A lesson in leadership

Being in charge of a summer camp was more meaningful than I initially expected

February 26, 2014 | Young Voices
Timothy Dyck | Special to Young Voices

I was a summer program co-director at Mennonite Church Manitoba’s Camp Assiniboia for the summers of 2006 and ’07. By the end of August 2007, when I left camp for the last time, I was a changed person. It was growth that I had not expected.

Having been a camper, then counsellor, and eventually co-director, I can assure you that I had never seen that arc coming. Serving in a leadership position was the last thing I ever thought of while attending, then living and working at camp. I never thought of myself as a camp-wide leader, and most of the time during those two summers my work felt distant from the day-to-day events.

I can recall a specific experience as a counsellor that propelled me to become a co-director. In the heat of the summer of 2005, during a particularly stressful week with a full cabin, one camper had the unfortunate experience of relieving himself on the path to the lodge washrooms. I told my co-counsellor to attend to the kids in the cabin while I ran damage control outside. It was worse than I thought.

With the camper in the lodge washroom and taking a shower, I brought him clean pajamas and underwear for the night. As to the path, well, let’s just say that it required sanitizing. Going upstairs to find Adrianna, the director at the time, I alerted her to the situation and to get advice about how to clean the patio stones.

After she finished laughing, the response she gave surprised me. Instead of directing me to the cleaning closet, she put on gloves and picked up a bag and brush to help me with this problem. To be clear—she stooped very low to help me clean up poop.

The situation was bizarre, but the help was humbling. Here was a senior staff member with other organizational and interpersonal responsibilities making time to help a staffer with a sanitation problem. Her job, or so I thought, was above this kind of work.

When I was asked to be a leader in 2006, I approached the job with apprehension. I felt I wasn’t particularly qualified to lead. Having little experience with such mysterious tasks as “cabin group organization,” “tornado preparedness drilling” or “organizing campout,” I felt like a weak link. It turned out that I was no less prepared than my fellow leaders.

We all had fears about running a summer program with 40 staff and 100 campers. In the end, our feelings of inadequacy proved to be overblown. Each of us had taken aspects of the job descriptions and re-created our roles to suit our strengths.

The idea of servant leadership was talked about a lot those summers, and we tried to live up to that ideal. For the leadership team and myself, it was important that we supported each other as we dealt with running the programs every week. We also wanted to support the staff to the best of our abilities, so that they, in turn, could be as supportive as possible of the campers. I had not expected leadership to look like this.

Instead of bossing around counsellors, my days consisted of ringing the bell to keep the schedule on track, making activity groups with the careful mixing of campers and staff, preparing the campout gear and camp sites for the mid-week trek, and creating a fire for the late-week fireside worship time.

To me, these tasks were the necessary but sometimes mundane parts of the summer that I had never thought about as a counsellor. I had to be a menial chart-maker and physical grunt more often than a stern, nay-saying rule-maker. As a leader, I took all of these tasks in stride. Many of these were very enjoyable!

Without experiencing firsthand the oddity of serving others, I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp the nature of leading a staff group during the summer. Adrianna’s example to me was, in essence, a reflection of Jesus’ example of “coming to serve, not be served.” Leadership was not as top-down as I had expected.

Timothy Joel Dyck, 29, lives in Winnipeg with his partner Kerri. He attends Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church and the Table.

--Posted Feb. 26, 2014

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