Sixty-two years is a long time. A lot has happened since 1952 when Lehigh Presbytery purchased Camp Brainerd in Stroudsburg, PA. In fact, a pair of fires in consecutive years in the early 1960s destroyed buildings on the property, but hard work and determination enabled the camp to survive and flourish through the years. Until now.
Due to financial reasons, Lehigh Presbytery has been forced to close Camp Brainerd’s doors for good at the end of the year. While it is a sad time for many people in the presbytery who attended activities there as youths and who in turn sent their own children to Stroudsburg for summer camps, Lehigh will not be without a camp in 2015. Thanks to a November vote by the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the proposed partnership between the Philadelphia and Lehigh presbyteries was passed, meaning Lehigh will call what is currently known as Kirkwood Camp and Conference Center – located about 10 minutes from Camp Brainerd – its new home for youth ministry.
(UPDATE: Read a statement on the partnership on the Lehigh Presbytery’s website here.)
So while the future looks bright for Lehigh Presbytery’s camp arrangements, there is a time for reflection and goodbyes as the doors close for the final time at Camp Brainerd.
“People have formed attachments; they have camped at Brainerd and their children and their grandchildren,” said the Rev. Dr. Steve Shussett, the teaching presbyter and stated clerk at Lehigh Presbytery. “That connection is long-standing. Those roots run deep, and that has been very hard for some people.”
Despite the emotional attachment, a decision had to be made to shut down Camp Brainerd, but not without careful consideration that has been occurring for the last five years. A review process led to the formation of a task force five years ago that discussed the future of camping in Lehigh Presbytery. The proposal from that group which Shussett was a member was to close down Camp Brainerd.
“Camping ministry is different than the 1960s, the church is different than in the 1960s, and financially it was becoming more and more difficult for the camp to be supported by the presbytery,” Shussett said. “The numbers were diminishing over the years with the rise of different camping opportunities and the culture we live in now.”
Despite the recommendation five years ago, many people objected to the idea of shutting down Brainerd. Because of the promised support, Lehigh Presbytery agreed to keep the doors open for three more years, giving the camp benchmarks to meet over that time before reviewing the situation again.
“A number of people stood up and said, ‘No, we can do this, just give us the opportunity,’” Shussett recalled. “The presbytery agreed to a plan that had some accountability involved.”
The plan involved goals for Camp Brainerd to meet in terms of participation and financial numbers. Early in the plan, the goals were met, but at the end of the three-year period the state of the camp looked like it had before. Another task group again resulted in the decision to close Camp Brainerd, and once again it was met with objection, resulting in another effort to discern whether the camp could be maintained, and if so, how?
“The task group was largely made up of people who were very supportive of Brainerd,” Shussett said, “and they had the opportunity to see a lot of the things that others of us had come to understand with the financial difficulties. This group was open to hearing that reality for themselves. So even though there was great love for the camp, they saw that with the culture changing, the presbytery’s finances and the financial strain of the camp, that this wasn’t possible.”
Over the years, while discussions were being had about the future of Brainerd, other talks were also being made with Lehigh’s surrounding presbyteries regarding their camps and the possibility of joining forces at those locations.
“By the grace of God this time around, as our group was meeting and realizing it may not be able to do this (keep Camp Brainerd afloat), Philadelphia Presbytery was in a position to say maybe we could benefit from partnering in a way that we haven’t seen before,” Shussett added.
That plan was to have Lehigh join Philadelphia in camping ministry. That decision was passed by Lehigh in September and is expected to be approved by Philadelphia in November. Some inquiries have been made regarding its sale.
Brainerd and Kirkwood are very different geographically. Brainerd is a 36-acre property that is more suitable for younger camps due to its smaller space. Meanwhile, Kirkwood – which will be renamed as part of the agreement — comes in at 292 acres and has larger facilities that would, for instance, be able to house campers for activities that would otherwise be postponed by inclement weather, a luxury Brainerd didn’t have. Brainerd does have a pool while Kirkwood does not, but that could be changing with the new partnership.
“What we can do together is have a healthy camping ministry with enough participants that we can provide a healthy Christian ministry experience that might not be possible if the two camps were on their own,” Shussett said.
“We live in a time when Christian camping on the whole is not what it was in decades past,” Shussett said. “So like many things, wherever presbyteries can partner, it is to our benefit. We don’t need to have one of everything.”
Shussett continued to say that by partnering with another presbytery, it will strengthen the “Christian component” of the camp. In the past, a camp activity at Brainerd may have been canceled due to a lack of participation, something that is less likely to happen now since the area from which campers can be drawn is twice as big.
No, bigger isn’t always better, but by combining the resources and group of prospective campers from the Lehigh and Philadelphia presbyteries, it seems as though a new and exciting experience is being created for those looking to camp in 2015.
Note: A statement from Jen Henshue, the director of Camping Ministry at Camp Brainerd, on the closing of the camp can be found by clicking here.