By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
I am convinced that keeping the focus on congregations is essential to the health and well-being of every outdoor ministry organization. It doesn’t matter whether the outdoor ministry is supported by one congregation or 250 congregations. When an outdoor ministry shifts its focus away from the essential partnership it has with congregations, trouble usually follows. Where does the attention usually shift? More often than not, the attention shifts 180 degrees and the outdoor ministry becomes focused on itself. Perpetuation and maintenance of the camping and retreat ministry takes up more and more of the energy and focus of the board, committees and staff. Congregations begin to feel neglected and wonder why they’re involved in an outdoor ministry venture. Unfortunately, congregations face the same danger - focusing on themselves and forgetting their communities. I’m not suggesting that this drift away from congregations happens by plan or intention. Congregational drift occurs gradually as a result of not receiving enough attention. Take a look at your outdoor ministry organization. Are you doing a good job of building partnerships with congregations?
Outdoor ministry organizations need to plan intentionally to build strong congregational partnerships. Write it into your strategic plan and job descriptions. Make it a priority as you budget staff time and resources. What then, would it look like to build intentional partnerships with congregations?
Building effective partnerships starts with a commitment to listen - listen deeply to the challenges and needs of the congregations you serve. Listening can be done in a variety of ways, one-on-one with congregational leaders, in small groups using focused questions, or even through written survey instruments. What are the issues that challenge your congregations? Are there programs and services that you could provide that would strengthen their ministry in the communities they serve?
The second key is to keep an open mind about what the partnership might look like. Keep in mind that to be effective, both partners need to benefit. Congregations need to see how outdoor ministry programs and services will help them meet the challenges they face. Your outdoor ministry will benefit in a variety of ways through a closer relationship with the congregation. Remember, however, that old patterns of relating may not be working anymore and may need to be broken. "What if?" should be the question that drives the imagination of the partners. New ways of working together may need to be invented. This may especially be true when working with multi cultural congregations. You can not assume that what works in one culture, works in another.
A third important step is commitment. Commitment on the part of an outdoor ministry and its constituent congregations to make the necessary changes for the benefit of all. Commitment often translates into dollars. As an outdoor ministry organization you may need to take a few calculated risks. That might mean budgeting some money each year to fund new, experimental programs which are built on emerging partnerships with congregations. On the other hand, congregations need to know that partnerships do not come without a price. They should expect to share in the risk, and plan to work with you to fund successful ventures beyond the initial pilot phase. Commitment also means a willingness to risk failure. It’s estimated that only 20% of new ventures succeed. The good news is that the programs that do succeed will often provide 80% of your new income in the future. Think of the tremendous explosion in partnership day camps over the past several years. Who could have imagined a few years ago that some of our ELCA outdoor ministries would now be working with congregations to conduct 60-80 day camps every summer?
It’s no accident that the Outdoor Ministry program of the ELCA is placed within the Division for Congregational Ministries. Congregations gave birth to outdoor ministries as places of education and renewal. The Church expects that there’s a bond between what happens in a camping and retreat experience and what happens in a congregation. As leaders in outdoor ministry we need to do everything we can to keep the bond strong and reach out to our congregational partners. Together we can meet the significant challenges of ministry in the years ahead. It’s time to sharpen our focus!