In 2016/17, approximately 20,000 people from more than 450 groups stayed at six campsites across three presbyteries in Victoria and Tasmania.
UC Camping runs three sites at Halls Gap and three more are located at Creswick, Grantville and Merricks respectively. It also provides support to the one remaining presbytery-operated site at Lake Tyers and has oversight of the Burnside Camp, at Anglesea, which is leased to the Baptist Union.
As part of living out the ethos of the Church, UC Camping seeks out opportunities to host groups who are marginalised or in need and operates ethically and in ecologically responsible ways.
Over the last 12 years, UC Camping has also engaged in several projects responding to families and communities following natural disasters.
Since 2005 UC Camping has partnered with UnitingCare and other agencies to deliver more than 40 Take-a-Break respite camps to hundreds of families from the Wimmera and Mallee suffering the effects of ongoing drought. Take-a-Break camps have also supported families following floods and bushfires.
Following the devastating 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, UC Camping was contracted to manage the three bushfire-recovery temporary accommodation villages at Kinglake, Marysville and Flowerdale. Families were able to live in a supportive environment while transitioning to ongoing housing.
Andrew McGuckian, who stepped down last month from the position of UC Camping director, said the connections UC Camping had with the Christian faith are sometimes explicit, but more often implicit. Most campers are young people and many would not have any interaction with a faith-based organisation if not for attending a campsite.
He said in this regard UC Camping is similar to other instruments of the Uniting Church such as Uniting AgeWell, community services agency Uniting and Uniting Church schools.
“We hope that having a positive experience of one aspect of the church at mission in the world may lead some to be more open to exploring their personal journey of faith formation,” he said.
The philosophy of the church campsites was outlined in the 1995 Commission for Mission report on campsites and conference centres. Camps provided the Church and the wider community with “accommodation for leisure and learning, hospitality in the name of Jesus as in care of souls, links with creation and the environment and opportunities for spiritual development”.
The Uniting Church – through its joining denominations the Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – has a long tradition of providing campsites and conference centres.
Sites were established throughout the 1950s and ’60s, to cater for the high demand from church family groups.
Significant changes within congregations (and the broader camping industry) through the 1980s and early 1990s challenged the Church’s capacity to maintain viable centres.
Increased competition from private enterprise camps, higher customer demands and reduced congregational usage led to confusion regarding the missional value of the camping experience.
Many sites were offloaded during this this period including all three in Tasmania. The number of Victoria sites was cut by about half.
Despite this Mr McGuckian said the UCA still had a significant influence in both the Christian and secular camping sectors in Victoria.
Currently UC Camping employs about 20 permanent staff and more than 85 casual employees.
“The power of the camping experience to bring community connection, hope, family relationship building and closer connection to the natural environment is well understood and documented,’’ Mr McGuckian said.
“The opportunity to share messages of hope, community and joy through the camping experience is a meaningful expression and one incarnation of the mission of God in a contemporary secular world.
“Being part of a temporary community in natural settings, camping creates opportunities for individuals and groups to explore, discover and reconnect with themselves, each other, the environment and faith.”