps and in-person internship programs are making a comeback in 2021 with an array of new procedures designed to minimize exposure to COVID-19.
But getting there after a year of virtual or zero gatherings has posed challenges to organizers who have spent recent months trying to gauge interest in their programs.
“The suspense here was wondering if churches were going to call and were students going to show up,” said Devita Parnell, who manages the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Student.Church internship program.
“The other suspenseful piece was wondering if students were ready for in-person and were they going to be ready and comfortable enough to pick up and move somewhere this summer,” said Parnell, also the director of CBF’s young Baptist ecosystem program.
Likewise, it wasn’t until late March that PASSPORT knew who, and roughly how many, churches planned to send youth to its camps this June and July, said David Burroughs, founder and president of the Birmingham, Ala.-based ecumenical summer camp ministry.
“Until then, all our numbers were theoretical. So, when churches started saying, ‘OK, we’re coming,’ it was a huge relief,” he said.
That’s an experience being shared by an increasing number of youth and young adult programs bolstered by declining COVID-19 infection rates, rising vaccinations rates and new CDC protocols for in-person youth and young adult activities.
“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies — including masking, cohorting, physical distancing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, proper handwashing, and respiratory etiquette — have been able to safely operate in person,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of American Camp Association.
“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies … have been able to safely operate in person.”
A recent study by the organization reported that 30 of the 90,000 youth who participated in face-to-face summer camps in 2020 had confirmed cases of COVID-19, an achievement it credited to the safety measures employed by organizers, he said. “When camps follow the rigorous scientific approach outlined in the Field Guide for Camps on Implementation of CDC Guidance, camps can operate safely and successfully.”
Lifeway Christian Resources has announced it is gearing up for the 2021 summer camp season with expanded health and safety measures for its various children and youth programs.
“Last year, Lifeway provided digital worship experiences after cancelling all camps due to the pandemic,” Lifeway said. “This summer, Lifeway plans to return to normal as they host more than 92,000 registered camp participants across 78 locations in the U.S.”
Participants and staff will be required to wear masks and socially distance, and a small-group approach will be employed during meal times and all other gatherings.
“A spirit of unity and a willingness to look after the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what will allow us to reach our shared goal of seeing a successful summer of camp happen,” said Ben Trueblood, director of Lifeway students. “The reality is that camp will look different, but we want to make it as normal of a camp experience as possible. The things that are the most foundational to camp will still be there.”
The same concern has led PASSPORT to adopt a similar approach at its North Carolina and South Carolina camps this summer, Burroughs said.
The organization will divide campers into cohorts of 50 to 75 members who will spend the entire week together. The small groups will stay in the same dorms and dine, play, worship and attend Bible study as a group.
“The idea is to minimize the number of kids who can be exposed to each other,” he said.
The ministry also is following the CDC suggestion to hold activities outdoors as much as possible. “So, all our parties and worship and other activities will be held outside. The small-group Bible studies will probably be held indoors,” Burroughs said.
And campers who are not vaccinated will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test one to three days before arrival.
Despite the protocols, however, many congregations that typically send kids to PASSPORT camps passed on the opportunity to do so this year, meaning about 2,300 campers are expected as registration continues. “A bunch of our churches said they just weren’t ready and that they would be back next year,” Burroughs said.
But the organization is grateful for all those attending because the alternative was concerning for PASSPORT’s viability. “I think we would have found a way to survive if in-person camps didn’t happen this year. But the question would have been, ‘What’s our purpose?’ If we don’t get to do camp, why are we here?’”
Church and ministry internship programs for college-age adults are overcoming many of the same challenges presented by the pandemic, Parnell said.
Currently, 19 churches have committed to hosting students through Student.Church, with 17 still seeking candidates. “We’re hoping that we will get 38 to 40 students placed in 35 churches.”
Those numbers are about the same as 2020, when the program was virtual, and still nowhere close to the 50 students placed in 2019, she added.
Student.Go, which places interns with CBF field personnel-run ministries, will remain fully virtual this year because their functions can be adequately performed remotely, Parnell said. “Those are project-based positions, like doing social media for Touching Miami with Love or having someone create curriculums for after-school programs.”
Even two of the congregations involved in Student.Church are remaining fully virtual with their internships, while the rest are either in-person or hybrid, Parnell said.
Getting through and beyond COVID-19, she said, takes hard work and faith. “I have felt that this whole program is an exercise in trusting God, and I pray that students emerge from this pandemic and want to have these experiences.”