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The "Disposable" Program Director: Guest Post by Troy Taylor

12 Feb 2020 3:56 PM | Anonymous

My Unfortunately Unique Path as a Program Director

One of the first things I did as a newly hired Program Director for Lakeshore Camp and Retreat Center was to go to the UM National Camp Leader Gathering in 2001, held at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado. I had graduated college a month before and was stepping into a newly formed Program Director role without much certainty about what it would be like or how long I would be in it. The National Gathering was a great way to plunge right into the United Methodist camping world. 

My boss told me to seek out other Program Directors, engage them, pick their brain, learn for myself. I met a lot of people in the course of a week. I returned to Tennessee and started the job in earnest, a 23-year-old who was really just going on 6 years of summer staff experience. Fast forward two years later to the next National Gathering, and I am feeling much more confident, more connected to people, more in touch with what year-round camp work means, but no expert by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the people I met two years ago were absent. Many Program Directors were noticeably younger than me (I was 25). Fast forward two more years. At this point, I’m an elder statesman of Program Directors at the National Gathering. There are only a handful of people my age, and part of why we are close is because there’s this feeling we are the only survivors of something. 

Among this small group of old (late 20s/early 30s) Program Directors, our discussions more frequently landed on our colleagues who were not returning and why they had left their positions. It became more and more clear to us that many camp Program Director positions were not designed for longevity, to the detriment of our colleagues and the camps they used to serve. 

Fast forward again to the current day. I am beginning my 5th year as a Director at Camp Magruder, a UM Camp on the Oregon Coast. I worked for 13 years in program before stepping into a director role, which is pretty unusual in our line of work. This wasn’t for lack of opportunities--I felt like my calling was still program. I realize though, I was lucky to sustain that kind of longevity. As I look at my camp now through a director lens, and as I think about other camps, it seems crucial to our success and my sanity that my department heads, particularly my Program Director, stick around 5-10 years. 

The Road Trip to Restore Faith in Camp

I met Sam and Sara Richardson when they stayed at my camp on an epic adventure they were taking. The Richardsons were (are!) camp people who had just left their camp to take an extended road trip in a grandfather’s RV, visiting faith-based camps, volunteering in exchange for food and a spot to park. They wrote about and vlogged their adventures along the way, seeing much of the country and getting a better taste of faith-based camping than just about anyone I knew. 

When I asked them about my suspicion that most Program Directors are set up for burnout, they told me that at one camp where they’d worked the Program Director position was referred to as the Professor of the Dark Arts (a reference to the Hogwarts position that is occupied by a new person in every Harry Potter book). 

I would interview them again as I put together my workshop, and I learned this was their story, too. Sam was Program Director for two years before he and Sara got married. Once married, he stayed less than two years at camp before the lack of work-life balance burned him out. By the time he left the job, he wasn’t there psychologically. They told me that their trip had partially been to revive their passion for camps.

A Revolving Door

I found we made similar observations about camp Program Directors. They are typically an all-star summer staffer, just out of college. They know summer camp intricately and passionately. They have very little experience with full-time employment, healthy work-life balance, and long-term visioning. They often end up working at a year-round pace that mirrors their 3-month summer pace. Though they work long hours whenever necessary, their time off policy is dictated by rigid conference-wide standards not designed for camp life. And once a new family member enters the picture, it becomes clear there is no room for a personal life if it is not had at camp.

As I thought about this more, though, I recognized that camps are losing overall by a revolving door of Program Directors. If Program Directors last anything less than 3 years, a Director is almost constantly hiring and training someone new. The program itself is frequently unstable because campers and staffers are constantly getting used to a new personality in that role. There is never a chance to follow a long term vision for growth, because it is constantly being paused or rerouted.  

I surveyed 50 Program Directors and 22 Directors across the country in faith based camps to compare some data with my hunches. I asked questions about support, average tenure, thoughts about the future. I concluded that most camps surveyed don’t reach or barely reach the number of years generally agreed on for a Program Director to establish a sustained program and culture. Most Program Directors would describe their training as “trial and error as I lived into the role.” While nearly all Program Directors in the survey reported working over 60 hours a week during peak season (17% reported over 100 hours a week), about 60% of Directors report providing a specific number of vacation weeks that don’t take hours worked into consideration. 

We Can Do Better

Young camp professionals who are entering their first full-time job and desperately passionate about camp work should consider the best ways for them to extend this work they love for many years. That means engaging leadership in how training will be executed, who will do it, how long will it take, and how will success be measured. It may mean asking for training if there are inadequacies. That’s going to mean thinking about the work as a year-round marathon and not a summer-long sprint. It will mean considering if the proposed workload and benefits will adjust to home life with a spouse and children. Will there be adequate time to recharge the battery after summer? 

Of course, Directors should be thinking of all these things ahead of their newly hired year-round Program Staff. One of the biggest areas needing improvement, based on the surveys, is in training and support. This is an incredible time investment from planning to execution to follow-up. But, the cost for a Director to lose a Program Director every few years is subtly keeping the wheels of large sections of camp spinning in the mud. A Director needs to be aware of:

  • Time spent hiring and training new full-time Program Staff

  • Time spent covering inefficiencies from new staff person

  • Time spent covering challenges from poor/recovering/rebuilding staff cultures

  • Time spent addressing complaints over inefficient camp system from campers, parents, guests

  • Cumulative effect on Director of having less time to devote to administrative tasks, being inefficient from a constant state of catching up

  • Spiritual toll of having less time to be immersed in the joyful camp life crucial to enjoying this work

Camp systems set up like this are a wasteful use of resources and run counter to most camp missions. Simply from a pragmatic approach, they make the work of a Director more difficult. It may not be obvious, but it takes a great toll. 

