Stewarding the Future
By Kelsey McFaul
Christian Camp ED on the myth of urgency and power of meaningful work
Nestled in the snow-crusted Cascade mountain range in Washington state, Tall Timber Ranch is surrounded by deep green cedars, frothy glacial rivers, and meadows of wildflowers. But for campers and summer staff, none of it is Instagram-able.
“We have the blessing of being in a really remote location. We have no internet available to our guests and no cellular service. So there is a real disconnect to reconnect experience.”
Dave Saugen is executive director of the Christian camp, which was founded in 1957 and today serves 1st through 12th graders who spend 1-2 weeks in youth camps, adventure and service expeditions, outdoor education programs, and family camps.
Tall Timber’s unique location 45 minutes from the nearest town make it a unique setting for stewarding young people’s relationships with God, each other, and technology, all of which begins with the college-age team of summer staff.
“We take the phones away for staff training. They don’t have a phone at all, even to take pictures. It’s a really good kind of shock, almost a boot camp of sorts. But it’s a healthy thing. They learn to connect with each other face to face, real conversations. They actually have to think about what it is they’re wrestling with in life.”
Stewarding his summer staff’s relationships with themselves and with God is a key part of Dave’s mission at Tall Timber, especially since young adults within the 18-25-year-old range he employs are the top demographic leaving the Christian church.
“Young people are so desirous of seeing their faith put into practice. Shane Claiborne and the New Monastic movement are a perfect example of it. He went off to Calcutta to meet Mother Teresa because he felt like he wasn’t meeting many real Christians.
“If we can’t live out our faith or give people opportunities to live out their faith, then church is just another social club where you pay your dues and get your benefits. And you’re not going to have any young adults attending, because they see right through that.”
Dave believes that stewarding the relationship of young adults with the church means giving them opportunities to put their faith into practice.
“Mother Teresa’s advice to Shane was, ‘Go find your own Calcutta.’ But what it really boils down to is find what God has put in your heart, and live that passion out. We need to find ways to give young adults opportunities to have meaning in their work. If a church is reaching out and taking care of the needy, the oppressed, the widow, now your faith has teeth. Now you’re making a difference. Now I want to be part of that as a young adult.”
Tall Timber creates meaningful summer employment by clearly defining its job descriptions in terms of responsibilities, skills, and relationships workers will gain.
“Part of my job is to reshape public understanding of what it is to be a summer staff team member, so that parents and applicants understand that it’s not just a summer of fun and silliness and frivolity, but actually really important character development and skill development that will serve them well in future positions they move into.”
When Tall Timber communicates the skills-based and relational return on investment for serving a summer at camp, Dave observes the strength of young people’s response.
“The almighty dollar is worth less to them than meaning in their work. They’re willing to work for less, just to do that. That shouldn’t be our motivation, but when their faith and their work come together to create meaning and make a difference in people’s lives, then their faith [becomes] something much more than 90 minutes a week.”
Stewarding summer staff affects their relationship with their work and their faith, but it also impacts the campers they serve.
“People talk about the culture at Tall Timber and how it’s just so relational and real and rooted. I get emails from parents saying what an amazing and transformational experience their kids had with us learning about Jesus.
“The fact that kids are in a space where the adult mentors in their lives are not regularly staring at their phones or tending to some urgent message, it means that they’re important. They’re getting the attention of people who care about them, distraction-free, to make a difference in their lives, to listen to them, to play with them, to teach them. The kids are, as a result, extremely happy about their experience.”
Dave believes that technology brings a myth of urgency that damages stewardship relationships, not only between adults and children but also between leaders and their people and organizations.
“The tyranny of urgency is a real thing. When we’re just constantly trying to put out fire after fire after fire and not trying to figure out where the fires are even coming from, there’s a tendency for the owner mentality to come into play.”
In his role as executive director in an industry where many fellow camps are struggling to stay afloat, Dave says the ownership mentality can look like shouldering more responsibility than he should.
“When I feel that pressure, I can respond in one of two ways. I can respond with workaholism and just pour endless amounts of time into that ministry. Or I can come to the recognition that what I’m doing is really just coming alongside the kingdom work that God is already doing. I am a conduit for the Holy Spirit and I can’t take myself so seriously that I come to a practice or a belief that God can’t do it without me.”
For Dave, choosing a stewardship mindset over the tyranny of the urgent means letting go of his ownership of development projects and financial resources.
“I try to step back and look with kingdom-mindedness, try to embrace and remember the kingdom nature of what we’re doing here and [my] role as a disciple and servant. The Steward’s Journey process has reminded me to put more in the forefront that this is God’s ministry. I’m God’s servant and how I serve is [linked to] my dependence on God, the same way Christ is dependent on the Father.”
Developing young people’s relationship with and dependence on God is central to Tall Timber’s mission, and it extends to both the young campers they host and the college students they employ. In fact, Dave believes that camping ministry has the potential to transform an entire generation of young people.
“Christian camping has the greatest potential for missional outreach, and in a lot of places it’s re-evangelism, not evangelism. We have evangelism that’s already taken place in this country, but we’re at a place where we’re re-evangelizing, reminding people of who they were created to be and of the plan God has for their lives.
“Camp can creatively give people meaning and purpose and excitement about how God wants to shape their lives and how they can live that out–in their elementary, all the way to their high school and college years.”
To do so, Christian camps and their leaders must be wrestling with the challenges experienced by the young people they serve.
“For me, I’m just constantly in a space of trying to pursue and learn more and learn widely. Karl Barth talks about reading the Bible and the newspaper, one in each hand, and wrestling with how our faith intersects with the world. If we’re not wrestling with things like The Economist or we’re not being mindful about a broader set of information to inform what’s going on in our culture, we’re doing our kids a disservice.”
Reading widely and pursuing tough topics to steward the kids Tall Timber hosts and employs has led Dave to re-define what’s considered urgent.
“I don’t feel guilty at all about taking an hour or two of my week or more to wrestle with those topics, setting aside and shelving some of the other things that I might think are super urgent. I believe that tomorrow’s leaders are the most urgent thing we can be focusing on as Christians right now.”