Bri Payne never imagined she’d work without a television at her desk. After graduating from college with a degree in broadcast communications, she worked as a news reporter for Fox and ABC affiliates in North Carolina.

“God thought that was funny,” she says, looking back at how she ended up at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) John Knox Center in Tennessee, eventually becoming the camp’s executive director.

“God led me back into the woods, where I’d been both a camper and counselor, drawing me back to the place where I had a powerful faith experience,” she says.

Payne became program director at John Knox in 2002, and executive director in 2009. Now, for the first time, she and her summer camping staff will provide programming, and help plan worship participation, for children and youth attending Big Tent 2015.

She spoke with PNS from the John Knox Center in the Presbytery of East Tennessee, where summer camp is already underway, about her excitement of providing this kind of leadership for Big Tent 2015.

Bri Payne, with a trailer-full of canoes.

Bri Payne, with a trailer-full of canoes.

What was your reaction when you were asked to provide programming for kids, ages 4-18 at Big Tent?

I felt like it was perfect. That’s the ages our camp staff is working with this summer. By Big Tent (July 31-August 2) we will have had two months of on the job training. After 60-plus days and nights of residency camp—a three-day camp with kids from all over the country will be a bonus for us. Being able to use all of the resources at the University of Tennessee gives us an opportunity to be very creative in our programming.

How will UT’s facilities help you prepare programming for the diverse range of ages attending Big Tent?

We want kids who participate to have fun, and feel like each program is designed for them, to play, to engage with each other, and to learn a few things along the way.

The university has a climbing wall, indoor and outdoor pools, lined off football fields—a whole host of other recreational spaces. Which means we can create an experience for the 4 to 18-year-olds that will be very different, and applicable to each age group.

Working with the UT outdoor program, we even get to do some kayaking. There’s so much stuff to do, we’ve been asking, “Do they really have to go back with their parents.”

We want them the whole time. It’s definitely more than just and arts and crafts kind of thing.

What are your hopes for the kid’s worship experience that you’ll help provide?

We’ve been working with the Big Tent 2015 worship committee for all ages and would like [children and youth] to be involved in worship in a way that will be beneficial to them. Part of this will happen through daily worship skits—where we will act out part of the Bible study verse theme.

We know from our camping experience that kids who are involved with and engaged in worship have confidence to say, “I am a child of God.”

If they are accepted for who they in worship at Big Tent, it will allow them to recognize at a deeper level, at an early age, that the entire church wants them to have their own personal worship experience.

Kids of all ages tell us, “It really makes a difference when we are allowed to participate in worship, as we are. It really brings home the idea that God really wants to talk to me.”

They are very impressionable of how the body of Christ interacts, nurtures and supports them. For them it translates as, “This is a faith community that is safe, that accepts me for who I am.”

It sounds like this work at Big Tent very personal for you?

As an executive director I’ve been joking, “I better get to play, and have interaction with ‘the campers’ during those three days of Big Tent.” That’s the perk of the job—to watch kids you barely know, learn and grow, and try new things. To see them gain a sense of confidence in accomplishing things.

That’s what keeps me going in the cold winter months, when it’s quiet. The Big Tent experience will be like a couple of bonus days for me. It will definitely be work, but it will have great reward.

Through relationships developed in small groups, PC(USA) camps provide a deep ability to change a person’s life—like mine. First as a camp participant, then on summer staff as a college student, I built confidence and discovered a faith that is truly my own.

What happens at Big Tent 2015 will be as important to our summer camping staff as it is to the kids who join us.

The ability to play, interact with, and engage in faith questions with various age groups is a powerful draw.

I really hope that Big Tent 2015 is such a good experience that camps in the future will be able to do this. It is a great connection for PC(USA) camps to do service and ministry for the greater church.

I am so grateful God sent me back to this ministry full-time, instead off to an anchor desk.