By Jacob Spilker
COVID-19 has made this world a tough place to navigate for everyone, including for us in the Outdoor Ministry world. Last Spring, many summer camps were asked to close their doors for the summer to help hinder the spread of this worldwide virus. Camp Tomah Shinga in Junction City, Kansas was no different. In March Camp Tomah Shinga was asked by local health officials to put a halt to all in-person activities. For over 8 months we have had to hold off on hosting retreats, weddings, and you guessed it, summer camp. Everything we had worked so hard for since the end of camp in 2019 to make the summer session of 2020 into the best one yet was taken from our community and us. For some kids, camp is the most important week of their year as they can get away from the pressures they endure in their day-to-day life. Having to take that away from our campers broke our hearts.
From the beginning, we knew that it would be difficult to navigate what COVID was going to throw our way. Not having summer camp and retreats meant we lost out on tens-of-thousands of dollars to fund our yearly operations. Churches not knowing what their financial picture looked like meant that congregational support of camp from the synod level down to each individual church decreased. With those factors in our way, our mindset to approach 2020 changed drastically. We had two options, let COVID dictate our narrative, or attack the situation and come out better as a camp.
Moving forward, it was going to have to be our individual donors that help us propel through this year. But with no camp for them to get excited about, it was time to turn instead to our potential. This started with hiring of 6 counselors who learned a whole new way to reach our camp family: virtually through our Backyard Camping experience. Each staff member was in charge of creating their own videos to connect with our campers and their families. This looked like 4 videos a day with live worship videos 3-4 times a week. The staff brainstormed projects, ideas and grants throughout the 2020 summer as well. For example, in the past 5 camping seasons Tomah Shinga has gone from 238 campers in a summer to 615. Because of that, we ran into an exciting problem: not enough sleeping areas. This was just exciting enough that we could capitalize on it, using 2020 as a building year towards the future of Camp Tomah Shinga.
Early in 2020 we secured a matching donor on our project to build our new cabin village, “The Grove”. In this project we transformed a space previously used by platform tents and a portable rental shower house, into 6 cabins and a permanent shower and bathroom facility. This addition to our site got our camp family very excited about what is happening at Camp Tomah Shinga. To go alongside The Grove, we added a sand volleyball pit, new worship sites, a hammock village, new trails, and a bridge over a river to allow us to access more of our 840 acres of land.
This has been a long journey, but to be able to look back on all we have accomplished while the odds were against us is something to be proud of. While it has been difficult to see the light at times, the Spirit has been alive and well in this community. I hope that you too can find the parts of your life where you are building momentum, harness it, and take charge of the circumstances. You never know where the Spirit will take you.
Think about the parts of your life, leadership, and church where the Spirit is building momentum. Where is the potential in your ministry right now? What is something your church community could take charge of with God’s leadership? The Church Experimentation Starter Kit is a free e-book with 8 simple practices can help with this process.
About the Author
Jacob Spilker was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. He went to Bethany College and graduated with a B.A. in Religion and immediately returned to his roots—summer camp with Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. In 2015, he joined the staff of Camp Tomah Shinga. Jacob serves as the executive director.