Passport’s founders spearheaded quiet shift in how youth hear God’s call
Over a two decades Passport Inc. has become a leadership incubator, nurturing a new kind of Baptist minister. That’s no surprise to the organization’s founders.
By Greg Warner
Over the last two decades, a quiet shift has taken place in how and where Baptist young people hear the call of God and receive training for Christian ministry.
One of those in the vanguard of this movement is Passport Inc., the small, multidenominational ministry based in Birmingham, Ala., that’s been conducting youth camps, educational programs and missions projects since 1993, while informally helping nurture a new generation — and perhaps a new kind — of Baptist minister.
One unintentional byproduct of Passport’s two-decade journey conducting Christian summer camps is an army of 600 former camp staffers — many of whom became creative, energetic men and women now serving in church leadership positions.
It’s an impressive list — almost 100 men and women who have worked in Passport camps are now in church ministry positions in progressive Baptist life, while others are scattered among various denominations, parachurch organizations and Christian ministries.
Even more serve in a variety of vocations unrelated to Christian ministry, but they carry the same conviction that the “call to ministry” is for all Christians, whether or not they ever get a paycheck from a church.
Creating a proving ground for ministers — a venue that has become increasingly rare in the post-denominational era — was not part of the original vision for Passport. But neither is it surprising to co-founders David and Colleen Burroughs of Birmingham.
Initial modest vision
It was originally a modest vision — provide a summer camp experience to Baptist youth who didn’t fit in to the conservative-dominated Southern Baptist summer programs. Include a missions project, involve women in leadership and embrace the tough questions that roll around in teenagers’ heads.
Now, 22 summers later, the Baptist-led organization has hosted 85,000 campers from 800 congregations representing 12 denominations, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Campers have performed 840,000 hours of mission service and donated or raised $1.8 million for global mission projects.
“We didn’t know Passport would be a 20-year story,” says David Burroughs, who, fresh out of seminary, created the first summer camp at the urging of the CBF of Florida.
This summer, Passport will conduct 33 weeks of camp in 12 locations, employing 63 summer staffers — most college and seminary students and more than half women.
“As we’ve grown, we’ve become passionate about giving the next generation of leaders a platform, not just to preach and lead [but] to learn leadership skills like administration, budget management and worship planning,” says David, 49, Passport president.
Staffers learn a lot more too, says Colleen, 48, executive vice president. “On a team of 20 [camp staffers], only one person is the preacher.”
That varied experience, along with counseling and encouragement in a spiritually charged climate, helps those staff members discern their calling, Colleen says. It’s transformative for a staff member “to see the light come on for a teen” who’s under his or her care.
Elizabeth Mangham Lott was already headed for a ministerial career when she graduated high school in 1995 and attended Passport as a camper. “But preaching was not on my radar at that age,” she recalls.
“Colleen Burroughs was camp pastor that summer and she was the first woman I ever heard preach,” says Lott, senior pastor at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “She opened up a space in my imagination to consider my voice and my story in that capacity.”
Stephanie Vance says working at Passport camps exposed her to “places of poverty and decay — forgotten places,” and eventually led to her current job as national manager for Together for Hope, the CBF’s rural poverty initiative.
“I felt called to mission work for many years but had a very narrow view of what that would mean. It seems that taking a person out of his or her comfort zone can be the jump start that God provides on the journey toward discernment of one’s calling.”
A sharp eye
By now the Burroughses have learned to spot the future Christian ministers within the summer staff. “We can predict who will end up at seminary,” Colleen says. “It’s more surprising to them than it is to us.”
About 30 to 40 percent of summer staffers go on to seminary.
“There was no way to anticipate the scope of our former staffers,” David recalls, “until we started adding up the numbers to prepare to celebrate our 20th anniversary.”
What they found was stunning. More than 600 men and women have served on Passport summer staffs in 22 years. Of those, Passport is aware of 95 who currently serve in Christian ministry — in churches, denominations and parachurch organizations, and on the mission field.
At least 14 of the 95 serve as pastors of churches related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and — true to one original goal — six of the pastors are female.
The diaspora of Passport alums includes every conceivable church-ministry role — associate pastor, minister of music, education or spiritual formation, youth, children or families minister, community or missions minister, church planter and on and on.
Several are campus ministers or hospital chaplains. At least two are professors at Christian colleges; another is a school teacher.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Passport’s 22-year journey is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, whose congregations send more youth groups to Passport than any other body of churches.
At least two missionaries and nearly a dozen CBF staffers, regional coordinators or associates, and members of CBF governing bodies are Passport veterans.
“We are one of the main pipelines bringing youth and young adults to awareness of CBF,” David adds. “Our campers routinely learn about the work of CBF field personnel serving all over the globe.”
David, a native of Abilene, Texas, also spearheaded creation of the CBF’s Young Leaders Network, now called Current. And Colleen recently served as national moderator for CBF.
From Passport’s inception in 1993, the prominence and affirmation of women in ministry has set it apart in the summer-camp market — with consequences both good and bad.
“We have learned that our voice, and where we have chosen to stand on the issue of women as pastors, limits our broad acceptance,” David says. “There are a large number of churches that choose not to participate with us because they don’t believe a woman should preach.”
