Due to ongoing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) officials announced May 29 that no large group gatherings will take place at Fort Caswell this summer. Instead, Caswell is providing camp and retreat options for groups that can maintain social distancing and other precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
BSC officials made the decision after much prayer and consultation with leaders from Fort Caswell, the convention’s youth evangelism and discipleship ministry’s Caswell committee, pastors and church leaders, as well as guidance from local, state and national health officials. Located on Oak Island along the N.C. coast, Fort Caswell is one of three camps and conference centers that is owned by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
“Since the early days of the pandemic, we have been closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19 and taking the necessary measures to protect our guests and staff,” said Brian Hemphill, who serves as Fort Caswell’s director. “Everyone involved in this process did not arrive at this decision lightly because we know that God has used summer camps at Caswell to impact the lives of generations of students for Christ.
“We explored a number of different options for the summer, and our guiding principle all along was to do everything possible to ensure the health and safety of everyone who participates in activities at Caswell. While we are disappointed in the necessary adjustments we’ve had to make, we are also looking forward to serving churches in a new way this summer.”
The decision impacts Summer Youth Weeks, the annual event sponsored by the Baptist state convention’s youth evangelism and discipleship ministry, also known as BeDoTell (BDT). Each year, Youth Weeks draw approximately 7,000 middle and high school students and chaperones from N.C. Baptist churches to Caswell for weeklong camps over the course of the summer. Youth Weeks incorporate a series of worship experiences and other activities built around a common scriptural theme.
Reservations for church groups that had previously registered to attend Summer Youth Weeks will still be honored, Hemphill said. Caswell is also accepting reservations for additional groups to register as space permits based on health recommendations.
In lieu of a complete program of live activities this summer, BDT staff members are providing a virtual camp experience as an option for church groups. The BDT Virtual Camp Experience will include many staples of traditional youth weeks like worship, music, drama, messages from God’s Word, a camp study curriculum, suggested game ideas and a devotional guide for churches.
The virtual sessions will be recorded in advance on location at Caswell and will be accessible to church groups for streaming at their convenience while they are at Caswell or another location. Church groups may follow the virtual experience as closely or loosely as they like, or they may create their own unique camp experience.
There is no program fee for the virtual offering, but there is a licensing fee of $100 to cover the cost of producing the virtual experience. More details about the BDT Virtual Camp Experience will be posted at BeDoTell.com.
“We have been in the camp ministry for a lifetime,” said Merrie Johnson, the BSC’s senior consultant for youth evangelism and discipleship with the state convention. She has coordinated Summer Youth Weeks in North Carolina for 19 years and served in youth ministry for more than 36 years total. “It breaks our hearts that we cannot provide the exceptional BeDoTell Youth Weeks camp experience that you have become accustomed to summer after summer. However, we believe this is the best option to protect us all and still have camp.”
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, eight weeks of Summer Youth Week camps had been scheduled at Caswell beginning in early June and concluding in early August. On May 1, Caswell and convention officials announced an amended Youth Weeks format that was to include five weeks of camp from July 13 to Aug. 13. In an effort to accommodate as many church groups as possible, those weeks were to incorporate an abbreviated schedule from Monday through Thursday with additional weekend options available from Friday through Sunday.
Subsequent guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on May 19 allowed for the opening of youth and summer camps provided that recommended measures were implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in compliance with other state and local directives.
Hemphill said individual church groups that come to Caswell must stay together, practice social distancing and abide by other safety guidelines recommended by the CDC. Hemphill also said that groups can participate in activities that comply with CDC and government guidelines related to COVID-19, and he noted that his staff is working hard to preserve as much of the camp experience and recreational offerings as possible while adhering to health and safety recommendations.
Hemphill likened operational decisions being made at Caswell to decisions being made by local church leaders about when and how to reopen.
“These are the same discussions your church is probably having,” Hemphill said.
Hemphill and Johnson called on N.C. Baptists to pray for wisdom, safety and for God to move in the lives of youth this summer, no matter what this year’s camp experience might look like.
“Please join us in praying for the Holy Spirit to move among the youth from your individual churches and raise a generation who will pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ that will motivate them to spread the gospel of hope that this world so desperately needs,” Johnson said.
For more information about booking a reservation at Caswell for your church’s youth group, contact Fort Caswell at 910-278-9501.