Are Your Kids Safe at Evangelical Summer Church Camps?

Are Your Kids Safe at Evangelical Summer Church Camps? June 2, 2023

Over on my substack, Past and Piety, I have started a series called Fragments from My Evangelical Mind. The project is part memoire of my evangelical experiences and part history of the last 25 years of evangelicalism. In fragments, I work with areas of evangelical doctrine, as well as features of its culture, that trace the story of how evangelicalism, itself, has become fragmented. Currently, the fragments I am working with are related to evangelical summer church camp experiences. I thought the series might be fitting considering the current rhythm of the year we’re in. Even now, my middle-school kids and I are preparing for and eagerly expecting this summer’s camp experiences with our church, Christ Church in Oak Brook. This piece includes “Fragment 6” and “Fragment 10” from the series. You can read more of the fragments over on my substack. While these fragments are descriptive history and memoire, they tell a story that there are places and people—who are safe, skilled, and spiritually empowered—to shape and disciple young evangelical minds.

Fragment 6 | August, 2010 | Tulsa, Oklahoma

“Pastor Joey,” Braden sorrowfully said on a Sunday morning after bible study, “I need to talk to you about Kanakuk.”

Braden and I met early the next week at Panera. I had been the High School Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church, Tulsa for only half a year when this high school sophomore asked to meet with me. In that meeting, he revealed details about the deep, dark secret Kanakuk Camps would attempt to conceal for a decade.

Braden had been a Kanakuk camper for years. In my evangelical network, I had been connected to a number of campers and counselors. What he told me in that coffee meeting horrified me. He kept the details basic. There were tears and grief for friends who’d been hurt and relief that he had not.

As a camper, Braden had been in proximity to the serial abuser, Pete Newman, for years. While he was adjacent, as a victim, he was processing real trauma, and he was the companion to other close friends, whose trauma ran far deeper. As Braden shared about how Newman had been arrested, how many charges had been pressed against him, and what unfolded in court during the past summer—I was bewildered.

I looked blankly at Braden after he finished sharing, and then I startled him with a gasp of relief.

A vision of my two year old daughter, Chloe, crossed my mind as I uttered: “I almost babysat his kids, so he could do this to other peoples’ kids.”

I relayed to Braden how I had interviewed with Newman at Dallas Baptist University in the winter of 2003 to be a Kanakuk Camp counselor for the coming summer. I recalled how the conversation was peculiar, including some of the interview questions. Clearly both Newman and I left the conversation uneasy because he declined to offer me the role as a counselor. I was surprised because of my youth ministry experience and past experience working for Crosscamp Ministries.

Then I shared with Braden about how the following spring of 2004 Newman had reached back out. This time to ask if I would babysit his kids, while he counseled students during the summer. He was in a bind. The counselor committed to babysit had fallen through, and this was an emergency hire based on a referral from a friend of mine, who had done similar work for one of Newman’s colleagues at Kids Across America.

This time I declined Newman without hesitation. I had a busy summer ahead. I had to take a Maymester and a Summer I term to graduate with my Bachelors in Business Administration in early August. While I would have had July to work for Kanakuk and Newman, which was the term he needed coverage, I had planned to propose to my girlfriend, Kendall, and I had already been admitted to Dallas Seminary and designated a room to move into at Stearns Hall in late August. My summer schedule was packed and I needed breathing space in July to study and prepare for my first semester of seminary.

Now Braden gasped, “Wow. So you’ve met him. You know him, too.”

“A little. Not much,” I looked Braden directly in the eyes, “We’re not all like that. Not every camp is like that.”

I went on to convey to Braden about years of going to Frontier Ranch and Windy Gap with Young Life. I talked about years of leading trips and working as a counselor with Crosscamp Ministries at YMCA of the Rockies, Silver Cliff Ranch, Bahia Mar Resort, Hunstville, and more locations. After Crosscamp Ministries discontinued, following the summer of 2002, I led students on fall retreats at Pine Cove and took a handful of groups to various Student Life Camps and Conferences in the following years. By 2010, I had a decade of assorted camp experiences under my belt. In all that time, I had not heard of or been aware of one incident of harm or abuse directly related to these camps, their staff, or unsafe practices. (I understand that such cases may exist and remain confidential. Nonetheless, to this day, I am unaware of any such cases.)

Could training have been better? Could more precautions have been put in place? Absolutely! Reflecting back on that decade, I could think of all sorts of ways I might have better prepared adult leaders and coached them to be sober and alert for red flags.

This fresh news about Pete Newman had done its work in both Braden and I. Both of us continued to meet in the coming months and years to process how this story contributed to the disintegration and fracturing of our evangelical minds. From that point on, I started holding rigorous training meetings for my high school students and leaders. During my tenure as the High School Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church, each trip had a series of four Sunday afternoon training meetings, whether for our mission trips to McAllen, Texas; Toronto, Canada; or our biennial trip to Chicago for Sonlife’s SEMP conference, held at Moody Bible Institute. (This particular trip planted seeds for our family’s move to Chicago). In all these training meetings, we trained about safety and appropriate protocols for protecting students and adults.

Years later, those meetings in Panera with Braden would rush back to me as I read Nancy French’s startling article at the Dispatch, “They Aren’t Who They Think They Are: The inside story of how Kanakuk—one of America’s largest Christian camps—enabled horrific abuse.”

As I read French’s powerful recount and reproach, I pondered. When would someone cover the story of Denton Bible Church’s middle school pastor, Rob Shiflet? (See forthcoming Fragment 7).

