Monday, July 20, 2009

On canceling events

For the third time in my time as youth missioner I've had to make the call to cancel a camp program. Of all the things I've had to do in this position this is far and away my least favorite.

I'd rather do budget proposals. And that's saying a lot.

All of this has thrown a huge monkey wrench in my day. In fact it's been a growing cloud over me for the last several days. By Friday last we still only had 5 applications and we needed 20. A miracle was possible but grew less likely each day. Saturday's mail - 0. Today's mail - 0. So I made the call. Now I have 5 follow up letters to write, some check requests for reimbursements to fill out and months of asking the same question over and over.

"So what happened?"

The honest answer is I don't know. Likely suspects include:

The Economy - Our camp programs aren't terribly expensive. A week at Junior High would set a family back $395 per child plus canteen money (about $10). But this economy stinks and western New York is not a economic powerhouse in the best of times. At least not recently. We have a scholarship fund and it was tapped very heavily for Senior High. Maybe families just decided not to send their middle school aged kids to camp.

Limited Demographic - We do seem to be in a bit of trough right now for this age group but I find it hard to believe that there aren't at least 20 kids of this age with some interest in a camp program. We've had plenty of kids come up through our Sleep Away program. Where do they go?

Communication Failure - Is it possible? We have a web page, e-mail newsletters, a Facebook presence, a text message service. We do a huge pre-camp mailing using all the names from previous years campers plus mailings to the congregations. I'm trying to get out and do more face to face communication too. From my own background I know that there's a difference between volume of communication and effective communication. If you're effective the volume doesn't have to be high. If you're not effective then you have to bombard your target audience. I don't know where I am at the moment.

Other - Competing events? Lack of relevance? Unspoken animosity/dissent? Personality issues? Nobody cares any more? I don't know.

When I'm rational on the subject, which I'm trying to be right now, my thought is that it must be a combination of the above. Maybe it's something of which I'm not aware. If so someone needs to tell me.

Over the years I've had several conversations with folks I respect about whether a youth event should EVER be canceled. They see the cancellation as just doing too much damage to the overall program. While agree that canceling takes years to repair I don't know how we face our financial supporters that we spent the kind of money we do for an event that serves such a very small population. We need to model responsible use of our gifts and resources for the whole church including our young people.

As I'm finishing this post I just exchanged texts with our camp director. I apologized for closing camp. His response? "We'll be back, stronger than ever."

That's the goal and a good reminder.

Time to start keeping my eye on the prize for next summer.



Anonymous said...

From someone who can't imagine his youth without "church camp," I feel for you.

Pete Avery said...

We can speculate all year long on the "what happened" that only five Jr High Youth signed up for camp this year, and I'm sure we will.

We've been trying for over two months now (the time we went into crisis mode with too few applications), praying for the last minute applications to arrive in mass numbers, and frantically making phone calls to clergy and fellow camp staffers to try and figure it out.

The Youth Missioner has done more than an adequate job in publicizing our camp and all other youth programs in mailings, web mail and in person. Past campers from as far back as my tenure and beyond, praise the Jr High camp and all other youth programs. There are scholarships available from the diocese and most parishes. So what happened???

We could pick a variety of feel good excuses like scheduling issues and such but I can't help think it's a wider concern.

We have seen a steady decline in the numbers in our youth programs across the board for several years now, and we're not alone. I have had many discussions with other religious and non-religious youth program leaders and they are all asking the same questions of why and what are we doing wrong?

Some believe it's our current culture of "it's just easier and acceptable now, to just stay home and it's a lot easier on the family budget". Or "organized religion is so out of touch". There are many convenient excuses. None are acceptable to any of us.

Every church in the diocese (and in the national church) has youth development at or near the top of their priority list. So how are we missing the mark?

Many of us children of the sixties, seventies and eighties discovered our personal faith journeys in diocesan youth programs. True, most of us attended church from infancy with our families, but the first real personal connection to God was shared with people in our own age group and probably away from our home parish, at camp or a youth group overnight. So what's changed? When we answer that, we will save our future.

Take a head count again this Sunday at church. The obvious is WE need to change. We CAN direct our future. We need to learn how to (hold on, the scariest word in the Episcopal Church) EVANGELIZE with the Good News to our friends and neighbors and invite them to come check out the Episcopal Church.

We will come back stronger than ever when we, all of us, take the mailings off the parish bulletin board, read them to, and share our youth experiences with our children, grandchildren, all our parish children, and our neighbors and friends children, as soon as they can understand. Let's not leave it to just the clergy and staff. Let's not leave it to just our youth leader (if you're fortunate to have one). Let's not leave it to just someone else. Let's not just leave it.

I have had six phone calls and as many text messages so far from folks pledging their support to ensure this won't happen again next year. We are coming back stronger, and it starts today.

Just the thoughts of a very saddened but now, more highly motivated Jr High Camp Director.

Brian said...

Thanks for sharing this. Our camping program is running into the exactly the same problems here in the mid-west. I think you list many of the most likely causes. I think a big problem is just the competition of culture: teens have a plethora of choices now and going to camp means choosing just one and sticking with it for a whole week. If they stay at home, they can divide their time between multiple activities and not really make a choice.

I also appreciate your thoughts on whether or not to cancel a youth activity, but I think it's perfectly acceptable to look at it from a stewardship perspective: do you go ahead with the event or is the energy, the materials, labor, funds better used elsewhere.


Quinn Haggerty said...

This is a bummer, but next year Pete is right. We WILL have 20. I talked to Kim and being a counselor is looking good... I want to see if I could talk about Junior High for a little bit at camp. Also, I have a couple ideas down my sleeve for September. Let's hope we can bring camp back in 2010.

Anonymous said...

hi... just dropping by!