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A summer camp leader smiles with five of his campers.
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How to Plan a Summer Camp and Live to Tell About It!

Not sure where to start when you need to plan a summer camp? Let this camping whiz come to your rescue!

Ahhh…the sound of a crackling campfire. Marshmallows on sticks, puffing up from the heat, ready to drop on a piece of chocolate sandwiched between two crunchy graham crackers. Even those who’ve never experienced this camping tradition delight in the idea of sitting around the fire eating S’mores. But for a child away from home for the first time at church camp, this is one of many memories that serves as a reminder of a life-changing experience.

When I was 12 years old, I attended church camp for the first time. Thursday night after singing songs around the campfire, I decided to follow Jesus. My life was never the same. Years later as a children’s ministry director, I brought hundreds of kids to church camp each summer. I’ve spent many evenings around the campfire, listening to children make that same life-changing commitment to Jesus that I made as a child.

Taking kids to camp enables you to get kids out of their daily element and provide an environment that focuses on relationships, fun, and Christ. Today’s kids are busy and swamped by a fast-paced schedule that rarely gives them the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, and today’s parents are looking for positive opportunities for their children over the summer months. Church camp is a great way to reach out to your community and provide a positive experience for children that does more than create a lasting memory; it opens the door to a personal relationship with Jesus.

Getting Started on Your Summer Camp

If you’ve never planned a summer camp before, here are a few easy steps to get you packing on your merry way.

Know your purpose.

Before diving into the camp planning process, take a look at your children’s ministry’s mission and vision. Then determine how a summer camp can complement and contribute to your ministry. Develop a mission and vision statement for your camp ministry so there’s accountability in the planning process. A mission and vision statement acts as a checkpoint to ensure that everything you plan has a purpose and the focus stays on the ministry.

Target your camper audience.

Determine which age groups you want to invite to camp. Preteens are an easy target audience because most are emotionally ready to spend a week away from home. If you take younger kids to camp, consider a shorter camp week. Three or four days away from home is a good time frame for younger elementary kids.

Choose a summer camp.

Explore your camp options. There are many great camps throughout the United States that have programming already in place. An established camp allows you to bring kids to camp without the responsibilities of directing the camp. Typically, you can bring chaperones who have minimal responsibilities, such as leading a small group of kids from your church. If you’ve never been to camp before, this may be your best introduction to the experience. This is also a great option for small churches who may not have enough campers to rent an entire facility.

If you have a large group of kids attending camp, developing your own program and renting facilities allows you to customize your week to best fit kids’ interests and needs. This option requires a lot more planning, not only in programming, but also in the budget process.

Avoid the Summer Camp Budget Blackhole

It’s important to develop a budget exclusively for camp to ensure that all financial obligations can be met without creating a major deficit. Here’s how.

Facility rental

The largest camp expense is typically the rental of camp facilities. Investigate the rental fees of various camps in your area. If your church has a denominational affiliation, ask about the camp associations that usually offer a discounted rate. Ask lots of questions to assure that you have a complete picture of what your financial obligations will be. Good questions to ask the camp before signing a contract are:

  • Is there a general facility rental fee, or is the rental fee based on the number of campers?
  • Does the fee include meals? snacks? If we need to provide our meals, are there kitchen facilities available?
  • Are there extra fees for use of meeting rooms, recreational facilities, or equipment?
  • Is there a discount for camp counselors? Do you require the church to use the camp’s staff nurse or lifeguard, and what’s the cost?
  • What’s the deposit to reserve the camp? What, if any, portion is refundable if I cancel or we’re not able to meet the number of spots reserved?

Mode of transportation

Another costly component of camp can be if you decide to provide transportation to and from camp. The most cost-efficient transportation is to have parents drive their children to camp. However, this isn’t always an option. Determine early if you’ll provide transportation, and look into various options. If you use a bus, check to see if you need to provide lodging and meals for the driver during your stay. If you rent vans, make sure you have enough drivers who are eligible to drive under your church’s insurance policy. Factor any transportation costs into camper’s registration fees.

Summer camp headliners

If you decide to hire a speaker or band for your camp, determine ahead of time how much you want to spend, and stay within that budget. Remember you’ll have to pay for your featured guest’s lodging and meals as well as a service fee and possible transportation costs. To help save dollars in this area, use a speaker from your church. If your youth group has a band, ask if they’d like to provide music for your camp week.

Nurse budget

Many camps have a staff nurse. But if they don’t, this isn’t the place to scrimp to save a few bucks. With so many kids on medication today, having a camp nurse is a full-time responsibility. To help keep costs down, check with your church members to see if there’s a nurse looking for a volunteer opportunity. If you need to, hire someone from a nursing pool. Parents are entrusting you with precious children; don’t leave the door open for liability by trying to cut costs in this area.

How much to charge for summer camp

Finally, make sure you factor in any counselor fees to your camper’s registration so your chaperones have no costs. Estimate the total number of campers you’ll have, and determine your camper-to-staff ratio ahead of time. It’s always better to overestimate and cut back rather than end up with costs that weren’t planned for ahead of time. Use this step-by-step guide.

  1. Estimate the number of campers and counselors.
  2. Multiply that number by the camp cost per person.
  3. Add in approximate additional costs per camper.
  4. Divide the total number by the number of campers attending.

It’s wise to also add a small amount to each registration for any extra incidentals or for last-minute supplies. Remember, this isn’t a money-making venture. Keeping costs as low as possible enables more children to attend. If you come out ahead financially, use that money to help keep costs down for the following summer.

