I have had the privilege of serving Lutheran Outdoor Ministries for 32 years, the last 23 of them as the executive director of Lutherdale Bible Camp in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. My call to ministry started back when I was in college. I was active in Lutheran Campus Ministry. In the spring of my sophomore year, as the semester was winding down, many of my friends would be spending the summer working at a camp. The camp needed one more male staff member and I was recruited to join them. I never went to camp as a child. Camp was not something my home church promoted or participated in. I had no idea what I was in for that summer and how it would change the direction of my life.
Working as a camp counselor is one of the toughest jobs you will ever love. The focus is on building relationships, having fun, and helping young people grow in faith. Week after week, you get a new group of campers to work with. As the week goes on, you build relationships and learn more about each camper and what is going on in their lives. Sometimes, campers shared parts of their lives with me that were challenging, hurtful, and painful. I had a lot of empathy for campers who were struggling back home.
One day, a camper shared with me some deep, painful things that were happening to him at home. We talked a lot that day and being able to open up seemed to really help him. That night during my one-hour break, I went out into a field, looked up at the magnificent stars of the northern woods, and began to pray for the camper. As I conversed with God about the day, it was revealed to me that I was able to help the camper, because I had similar experiences in my home growing up. I can still remember that moment, like a light bulb turning on. That was a pivotal moment in my life.
When camp was over for the summer, I still had two weeks before college started, so I went home to spend some time with my family. I had a reason to go home: the summer had helped me grow in my faith and come to terms with my childhood baggage. I was determined to share this with my father. When I told him what I had learned, how my faith had grown, and how my life had changed, it was not an easy conversation. It was hard for my dad to hear how I felt about the way he treated me. I told him I forgave him for what he did. That conversation did not end well, but it put me on the road of healing the past and searching for ways to serve in the future. I ended up going back to camp for two more summers. Those months were full of incredible experiences of building community and relationships, sharing God’s love, planting seeds of faith, and growing in my own faith. My last summer I had just graduated from college with a degree in business management and hospitality, and I had been recruited to start a job with Marriott Hotels in Chicago on August 1. As I worked at camp for a few weeks before starting my job, I wondered what it would be like to be a camp director someday. After a few years in the hotel business, I moved on and became the Fortress store manager in Milwaukee. Fortress stores closed following the birth of the ELCA, so next I took a job as a youth director in a Milwaukee congregation. I went back to school, working on a Master’s in Theology. I was feeling the call into ordained ministry and started to visit seminaries. During that time, I got a call about joining an outdoor ministry team in Michigan and I felt that was where God was calling me. I went on to spend nine years as the director of a camp in Michigan, the one that I had worked at in college, before being called to serve Lutherdale as the Executive Director.
Working at Lutherdale has been a great calling. I have felt that my gifts for this ministry have been the right gifts at the right time in Lutherdale’s history. The ministry has changed and expanded over the last 23 years, and there is more change to come, but one constant is our mission of “Building Lives in Christ.” Summer camp is a powerful ministry that has a major impact on the future of the ELCA. I have seen campers’ lives transformed because of their camp experience. I know firsthand the impact it has in the lives of our summer staff, who work with youth. Camp is where many young adults first feel the call into ministry. My life has been blessed in many ways from being a part of this dynamic ministry. I am still building relationships, having fun, and planting seeds of faith. As the Executive Director, there are challenging moments from time to time—the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest one—but we will get through this together. Better days are ahead of us. Thank you for being a partner in ministry.
Jeff Bluhm is the Executive Director of Lutherdale in Elkhorn, WI. You may reach him at .