I have to admit that I was terrified the first time I went to camp. What was I getting myself into? Would I be able to connect with the 13 boys in my cabin? Would I get any sleep?

That was this past year, and even though I was going as a 55 year old leader, my fears were probably not that different from those of the boys riding the camp bus with me. Still, though our initial butterflies were similar, I would like to think that our take aways were different. I learned a lot from my first ever camp (like how to freeze underwear). But here are the most valuable lessons I was taught that weekend.

Lesson One: Be Available. When we first got to camp, I connected with a kid named Zach. Let’s just say he’s “high energy”. The kind of kid who is fun in moderation but living in a cabin with him. After our first dinner, I could already see that he was wearing thin on the other boys. Even my co-leader, a great guy who is half my age, was starting to lose his patience. But for some reason, Zach’s high energy didn’t bother me. We started playing the card game War and had a blast. And while we played cards, it gave time for my co-leader to bond with the other boys. Just by being around and willing to be available to Zach, I was able to pick up on how to build a bond with a kid like Zach.

Lesson Two: Be Intentional. Our first morning, the camp’s administrator told the leaders that he had gone to camps like this when he was growing up. He couldn’t remember any of the speakers or the bands, but the one thing that did make an impression was the cabin leader who had shown an interest in him. They had gone on a walk around the lake, and the cabin leader really took the time to listen to what he thought.

I resolved to follow that pattern. I picked out Robert, the one camper I knew the least about, and asked him if we could take a walk. He said yes. Now, the folks running this camp are smart. They have one area, Inspiration Point, that is off limits to campers without an adult along. It’s a lookout with a beautiful view. The drop off is steep but not really dangerous. By declaring it off limits, it’s where every camper wants to go. So we went.

The conversation flowed naturally. I asked Robert what he thought of this camp and how it compared to others he’d been to. I asked him what he thought of the speaker. I asked him what he thought of the messages. We had a good talk about his faith background. On the way back, I learned that he is into fishing, as am I. It turned out that we had even fished some of the same places. That talk gave me the confidence to do more. I ended up having five more chats with campers from my cabin. I got to know them much better than I ever could have if I’d left it to chance.

Lesson Three: Be Present. It was so tempting to zone out from the boys for a few minutes, to check my email or phone home. But it was important to give them my full attention. That’s what they really want and need from Godly adults. The final night of camp, the speaker challenged the students to take their faith to the next level. He handed out cards to all the kids listing a variety of steps they could take, from committing their lives to Jesus for the first time, to praying more often, to reading the Bible more, to attending church more regularly. They were to fill them out and hand them in. That was how my co-leader and I knew that four of the boys in our cabin wanted to make a commitment of some sort. One of them was Zach, the boy I first connected with. At our evening devotion time, I took him aside and talked about his decision, then led him in a prayer. It was one of the highlights of my faith life, something I never thought I’d have the honor of doing.

My first ever camp turned out to be more terrific than terrifying. But if I hadn’t dove in head first and decided to be available, intentional and present, I would have missed out on everything that made it such a great experience.

By Paul Zieke

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