When Gil and I moved to Connecticut to pioneer Chi Alpha at the University of Connecticut, we quickly realized the stark change in culture. We were no longer one Christian family among many. Instantly, we became the odd bird out—a ministry family, driving a minivan, looking for new friends, and unfamiliar with the area. Even the church we attended did not have any families with young kids at the time. We felt drier and lonelier as the months passed.
Without communicating it to one another, Gil and I naturally began self-pastoring our family. And, as with most in ministry, everyone we met, seemed to need encouragement, discipleship, and soul care. We emptied ourselves while itinerating, meeting with new students on campus, attempting to launch our Chi Alpha group, helping our local church in new and stretching ways, and being at home with our own kids.
About 18 months into this stretch of dryness, an email came from the Assemblies of God National Office with an attachment that would change our family. The attachment was a document with a chart that explained potential benefits or allowances for support raising for nationally appointed missionaries. The chart had one little phrase that seemed to jump off the page and strike a chord in my soul: marriage retreat or family camp.
It seemed so simple, such a basic, semi-archaic idea—going to a family camp together. Honestly, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew we needed to be there. Over the course of the next few days, Gil and I kept googling family camps. We found several ministries offered them, so it was a matter of deciding how far we wanted to travel and how much they charged. Because we really had no idea what we were getting into, we just picked one that was the closest to us and signed up.
A few months and a two-hour drive later, we pulled into family camp. Twenty five families from all over the northeast arrived one by one. And they looked like us. They looked tired and worn out as they pulled into camp in their minivans and SUVs with bikes strapped on the back and kids dragging pillows and bags. They looked like I felt. These families came from many denominations and styles of worship, but the things we had in common—a deep desire to know Jesus and raise our family to know him well—bound us together that week.
Family Camp is simple and basic. The worship is bare bones. The kids develop their own imaginary town built with stones and berries. The food is standard camp fare (but I don’t have to cook for six days…who cares what we eat!). The sound system is dicey. We swim in a lake daily and have a family talent show on the night of the bonfire. We leave physically rested and spiritually renewed. Family camp restores my soul.
During the week, Gil and I were given time to study the Bible with adults, time alone, and time together. Our kids had their own program in the morning, and we had wonderful time together in the afternoons and evenings. We developed friendships that have continued to last and found a community rich in loving Jesus together as family units. We were taught the nuts and bolts of family discipleship, the spiritual disciplines of being a healthy family, and the necessity of tending to our own souls and the souls of our kids.
This summer will be our fifth year at family camp. It is part of our yearly family calendar, and if you ask our kids, it will be a priority “forever.” The simplicity of family camp restores us, protects our family with strong discipleship training and provides friends both near and far that are like-minded.
Being in ministry can be tough for a family. Being in ministry in New England can be isolating for a family. But soul care is so important for ourselves, our spouses, and our children. Without it, we would have likely dried up, packed our bags, and moved back home.
I am not naive enough to assume everyone would thrive or enjoy something like family camp. But I am wise enough to know families need soul care. We need places that are safe in all the wonderful ways that the presence of Jesus provides. We need friends who care about us as friends, care about our marriages, love our kids, and don’t see us as the ministry leader all the time. We need to find people to march alongside us as we plod on.