Fragment 10 |  June 30, 2022 | Baraboo, Wisconsin

It had been less than a week since Dobbs v. Jackson (Women’s Health Organization) had overturned the 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade. Social Media was ablaze. While my two middle-school age children, Chloe (8th grade) and Asher (6th grade), were carelessly socializing with their friends, Tara and I stood on a balcony overlooking Expeditions Unlimited. We watched middle-schoolers roasting S’mores, playing Nuke ‘Em, Tetherball, and chasing one another as the sunset. Adult leaders, parents, and camp staff seamlessly mixed into the crowd of teens as they played.

Tara and I had both given up our week to volunteer at Camp Cow, the middle school summer camp for Christ Church, Oak Brook. Every summer for nearly two decades, Christ Church had brought their middle schoolers to Expeditions Unlimited in Baraboo, Wisconsin. For over a decade, the size of the group Christ Church brought required Expeditions to give them exclusive use of the property, during the last week of June. From June 27–July 1, 2022, 250 students and 50 adults descended upon this camp on the fringe of Devil’s Lake State Park. They retreated from the troubles of the world to hide themselves in the truths found in Scripture. Steve Noble, the Family Pastor at Christ Church, organized many of those trips over the years.

Expedition Unlimited was established by Steve and Lynn Higgins in 1987. Higgins led wilderness trips for years until building the year-round camp, completed in 2004. Steve Voss (called “Skooba”) has associate directed Expeditions since 2008. He, his wife, and four children live on the property. Throughout the year, he leads a team of wilderness guides and camp staff to facilitate groups’ use of the camp. Expeditions has a one-year gap program called Compass and a wilderness guide development program called Sherpa. Both programs are designed to develop young leaders physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Compass program provides bible and life skills, wilderness experiences, missions education, and community for recent high school graduates. The Sherpa program is built around the values of service, discipleship, and community.

The three Steves—Higgins, Voss, and Noble—put on the most excellent executed summer camp for middle schoolers I had seen since I had last been to a Student Life Camp. The schedule of activities perfectly blended fellowship, food (spiritual and physical), and fun in a manageable way, that led to few burned-out students and minimal middle-school drama.

The summer of 2022 was not my first experience with Expeditions Unlimited. It was merely my first Camp Cow and Christ Church experience. I had known Higgins and Voss for years. From 2015–2018, as the middle school discipleship pastor at Calvary Memorial in Oak Park, I had brought the middle-school students to Expeditions for a fall retreat and, on one occasion, a winter retreat. However, doctoral studies and research at TEDS and teaching at Wheaton College had consumed much of the last few years of my life. I hadn’t been to a summer camp for nearly half a decade, and this summer I had the pleasant and unexpected opportunity to return simply as dad and volunteer.

On the other hand, Tara came as more than mom and volunteer. She had been invited to be the Camp Cow speaker that week. Tara Beth Leach, a popular and well-sought evangelical author, with multiple publications from InterVarsity Press (Emboldened, 2017; Radiant Church, 2021), had been the Senior Pastor at First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena, California in 2016. In 2017, she was the youngest woman, senior pastor of an evangelical megachurch. She had since returned to Chicagoland in recent years to care for her parents’ health. Prior to her senior pastoral role in California, she had been the Women’s Pastor at Christ Church, and she had now returned to their pastoral staff as the Pastor of Adult Ministries and Missional Life.

This summer at Camp Cow, she taught a standard arc for a week at an evangelical church summer camp. She told her awkward teenage stories of failure and falling short on Monday and Tuesday, in order to connect and build rapport with these tweens and budding teens. On those evenings, she memorably shared about wanting to quit during a Jr. Olympic swimmer’s training camp and wrecking her dad’s Hummer as a teen on a joy ride. Each night she traced the shadows and hinted at the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. On Wednesday, she preached the gospel message and delivered the gospel call with strength and clarity, and, on Thursday, she called students to service, leadership, and a commitment to the New Testament covenant community of faith, the Church. She insightfully said on the first night, “One of the most profound theological statements we can make is simply to say the two words, ‘Yes Jesus,’” a statement that reappeared from the mouths of many throughout the week.

So here we two stood on the balcony on Thursday night, appreciating the care-free joy of adults and students socializing and fellowshipping. Throughout the week, we had observed all these people pouring over the Scripture during morning devotions, large-group meetings, and cabin times before light’s out. We had witnessed numerous students repent of sin, profess faith, and ask for help—concerning difficult family and home situations, anxiety about school, enduring the crushing expectations concerning sports and other extra-curricular activities, and troubles with friends.

“Hmm…It’s encouraging seeing all this take place right now and this week, knowing everything else going on in the world and on social,” I reflected.

Tara sympathetically gave a sidelong glance at me: “I saw that tweet from that one guy coming after you about the Dobbs decision. Who is he? What was that about?”

“William Wolfe. He’s like a lieutenant of Al Mohler’s at Southern. He thinks Kristin Du Mez, Warren Throckmorton, and I shouldn’t be teaching at our schools…because of ’empathy’ and ‘wokeness.’ But you know what? That doesn’t matter right now. Kids are getting saved. They’re loving the Word. They have hope right now. All us adults seem pretty refreshed, too. That matters so much more than those other things.”

She smiled, “You know, Joey, the kids are going to be alright, aren’t they?”

“They will. The next generation will be alright, as long as we keep feeding them the Word, like you did this week.”

“Like WE did this week!” Tara exclaimed.

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