Select a Theme

Creating a theme for your week at camp helps throughout the planning process. Developing a theme that’s fun and catchy will make it easy to promote your camp week. Choose a theme that you can carry out in every activity. From advertising to games, and skits to session topics, a theme can tie the week together and help create an easy memory for kids. If your budget allows, design T-shirts with the theme printed on them. A name tag with the theme printed on it is a simple and inexpensive memento (name tags are essentials for the week anyway.) Develop your theme early, and promote camp early with this element already in place.

Get the Word Out

The key to promoting a week at camp is to start as early as possible. Take early deposits and offer an early-bird discount to those who put a deposit down before a designated date. Advertise within your church first, and encourage kids to invite their unchurched friends to camp. It’s amazing how many unchurched parents won’t allow their children to attend a weekly church event but will rejoice at the opportunity to send them away to camp for a week!

Don’t miss other avenues of advertising your camp in the community. Alert your local schools and community centers that you’re offering an overnight camp during the summer. Day-care centers are also a great place to get the word out. Promoting camp in the community allows you to use your camp as an outreach opportunity.

Let the Registrations Begin

Create an attractive and informational brochure that includes a registration form. In addition to asking for personal information, ask for these essentials as part of the registration form:

  • emergency contact and phone number,
  • medical insurance information (including policy and group numbers),
  • doctor and dentist contacts and phone numbers,
  • allergies, physical limitations,
  • emergency medical release form, and
  • any medications to be taken at camp. (Have parents turn in medications to the camp nurse or director prior to camp with detailed directions for distribution. Prescription medication must be in its original container with pharmacy instructions printed on the label.)

In your brochure include information that parents will need before and during their child’s week at camp. List the basic supplies campers will need, and include items that need to be left at home. Consider asking campers to leave personal CD players and hand-held video games at home to help create an environment that encourages relationships. Provide the camp’s address and phone number as well as an emergency number such as a staff member’s cell phone or pager.

When parents register a child, provide a receipt of their deposit and follow up with a letter on their remaining balance with the date it’s due. It’s a good idea to have all fees due one week prior to camp.

Set Up Summer Camp

The campers are arriving, excited, and eager to spend a week away from home; are you completely prepared for their arrival? Here are pointers to help your camp week run smoothly.

Have a schedule.

You’re in charge of a group of kids, 24 hours a day, for several days. Don’t let too much free time take control of camp. Schedule from wake-up to lights-out, accounting for small amounts of free time. Offer a variety of activities in addition to teaching times to accommodate different interests. Campers will become bored quickly if they aren’t left with options to fill their day. Stick to your designated lights-out time. The first night may be a struggle, but once kids realize how tired they are, the battle will be minimal.

Staff accordingly.

Have safe camper-to-staff ratios, and train your staff so they know their responsibilities ahead of time. Meet together in the mornings before breakfast for day briefings, concerns, and prayer. Let staff know that you expect them to be involved with the kids throughout the week, building relationships and modeling a Christlike attitude.

Prepare for homesickness.

It’ll happen! Help children work through their loneliness and fear by listening to them. Talk with the parents before letting a child call home to ask them how they want you to deal with their child’s homesickness. Try to get children involved in the program; once they’re having fun themselves, the homesickness typically fades. Never belittle children’s feelings, and offer praise when they’ve overcome their fears or worries.

Have a good time!

I can honestly say that I believe that at every camp I’ve led, I’ve had as much fun (if not more) than the kids. Embrace the week to build relationships and minister to kids in an uninhibited environment. Take part in crazy skits, play the messy games, and share your heart with the kids during the week. You’ll come home tired but also rejuvenated for ministry, and the kids at camp will return home with a new and special bond with you, your staff, and one another.

Keep the Fire Burning

One of the biggest obstacles upon returning from camp is keeping kids excited about growing in their faith. Often the excitement looms through the summer, only to fizzle once the routine of school and extracurricular activities sets in. Try these ideas to keep the campfire burning throughout the year.

Plan a Summer Camp Echo.

One or two weeks after camp, invite campers and their parents to the church for a Camp Echo. Ask several kids to tell something about camp such as a funny story, a new friendship, or a new commitment to Jesus. Sing camp songs, perform a camp skit, and show any video shot throughout the week. This is a great opportunity for parents to get a taste of what their children experienced, and it offers a connection between camp and church after kids return.

Start small groups.

Camp is a great trigger for small groups with kids. Use the camp connections to bring them together throughout the school year. Too often kids get excited about spiritual growth at camp, only to let it slide when they return home. Providing small groups not only helps them continue to grow in their faith, but it also enables them to continue to build friendships formed over the summer.

Have a winter recharge.

Plan an overnight or winter retreat that allows kids to recharge their spiritual batteries. Invite those who attended camp to come, and encourage them to bring a friend who they may want to invite to camp in the coming summer. Offering a midyear connection helps kids stay accountable to commitments they made and begins to build excitement for another terrific summer at camp. This is a great time to start registering kids for upcoming summer camps too.

Now that you’ve got the basics of planning a church camp, grab your sleeping bag and duffel bag and bring kids along! Church camp is more than a campfire experience. It has the potential to light a fire that burns throughout a person’s life — an unquenchable fire for Jesus.

Carmen Kamrath is a former children’s ministry leader and a camping expert. 

Looking for more summer camp ideas? Start here!

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