It only takes a spark: Melissa Atchison

Published: April 15, 2016

Annette Brill Bergstresser

This year, 13 students at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, share a common background as staff members at Mennonite camps and retreat centers. Meet one of the 13: Melissa Atchison of Manhattan, Kansas.

Home congregation
Manhattan (Kansas) Mennonite Church

Education and program of study
I have a bachelor’s degree in forest management from the University of Missouri – Columbia. At AMBS, I am a Master of Divinity Connect student with a focus on Christian faith formation.

How did your camp staff experience play a role in bringing you to seminary?
I have served at Camp Mennoscah in south-central Kansas (Murdock) for about fifteen years. The first year I was a kitchen helper; since then I've been leading input for one week each summer for junior-high-aged campers.

Are there any specific stories you could share?
I was thrilled to be asked by my friend, Janet McGillivary, to help her lead input at the week that she co-directs. I think that first year that I helped in the kitchen, she saw how much I loved just being there, and she knew that I enjoyed teaching Sunday school. In retrospect, I grew into this position because Janet saw a potential gift that I had to offer and encouraged me to try it.

I remember being surprised to learn—a few years into my Mennoscah experiences—that input leaders for other weeks there were often pastors. One year, when a new camp director came on board, he pushed for all input leaders to have pastoral credentials. I first reacted by questioning my own abilities, but then I began to consider the idea that I was doing a sort of pastoring every summer for one week.

Over the years that realization grew into a nudge to explore what sort of pastor I was becoming. Camp can be a full immersion experience in what author Randy Woodley calls the “Community of Creation,” a non-imperialistic alternative term for what God intends here. For me it has brought together my interest in natural resource management with my passion to participate in God’s shalom—to be the church in a setting where we are reminded that we are in relationship not only with each other but with all that God has made.

I love planning experiences for the campers and staff that pull together the big ideas we find in the Bible with our place at camp, and then seeing what happens when we try them together. One year we learned different ways to pray. My favorite one was building miniature boats from bark and other natural materials, standing a tiny candle up inside each one, and lighting them at dusk as we set our prayer boats afloat on the river.

Bible study can be fun! At camp we are surrounded by possibilities to use all of our senses to let concepts like the “river of life” really soak into us, seeing how every living thing depends on water in this place. Jesus’ parables include so many illustrations from the natural world; when we’re at camp we are potentially present to see his Truth in stuff that happens around us and to us.

What are your thoughts about the future?
By the time our kids are all on their own, I hope to have finished my AMBS degree and have a clearer sense of what God needs me to do. I hope it will include an intersection between outdoor ministry and spiritual direction.

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