In the redwoods of Northern California, a Presbyterian camp and conference center known primarily as a summer camp for kids has started a new worshiping community.
Sheila Denton, executive director of Westminster Woods, didn’t necessarily set out to create a new worshipping community out of camp alumni and friends, but in • spire, a monthly Taizé-style prayer service, has grown organically out of this ministry in the redwood forest.
“After 30 years, so many of our campers say we are their spiritual home,” says Denton. “Many of them, who are adults now, are not in church, so we felt that we should meet their needs.” Some of the participants are even driving more than two hours to participate in this new community.
“People need places to come and be apart, and they identify our camp as holy ground,” Denton says. “So we are offering something that seems like it resonates with their experience and their need for refreshment and renewal.”
“Historically, if you ask pastors and elders where they made their significant steps of faith, 87 percent of them are going to identify a camp or retreat experience as a young adult.”
What Denton and her staff at Westminster Woods are trying to do is envision what that might look like today. “How can we offer a place where people can listen for the voice of God in their lives?” is the question guiding this discernment.
“These people who are coming to our services have had a significant experience in God’s creation, and I think that is no accident—we are in a beautiful place in the redwoods that helps people connect with who they are as creatures.”
In addition to the connection with the natural world, those who have come through the Westminster Woods summer staff have forged significant relationships. “I think there is a longing to stay connected to that community,” Denton explains.
Social media such as Facebook make that connection possible, but there is something to be said for the importance of place. “I think that even with Facebook they are still missing that sense of incarnated place that smells like redwood, where they can hear the creek,” she says.
Chris and Aimee Studer, alumni of the camp who came to Westminster Woods when a program director position became vacant, lead the monthly in • spire service.
Chris had been studying jazz piano at the Berklee College of Music and was looking for a way to blend his two passions—leading worship musically and working with young people. The service that he has helped to create alternates music and silence, with a time for spoken prayer as well.
“What we are offering is a contemplative place. It takes time to let it sink in, to really feel it in your bones, and I think that is what people take away,” Denton says in describing the service.
“Our hope is that, once people know what it feels like, that they will be able to access that space more readily in their daily lives.”
Denton acknowledges that offering a monthly prayer service may seem like an unusual activity for a location typically known as a summer camp.
“Two or three years ago, I was beyond discouraged—numbers were dropping for summer as churches were shrinking and not sending their kids,” remembers Denton.
“We were in mourning. What do you do when the numbers drop? Sometimes you work harder at the same thing, trying to fan that flame.”
But she came to realize that trying the same things, even trying harder, was not going to get anywhere.
“I remember saying, ‘I don’t have the energy to keep the old alive. If God wants to birth something new, that is the only way this is going to go’.”
This letting go of expectations was, now that Denton looks back, crucial to the flourishing of this new thing at Westminster Woods.
“Camp and Conference ministries are just a microcosm of the larger church trying to figure out which way to go, and we realized that we just need to be the best Westminster Woods that we can be,” Denton says. “It is the only resource we have.”
The shift, as she describes it looking back, has been from a focus on “how do we draw people in” to “what do we have to offer the world.”
A contemplative space is at least one piece of that offering. “We are actually waiting in the space for what needs to happen next,” she explains. “The longer that you can sustain the unknowing in the space, the deeper is the new thing that can emerge.”
Denton has been surprised by different congregations’ responses to Westminster Woods’ story. “It’s so compelling, because they’re telling me, ‘We need to hear this right now, as our church is right in the middle of trying to figure this out.’”
She realizes that the answer cannot be a prescriptive one, such as “start an in • spire service and all of your troubles will be gone.” “The only model is no model,” Denton says.
Her advice to those in congregations or ministry organizations who find themselves in a similar period of change is not to be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid of the pain of letting go—of course it is scary.” It is an abandonment of expectations, which, Denton admits, can often feel like death.
“But we believe in resurrection, right?”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.