Developing Spiritual Competencies During Staff Training

May 2008

Every spring the challenge of planning staff training confronts camp leaders. The usual questions arise regarding how to prepare inexperienced staff and volunteers to work successfully with diverse groups of campers. The list of what we want to teach them seems to get longer and longer each year. In the last few years increasing attention has been paid to the ways that camps develop children in emotional, social, and cognitive ways. Many camps are now exploring the role that camp plays in enhancing campers' spiritual development. Alas, something else to add to the staff training list!

The struggle to use staff training time wisely requires us to prioritize the competencies we want staff to possess by the completion of training. But what are the most important — or core — competencies? Understanding the necessary competencies for serving in our camp roles is an important first step toward maximizing staff training. In the spring of 2007, religiously-affiliated (RA) and secular camps from across the country identified by the American Camp Association (ACA) participated in a study entitled "Is There Common Ground?" conducted by ACA, the Search Institute, and the National Collaboration for Youth. The sample included a diverse set of camps, representing resident camps (64 percent); day camps (16 percent); and both resident and day camps (19 percent).

The ACA focus was to explore the core competencies of staff working in religiously-affiliated and secular camps and their interests in working together. The study identified competencies that camp directors felt they already possessed for training staff and areas in which camp directors desired more training. When asked to rank dimensions of child development on a 5-point scale where 5 was highest, camp directors overall placed the greatest emphasis on social development (4.31) and emotional development (3.90). Cognitive development (3.07) and spiritual development (3.14) were the lowest priorities for the overall sample. While respondents from secular camps selected social development (64 percent) and emotional development (35 percent) as their top priorities, respondents from RA camps selected spiritual development (78 percent) and social development (37 percent) as their top priorities.

Respondents were asked to identify the essential competencies for staff. The top three were:

  • Developing positive relationships and communicating with youth (86 percent)
  • Demonstrating the attributes and qualities of a positive role model (85 percent)
  • Identifying potential risk factors in the program environment and taking measures to reduce those risks (70 percent).

The greatest differences between secular camps and RA camps in the essential competencies were in:

  • Helping youth to develop spiritually (85 percent for RA; 23 percent for secular)
  • Respecting and honoring cultural and human diversity (49 percent for RA; 64 percent for secular)
  • Interacting with and relating to youth in ways that support asset building (41 percent for RA; 57 percent for secular).

Key findings from this survey suggest there are opportunities to increase learning and collaboration across secular and religiouslyaffiliated camps. Two opportunities seem particularly important:

  • Camps need to create a shared framework for moral and spiritual development and to train staff to be better prepared to facilitate this type of growth in youth.
  • Camps need practical tools to support training across RA and secular camps.

This article explores what a shared framework could look like and suggests ways in which such a framework could be helpful in supporting staff training in both secular and religiously affiliated camps. It will also propose some activities for staff training in both kinds of camps based on this common framework.


One of the problems with trying to teach camp staff how to nurture the spiritual development of campers is the diverse understanding of the meaning of spirituality. When asked for a definition of spirituality, even faith-based camp leaders often fail to reach an agreement. Many feel that the camp experience is an important environment for spiritual growth because of the nature-based context of many camps; others believe camp provides the opportunity for reflection and personal growth.

It is difficult to know how we can train staff members when there is no clear understanding of what spiritual development means even within the community of faith-based camps. The editors of Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality suggested a working definition of spirituality to guide the work of the volume's writers (Johnson, Sasso, Roehlkepartain, Yust 2006). This collection of essays on different aspects of spirituality from a variety of perspectives was produced by Search Institute's Center for the Spiritual Development of Children and Youth. The characteristics of spirituality they identified may provide a bridge between a faith-based and secular understanding of spirituality and supply the common framework we seek.

Characteristics of Spirituality

  • Spirituality is part of the human creature.
  • Spirituality is firmly planted in relationships and within community experiences.
  • Spirituality is expressed in ethical behavior.
  • Spirituality leads to growth and change.
  • Spirituality needs to be nurtured in an intentional manner.

Humans are by nature spiritual beings. The Old Testament writers recognized this when they used the same Hebrew word for spirit and breath. Everyone who breathes has a capacity for spirituality. Such an understanding enables camp leaders to recognize the value of each human life and to acknowledge the commonality between all human creatures.

Spirituality differs from religion. Religions interpret the story of the Divine in a unique way and endorse particular practices to enrich the relationship with God (or a divine being). All humans are spiritual, although not all humans claim an allegiance to a particular religious tradition.

This also means that spirituality is not only expressed through the practice of religion. In our attempt to find a common framework, this point seems especially significant. It opens the door to consider ways in which spirituality can be enhanced that are beyond the regular measurements of Bible study and worship. The understanding of spirituality can then extend to an awareness of all those things that are bigger than any one single person, such as community, nature, and mystery. In doing this, camps can view a wide variety of common competencies as spiritual ones.

By understanding spirituality as an aspect of human life, it is possible to consider spiritual development in humans along with other recognized developments —social, physical, emotional, and moral. The definition provided by Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality can then become the common ground for secular and faithbased camps.

Using the Framework for Staff Training

Now that a common framework for understanding spirituality in both secular and faith-based camps is available, it is possible to explore the ways in which such a framework can contribute to staff training. The first step in using a common framework is to recognize that spirituality must be intentionally developed. Spiritual development must be understood and nurtured purposefully.

