‘Retreating and camping is a growth opportunity for Unitarian Universalism.’
We Unitarian Universalists love our camps. A few thousand of us will attend a UU camp or retreat this year, ranging from a long weekend to a week, at locations from an island in the Atlantic to the mountains of southern California. Our camps are most often thought of as providing experiences for individuals or families, but increasingly congregations are sending large groups to camp for a collective experience.
Ferry Beach, a 32-acre camp established in 1901 on the Maine shore, estimates that 20 percent of its business is now from retreat groups, up a third in the past five years. Each year on the weekend before Memorial Day, around 150 adults and children from the First Universalist Society in Franklin, Massachusetts, take over Ferry Beach. Each morning at camp they “sing the sun up” in the company of a bagpiper on the beach. By the time they go home Sunday afternoon they have played volleyball, built sandcastles, eaten together numerous times, and had worship and a talent show. Currently a third to a half of the membership goes to the camp each year.
When the Rev. Carol Rosine came to the congregation in 1987, it had about twenty members. Today it has more than two hundred. Much of that growth is due to Rosine, plus the fact that the Franklin area itself has nearly doubled in size. And some of the growth is credited to the weeks at Ferry Beach that Rosine initiated. “Members of this congregation have a level of intimacy that you don’t always find in a congregation,” said Rosine. “There’s a real sharing, a trust, a reaching out to new people, and some of that is a carryover from our experiences at camp.”
The Franklin congregation’s experience gets repeated all across the country—on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire, at Camp de Benneville Pines in the mountains of Southern California, Eliot Institute in Washington State, Shelter Neck UU Camp and the Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in North Carolina, and many other UU camps and conference centers.
Craig Lentz, executive director of Ferry Beach, said summers at Ferry Beach are still primarily given over to individual and family camps, but throughout the spring and fall retreat groups are welcomed. “Some congregations have been coming for forty years and we continue to add new ones,” said Lentz.
“Retreating and camping is a growth opportunity for Unitarian Universalism,” said Mike Schwab of St. Paul, Minnesota, who is a consultant for UU camps and the former director of U-Bar-U Retreat and Conference Center in Texas and Camp UniStar in Minnesota. “Most religious traditions intentionally connect congregations and members to these golden opportunities for faith development. We UUs are too hit and miss. We need to call for a denomination-wide understanding that ‘retreating and camping’ is a highly valuable ministry.”
Every year around twenty youth from the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, attend camp at Camp de Benneville Pines, in the mountains above Los Angeles. “Camp solidifies their UU identity,” said Kimberly St. Clair, director of religious education at Phoenix. “It changes them and the congregation. Living in community 24 hours a day for a week can’t help but bring people closer together. They build this lifelong relationship to each other and their UU identity.”
“They also tend to take on greater responsibilities in the congregation,” she said, “with committees, teaching religious education, serving on the ministerial search committee and on the governing board.”
Camp breaks down barriers, said Victoria Hardy, chief executive officer of the Star Island Corporation, which manages the Star Island camp and conference center off the coast of New Hampshire. “When a minister or a religious educator comes to Star to lead a program and brings a group of congregants with them, I love to watch how the relationship between them deepens during the week. At the beginning they keep some distance, and by the end of the week they’re all huddled at the end of the porch in rocking chairs discussing the chapel service from the night before. I love seeing that.”
At the newest UU camp, Camp StarTrail, organized by the Prairie Star District at a Lutheran camp in Nebraska last summer, several congregations sent large groups. The Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, Kansas, where Sherry Warren is director of religious education, sent thirteen people. “Camp gave us the opportunity to see each other differently,” she said. “For example, people usually see me working with children, but at camp I presented an Our Whole Lives sexuality education class for adults, and several people from the congregation commented on how nice it was to see me in that other role.”
Congregations in the Northwest can attend Eliot Institute, which holds camps near Seattle and in British Columbia. Paul Blackburn of the sixty-member Mid-Columbia UU Fellowship in Hood River, Oregon, says Eliot provides experiences that his small congregation can’t. “Attending Eliot has become a very important part of our daughters’ religious education,” he said. “We get to worship in a room with 200 others, listen to a choir, hear gifted speakers, and generally be a part of a more robust UU experience. It matters so much to us.”
For several years members of Northwest Community UU Church in Houston have participated in work weekends at U-Bar-U, west of Austin. “These camps have been especially valuable for our children and youth,” said Tracy Cook, Northwest president. “They learned the value of working for others. It was also wonderful to see children going up to different adults, not just their parents, to learn new skills. These new relationships carried over once they got back home. Many of the children are still comfortable going to these same adults at church to ask questions.”
The congregation also holds an annual spiritual retreat at U-Bar-U, attended by about one third of its eighty-plus members. “These weekends have helped us become closer as a congregation, which makes all those ‘have-to-do’ things around the church a lot smoother,” said Cook. “We have also learned at camp how to grow spiritually from each other. One member led us in guided meditations and labyrinth walks. Another helped us explore yoga.This wouldn’t have happened back in the ordinary day-to-day of our lives.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.