This past weekend, I attended my very first academic conference. I was nervous not only because I did not quite know what to expect from a group of “academics” but also because I was scheduled to present a paper. Since the main goal of pursuing my PhD is bringing more scholarly and intentional theological attention to outdoor ministries, I felt like there was a lot riding on my presentation. I tried to remain confident about my project and my abilities as a presenter, but doubts kept encroaching as the conference drew nearer. What if all the respectable academics thought my ideas were ridiculous? What if they did not accept me as a peer and colleague? What if nobody showed up to my presentation? What if I got to the middle of the presentation and really had to pee?
My experience at the Association of Youth Ministry Educators (AYME) conference in Chicago was tremendously positive. In retrospect, I am not sure why I expected anything different. Maybe I was hung up on the stereotypes of academics as stuffy, anti-social people with chips on their shoulders always ready to rip apart someone else’s argument. In contrast to this, what I actually encountered were people. Real people. Many are published, and some are highly respected for their academic work, but they are people. More than anything, what I experienced at the AYME conference was Christian community. We were gathered in an atmosphere of building up the Body of Christ rather than tearing each other apart. This was in spite of a diversity of denominational affiliations and theological priorities. So I found myself hearing personal family struggles, having a drink, and watching a zombie movie with “respectable academics,” who turned out to be genuine human beings.
The presentation itself went well. My colleagues showed a true interest in the research I uncovered about outdoor ministries and the connections I made in the paper with faith formation in emerging adults (see the previous two posts for some highlights). They asked great questions, and we had a respectful conversation.
One of my preconceived notions was that academics would view camp as theologically shallow and unworthy of serious consideration. I think in this case I was mixed in with the right crowd. As I got to know more and more of the 100+ youth ministry professors and other educators at the conference, I heard more and more stories about camp. Most of them had camp experiences in their past, and many shared stories of profound faith-forming experiences at camp. In many ways, this group of academics was prepared to hear that camp is a theologically rich environment. The conference was a very affirming experience for me. These colleagues truly let me know that I have broad support and caring accompaniment for my academic journey. They want me to succeed. They want me to succeed not only because they care about my project on outdoor ministries but also because they took time to learn about me, and they actually care about me as a brother in Christ.
As I continue to consider the incredibly affirming environment of Christian camp communities, it strikes me that this group of academics really gets it. In the context of caring Christian community, camp participants are nurtured in their vocational discernment, comforted through suffering, and accompanied through times of doubt. I never thought I would find a “camp like” environment at an academic conference. In conversation with colleagues, I heard deep hurt and suffering, and I felt like I was in a holy place as I bore witness to their stories, even as they bore witness to mine. The experience surprised me, but it was a refreshing surprise to find authentic Christian community in an unexpected place. I do not expect to have the same experience at all the academic conferences I attend, but at least now I know that I have true community support for the journey ahead.