By Rev. Mollie Landers
I grew up going to Hartman Center in the Penn Central Conference of the UCC. It was my Horton Center, my Pilgrim Lodge, my Silver Lake. I went as a camper of 8, encouraged by my best friend at church. I was scared going through the registration line, meeting my cabin mates, and then, over that first dinner, of pizza and salad, it clicked. I was hooked. Hartman Center became my second home, not only a place I could be myself without scorn or embarrassment, but a place I flourished. I met new best friends from all over the state, and came back year after year, as a camper, counselor, and Summer Service Team (summer staff), and even a director. It was at Hartman Center I first felt a call to ministry. I had the freedom there to see God in new ways, to experience the Spirit, and to work out what it meant to be a follower of Christ in a supportive community.
Friends who are former co-staffers and co-campers have gone on to become teachers, artists, seminarians, serving the world in meaningful and life-changing ways. The campers who I helped through a long homesick night are now on staff, discovering what it is to give back, to serve, the be part of this ministry. (Check out two great articles here and here regarding life lessons learned by going to and working at summer camp). While in seminary, I heard numerous stories of a sense of call felt around a campfire, or in the whispering wind in outdoor chapel, or at the lakeside in a moment of contemplation.
Sounds familiar right? For those of you who have a history with Horton Center, I’m sure my story could be your story, or the story of a friend. I felt that nowhere on earth could be as sacred and special as Hartman Center. And in some ways, nowhere will be, as Hartman Center is a unique place with people and experiences I love. But, I would be naive to believe there are no other sacred places where the Spirit danced on the summer breeze, inspiring wonder and delight. I’ve discovered that the same Spirit who tapped me on the shoulder on a blistering July day at Hartman Center also permeates the air at John’s River Valley UCC camp in NC, Pilgrim Lodge in Maine, N-Sid-Sen in Idaho, Mo-Val in Missouri, and Horton Center. This revelation has not diminished the specialness or sacredness out of Hartman Center. Instead, I see more clearly how Outdoor Ministry ties into the cosmic and communal work of God in our world.
Outdoor ministries is both a specialized and specific ministry, and yet it is not confined to experiences on the mountain, by the lake shore, on a trail, or in a canoe. It fills a void in our local church by supporting our local churches while being supported by those same local churches. We are partners in ministry, not just outdoor ministry.
When pastors and lay people come to Horton Center as Deans, counselors or nurses, they are participating in the ministry of the wider church and their local church. When campers of all ages come to Horton Center, they too are participating in the ministry of the wider church and their local church. When staff serve with the servant-mind of Christ, they are participating in the ministry of the wider church and their local church. We are partners in ministry and in mission. When we provide an opportunity for a camper to see God in a new way, be it through the compassion and acceptance of another person, the grandeur of the sunrise on Pinkham ledge, or learning how to work through conflict and with forgiveness and accountability, that is the work not just of Outdoor Ministries, but the wider church and the local church. When a counselor comes back to their congregation, full of ideas for a new experience in worship, or a stronger connection with a kid in their church, that is the work of the wider church and the local church. When a pastor spends time at Horton Center, being renewed by time apart in the outdoors, renewed by the energy of campers, rejuvenated by silly songs and sung graces, that is the work of the wider church and the local church. It is both a blessing from the local church to have pastors participate (and not make them use precious vacation), and a blessing to the local church who also benefits. Partnering in ministry is a driving force behind the switch to the Deans and counselor model (read about it – All Things New).
There are many people who drive the Pinkham B road and take the sharp turn up the Horton Center road who do not claim a religious or spiritual tradition. Our religious tradition gives space for their experience and for us to explore, question, doubt, and wonder. In our openness, we cannot forget what is at our core, indeed what drives Horton Center to being a welcoming, space for all – being grounded in our Christian tradition, connected to the local churches who live out that tradition on a weekly basis and work hard to be Christ to one another.
Horton Center is part of a wider tradition of Church camp in the UCC, and part of the wider understanding of Outdoor Ministry as Ministry. As we continue this journey of transformation together, I ask you two important questions –
How will you partner with us in ministry?
How can we partner with you?