It only takes a spark: Camping ministry is common thread in AMBS students' experiences

It only takes a spark: Camping ministry is common thread in AMBS students' experiences

Mariah Martin and Jeff Boehr, former camp employees turned seminary students, walk together across the AMBS courtyard. Credit: Jason Bryant.

Annette Brill Bergstresser

What do 10 of the 33 first-year students at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary have in common? A background as staff members at Mennonite camps and retreat centers.

In reflecting on how their camp experiences played a role in bringing them to AMBS, several of the on-campus students said that serving at camp gave them opportunities to try out their gifts and notice what brought them joy.

Scott Litwiller, a Master of Divinity student in pastoral ministry from Hopedale (Illinois) Mennonite Church, shared about serving as program director at Menno Haven Camp and Retreat Center in Tiskilwa, Illinois, before coming to AMBS.

“Being in charge of the summer staff members really helped cultivate my leadership abilities and helped me understand how passionate I am about working with people,” he said. Litwiller, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, also serves as data services manager for the seminary’s development team.

Scott Litwiller, AMBS studentIn particular, he named an experience of helping two staff members talk through a conflict together: “Being part of that process was a very life-giving experience that made me think maybe being a pastor could work out.”

Litwiller also pointed to “everyday” experiences such as the morning gathering time with campers.

“Just seeing how excited the kids were to be there and to start their day at camp made me really want to be part of a community of people who spend their lives together, and I think church is a good place to start,” he reflected.

Litwiller added he valued the opportunity to interact with various pastors and Illinois Mennonite Conference leaders during meetings and events at Menno Haven: “It was incredible to be able to talk with them about the good and bad parts of their job, which was fascinating.”

While he is interested in pastoral ministry and church leadership, he said he’s open to serving “wherever God takes me.”

Michelle Curtis, AMBS studentMichelle Curtis, a Master of Divinity student from Souderton (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church, discovered a love of teaching the Bible while serving as a counselor at Spruce Lake Wilderness Camp in Canadensis, Pennsylvania, after her first year of college. Curtis, who attended Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, had grown up attending Spruce Lake as a camper and dreamed of counseling there.

“One day with the older campers, I asked them to bring questions to the morning Bible study time so we could explore those together, and I remember teaching and responding to their questions and them having more questions and good conversation,” she said. “I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for camp and also my love for God and what I had been learning as a Bible major in college.”

Curtis noted that she wasn’t thinking about her counseling and teaching as “ministry” until one of her pastors at Souderton Mennonite, Sandy Drescher-Lehman, used the word to describe what Curtis was doing at camp.

“It kind of changed the way I thought about it,” she said. “It was certainly a step along the way of realizing that I love this — and maybe the word ministry and myself aren’t as far apart as I thought they were!”

Curtis said that while she is open to pastoral ministry, she’s most interested in teaching — in particular the Bible — and in bringing academic learning into the life of the church. She sees her lifelong experiences at Spruce Lake as having helped foster her love and enthusiasm for Scripture and the Church.

Michael Unruh, AMBS studentFor Michael Unruh, a Master of Divinity student from Tabor Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kansas, his camp staff experiences also helped him recognize that he had gifts for pastoral leadership.

Unruh served as a naturalist and maintenance worker at Camp Mennoscah in Murdock, Kansas, for four summers while studying biology and youth ministry at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. After college, he did a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service at Mennoscah. Later, through his role as an admissions counselor at Bethel, he counseled at Swan Lake Christian Camp in Viborg, South Dakota, and Camp Keola near Fresno, California.

“It was actually an experience at camp on the theme of God’s upside-down kingdom and on doing things to further God’s kingdom that reignited my interest in ministry, so after that I started looking at seminary,” he recalled. “I thought that going to graduate school for biology would probably be great, but I could be more effective if I started looking more seriously at ministry. It seemed to be a clearer path as well because I knew people who had gone to seminary.”

Unruh is considering pastoral ministry and camping ministry, and hopes to do one of his supervised ministry experiences at a camp.

“I’d like to learn more about how the system works and how I can use my gifts and interest in biological processes in that kind of setting — helping people recognize God’s creation as an important part of our spiritual lives,” he said. “No matter what, I’ll always be involved at camp somewhere.”

Jeff Boehr, AMBS student Jeff Boehr of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, credits a lifetime of experiences at Camp Friedenswald in Cassopolis, Michigan, with having helped point him toward seminary, which he’d been considering for a long time.

His father helped build the cabins at Camp Friedenswald in the 1950s. Boehr brought youth groups from First Mennonite to Friedenswald for winter youth retreats for many years, volunteered each year during workdays, served as a summer camp pastor for a week and most recently was program director there for three years.

Boehr is pursuing a Master of Arts in Christian Formation with an emphasis on spirituality. He said his experiences with writing summer curriculum and helping lead worship at camp gave him the opportunity “to think about what it means all along the age spectrum to be connecting our whole selves to what God is doing in the world — in nature, creation and community and our own inner life.”

“That became real for me in a practical way as I needed to think about how God was speaking to me and our staff about communicating that in a way that would hopefully be relevant and allow God to touch people,” he noted.

He wanted to come to AMBS to gain tools for leadership and to explore future ministry options. He said that being with people at camp in different life stages has sparked his interest in serving as a chaplain or spiritual director in the future. 

Lee Hiebert, AMBS studentLee Hiebert, who is halfway through his work toward a Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in Christian faith formation, grew up going to First Mennonite Church in Kelowna, B.C. He served as associate pastor at Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church in Winnipeg while studying at CMU.

Hiebert counseled for three summers at Camp Valaqua in Water Valley, Alberta (1996–98), and for a few weeks over two summers (2011–12) at two of the Camps with Meaning in Manitoba. He said camp was where he first began to understand the importance of Christian community.

“It was where — with the guidance of those ministering around me — I first experienced my gifts being discerned,” he reflected. “My time at camp was when I realized how important the community that surrounded me really was and that, if I wanted to pursue ministry, I needed to seek out a place that would help to shape me for this purpose. AMBS is one of those places.”

Other first-year on-campus students with camping ministry background include Corben Boshart, who served at Crooked Creek Christian Camp in Washington, Iowa; Mariah Martin, who served at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in Divide, Colorado; and Brian O’Leary, who served at Drift Creek Camp in Lincoln City, Oregon. First-year distance students with camping ministry background include Tara Hartman, who served at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan; and Renee Reimer, Merriam, Kansas, who served at Camp Mennoscah.

Photo credits: Jason Bryant and Lynne Zehr.