By: Beata Ferris
To Dan Ziegler, faith isn’t just a belief or a practice—it is a vocation.
“Whatever we do in life, we are called to do it as an outgrowth of our commitment to Christ,” said Ziegler, director of Koronis Ministries in Paynesville and Kowakan Adventures near Ely. “When I was a teen at camp about 40 years ago, I remember quite clearly sensing God’s call in my life to serve the church. My dream back then was and still is to do it at camp. More than anywhere else, camp was the place where my faith found wings…Since there are still kids like me out there who need to know Jesus, that call has not faded. Camp has had a profound effect on my spirituality.”
Rev. Paul Lint, who serves as co-director at Wesley Acres Camp and Retreat Center in Dazey, North Dakota, is similarly living out his call to ministry at camp. His years of youth work started in camping and have provided an opportunity to “walk with, cheer on, and challenge people in their faith journey,” he said. He now also enjoys partnering with local churches to enhance their youth programs, help develop a new generation of youth leaders, and provide a place for powerful youth ministry to happen.
“My spirituality is steeped in a genuine relationship,” he said. “This is central to what camping ministry has been, is, and will be.”
Both Ziegler and Lint were recently recognized for their efforts to make disciples and reach the next person for Jesus. Ziegler is the Minnesota Conference’s lay recipient of the 2019 Denman Award for Reaching New People, while Lint is the Dakotas Conference’s 2019 recipient of the Youth Worker Hall of Fame Award.
The mission of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area Camp and Retreat Ministries is to invite campers and guests to experience Christ, creation, and community. That mission has become central to how Ziegler lives out his faith.
“In many ways, camp is my church,” said Ziegler, who has led Koronis to record attendance in just three years. “In fact, most evenings in the summer, I get to worship the Creator surrounded by creation, amidst the incense of wood smoke, encircled by the arching branches of tall trees, under a canopy of stars, joining my voice with the call of the loon as it echoes across the lake.”
Camps bring people to Jesus, and evangelism is a vital part of both leaders’ roles as camp directors. Lint recognizes that camp is often people’s first encounter with God’s unconditional love as adult volunteers or as children and youth, and he believes God is calling him to make disciples by extending radical hospitality to every person who encounters camp.
“We have seen volunteers who finally understand that even in their brokenness, God’s love draws them into a lifetime of ministry,” he said. “We have walked with kids who are not welcome at home, safe at home, or feel safe in their own skin—and we have witnessed to them how far God will go to reach into their ‘yuck’ to bring them love.”
United Methodist camps in the Dakotas and Minnesota focus on creating a safe space where persons of diverse backgrounds and perspectives experience the body of Christ. These two camp directors exemplify efforts to help make camp a place that is safe and welcoming not only in a physical sense but also in an emotional and spiritual sense. It is within this context of safety that campers feel accepted and appreciated, and experience the love of Christ through relationships with staff and volunteers who genuinely care about their faith and well being.
“I’ve always felt that camp is the great leveler,” said Ziegler. “A lot of the barriers between us fall away when we are removed from our normal setting. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but there’s something about camp that helps break down the barriers between us, and as a result, opens people up to exploring with others questions of faith and the deeper things of God.”
Collaboration with the other Dakotas-Minnesota site directors has assisted both Ziegler and Lint in their leadership and faith.
“We are collaborating with people who not only care but who also have faced many of the same issues,” said Ziegler. “We can be a real encouragement to each other, celebrating together God’s work in our midst and bearing each other’s burdens when the going gets tough.”
These award-winning leaders share these ideas and suggestions about leadership:
• The act of listening and sharing in a meal opens us to new possibilities. Sit down and eat with campers, with youth, with volunteers, and with all in your community.
• Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. God doesn’t always call you to what is easy to you; sometimes you’re called to opportunities to grow and situations to practice important kingdom work.
• As leaders, one of our prime tasks is to discern our organization’s culture and explore how it helps or hinders our mission. Peter Drucker once wisely said, “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Leaders often spend tremendous energy creating strategies to propel floundering organizations forward, when the reason for the floundering is not the lack of strategy, but an unhealthy organizational culture.
• Organizational culture at places like camp does not change easily, in good part because the organization is often married to the interests of the culture-holders, who will work hard to defend the status quo. However, within dying or struggling organizations, culture change, and sometimes changing the culture-holders, may be the only way to achieve the organizational renewal needed to move it into a vital future.
God is present at camp through Ziegler, Lint, and all of the camping staff.
“Our commitment as UMC camps is to be ‘camps without barriers,’ to do all we can to offer an open-armed welcome to whomever God sends our way,“ said Ziegler, “We are asked to serve campers who stretch our capacity, and sometimes our patience, to its limits. I like to remind our staff that it is precisely the children whom we struggle with most who are most in need of the love of Christ in their lives. These are the campers Jesus would invite to his banquet table. He has reminded us that when we welcome one of these little ones in his name, we welcome Him!”
Beata Ferris is marketing and outreach coordinator for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area Camp and Retreat Ministries.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church