Summer Special: Ohio Camp Meeting, Re-Imagined
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
This is the second in a series of stories on camp meetings in the North American Division.
Last week I shared some memories of Ohio camp meetings in the 70s and 80s. I have been so far unable to collect hard data on those camp meetings and why they changed. What I remember is that in the 90s and early 2000s, conference leaders began warning constituents that offering (and possibly tithe, but I’m not sure if camp meetings are paid for with tithes) had dropped low enough that the future of camp meeting was in jeopardy. After a few years of these warnings, one year it was announced that there would be no camp meeting the following year.
Remember, this is only my own memories at this point. I recall what an uproar there was, and I recall pointing out (in some irritation, I admit) that we had been warned for some time, and that if we really wanted camp meetings, we needed to put our money where our mouths were.
I think it was a fairly brief time that there were no camp meetings—2-3 years, maybe? Then we had a weekend camp meeting or two, and some regional ones. This year, I had the opportunity to go back to Ohio camp meeting, and I was shocked at first—no locating, no parking problem, all meetings in the academy chapel?!
However, I was extremely impressed by my experiences there, and it was because of that that I decided to write this series. This week, Ohio’s turn to explain about their —
Camp Meeting Re-Imagined
A few years ago, some pastors came to Ohio Conference President Raj Attiken with some ideas. They really wanted to recreate camp meeting. Attiken, author of a small book called refreshed: A New Paradigm for Church Leadership, has advocated for years that conferences should be “congregation-centric”—that is, ideas and missions should be led by local congregations and individuals, rather than “from the top down,” as is our traditional model. He and his conference colleagues have pretty much reinvented Ohio Conference actions to reflect this conviction. So he said, “If you can do it yourselves, go for it.” He gave them backing, approval, and much prayer.
A small committee of pastors and others who were willing to volunteer their time gathered to make plans, and a new camp meeting was born—one that brought only hundreds instead of thousands of people together, and took a great deal less money (largely because all speakers and teachers are volunteers), but one in which the spiritual gains were as impressive as ever they were at a multi-thousand-attendee camp meeting.
I talked with the three committee members I saw up front the most: Toledo First Church Pastor Mike Fortune, Wooster Church Pastor Lori Farr, and Heidi Shoemaker, who wears several hats at once at the Ohio Conference: Communications Secretary, Assistant to the President, and Women’s Ministries Director. I asked each one five basic questions. Their answers are below, along with occasional comments or clarifications from me, in italics.
AT: What was your goal in beginning a new form of Ohio camp meeting? Why was it important to you?
Fortune: My goal in beginning it again was to connect my children with the Jesus-focused, grace-based Adventist pastors and storytellers I met when I first arrived in Ohio in 1997. These guys like Roy Nelson and Ed Marton and Victor Brown "get it" and I wanted my children to hear more about Jesus and the Adventist church specifically from them.
Farr: One of our main goals was to invite people to Jesus, and we especially wanted a family-oriented environment. It was awesome to see families come together. Especially this year, [their third] everything seemed to just come together. We had 90 kids including the young adults, and they really got involved and participated. The intergenerational worship* seemed better than other years. We had done that from the beginning, but this year it really was exciting.
[*Each morning and evening, the camp meeting offered an intergenerational worship for all ages. Everyone sang “kids’ songs, old people songs, and young people songs”—by my definition. Kids often went en masse to the front to lead, especially if actions were required. DLK]
Shoemaker: I wasn’t here when they’d discontinued camp meeting; I wanted to help facilitate what the pastors wanted to see happen. It was great, watching the intergenerational relationships grow and people being blessed.
AT: What is your personal role in the new, smaller camp meeting?
Farr: I serve on the planning committee, teach a class, and am in charge of the information booth. I also do the early morning meeting, Soul Café. I plan a theme that goes along with the camp meeting theme [this year, More About Jesus], make handouts and so on, and teach it.
Shoemaker: As assistant to the president, I’m kind of the conference representative. I do the coordination and liaison with the academy [Mt. Vernon Academy, where Ohio Camp Meeting has been held for decades] and with churches and so on. Also, as communications director, I’m in charge of all the publicity that goes out there—website, marketing, Visitor information, and so on. I’m also in charge of the Women’s Tea, with my Women’s Ministries hat on!
Fortune: I am a member of the camp meeting planning committee which consists of willing pastor friends and conference employees and church members who donate their time planning then implementing a full week of camp meeting the second full week of June each year.