Passport’s first customers were moderate Baptist churches and youth ministers who welcomed the mainstream theological approach that shunned coercive evangelism in favor of an intellectual integrity that is open to the questioning of youth.
The Burroughses have cultivated Passport’s unique “voice” over the years, which now permeates all its products and events. “
That voice is a thoughtful theology that isn’t afraid to ask and discuss larger or more complicated issues of faith,” David explains. “Teenagers today want to know about other religions and how Christianity fits in. They hear mixed messages about the issue of same-sex marriage and want to know if their faith is accepting of their friends who have alternative lifestyles.
“Our voice reads the Bible as the story of redemption and grace, not of condemnation and legalism. Our voice is about a mission strategy that expects to meet the face of Christ in those we come to serve.”
Convinced the spiritual growth of youth is too important to be confined to summer camp, Passport started a devotional website for youth and young adults in 2001 to encourage spiritual reflection during Advent and Lent. It later expanded to daily online devotionals, called d365.org, which attracts 5,000 visitors a day and 1.8 million a year.
“In some ways, I think Passport has evolved as our network of churches has evolved,” David reasons. “And because we are small and nimble, we are able to alter plans to meet a need, and we are able to try things without fear.”
Creativity, flexibility and responsiveness are in the organization’s DNA, he says, and what has kept it alive. “So we try to be as responsive as we can be.”
“Just [recently], in response to the girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria, we are running a set of devotions that focus on the global need for justice for children and how we can take action on behalf of those most vulnerable among us.”
The popularity of its youth camps led to Passportkids! in 2004, using a grant from CBF global missions.
Passport’s role as a print-and-online publisher became more structured in 2011. With a $750,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, Passport Media was started, which produces curricula for local-church use in vacation Bible schools, youth retreats and other settings.
Passport has intentionally tried to reinterpret and expand how Christians view “the call” — both the call to vocational ministry and the call of Christ on every believer.
So Passport fashioned its summer-camp theme to encourage teenagers to consider ministry as a vocation. “We hoped to raise awareness that a career given to ministry is a worthwhile life focus,” David says. Another camp, co-sponsored with Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, helped those called to vocational ministry “explore what that might look like.”
But the concept of “call” is broader than that, touching every believer.
“We wanted to help youth see that their faith is a calling to minister — no matter what they chose for their life’s vocation,” David says. That led to new curricula for use in churches. “If they can practice this calling while in high school, we hope this will help them take their faith with them to the next step on their journey.”
One special weeklong summer camp, called Choices, invites teens to spend a week exploring how something they love — drama, music, art, leadership, sports, fitness or care for the environment — can interact with their faith, David says.
Passport also is committed to the idea that service and missions is part of a normative Christian experience. Almost every week of camp takes the youth out into the community on a mission project. And Passport camps go to places like Kenya and Liberia for cross-cultural discovery.
The Burroughses function as one unit in operating Passport, despite the fact their individual gifts are very different. Colleen says youth camps were David’s calling, not hers. But she followed him to seminary and later immersed herself in Passport.
“That’s what you do when you get married,” she says. “As a married couple, you don’t always follow both of your calls at the same time.”
A bigger vision
Still, like the campers, the Burroughses nurture, this daughter of missionaries listened to God to discern her own unique ministry: “I felt the urge to pursue something bigger than myself.”
It emerged suddenly in 2005, halfway around the world in central Africa, when a deadly drought threatened to kill 5 million people in Malawi, where she was raised. She knew she was supposed to help, but how?
“We just put up a website,” she recalls. Word quickly spread among the community of former Passport campers. “We just said, ‘Here’s a need. How can you help?’ And the youth figured out how to raise the money.”
“That’s exactly what Passport is about,” she says. A need arose that no one was addressing. But Passport lacked the resources. “All I had was 6,000 teenagers,” she recalls facetiously.
That informal online network of young people — predisposed toward Christian service by their Passport experience — raised $162,500 in the first year for well-drilling, pumps and irrigation projects. The Passport-affiliated nonprofit that resulted, Watering Malawi, has since raised a total of $800,000 in nine years.
“I thought Watering Malawi would be a 6-month-to-a-year relief effort,” Colleen says. “We could not have ‘watered Malawi’ without Passport. That has been the amazing, surprising thing.”
After more than 20 years at Passport and now in their late 40s, the Burroughses are starting to look ahead to the legacy they will leave behind.
“I don’t want to take for granted that Passport will always be here,” Colleen says. “We want to make sure it’s on solid footing when we retire or go on to something else.”
Their own 15-year-old twins, Milligan and Walker, are looking forward to working in the camps one day.
“We are passionate that we want the next generation of youth to have access to a camp program like Passport and access to solid Bible studies through Passport Media,” David explains.
That has prompted the organization to launch a $1 million endowment campaign in what it hopes will secure Passport’s future. “The endowment campaign, approved by its board of directors, is Passport’s first. It’s another shift of focus for the couple that will take them out of their comfort zone. They’re confident but know the stakes are high.
Says Colleen, “If we can’t do this, we won’t last another 20 years.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Herald, our bi-monthly magazine. To find out more about the magazine, click here.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.