"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Choosing Speakers for Camps and Special Events

Speak to Me

Michael Holt

"Speak to Me"

How to Find Just the Right Up-Front Communicators

By Michael Holt

After the counselors, the guest speaker is the most important person you will bring onto your property in the course of operating your youth camp. The guest speaker has the power to impact the entire group with messages from the platform. He or she can easily set the tone for the day and capsulate the events of the week.

Since 1987, I have been the guest speaker at dozens of camps and conference centers in thirty four states and seven foreign countries, and my experiences have been all over the chart. Some camps know how to select, compensate, and care for a speaker . . . and some are still learning. I want to encourage you, as camping professionals, to maximize your speakers? ministry at your camp. This can be done by matching the speaker to the need, and by putting the speaker at ease during his or her stay.

Finding the Right Speaker

It?s fine to use the same speaker year after year, as long as the speaker remains fresh. But speakers that tell the same jokes and use the same illustrations may need to be replaced by ones that are more relevant. Quietly survey your staff regarding speakers about whom you have doubts. It might be difficult to make a change from a "traditional invitee," but a new speaker will provide a better experience for everyone. Looking for a new face?or should I say, a new voice?isn?t a problem if you start early. When someone calls me to see if I am available in a few weeks, I know one of two things is true: the first speaker canceled or the camp didn?t plan ahead. I?m willing to work with those whose speakers have canceled, but I?m reluctant to work with those that didn?t plan.

A camp that understands the role of the speaker not only starts early, but also matches the speaker to the audience. This is not necessarily an age thing. Older individuals can be very relevant with younger campers if they understand them and enjoy being with them. Get references on the people you are considering for speakers. Ask at CCI/USA conferences. Ask youth pastors. Ask the kids who attend FCA or Young Life meetings. Christian colleges and seminaries also have some excellent speakers to recommend. If you?re looking for a speaker for a large group or a major event, you might consider going through a speaker?s bureau. The staff there can help you match a speaker to your audience and budget. When you get leads, call and ask about their ministry. What are their favorite groups to minister to? Few communicators can be effective with all age groups. I am best with older high school and college groups, but I will accept middle school opportunities if I feel led.

I suggest that you request audio or videotapes to help you choose a speaker. Ask your spouse and associates to pray with you about the decision. Make certain that your communicator is suited for your situation. Ask for references and a biographical sketch. All of this is not only appropriate but also necessary to ensure you will have someone who meets your camp?s needs. If denominational affiliation or doctrinal persuasion is important, don?t hesitate to ask about that.

An effective speaker expresses interest in his or her audience by spending time with them outside of the speaking sessions, who plays and eats with them. This is especially important at camp. I was hanging out at the camp pool one afternoon when two middle school guys said to me "You?re not like our other speakers." "Oh, how?s that?" I asked. "You act like you like us" the other replied. The speaker?s most effective ministry time might not be when they are speaking, but after the sessions when they are "listening with their eyes." So make certain you have communicated your expectations outside of the chapel. Effective speakers spend time with their audience. Henri Nouwen called it the "ministry of presence." Teens call it "hangin? out."

Meeting the Speaker?s Needs

Your speaker needs comfortable accommodations with privacy, quiet, and a place to rest and reflect. I?m reminded of an unfavorable experience speaking at a camp in Florida. My intern, Joey and I were housed in a rather shabby cabin with a broken air conditioner and holes in the windows and screens. The bathhouse was 100 yards away and infested with critters. The staff and students were in nice, air-conditioned bunkhouses with bathrooms. As we lay in our sweat soaked bunks one night Joey said "Don?t these people know who you are?" I said, "Well, if they do, it doesn?t seem to matter!" We endured the accommodations and had a great week anyway. Maybe God was testing our resolve, or maybe the camp director was testing my willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Either way, I decided it was a good learning experience for my intern and perhaps it gave us more credibility with the students when they discovered where we were staying.

There are numerous ways to help your speaker feel loved and appreciated. Centrally located accommodations are nice. A fruit basket in the room does wonders. Access to the camp kitchen is a treat, especially if they?re like me and like to get up early and have coffee with their devotions. I can hardly have my Quiet Time without some caffeine!

Depending on your set-up, allow your speaker to bring his or her spouse and children?this may be the only vacation they get. It may actually complement their ministry.

Compensating a Speaker

Some speakers?particularly those who depend on honorariums for their livelihood may tell you their expected fee up front. Be sure to ask if that includes expenses, and if not, get a list of expected expenses so you aren?t surprised later. You might want to set a reasonable expense limit. Our ministry staff raises support like many missionaries and therefore I do not set fees for my services. If the person you are interested in getting has employment outside of speaking and does not have a set fee, your compensation options are broader. But let me encourage you not to see how little you can get away with. If you have a tight budget, let the speaker know that. He or she might be able to work with you. A better plan is to establish a speaker honorarium policy. Gather some individuals who are in full-time ministry and come up with a standard honorarium per day, not deducting room and board, that can be multiplied by the number of times he or she will speak during the week. (Of course, participation with campers apart from the platform is not included in this.) Sticking to a policy will eliminate arbitrary honorarium decisions that may not be able to be repeated in future engagements. There are other ways to compensate speakers. One camp director gave me a check and also an envelope that I was to give to my wife. When I arrived home, I gave it to her, assuming it was a thank-you card. It was a card, along with a small check telling her how much they appreciated the family doing without me while I ministered to them. That was special!

Maximize Your Speaker?s Effectiveness

Your guest speaker may be qualified to provide specialized training for your counseling staff. Knowing how busy your staff members are, perhaps you could offer rotating seminars to give them opportunities to learn from and interact with your speaker. Sometimes a crisis arises that needs special attention, and your speaker can be an excellent resource during those times. When you book your speaker, ask about these areas of potential ministry and discover what a help they can be. My nearly thirty years of working with students and families has given me some good perspective on how to minister to today?s young people. Also, keep in mind that some speakers have degrees in counseling and years of wisdom and experience in a particular area. Find out how they are gifted, and whether they would be willing to meet with campers and counselors to serve in this respect.

The speaker may also want to meet with support staff to find out if they can be of service to them. They may not be available to attend the Bible studies or camp programs, so consider offering a staff devotional/Bible study just for them. Make sure your speaker knows this is something you would like him or her to consider doing.

It?s my hope that these suggestions will help you find just the right speaker for your camp?s needs?and to do all you can to help make your ministry together effective. When you do, obtaining speakers in the future won?t be such a challenge, because those who?ve spoken before will be very eager to make a return trip. Of course the bottom line is that your speaker must have a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ, rather like Paul said in 1 Cor 11:1; "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ."

Michael is a Youth Communicator/Youth Ministry Consultant with Reach Out Youth Solutions. He has worked with teens and their families for over 27 years and formerly taught in the youth ministry department of Columbia International University.

He can be reached by phone at 828-667-3259 or by e-mail at
For a full bio, click here.

This article was originally published in "Christian Camp & Conference Journal," January/February 2000. Used with permission.