Slow Down

We live at a fast pace. There is simply too much to do. Our lives of rushing schedules, ringing cell phones, and competing technological gadgets make life just plain chaotic. Even at camp our lives are ruled by lists and by the demands of multi-tasking.

Our fast-paced lives, as well as many other aspects of modern culture, have impacted our sense of the spiritual. While it does not mean that we are not religious or don't believe in God, it does mean that in our hurry we leave little time for wonder, awe, or mystery. There is little room in our lives to sit speechless before the wonders of the heavens. To grow spiritually, we must slow down and stand still in the presence of mystery. We must teach campers and staff to do the same.

Tell Stories

Elie Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor, once said that God made us humans because God loved stories. From the beginning of humanity, people sat around campfires and told stories. They told stories about the day's hunt or about the adventures of their ancestors. They told the old stories so that their children could hear them. They told stories to celebrate who they were.

Unlike our ancestors who sat around the campfire and told stories, our modern lives give us very little time for storytelling. It is the time and place for stories that make camps so essential to the healthy development of staff and campers.

We tell stories about who we are. Stories enable us to make sense out of our lives. Our human search for meaning helps us to make sense out of what happens and gives us a sense of purpose. "Who am I? How do I fit in? What is ultimate importance?"

Stories form our connections to other people. That is the reason we begin each week of camp with name games, mixers, and community-building activities. True connection is born out of a willingness to "open up" and to tell each other who we are. The differences that separate us from one another often come falling down through storytelling because such stories often expose shared experiences and understanding.

We tell stories about our shared experiences. It is around our common story that community is formed. Shared stories are the cement that holds a group of people together. Their identity is shaped by this common experience and by the stories they tell about that experience. The stories never belong to just one person. They belong to the whole community and give identity to the whole community.

Encourage Wonder and Creativity

Bob Ditter is a licensed social worker specializing in child, family, and adolescents, who writes and presents workshops for ACA and other camp groups. Speaking to a faithbased audience of camp leaders about camps and spirituality at a 2007 ACA lunch, Ditter identified four concepts that contribute to the development of spirituality. These four are:

  • Wonder – The ability to be amazed and awed by God's creation.
  • Creativity – The ability to put objects and ideas together in a new way.
  • Gratitude – The ability to recognize gifts and to give thanks.
  • Connection – The ability to relate to campers and to build community.

Ditter reminded his listeners that wonder, creativity, gratitude, and connection aren't things that we teach. Rather they are responses we humans make at a gut level. However, feeling is not enough. Ditter said that we must give a name to the experience and call them spiritual-experiences. "As human beings, the only way that we hold onto our experience and make sense out of it is by giving it a name, by calling it something..." [Religiously Affiliated Camps (RAC) lunch, February 13, 2007, ACA National Conference, Austin, TX].

Beyond religious tradition lie the rich possibilities of spirituality. We sometimes overlook the human capacity to relate to the divine beyond the practices of our religious tradition. There is a varied palette of spirituality available to us through the natural world. We sometimes ignore the vastness of the human capacity for spirituality.

In this way we also ignore the possibilities for spiritual development that reach into every other camp activity. We fail to see the spiritual elements of the whole camp experience. We lose sight of the ways in which we – camp leaders, staff, and campers – can find the divine in the midst of everything we do.

Our task as camp leaders is to invite staff and campers to recognize spiritual experiences. Using three of Ditter's elements of wonder, creativity, and gratitude we can equip staff to open a space for the sacred within a variety of camp activities. Open-ended questions can invite campers to wonder. They can be used to encourage campers to discuss and reflect on any experience. Creative activities invite campers into a mode of looking at things in a new way and allow them to put together the familiar in a brand-new manner. And gratitude recognizes everything as a gift and can lead to awe and appreciation.

As you prepare for staff training this year, consider the ways in which you, your staff, and your campers are spiritual creatures. Reflect on specific ways you can include the common understanding of spirituality developed here for your staff. Provide an opportunity for staff to discuss the nature of spirituality and your understanding of it within your camp program. Offer staff and campers the opportunity to slow down, and recognize the needs for contemplation and reflection. Take staff for a walk in the woods or fields of your camp. Invite them to enjoy the beauty and mystery around them. Encourage them to simply wonder and be glad.


  • National Collaboration for Youth and Search Institute. (2007). Is There Common Ground? An Exploratory Study of the Interests and Needs. 
  • Ditter, Bob, "Nurturing the Spiritual Development of Children and Youth at Camp," speech at RAC lunch at ACA National Conference, Austin, TX, on February 14, 2007.
  • Johnson, A. N.; Sasso, S. E.; Roehlkepartain, E. C.; and Yust, K. M. (2006). Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World's Religious Traditions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Nancy Ferguson, M.Div., M.A., Ed.S., lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is a church camp consultant and freelance writer. Included among her hats are day camp director at Camp Hanover, an ACA-Accredited® camp; management consultant for the Religiously Affiliated Camps (RAC) Council of the American Camp Association (ACA); and author of several books including Training Staff to be Spiritual Leaders—A Guide for Christian Camp Leaders, available from the ACA Bookstore.

Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.