Imagine With Me if You Will

The dream I want all camps privileged enough to hire a full-time Program Staff to aspire to is something like this: 

  • A 10-year Program Director

  • Stability in training seasonal staff, a summer camp culture that self-perpetuates

  • Generations of campers growing into seasonal staffers who know and trust said Program Director

  • Director (after time investments early on) devotes more mental energy and time to big picture, director stuff without interruption

  • As Program Director masters basics (scheduling, standards, training, support) more time opens for new program developments and broadening camp skills

  • A great amount of trust develops from top to bottom for camp program’s integrity and dependability, and a stable group of campers/guest groups return annually

  • Program is able to incorporate more effectively in a site’s long-term master and missional plan

  • A Program Director who has matured into professional and family life through the work. Personal growth enhances program and program enhances personal growth 

  • When it is time to hire a new Program Director, there will be time for an exit plan, to hire and train side-by-side, creating a smooth transition and taking weight off Director’s shoulders to do all the training exclusively

  • A Program Director leaves on a high note rather than reaching a breaking point. They leave for new challenges, new adventures, deeper callings, or new ways to help the organization. The exit is graceful and doesn’t leave a rift in camp circles that must be repaired

This will not just happen because a camp wants it to, so the  person who supervises this Program Director will need to plan for sixth months for training to be a major time commitment every week. The Program Director will need to be prepared to advocate for these things and have honest conversations about them. I believe, though, the payoff in the following years will save time and energy with interest and make the life of camp more meaningful and sustained. The clock is ticking! Based on my research, one-third of the camps surveyed are less than two years away from losing their Program Director if nothing changes. Over half of the camps have less than two years if their Program Director’s family situation changes. Directors and Program Directors, we can do better. Your life can be easier. Let’s do this.

Troy’s Suggestions On How To Get There

  • Create a system of work that’s more results-based than hours-based, that incorporates involvement, completion of projects, and success of seasonal staffers.

  • Define ranges of hours for a Program Director that are realistic to Director’s actual expectations and the demands of the work in its particular season to give a framework, but emphasize the work is still more qualitative than quantitative. 

    • Explain why hours differ, the pros and cons of involvement, rest, connection, disconnection. Talk about the rhythms you hope to see during summer/retreat seasons

    • Set specific hour ranges on where the Program Director’s hours should average (ex. Summer - 70 hours per week, Fall - 35 hours, Winter - 30, etc.)

  • Director helps Program Directors choose times for vacation their first year that align with the need for rest and the rhythms of the seasons. Make sure they are getting away enough and not becoming chained to the work. I think it is good to schedule a trip of some length before summer and one after as well. 

  • Director is greatly involved in goal setting, particularly for non-summer work to help get Program Director on board with the newer aspects of the job (if the Program Director is former summer staff). Helps Program Director recognize a hierarchy of objectives and how to pace and balance work. In the second year, Director backs away and grants more autonomy, still periodically checking in to evaluate progress.

  • Camp makes space for a social life and tends to the fact that this person may be dealing with a very lonely form of culture shock. If a new Program Director is a former summer staffer, they are now supervising nearly everyone they might be friends with. Encourage opportunities to socialize with other permanent staff. Director should take seriously requests to be with peers, even if it occurs during busy season.

  • Director starts training Program Director to accomplish tasks and train subordinates in such a way that they will have time for a significant other, even before a significant other enters the picture. Have them practice handing off responsibilities to subordinate staff, volunteers, etc., before there is an absolute need for it. Be available to monitor these handoffs in the early stages. 

  • Evaluate paternity/maternity leave policy, and create a generous one. Make a plan for a Program Director’s absence proactively, before you need it. This could give you many more years with a Program Director.

  • Create a camp culture that works like a healthy family, rather than a corporate, ladder-climbing, overly quantitative system. If life and camp can merge in a healthy way, work will be less of a burden and more of a lifestyle. We want good boundaries between work and home, but we want joy and community to be free-flowing between the two.

    • Gather as a staff to share a meal periodically outside of the dining hall

    • Open your home for visits (while protecting your own personal time)

    • Do recreational activities as a staff

    • Invite staff member to community happenings you are a part of

    • Take time during work day every now and then to digress into conversations not related to work

    • Encourage staff to pull together to help other staffers with major tasks; use it as a bonding opportunity

    • Get to know your staffers’ families

    • Be open to share what you are doing when you take time off, and why

  • Director should be a consistent voice to identify the Program Director’s next challenge, not always leaving it to them to explore/name/realize where their new challenge will come from. A long-term Program Director needs new challenges, new skills to develop, new projects to engineer. Burnout sometimes comes from lack of challenge rather than overwork. 

Cheers to developing healthy working environments for all! If you would like to converse with others around this topic, please comment below. To talk to me directly, email troy@campmagruder.org. Let’s make all our lives easier and better.

Troy Taylor is Camp Director at Camp Magruder, living a charmed life on the Oregon Coast. He first got paid for camp work in 1997. When free, he indulges in running, beach bonfires, movie snobbery, the Chicago Cubs, poetry, walking long distances in the woods, and silently staring off into the distance. He's learning to surf to be a good role model for his two year old daughter. He's excited to see all the ways today’s kids will make the church into something new. Read about him every week on his personal blog: The Adventures of Troy Taylor

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