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Creating space for something new to be born

Westminster Woods and its unfolding calling

March 7, 2012

Worshippers gather around music silence and prayer

Worshipers gather around music silence and prayer —Courtesy Westminster Woods

Occidental, Calif.

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.

  1. Wonderful article about how the camping ministry can reach out, and yet again, a statement about how God is faithful "through every change." Nicely done, Sheila.

    by Andrea Knappen Neault

    April 12, 2012

  2. Just reading the article made me want to come and worship. Thanks for sharing and reminding us to let go and listen for where God is leading us...

    by Ann Kelly

    March 20, 2012

  3. What great and timely wisdom for us: "Don't be afraid of the pain of letting go ....we believe in Resurrection, right?" Thank you.

    by Katherine Todd

    March 13, 2012

  4. Yes, I can identify with the camp where I grew up, was a counselor, met my wife and got married at the camp. Camp Hat Creek still holds a special place but I am also thankful for the other church families/communities I have been a part of since then.

    by Bruce Harvey

    March 13, 2012

  5. Many of us cannot connect worship with electronic rock music. Revival and exceitement yes. Worship- not so much. How I wish Michigans climate was conducive to year-round outdoor worship! Great article!

    by Julie Hine

    March 10, 2012

  6. Way to go Sheila!! Someday I'll get to Westminster Woods. How about hosting a PCCCA event? I so enjoyed the worship space and sabbath space you and Sandy created at Mo Ranch. Thank you for all you do. Paul

    by Paul Verdesi

    March 9, 2012

  7. Out of challenge come life's great gifts! Creativity rather than working harder at the same activities is listening to God's leading.

    by Peter Surgenor

    March 9, 2012

  8. We at Calvin Crest are very proud of the direction that our sister camp is headed. Bringing people to a holy place (a place that is set apart for God's purpose) to worship God amongst the beautiful giant redwoods and peaceful streams, to allow a quiet moment for many in the SF Bay area and beyond who can't hear themselves think let alone hear the Still, Small, Voice speak to them, is fulfilling the purpose of this charming, holy place. Well done Sheila and staff.

    by N Tony Biasell

    March 9, 2012

  9. Just reading this, I'm in • spired to revisit The Woods and attend. The future is beautiful, but it's up to us to create it . . . .

    by Mark Fassett

    March 9, 2012

  10. This is so beautiful....what a way to share community spirit and heart. Thank you for creating this.

    by Carmen

    March 9, 2012

  11. Here I am at age 75 still remembering Westminister Woods camp in the 1950's. It is still very dear to my heart and my spiritual life was forged there. I remember building a dam to make a swimming hole in May for summer camp.

    by Dee Hamil

    March 7, 2012

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