[Fortune also served as general moderator, announcement maker, and drummer-up of volunteer campers for such things as night watch, helped with the juniors and with afternoon activities and mission projects, and, with some other pastors, even babysat so women could go to the tea.]
AT: What kinds of responses are you getting from attendees?
Shoemaker: They really like the family feel. They like the variety of speakers, the topics covered, the worship together, most just say it’s getting better every year, and that they all come back home with a feeling of spiritually having their cups filled and feeling blessed. Maybe that sounds clichéd, but it’s what really matters most.
Fortune: Those attending love it. Especially the kids. I was especially proud of this year's camp meeting since it wove together so many interesting contributions from various congregations in Ohio about the 150th anniversary of the Adventist Church. Former Ohio pastor Dr. Merlin Burt, Director of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University, was our featured weekend speaker. But Akron First's puppet children’s story [Sabbath morning] about the Great Disappointment captivated the kids. Pastor Mike Barnett's connections through Biblical storytelling yielded Kharinne Shenaul dressed as Ellen White, Her presentation of two visions from our heritage in vivid language earned her a definite invite back. And Lancaster SDA Church's Trina Schone moved everyone present with her specifically written-for-camp meeting songs and piano concert Saturday night. How she's not playing on Christian radio right now next to Mark Schultz I have no idea!
Farr: Positive! One of the cool things that I’ve appreciated is the comments from people. We’ve done surveys at the end each year, and we’ve done everything we can to implement every suggestion we can. People appreciate it, and feel like they’re contributing
AT: Give me a couple of examples of problems you’ve faced and the results.
Fortune: Well, this year weather forced us to re-arrange our afternoon service projects and field trips. And those camping and in pop-up RVs had to tear down for one day as 60mph sheer winds were forecast. So we had one interesting night camping in the Mount Vernon Academy tornado shelters. But school officials took over ahead of time and clearly told us what to do and everyone survived including all the pets! Since this is a volunteer camp meeting, we've learned to rely more on the lay people who in the feedback forms have told us pastors they're willing to help. So this year, background-checked and pastor-recommended laypersons led and assisted in children's divisions, hall monitoring the dorm hallways after lights out, chaperoning field trips, even leading two of the featured presentations this year; one on inductive Bible study and another in a cooking school.
[I can testify to the excitement and nerves of tearing down all camping and spending the night camping out in the cafeteria basement, watching TVs that showed thousands of lightning strikes per hour along the storm front, heading our way at an unnerving velocity. I’ve wondered if that night, and the resetting up of tents and so forth that ensued the next morning, actually added to the sense unity we felt at this camp meeting.]
Farr: Even when people have had negative feedback, they’ve been positive about things they didn’t like and added suggestions. For example, in the afternoons, at first, we only had activities or mission projects. But we had some elderly people who didn’t want to go swimming or bowling, and couldn’t really help with mission projects, either. They said they ended up sitting around a lot. They wanted an afternoon speaker instead, so we got that. In fact, this year we had two afternoon speakers.
Shoemaker: The biggest issue we’ve had is trying to make sure we have enough people to cover everything. We’re just volunteering, and there are so few of us. We want to make sure everyone has their needs met—we’re customer service based. It can get tricky.
AT: What’s your favorite thing about the new camp meeting?
Farr: Soul Café! Am I allowed to say that, even though I teach it? I just love it! I don’t want to be the preacher. I don’t want to just stand up there and do a presentation. I love the conversations that go on all over the room [Soul Café is done at tables in the cafeteria.] I want to hear everyone getting into the word and sharing why it moved them and what it meant to them and how God’s word is moving in them and changing their lives.
Shoemaker: I especially love the musical times—I loved getting together with other musicians from all over the state. I had a blast Sabbath afternoon when we jammed in the gazebo.
Fortune: My fave thing was hearing my (now 11-year-old) daughter gather the courage required to sing about Jesus being her "All in All" on Sabbath afternoon during the Ohio Has Gifts concert featuring the spiritual gifts of people of all ages from Ohio's congregations.
Speaking as a last-minute attendee, I can attest that this tiny, different kind of camp meeting definitely filled my cup! It’s not that the old camp meetings weren’t family-friendly—of course they were. But it reminds me of the difference between the small women’s retreats we used to have at the church camp, and the big, glossy ones we’ve had more recently at conference centers—both a blessing, both empowered by the Holy Spirit, but different kinds of blessings. God bless camp meetings, big and small!