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Summer camps set to run ahead in 2024

Students take off during a rec game at Circle Six Camp near Odessa, Texas. Photo courtesy of Circle Six Camp

NASHVILLE (BP) – Years after a summer of practically no camps, the institution is continuing its comeback. And according to a study from the Christian Camp and Conference Association (CCCA), the figures have caught up with and even exceeded pre-COVID numbers.

A Mt. Lebanon camper takes part in a game of 9-square. Photo courtesy of Mt. Lebanon Camp

The majority of respondents came from the Northeast (21 percent), North Central (18 percent) and Central Southern (15 percent) areas of the country. Data collected March 22-May 29, 2023, formed the first study conducted by the group since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In terms of enrollment, there were more camps at or near capacity in 2022 (15 percent) than 2019 (9 percent). The number of camps reaching 90-99 percent capacity was also slightly higher in 2022 (29 percent) than in 2019 (28 percent).

Thirty-five percent of camps in 2019 were at 75-89 percent capacity, higher than the 29 percent of camps reporting as such in 2021.

While 2020 was the summer of practically no camp due to COVID-19 concerns, the numbers were projecting downward anyway as the study reported less than half (40 percent) of camps experiencing higher enrollment than the previous summer. By comparison, nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of camps in 2022 showed an increase.

“Camps, by and large, are booming,” said Eddie Walker, executive director for Mt. Lebanon Camp & Conference Center in Cedar Hill, Texas, which is affiliated with the Dallas Baptist Association.

Teenagers pray together during a discipleship retreat last fall at Mt. Lebanon camp. Photo courtesy of Mt. Lebanon Camp

Walker was a 15-year-old attending the camp when he sensed a call to the ministry. He began leading worship there as part of the summer staff while in college and into his time at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

As well as serving in churches, he and his wife founded another Christian camp they sold just prior to the pandemic before returning to Mt. Lebanon two years ago.

“Many of our Baptist camps are seeing record-breaking attendance and trying to keep up with rapid growth and expansion needs,” he told Baptist Press. “Camps and retreats remain some of our very best tools for evangelism and spiritual growth for all ages – children, teens and adults. 

Enrollment for Mt. Lebanon was up 20 percent in 2023 and is poised to be 16 percent higher this year.

Lifeway camps have shown steady growth since COVID as well. In 2019, more than 122,000 kids and students attended CentriKid, FUGE, Student Life camps and World Changers projects, the latter of which ceased being under Lifeway’s purview after that year.

After the cancellation of all Lifeway camps in 2020 due to the pandemic, approximately 88,000 campers returned in 2021. That number grew to 106,000 in 2022 and again to 111,000 last year.

A camper climbs a tower at Circle Six camp in west Texas. Photo courtesy of Circle Six Camp

Generally speaking, a camp can draw more attendees the closer it is to a high-population area. Mt. Lebanon, for instance, is just south of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Circle Six Baptist Camp and Conference Center, on the other hand, sits on 100 acres in west Texas about 30 minutes from Odessa.

Started in 1945 by six Baptist associations, Circle Six is now its own 501(c)(3) and a ministry of Lamesa and Crossroads associations. Brian Colbath has been executive director since 2012. His wife Kelli is the office assistant and served as a summer counselor while a student at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas.

“We’re averaging over 350 more campers in June and July than we did before COVID,” Colbath said.

Some of the seeds of that growth were planted in 2021. With COVID still a concern, some larger churches chose against the larger camping/conference facilities for something smaller and more local. A few became return customers.

In addition to weeks dedicated to students, Circle Six also offers camps for children, preteens and Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action groups. An independent Baptist church also rents out the facilities as does Angelo State University for a freshman camp.

A common problem among other camps that Circle Six doesn’t seem to have is finding qualified staff.

“I know this is kind of an anomaly, but we have not had to recruit for summer staff the last two years,” Colbath said. “We’ve worked on building the program up since COVID and have had more summer staff than ever.”

Of course, the number of summer staff depends on the size of the camp, which gives smaller ones like Circle Six an advantage. It also helps that the camp invested in staff through increasing wages, allowing flexibility on days to sleep in and building a new hangout space.

As with Mt. Lebanon, staff training has also come to include spotting potential cases of sexual abuse and reporting.

“If an issue is brought up, we talk about it. There are basic rules in place such as not being isolated with a camper and remaining in groups,” Colbath said.

“Every volunteer goes through child protection training,” added Walker. “The reality is that a lot of churches are doing those steps, too, when it comes to volunteers. It’s pretty rare for there to be the church that doesn’t.”